Meet the Flechette – the Deadliest Weapon of World War I?

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A Brief History

Although World War I (1914-1918) was pretty much rudimentary in terms of weapons and weaponry, so to say, you would still expect its deadliest weapon to be a firearm – for example, a sniper rifle or even a pistol; however, a couple of web searches will show you that, among the Gewehr and the Bergmann, you can also find a primitive weapon – namely the German Flechette. It is also known as the Aerial Dart.

Believe it or not, the Flechette was one of the deadliest weapons that a nation could use back in 1915-1916. In fact, this particular concept seemed to be making a comeback via the SPIW – Special Purpose Individual Weapon – which featured a Bullpup rifle capable of firing flechettes.

Digging Deeper

The Basics of a Flechette

As mentioned above, this particular weapon is also known as an aerial dart or arrow; however, it is nothing close to those two things – it is not as flimsy as an arrow and is much stronger than a dart.

The Flechette was developed by French investors in the Great War’s early stages, in 1915. Still, it is believed that the Italians first invented the weapon between 1911 and 1912. This weapon can be seen as a precursor to anti-personnel weapons – as it basically fills the same role.

World War I air dropped flechettes, probably French.  Photograph by Gaius Cornelius.

Flechettes were usually five inches long and, as you would expect, sharpened at a single end by half an inch. The other four and a half inches were designed so that the flechettes feature an X cross-section. Then, they were simply packed in boxes – of 500 pieces each – and carefully placed in a hole in the aircraft’s cockpit.

The Effectiveness of Flechettes

Once the 500 flechettes were placed in their box, the pilot had to simply pull a string in order to activate this deadly weapon. Reportedly, a single box of flechettes could cover an area of 500 square yards in just a single delivery.

At the moment, you may not consider the flechettes as an impressive weapon – yet!

The practical effectiveness, so to say, of a single flechette was tested in multiple test runs – on either cows or sections of a tree. How did the flechette perform?

Well, one of them was able to pass through a tree section of roughly 4 inches in diameter! In short, a flechette could penetrate the steel helmet of a soldier, as well as the skull. The weapon would gain so much force as it simply fell that it couldn’t be stopped by thin steel, bone, and flesh.

The Peculiarities of a Flechette

As stated earlier, it would be easy for someone to mistake a flechette for a dart – a more primitive dart, that is. However, if you were to inspect one closely, you’d discover that it is highly aerodynamic and features a deadly design.

This weapon was made out of steel and had a very sharp pointy end, as mentioned. For increased aerodynamics, they featured fins on their other end – most likely to increase the speed of descent.

The Evolution of the Flechette

As they were developed by the French, they were first used by them during the war as well. Later on, when their effectiveness was noticed by the other parties of the war, both the Germans and the British started using the flechette against each other.

When used by the Germans, the flechettes earned their right to wear an inscription, so to say. In order to give the French a taste of their well-designed medicine, the Germans stamped a French invention, German-made on the flechettes that they were using against them.

As such, the flechette is often referred to as the German flechette, due to this simple characteristic that no other nation featured on their deadly weapon.

Why Were They So Deadly?

It was mentioned earlier that several tests were made in order to test the effectiveness of flechettes – using tree sections and cows. We didn’t tell you what happened during the tests on cows that took place in 1915.

An editor of the Aeroplane magazine tells how one of his friends happened to be on the military aerodrome when flechettes were tested on a poor cow. He said that three of them managed to hit the animal and, with little to difficulty, the flechettes went straight through it and into the ground; however, their sheer force is not the main reason for their deadliness.

A Silent Strike

Before telling you exactly why they were so deadly, it is worth mentioning that the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps refused to use flechettes against the Germans!

This is because they believed that arrow-dropping from the sky was dirty work, mainly because the enemy could not hear or even see the darts coming. On top of that, given the nasty wounds they were capable of, most pilots didn’t want to become mutilators, so to speak.

Moreover, German soldiers stated that it was better if you dropped flat on the ground and waited for the rain of arrows to hit. If a flechette hit you like this, it would go through fewer organs compared to a hit received in a standing position.

Short-Lived Weapon

The classic way of dropping flechettes from an aircraft did not last for too long. By 1916, there were little to no reports of flechettes being used; however, the French inventor responsible for them came up with the electromagnetic rail gun in 1917. This was a grounded weapon that was firing flechettes – it was used by the French against the Germans.

The Bottom Line

Even if the Flechette was used for one year only, it had enough time to make itself known as one of the deadliest weapons of World War I. It was so deadly that the British pilots refused to use it.

As proof of their effectiveness and deadliness, the flechettes were used even in Vietnam. Here, they gained a new nickname – namely, beehives, as they were sent in swarms and sounded like one as well.

Overall, the flechette is both deadly and unique when it comes to weapons. Despite the fact that it was rather inaccurate and had a hard time hitting multiple targets, it was able to cause damages that would make entire platoons fall back and take cover!

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bishop, Chris.  The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War I.  Sterling Publishing, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Andy Dingley of a World War I flechette, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


About Author


Jay Chambers is a pro-free speech business owner based in Austin, Texas. Having lived through several natural disasters and more than a few man-made ones (hello 2008), he believes that resilience and self-sufficiency are essential in this increasingly unpredictable world. That’s why he started a business! Jay writes over at Minute Man Review.