A Brief History
This article presents a timeline of weaponry.
Digging Deeper into Ancient History
Digging Deeper into Medieval History
On January 23, 971, with deadly fire from their crossbows, troops of the Chinese Song Dynasty managed to defeat the War Elephant Corps of the Southern Han Kingdom.
On August 26, 1346, at the Battle of Crecy, English archers proved the superiority of the English longbow over the combination of armored knights and crossbowmen fielded by the French. There have been many weapons throughout history that did not need either gunpowder or explosives to be effective.
Digging Deeper into Modern History
On June 26, 1794, the army of the First Republic of France (the result of the French Revolution) made the first use of balloons in combat at the Battle of Fleurus against the forces of the First Coalition.
On October 8, 1806, British forces fighting the French at Boulogne used Congreve Rockets, the same type of rockets mentioned in the National Anthem of the United States (“…and the rockets red glare…”).
On March 5, 1836, Samuel Colt formed Patent Arms Manufacturing, the forerunner of Colt’s Firearms Manufacturing Company which in turn became today’s Colt’s Manufacturing Company. (For a companion list for this article, please see our list of “The Top 10 Famous Pistols.”)
On May 15, 1718, Mr. Puckle patented what could be considered the first machine gun. With “innovative” ideas like a version with square bullets, it was a military and financial flop. This happens, weapons that seem like a good idea that real life proves are not so good.
On May 11, 1862, Confederate sailors sunk their own ship, the CSS Virginia, in the James River outside of Norfolk, Virginia to avoid capture by Union troops. Ships have been intentionally sunk by their own crews for a variety of reasons, usually to avoid capture by the enemy, sometimes after battle damage and sometimes while the ships were perfectly sound. At times, even whole fleets were scuttled. German U-boats would be scuttled when forced to the surface and unable to continue the fight to avoid capture of sensitive encoding equipment, let alone the boats themselves, a common practice in World War II. Several severely damaged US and Japanese aircraft carriers were also scuttled during World War II.
On October 15, 1863, The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate (the South!) submarine, sank during a test, killing its inventor and namesake, Horace L. Hunley.
On November 17, 1871, The National Rifle Association was founded by the editor of the Army and Navy Journal (William Church) and General George Wingate, being awarded a charter by the state of New York. The first president of the NRA was Civil War (Union) General Ambrose Burnside, who had also worked as a gunsmith in Rhode Island.
On February 7, 1882, John L. Sullivan became the last of the bare knuckle boxing champions with an eighth round knockout of Paddy Ryan.
On June 22, 1893, the British battleship HMS Camperdown accidentally collided with the British battleship HMS Victoria off the coast of Lebanon.
On March 29, 1911, the Colt M1911 .45 ACP caliber semi-automatic pistol became the standard pistol of the US Army. In the event of natural disaster, nuclear holocaust, revolution, or any other manner of “apocalypse” that may develop, you may need guns and guns need ammunition!
On October 9, 1911, an accidental bomb explosion in China lead to the ultimate fall of China’s last imperial dynasty.
On September 30, 1915, the aviation world achieved a milestone of sorts when the first incident of a combat airplane being shot down by ground fire took place over Serbia.
On August 2, 1916, Austrian saboteurs managed to sink the Italian battleship, Leonardo da Vinci as the great ship lay in Taranto harbor. Was the magazine explosion an accident, or did the Austrians use some sort of novel booby trap to sink the mighty vessel? Either way, World War I, like other wars, saw the imagination of arms designers and military engineers run wild.
On November 20, 1917, a combined Allied offensive (British and French) stepped off against the Germans at Cambrai, France (Nord Department).
On March 4, 1918, the USS Cyclops kept a date with destiny!
On April 20, 1918, Baron Manfred von Richtofen shot down the last enemy airplanes of his short but spectacular career.
On June 25, 1923, Lt. John Richter and Capt. Lowell Smith of the US Army performed the first aerial refueling of an airplane in flight in their DH-4B.
On October 22, 1926, J. Gordon Whitehead dealt a potentially deadly sucker punch to magician Harry Houdini’s stomach.
On February 10, 1933, Primo Carnera, heavyweight boxer called by Time Magazine as The Monsterdealt Ernie Schaaf fatal blows during a boxing match in New York City. The hapless Schaaf died 4 days after the match.
On May 23, 1934, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by law enforcement. For a change, the lawmen had the upper hand as far as firepower goes. In the 1920’s and 1930’s gangsters had been arming themselves with automatic and semi-automatic weapons and out-gunning the police, with the police mostly armed with .38 caliber revolvers and sometimes 12 gauge pump action shotguns. On numerous occasions then and even in the 1970’s and 1980’s the police were woefully under-armed, but that is changing now.
