A Brief History
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. Here we list 10 of the weird weapons or contraptions dreamed up to help one side or the other win the war. What items would you add to the list? (See our follow on article, “More Weird Weapons of World War I”)
10. Gigantic tanks.
Touched upon in our 10 Wacky Military Ideas list on July 30, 2014, these monstrosities were the ultimate expression of the new weapon, the tank. The Russian Tsar Tank with its front wheels 27 feet tall and hull 40 feet wide, the German K-Wagen of 120 tons and 27 man crew, and the British Flying Elephant 100 ton monster are examples. It is worth noting that the French tanks were the smallest of the bunch, and coincidentally probably the most effective. The corkscrew tank, an idiotic device by which large screws on each side would propel the tank instead of wheels or tracks was another wacky idea. Obviously, this tank would work only on normal ground and was not suited for roads or rocky earth, and was by its nature quite slow.
9. Poison Gas.
Right off the bat the French used tear gas in August of 1914, and the Germans were quick to follow suit, both with tear gas and an irritating gas that caused massive sneezing fits. By April of 1915 the Germans upped the ante by shelling Allied lines with chlorine gas shells, choking and gagging hapless French troops with lung destroying chlorine. Within a few months the British need for retaliation resulted in gas canisters placed along the British front lines, with special troops turning open the valves. The wind did not cooperate, and instead of blowing toward the enemy, the British managed to gas their own troops. The gas war raged back and forth, with improved artillery shell delivery and improved gas weapons, phosgene gas and mustard gas, diabolical weapons much deadlier than chlorine. Protection against the gas first consisted of urine soaked rags held over the mouth and nose, and then effective gas masks, hoods, and suits were developed.
Flame had been used as a weapon by men for thousands of years, but the German flammenwerfer developed by Richard Fiedler was a particularly effective man portable device consisting of gas tanks on a soldier’s back spraying pressurized flammable liquid onto enemy troops or emplacements. At first terrifying the Allies, the Allies quickly copied the fiendish weapons and both sides incinerated their share of the enemy. Strong winds made use of theflamethrower dangerous for the user, and the prospect of a fiery death if the tanks were hit with bullets or shrapnel made for few volunteers to carry the weapons. By the end of the war, tanks were being fitted with flamethrowers.
7. Sawback Bayonet.
The Germans developed several bayonets for use in World War I, including adapters to allow the use of captured bayonets with German rifles. One of their bayonet developments was the fearsome looking sawback bayonet, a knife type (as opposed to the other main type, the spike bayonet) that had a series of sharp teeth along the top. This bayonet was designed to do double duty as a field saw to cut wood, but allied propagandists seized the chance to make Germans look like bloodthirsty animals and portrayed the bayonets as designed to be particularly destructive to humans. Germans captured with such bayonets were often executed on the spot.
6. Grenade Catapults.
Both sides used the ancient weapon the Romans would be familiar with to extend the range of hand grenades. In order to launch the grenades/Mills bombs farther than a man could throw, contraptions were built with loading an arm under spring tension to fling the grenade toward the enemy., much like smaller versions of the siege devices seen in movies. Other contraptions to hurl grenades included slingshots and crossbows!
5. Anti-tank Rifle.
Since the first tanks were not the thick skinned beasts of today, their armor would be able to stop only rifle and pistol caliber bullets with their thin plate. Heavier caliber weapons (such as today’s .50 caliber machine gun) would penetrate the tank, and the first anti-tank weapons were the German Mauser Tankgewehr, a 13.2 mm caliber anti-tank rifle. (.54 caliber) The 41 pound (loaded with bipod) bolt action rifle launched its 13.2 mm 795 grain armor piercing bullet at almost 2600 feet per second and the rifle stretched over 5 feet long. Capable of piercing 22 mm of armor at 100 meters it was effective, but also proved dangerous to the shooter, often breaking the rifleman’s collarbone or injuring his shoulder.
4. Trench Clubs.
No, these were not places to dance and pick up chicks, they were the equivalent of the old weapon, the mace. Consisting of a wooden club with a metal, spiked or knobbed end, this brutal weapon was used in the hand to hand combat often encountered when one side assaulted the other side’s trench lines. Both sides made use of this device. A British model had metal flanges instead of spikes.
3. Gas Fans.
Invented by a civilian woman, over 100,000 of these hand powered fans were issued to British troops. Consisting of a long wooden handle (like a broomstick) and a canvas fan on a metal frame, the soldier would wave this device up and down to shoo away residual poison gas that lingered in his trench, foxhole, or shell crater that he took shelter in.
2. Bullet deflectors.
Early aircraft engineers had to position machine guns on airplanes in a manner to avoid shooting through the arc of the propeller, or else risk the gunner shooting his propeller to pieces. Guns were awkwardly placed high on the upper wing, where aiming, reloading, and clearing jams was difficult. Other solutions were to put the propeller in the back in a “pusher” mode, and the idea of putting metal deflectors on the propeller blades themselves finally occurred to an enterprising French pilot. Theorizing that not that many bullets would hit the prop anyway, the vee shaped deflectors allowed the machine gun to be placed right in front of the pilot where it could easily be aimed and serviced. The Germans had the better idea of linking a cam from the machine gun to the engine’s crank shaft which allowed the guns to fire safely through the propeller without hitting the blades. When a German plane was captured with the interrupter device, the Allies quickly adapted the technology.
1. Remote control periscope rifle.
Because of the danger from enemy snipers, sticking one’s head above the trench invited a bullet in the brain. To counter snipers, rifles were rigged with periscopes and put on contraptions that allowed them to be fired from the safety of down in the trench, keeping the rifleman out of harm’s way. Often jury rigged with various pieces of wood and fired with a string on the trigger, the effectiveness of these weapons varied with the skill of the builder.
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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 of the wreck of Leonardo da Vinci (ship, 1911) in Taranto, is in the public domain in the United States, because it meets three requirements:
- it was first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days),
- it was first published before 1 March 1989 without copyright notice or before 1964 without copyright renewal or before the source country established copyright relations with the United States,
- it was in the public domain in its home country (Italy) on the URAA date ().
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube.