A Brief History
On June 9, 1959, the United States Navy launched the USS George Washington, the first ballistic missile submarine capable of launching nuclear missiles. We used that occasion to publish the article “10 Weapons Milestones (Modern Systems that Changed the Game)” in which we named 10 of the most interesting and important advances in weaponry of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Today we list 10 more of those weapons and or weapons systems, and we branch out to include the 21st Century and Olden times as well. As always, please share your nominations for other weapons we could have included on our list. (Lightsabers not included!)
1. Lasers (a Directed Energy Weapon), 1960.
Once the laser was invented in 1960 among all the many uses for this technology being explored was as a weapon. The “Death Ray” of science fiction was just waiting for the development of miniaturization and small enough power plants to make the coherent light into a “Directed Energy” weapon. Throughout the 1960’s and up to the present time, tests and new applications for lasers in weaponology have constantly advanced. Used today mainly as a way to guide weapons to their targets, lasers are also useful as range finding devices and a tool to measure the speed of an object (just ask your local State Trooper). Since civilized nations have decided lasers should not be used to blind troops, that particular obvious use is being (supposedly) ignored for now, although lasers used to temporarily blind or dazzle the enemy has been explored. Using lasers to take down incoming missiles is becoming practical, as well as shooting down enemy airplanes. Whether or not any of these promising weapons for shooting down missiles and aircraft are functional and deployed is not yet known, as the various governments doing the testing claim they are in the testing phase of development. Other Directed Energy weapons such as plasma rays, particle beam weapons and microwave pulses are also being developed and hold a high level of potential.
2. Recoil Systems for cannons, 1872-1897.
For the first few hundred years of cannons as weapons, cannoneers found the strong recoil that came with each shot would throw the gun off target and the weapon would have to be re-sighted for every shot, greatly reducing the rate of fire. Failure to re-sight (or “re-lay”) the gun would result in abysmal accuracy. Early attempts to use ropes and springs were not very successful, and it took Wladimir Baranovaky of Russia to invent the first useful short recoil mitigation system to allow guns to automatically reset to point of aim after firing. The French jumped on this technology to create their superb “French 75” 75 mm rapid firing field gun in 1897 using a long recoil system of hydraulic and compressed air tubes (hydro-pneumatic) to absorb the recoil and set the gun back on target. During World War I the French 75 was a war winning weapon and the details of its recoil system was a closely guarded secret. The French 75 was capable of a burst of 30 rounds in one minute in an emergency, or 4 rounds per minute sustained, delivering a high volume of anti-personnel explosive shells.
3. Recurved Bow, 8th Century BC.
We do not know for sure who invented the recurve bow or when, but a Biblical reference in Psalm 78:57 seems to allude to this type of arrow launcher. The benefit of having a recurve bow is to have a shorter bow with the power of a much longer bow. The shortness of the bow allows for shorter arrows with a shorter pull and use on horseback, a benefit greatly advantageous to Genghis Khan and his Mongols. This bow type may have originated in Asia or the Near East, and may have been independently invented elsewhere, including the Americas. Any time a weapon can be made compact and retain the capability of the larger weapon is generally a good thing. By 200 BC the recurve bow had spread across Asia, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean and North Africa and became the standard bow of the Roman Army.
4. Stirrups, circa 300 AD.
Before the invention of stirrups, a rider on horseback was in dire danger of falling off the horse if he got too busy with activities other than maintaining his seating, such as firing arrows or wielding a lance or swinging a saber. The invention of the stirrup, possibly in China around the late 3rd Century quickly replaced crude toe loops with proper supports that allowed a fighting cavalryman to remain firmly seated. Cavalry charges using lances (such as in jousting or tilting) would not be practical without stirrups. Even the use of firearms from the saddle became practical because of the use of stirrups, where the rider could more or less steer his mount without needing his hands on the reins and still remain mounted. The humble stirrup may have begun merely as an aid to getting on the horse, and its utility would have been quickly realized.
5. Guided Weapons, 1943.
The German Luftwaffe was the first to employ a precision guided weapon during World War II, the Fritz X gravity bomb optically tracked and guided by radio transmissions. After sinking the Italian battleship, Roma, the value of such a weapon became apparent to the Allies as well, and a crash course in development of guided weapons became part of the arms race that continued after the war. When Allied observers noticed guided bombs always had a plane lingering in the area circling the target, they quickly figured out the connection and began attacking the control aircraft. Radio jamming also became a countermeasure. Radar guided weapons followed, as did heat seeking missiles, television guided bombs, pre-programmed inertial gyroscopic guidance weapons, wire guided optically tracked weapons, infrared homing, acoustic homing (especially torpedoes) laser guided rockets and bombs, thermal imagery weapons and finally Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) guided weapons. Prior to guided weapons the difficulty in hitting a moving target or a pinpoint target were immense. Targets such as bridges, moving ships, fast aircraft and the like required numerous weapons expended for each successful hit, whereas today bombs can be made much smaller due to the incredible increase in accuracy, limiting collateral damage from misses and large explosions.
6. Proximity Fuse, 1940.
The proximity fuse for an artillery shell or a rocket can accomplish 2 different things. The first is to provide an anti-aircraft shell that does not have make a direct hit on a plane and does not have to be set by a timer to blow up in the air. It causes the shell to explode when it gets within a certain distance of an airplane, using a radio transceiver, kind of like a mini-radar set. The second main use of the proximity fuse is to allow artillery shells or rockets to explode at a predetermined distance above the ground instead of blowing up on contact. This “airburst” effect greatly expands the lethal radius of effective killing/wounding of the exploding shell. These types of fused shells are especially effective against troops in the open or against troops in trenches. Work on developing proximity fuses began in Britain in 1939 with projectiles tracked by radar and then exploded with a radio signal sent as the projectile approached an aerial target. Prototypes were made using rockets in 1940, and the technology was perfected in the United States in the early 1940’s. Germany also experimented with many different approaches to solving the problem of creating an effective fuse that could survive the tremendous G forces incurred by artillery shells. German efforts never became successful. The American manufactured proximity fused anti-aircraft shells were of vital importance in 1944 and 1945 in the defense of US Navy ships against Japanese aircraft, including Kamikaze suicide planes. Fired from the 5 inch 38 caliber naval gun, these were the most effective anti-aircraft weapons of the war. The British put good use to the proximity fused anti-aircraft shells in shooting down V-1 flying bombs.
7. Rail Guns, 1845(!).
The concept of the rail gun it to use magnetic induction to accelerate a projectile instead of firing the projectile with gunpowder or some sort of chemical propellant. The projectile rides an armature between 2 rails that is quickly accelerated by a “homopolar” electrical current. (Some roller coaster rides at amusement parks use this type of method to start the coaster train from a standstill to high speed instead of needing to use gravity to get the train going.) Rail guns can launch a kinetic energy solid projectile at much higher velocity than a chemical propellant fired cannon (10,000 feet per second for a rail gun versus up to a maximum of 7000 feet per second for a conventional high velocity cannon) for the purpose of defeating armored targets. The much higher velocity achieved by the rail gun also means an explosive projectile can be fired at a much greater range than a conventional artillery shell. Rail guns can also be used as a device to launch space bound vehicles. The extreme acceleration achieved by rail gun launched projectiles precludes launching humans as part of the payload and requires sturdy construction of the projectiles. Back in 1845, a Norwegian, Kristian Birkeland, patented a “coil gun” that could launch a 1 pound projectile about 180 feet per second. A French inventor created an electric cannon patented in 1922, and in Germany during World War II a probably practical rail gun was invented to launch anti-aircraft shells at 2000 meters per second but were never built or deployed before the war ended. The main problem with making a practical version of the rail gun has been its large power draw, needing an enormous amount of electricity to operate military sized versions. To date the most likely application of military rail guns is as a shipborne weapon. Other systems being explored include helical rail guns with multiple turns and plasma shooting rail guns.