On November 6, 1935, the Hawker Hurricane, the first modern British fighter plane, made its first flight. Destined to live hidden in the glow of the Supermarine Spitfire, almost 15,000 Hurricanes were built from 1937 to 1944 and this rugged warrior was the primary British fighter during the Battle of Britain, accounting for 60% of the air to air kills in that battle on which Britain’s survival hinged.
On October 14, 1938, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk made its first flight, leading to an eventual production run of 13,738 of the rugged fighters.
On March 30, 1939, the Heinkel 100 prototype fighter airplane flew at 463 mph in level flight, at the time the fastest airplane ever. People have always been fascinated by fast things, whether they be people, animals or machines.
On August 27, 1939, the first jet aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, made its first flight. Since this airplane did not make it to regular production, many people may not be familiar with it. Many pioneering events in aviation history are relatively unknown, at least to the lay public.
On October 23, 1939, the Japanese G4M “Betty” bomber made its maiden flight. Destined to be the main Japanese land based bomber for the entire war, it was, like other Japanese planes, state of the art at the beginning of the war and grossly overmatched by later American models later. Made by Mitsubishi, its performance was about on par with the American B-25 as far as speed and climb, and it had better range.
On December 12, 1939, an all too familiar scenario developed when 2 British warships collided, resulting in the sinking of the smaller vessel including considerable loss of life.
On May 29, 1940, the F-4U Corsair made its first flight. The Corsair would go on to great success in its combat career, shooting down 11 Japanese airplanes for every Corsair shot down.
On August 20, 1940, communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky was murdered in Mexico by agents of Joseph Stalin. The murder weapon was an ice axe, not something you usually see in Mexico City! People have been killing other people since Cain slew his own brother Abel, and they have gotten quite creative at it in the meantime.
On January 9, 1941, the premier British bomber of World War II, the Avro Lancaster, made its maiden flight. In service only a year later, the “Lanc” was the main British bomber that carried the war to Germany.
On November 19, 1941, HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran sank each other off the coast of Western Australia, with the loss of 645 Australians and about 77 German seamen. The battle was Australia’s all time largest loss of life in its entire naval history and the largest Allied warship lost with all hands in World War II. For conspiracy theorists, what really happened has remained a controversy for over sixty years!
On December 12, 1941, American forces were reeling from the Japanese onslaught after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack of December 7, when Philippine-American pilot Jesus Villamor led a flight of Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” fighter planes against superior Japanese aircraft raiding the Batanga Airfield.
On July 18, 1942, the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow in English) made its first test flight using its jet engines. Initial test flights had been conducted using a conventional piston powered engine and a propeller.
On July 19, 1942, an American pilot spotted an intact Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter downed on Akutan island. The Zero was recovered and restored to flying condition by the Americans and provided information needed to develop American fighters and tactics to cope with the Zero’s great performance.
On September 7, 1942, the Consolidated B-32 Dominator strategic bomber made its first flight. Being developed as competition for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the B-32 was the loser of that competition and only 118 were built.
On November 15, 1942, the Heinkel He 219 night fighter made its first flight. A year later the first editions became operational. Designed from the ground up as a night fighter to combat the British night bombing raids, this was an innovative design incorporating air to air radar and the first ejection seats installed in an operational aircraft. It was also the only German plane of the war with tricycle type landing gear.
On May 17, 1943, RAF Squadron 617, later known as The Dambusters, embarked on Operation Chastise, a plan to bomb and destroy 2 dams to flood the Ruhr Valley in Germany. They were successful, largely because of the wacky weapon they used, a barrel like bomb that was rotated on a carriage under the bomber and then dropped to skip across the water to the dam, and then roll down the face of the dam to blow up right against the structure. Many times in wartime nations will stretch the limits of the imaginations of their inventors in an effort to achieve an advantage. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they do not.
On July 23, 1943, an English lad of 19 had enough of his crippled father’s abuse and blew up the 47 year old in his bath chair. The incident, famous in Britain as the Rayleigh Bath Chair Murder, has to be one of the first and perhaps only incident where someone killed their dad with an anti-tank bomb, thereby arguably meriting a ranking on our list of unusual deaths!
On October 26, 1943, what could have been a fantastic advantage in the German air war against Allied bombers in World War II first took to the air, with the first flight of the Dornier Do 335 Pfeil (Arrow).
On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces stormed the heavily defended beaches of Normandy, France, signaling the doom of the Third Reich. This amphibious landing would not have happened, at least not successfully, without the following piece of allied equipment and weapons.
On July 17, 1944, US P-38 fighter bombers dropped napalm bombs on a German Army fuel depot near St. Lo in Normandy, France, one of the earliest uses of napalm. Napalm a mixture of gasoline and a thickening agent (several formulas) is used as a flame weapon that stubbornly sticks to anything it comes in contact with, greatly increasing its lethality against humans and effectiveness in catching things on fire.
