History: June 9, 1959: 10 Weapons Milestones (Modern Systems that Changed the Game)

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A Brief History

On June 9, 1959, the USS George Washington was launched, the first ballistic missile carrying submarine, creating a new class of nuclear delivery weapons that would virtually guarantee mutual destruction in time of nuclear war.  Here we list 10 such milestones in modern  (19th through 21st Centuries) weaponry that can be considered “game changers.”  (The order listed is not necessarily by importance.) Which weapon developments would you add?  (Plastic and polymers, lasers, chemical weapons, armor piercing incendiary tracer rounds, recoil shock absorbers for artillery, various rifle scopes, night vision devices, precision guided bombs, cruise missiles, drones, jet engines, let your imagination roll!)

Digging Deeper

10. Ballistic Missile Submarine, 1959.

Almost impossible to keep track of an entire enemy submarine fleet, either side in the Cold War would be subject to a surprise attack with much shorter notice than a bomber attack or a land based ICBM attack.  Additionally, the virtual certainty that some of the missile subs would survive to extract revenge in the event of a nuclear war actually lessened the likelihood of atomic conflict, a key component of the MAD scenario (Mutually Assured Destruction) that prevented an all out nuclear war.

Honorable mention to the ICBM.

9.  Bullet Resistant Body Armor, 1914.

World War I saw a return to the days of yore when soldiers wore armor, an affectation outmoded by firearms, or so military men thought.  Helmets quickly made a widespread return to combat during the First World War and snipers were sometimes equipped with various bullet resistant shields to protect them as they sought targets.  Between the wars silk and other materials were developed as bullet resistant vests and the “Flak Jacket” became a normal piece of gear for bomber crews during World War II.  By the Korean War, infantry wearing flak vests became common, and today US soldiers and Marines have heavy duty Kevlar helmets and vests covering much more of their bodies than previous systems.  Ordnance disposal (bomb techs) wear entire body suits of highly resistant materials.  In the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military looked into using silk underwear to help protect the genitals of soldiers! (USA Today, February 3, 2011.)  A British company produced a product called “Blast Boxers” made of Kevlar.  Price, $86 (US), and we presume, worth the price!

8.  Caseless Ammunition (Leading to Metal Cased Ammunition), 1848. 

Invented by Walter Hunt, the “Rocket Ball” was a Minnie ball type bullet, cone shaped with a hollow cavity filled with gunpowder and enclosed by a thin metal base with a hole a percussion cap could ignite the powder through.  This quickly was turned into the percussion cap (primer in modern parlance) being built into the base.  Almost immediately the metal cased cartridge ammunition replaced these early attempts at caseless ammuniton (such as the Dreyse “Needle Gun”) and has been the standard since, a reliable and useful method of providing ammo to a firearm.  Attempts have always continued to perfect the caseless ammo cartridge, and continue today.  When it is perfected, it will mean lighter weight and more compact ammunition, a great advantage to the overburdened modern soldier.  Modern attempts have basically been along the lines of the projectile (bullet) encase in molded propellant (gunpowder) with a primer inset into the base.  The powder is consumed during firing, and no empty shell is ejected, leaving the tiny primer to fall out the bottom of the chamber.

7.  Self-Propelled Armored Vehicles (and Tanks), 1898. 

The earliest example I found was a goofy looking bicycle tire driven quadricycle sort of thing with a forward firing machine gun and an armored plate in the front (no top, bottom, side or back armor) called the “Motor Scout.”  The same guy (FR Simms) invented the first all around armored car in 1902, called the “Motor War Car.”  These armored vehicles and the tanks that followed during World War I (especially with their rough terrain capable tracks instead of tires) changed warfare to break the stalemate of the trenches and reintroduce maneuver.  Toward the end of the Cold War, the Soviets had about 50,000 tanks in their inventory, and the US had around 12,000 all told.  Plus, each side had thousands of other armored vehicles for carrying troops, ambulance, engineering, reconnaissance, assault guns, artillery, command vehicles and a host of uses.  Some even protect occupants from nuclear radiation and or chemical attack.