8. Smokeless Powder and Explosives, 1847.
With the invention of nitroglycerine in 1847 by Italian Ascanio Sobrero of the University of Turin, people had a more powerful alternative to black powder as an explosive and a propellant. Due to the unstable nature of nitroglycerine, the stuff was too dangerous for widespread use and caused many accidental deaths, until Alfred Nobel (of Nobel Prize fame), a Swedish manufacturer of explosives, invented Dynamite in 1867 by mixing nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth, rendering the explosive compound stable enough for safe use. Further development of nitro based combinations yielded “smokeless powder” (1884) as a much more powerful replacement for black powder. The new gunpowder was not only more powerful, but also cleaner and more consistent than black powder. Other explosives such as TNT followed, and exploding bombs and shells became many times more lethal.
9. Self-propelled Torpedo, 1866.
“Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead!” The familiar quotation by the US Navy’s David Farragut may be inaccurate, and in any case the torpedoes he mentions are what we would today call “mines.” The weapon we know of as a “torpedo” is a long, cylindrical metal tube propelled by a power source such as steam, electricity, compressed air or other chemical process and containing a large warhead of high explosives launched from a surface ship, a submarine, or an aircraft to attack ships on or below the sea. Before self-propelled torpedoes naval warriors tried floating and tethered mines, mines dragged along by a boat or even a submarine by a rope behind the boat to strike the target through careful maneuvering, or a “spar torpedo,” where a long wooden spar would have an explosive charge on the end and would be fixed to the front of a submarine or boat and driven into the target ship. In 1866 Robert Whitehead of Britain invented the first practical self-propelled torpedo (compressed air powered), an improvement on an earlier Italian attempt at creating a powered torpedo using a clockwork type engine. The first boat adapted for using the Whitehead torpedo was the HMS Lightning, an 87 foot long steam powered torpedo boat capable of 18.5 knots, quite quick for its day. With the invention of a practical submarine in 1896 and subsequent improvements in submarines the torpedo came into its own as the most feared weapon at sea, capable of sinking the largest ships, often with just one torpedo. Later versions starting in World War II came with guidance systems and proximity type fuses based on pressure changes or magnetic fields. Acoustic homing torpedoes were also developed, as were wire guided versions. Torpedoes come in a wide variety of sizes and have even been equipped with nuclear warheads.
10. Modern Submarine (Holland Type 6), 1897.
History is full of attempts by sailors and naval engineers to create a workable sub-surface craft that could stealthily attack surface vessels, including famous examples such as the Turtle (American Revolutionary War) and the CSS Hunley (American Civil War), but each time the results were disappointing, though sometimes with minor success. The requirement for the submarine to be powered by men turning cranks was a highly limiting factor in submarine development, as well as relegating those early efforts as agonizingly slow. When John Holland of the United States (of Irish nationality) developed the first modern type submarine in the late 19th Century his work was being financed at first by Irish Nationalists known as Fenians. His practical demonstration of a submarine that could run on electric power under water and on a gasoline engine while surfaced finally was adopted by both the Royal Navy and the US Navy in 1900. Both Navies called their first modern sub the Holland. The first Holland submarines on active service were armed with one torpedo tube and 2 torpedoes. Soon submarines would have 4 or 6 tubes in the bow and often a pair of torpedo tubes astern as well. The gasoline engines for surfaced running were replaced by diesel engines, and some short range subs were made to run only on electric power. In the 1950’s nuclear powerplants were developed for making steam generators for submarines that could stay submerged for months at a time, with these subs going into service by 1959. World War I and World War II submarines usually carried a deck gun of 3 to 6 inches in diameter for sinking merchant ships while surfaced, avoiding the expenditure of expensive and valuable torpedoes. Subs were also usually armed with some sort of anti-aircraft weapons as well, as they were vulnerable to attack by airships and airplanes (and now helicopters). Modern subs are often armed with nuclear tipped ballistic missiles that can be launched while the sub is submerged, as well as torpedoes and cruise missiles. Subs are also used for intelligence gathering and insertion of covert operators such as Navy SEALs. Submarines have also been used for rescuing downed airmen and sailors from sunken ships and transporting high value cargo or people.
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For more information, please see…
Levy, Joel. Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History (Fifty Things That Changed the Course of History). Firefly Books, 2014.
O’Bryan, John. A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up. Chronicle Books