On August 16, 1944, the Nazis flew the prototype of the JU-287 for the first time. Manufactured by the German aircraft company Junkers, it was a 4-engine, jet-powered bomber whose forward-swept wings made it radically different from any other airplane in existence at the time.
On September 27, 1944, The Kassel Mission, which resulted in the largest loss by a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) group on any mission in World War II, was so successfully covered up that even today few non-WWII experts are even aware it occurred.
On October 21, 1944, Japan began their notorious kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, first striking HMAS Australia.
On October 25, 1944, the US submarine, USS Tang, commanded by ace submarine skipper Richard O’Kane, was sunk when a torpedo fired by the sub malfunctioned, turned around and struck the hapless submarine.
On November 12, 1944, the RAF used its heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster, to drop Tall Boy bombs on the German battleship, Tirpitz (sister ship to the Bismarck), sinking the last German battleship. The Tall Boys were giant 12,000 pound bombs designed by British weapons designer Barnes Wallis, and so big that only the Lancaster could lug them to the target. No US bomber of World War II was up to the task.
On March 9, 1945, 324 B-29 bombers of the United States Army Air Force inflicted the deadliest and most destructive single bombing raid in history!
On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy sent the most powerful (along with her sister ship, the Musashi) battleship ever built on a one way suicide mission. The incredible amount of man-hours, money, and physical resources that went into that ship are staggering, yet the mighty Yamato never made a difference during its short life.
On April 16, 1945, a Soviet submarine sunk a transport ship filled with civilians and wounded soldiers!
On May 3, 1945, five squadrons of Hawker Typhoon fighter aircraft attacked 3 ships in Lubeck Bay, Northern Germany and sunk all 3. The ships were prisoner ships carrying thousands of inmates from concentration camps.
On July 16, 1945, Manhattan Project scientists held their breath as the clock ticked down to the first man-made nuclear blast in history.
On August 6, 1945, the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing about 70,000 people right away and perhaps a few tens of thousands later from wounds, burns, and radiation.
On August 9, 1945, a Boeing B-29 bomber named “Bockscar” dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, incinerating 39,000 people within seconds.
On November 8, 1950, a US Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, shot down a Soviet built MiG-15’s piloted by a North Korean pilot early in the Korean War, the first air to air combat between jet planes in aviation history. US Air Force Lt. Russell Brown was the historic pilot flying the F-80 that day.
On November 1, 1951, the US military conducted Operation Buster-Jangle, the exposing of US soldiers to atomic explosions in Nevada to study the effects. Nobody asked for the permission of the soldiers, and many of them were probably draftees as well. 6500 of these unfortunate men were used in the test of 7 separate explosions, 5 set off above ground (atmospheric) and 2 underground “cratering” tests. Of course, the men were lied to about the “safety” of these tests and they were exposed to harmful radiation from inhaling radioactive dust and marching over irradiated ground. Over the years the US government has engaged in a variety of activities that are positively bad for the health of the unlucky people participating either involuntarily or with false assurances of safety, including the public at large.
On April 15, 1952, a milestone in aviation history was crossed when the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress made its first flight!
On April 13, 1953, Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles signed the order authorizing Project MKUltra,research into how to use mind control drugs against Soviet and Chinese targets during the Cold War.
On July 15, 1954, the first prototype of what became the Boeing 707 and US Air Force C-135 family of airplanes made its first flight. Many airplanes have served a dual role well, moving cargo and people for civilian purposes or the same for the military. Sometimes a military airplane might be an ideal test aircraft for scientific purposes, or as a weather observing plane.
On March 25, 1958, the Canadian supersonic interceptor, the Avro Arrow made its first flight. Designed to fly at Mach 2+ it seemed like a good airplane, but was mysteriously cancelled prior to production, with all partly assembled units and prototypes destroyed. Other promising weapons have suffered the same fate, some of which may well have been effective while others faded away due to insurmountable problems.
On May 27, 1958, the McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas) F-4 Phantom II naval interceptor made its first flight. Designed as a carrier airplane to defend the fleet against Soviet supersonic bombers, the concept was to create an interceptor that could climb rapidly and fly fast enough to catch bombers before they got close enough to attack the fleet.
On May 1, 1960, CIA employee Gary Powers was flying a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when his high flying top secret U-2 spyplane was shot down by an SA-2 surface to air missile.
On April 30, 1961, the Soviet Navy commissioned their first nuclear armed submarine, the K-19, later made famous in the 2002 movie, K-19: The Widowmaker.
On October 30, 1961, The Soviet Union detonated the hydrogen bomb Tsar Bomba over an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the North of Russia; at 50 megatons of yield, it is still the largest explosive device ever detonated, nuclear or otherwise by humankind!