6.  The Airplane, 1902. 

The Wright Brothers correctly thought their invention had great military potential, and once World War I started airplanes saw increasing use for reconnaissance and artillery spotting, ground attack and bombing, fighting the enemy’s airplanes, and shooting down observation balloons and airships.  Developing transportation and resupply via airplane quickly followed and is a major component of warfare today, especially rapid deployment and parachute forces.  World War II saw the airplane demolish cities and sink any ship that floats. In 1945 the airplane became the first delivery system of nuclear weapons.

5.  The Assault Rifle, 1943. 

The granddaddy of the AK-47, M-16, and all these other modern military weapons that can fire in either semi-automatic or full automatic (machine gun) mode go back to the German StG 44 (also known by other designations) which debuted in World War II, too late for it to make a decisive difference.  With only less than a half million produced, its main impact was in providing a model for other countries to develop weapons of similar performance, greatly increasing the firepower of infantry units.  Generally speaking, what we consider an assault rifle is one that fires a rifle cartridge, but often of only medium power, with selective fire so the soldier can choose full automatic (or burst fire) or single shot semi-automatic fire.  The StG 44 fired a shorter version of the 7.92mm Mauser round, and the AK-47 followed with a similar short .30 caliber round  (7.62X39mm) smaller than its parent 7.62X54R rifle bullet from the Mosin-Nagant rifle.  The US and NATO followed with its 7.62X51mm round, almost, but not quite the match of the previous 30-06 rounds used by the M-1 Garand.  Currently the US M-16 and M-4 family of rifles/carbines use a small 5.56X45mm (.223 caliber) round.

4.  Hand Held Automatic/Semi-Automatic Weapons, Late 19th Century. 

During the end of the Victorian Age many inventors were experimenting with pistols that could fire repeatedly with each pull of the trigger without using a revolving cylinder.  Pistols with internal magazines and with removable magazines burst onto the military scene and quickly became standard issue in many units by World War I.  Of course, producing semi-automatic and full automatic rifle size guns followed and were available for World War I, (but in limited numbers and effectiveness) and the advent of the submachine gun firing pistol caliber rounds made its debut then as well.  By World War II the automatic rifle (Bren gun, BAR, etc) and the submachine gun (MP-38, MP-40, Thompson, Sten, Grease Gun, PPSh, etc) found widespread use.  (The honor of being the first practical submachine gun goes to the Bergman MP 18.)  During World War II the US fielded the M-1 Garand, the only semi-automatic rifle to find widespread distribution, though several other types saw combat in more limited numbers.

3.  Automatic Weapons (Machine Guns), 1883. 

Although the hand cranked Gatling guns that debuted during the American Civil War chucked a lot of bullets downrange, they could not match the firing rate or reliability of Hiram Maxim’s recoil operated machine gun.  It took World War I to get the lesson across to military thinkers that battle had changed dramatically with this weapon, and such guns have been a mainstay ever since, on the land, sea, and air, including up to major calibers such as 20mm to 40mm.

2.  Repeating Small Arms (With Fixed Ammunition), 1850’s. 

Although various attempts at repeating (usually multi-barreled pistols and long guns) were brought forth earlier, the junction of percussion caps with revolving cylinder Colt pistols, and fixed ammunition with Henry (Volcanic) and Spencer repeating rifles changed warfare in a massive way, allowing several times the rate of fire of small arms than previously possible with single shot weapons.  Plus, reloading was greatly accelerated as well.  Today, politicians fiercely debate just how many rounds a repeating firearm should be allowed to carry for civilians, but most military rifles carry around 30 rounds per magazine, and most military pistols carry from 7 to 20 rounds per magazine.  We have come a long way since the Smith & Wesson Model 1 with its puny .22 caliber short cartridge (1857, first metallic cartridge repeater).

1.  Nuclear Weapons, 1945. 

For an oh so brief period the United States was the only nuclear power in the world, a giddy time when many misguided military types felt invincible.  In spite of the large scale slaughter of World War II, the next world war would likely result in even bigger devastation, possibly ending life on Earth as we know it for humankind.  Today, the US, the UK, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel either publicly acknowledge or are believed to have nuclear weapons, not to mention mass quantities of nukes floating on and under the sea and who knows if Russia can really account for all the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union.  Other countries such as Iran may be developing such weapons, and it may only be a matter of time before they are once again used in anger.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.