On June 11, 1964, World War II veteran Walter Seifert went on a rampage at a Catholic elementary school outside of Cologne, Germany earning him a place on the list of history’s most evil people. He did not have a gun, but he did have a home-made flamethrower, a mace and a lance!
On March 17, 1968, the US Army proved just how dangerous it is to play with weapons of “maaaass” destruction! (Yes, we went there…)
On September 19, 1976, 2 F-4 Phantom II’s of the Imperial Iranian Air Force went to intercept a UFO over the capital city of Tehran. As each pilot approached the UFO, weapons systems suddenly became inoperable and then so did other avionics (instruments, communication, and controls). Only after the F-4’s were going away from the UFO did control over their electronics return.
On November 9, 1979, the computers that served NORAD, the American and Canadian anti-nuclear defense agency, wrongly reported a massive Soviet nuclear strike was on the way, triggering an alert that nearly caused the US to launch a massive retaliatory nuclear strike.
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the development and deployment of what he called The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would become known as “Star Wars” and would cost around one trillion dollars! Unfortunately, the commendable idea of making the US invulnerable to attack by Soviet ballistic missiles had 2 major problems, besides the economy ruining cost. The first problem was that if it could work, the so called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory that kept either side from nuking the other which would result in everybody gets blasted would be obsolete. The second major problem is there would be no realistic way for a perfect umbrella of anti-missile defenses to actually work beyond blocking maybe 75% of incoming warheads, meaning we would still be nuked into the stone age. Plus, the Soviets would certainly employ all sorts of ingenious countermeasures to defeat our defenses anyway. It seems we never run out of ways to waste money, and the Cold War was a grand stage for that!
On May 19, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act of Congress known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act. This law was passed in response to allegations of abusive enforcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
On June 28, 1987, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Air Force became the first military force in history to purposely target civilians with chemical weapons when they attacked the town of Sardasht, Iran with “mustard” gas.
On April 18, 1988, the US Navy retaliated against the Navy of Iran in response to the USS Samuel Roberts being damaged by a mine.
On July 3, 1988, the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes defended itself against an attacking Iranian fighter bomber by firing 2 ship to air missiles. The “attacking” jet was struck and shot down, but it turned out to be Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus 300 carrying 290 people (civilians). Sometimes when naval men make mistakes, people die. Sometimes, the mistake is extremely expensive, or just highly embarrassing.
On December 6, 1989, an apparently mentally disturbed Marc Lepine went to the Universite de Montreal and entered the Ecole Polytechnique building armed with a Ruger Mini-14 carbine, a knife, and murder in his heart fueled by a hatred for “feminists.”
On September 29, 1990, the prototype jet fighter plane designated YF-22 Raptor, built by a powerful consortium of American airplane manufacturers, Lockheed, Boeing and General Dynamics, made its maiden flight.
On February 26, 1993, New Yorkers were shaken in their lunch booths by the explosion of a giant bomb!
On April 14, 1994, the US Air Force proved once again that there is no such thing as “friendly fire!”
On May 7, 1999, the United States accidentally killed 3 Chinese embassy employees and wounded 20 more when a NATO jet mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Since explosives have been used in warfare, people have accidentally blown up the wrong target, often killing unintended victims.
On July 27, 2002, a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 fighter jet crashed into a crowd of spectators, killing 77 and injuring 534, the worst air show disaster ever. The crowd was watching a demonstration by the Ukrainian Falcons, the Ukraine acrobatic military team, at Sknyliv airfield (near Lviv). The jet being flown was the Sukoi Su-27, a modern, cutting edge fighter jet, roughly equivalent to the US F-15. It is a 2 seat plane, with experienced pilots flying at the air show.
On September 24, 2009, the first use of LRAD directed sound devices as crowd control took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the G-20 summit held there. Manufactured by (no kidding) the LRAD Corporation, the crowd control device is not called a “weapon” by the company, but a “directed sound communication system.”
On November 20, 2013, FX aired the second episode of American Horror Story: Coven to feature Danny Huston as The Axeman of New Orleans, the nickname given to a never identified serial killer responsible for at least eight unsolved murders!
Questions for students: What is your favorite weapon in history and why?
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The featured image in this article is a print showing two soldiers with a horse-drawn ballista. The device, mounted on a wagon, is manipulated like a crossbow, shooting large arrows at enemy fortifications. The horses are well covered with armor. This print is taken from the collection Notitia utraque cum orientis tum occidentis ultra Arcadii Honoriique Caesarum tempora (1552) edited by Sigismund Gelenius (1477–1554). This part is from the De Rebus Bellicis, which contains many illustrations of weapons and engines of war. The source of this file is the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-110291 (b&w film copy neg.), uncompressed archival TIFF version (12 MiB), color level (adjust contrast), cropped, and converted to JPEG (quality level 88) with the GIMP 2.6.1. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c10291. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.