Weird Weapons of World War I

periscope-rifle

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?

Digging Deeper

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 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.

8.  Flamethrowers.

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 the flamethrower 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. 

5.  Anti-tank Rifle.

Since the first tanks were not the thick skinned beasts of today, they would be able to stop only rifle and pistol caliber bullets with their thin armor.  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 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 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.

Historical Evidence

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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.

  • Harry

    Which ones are weird?

  • Tom Kubrak

    Even though these weapons were weird, they had a great purpose during this setting especially the gas fans. Something as simple as gas fans go a long way for survival by defense.

  • Mike Rinicella

    I wouldn’t really classify these weapons as weird but rather revolutionary because new technologies started to grow rapidly with those.

  • Ben Nevers

    It is awesome to see the evolution of weapons and defense mechanisms that were brought about because of this war. All of these were very good ideas and also odd.

  • Alec K

    That was really interesting to learn how machine guns were successfully added on to planes. Leave it to the Germans to engineer something great.

  • Patrick Roder

    I would not want to take a hit from the trench club.

  • NS

    It is crazy to think that all of these weapons were tried and used in actual combat. Some are very bizarre and seem almost pointless. Number one is particularly interesting because of the homemade wood aspect of it. I can not believe that they actually used pieces of wood to prop the gun up. Sometimes the quality of these weapons or really lack thereof is kind of incredible when you think of how many lives were at stake.

    • Jake Woolf

      Necessity is the mother of invention.

  • Alex Guthrie

    With a lot of not so good ideas come good ideas—creativity.

  • Mark Kovalsky

    This is the kind of creative ingenuity that has lead to the weapons of today’s militaries.

  • Michael Conn

    The machine gun complications on planes was interesting. Cool solution as well

  • Hannah Louk

    I would suggest the use of Napalm. It’s deadly and scary but effective

  • Rhonda Donda

    I’m amazed that 27 men fit into one tank. Also, I’m surprised at the many different kinds of weapons that long ago.

  • Tevin Knerr

    I feel like the flame thrower would have been the scariest along with the poison gas , no thankyou !

  • DAVID WARDLE

    Gas is nothing to mess around with… especially when you end up gassing your own troops! — DAVID WARDLE

  • Heather H

    much diversity among this list of weapons

  • Matt Chojnacki

    I would love to see one of the massive tank that was mentioned in number 1 in person

  • Gino Iacampo

    The gas weapons very unique. The anti-tank rifle would probably knock me back 10 yards if I shot it.

  • A.T

    Chemical warfare was an awful thing to come out of WW1

  • Natalie Sholtis

    Chemical warfare or the flamethrower are probably the scariest ones to me! 🙁

  • Jake Woolf

    I don’t know if I would classify flamethrowers as weird weapons; the Byzantines had their greek fire, and it makes perfect sense to continue the tradition of making enemies Well Done.

    The mammoth tanks at 100 tons; that’s just insane. The German Tiger II, one of the heavier pieces of “To Hell with You” machinery in WWII, ranked in at just under 77 tons. Madness!

  • BS

    Chemical warfare and the flamethrower sound scary yikes!!

  • Alexi Boyle

    This is where we got most of the weapons we use today I’m starting to see. Never heard of some of them but I can see how they adapted into modern time.

  • Samantha Easterling

    Surprising how many weapons they had, but the gas/chemical weapons had to be the worst

  • JB

    WWI and the weapons it invented really changed the way that we fought wars.

  • w.y.

    Poison gas was a devastating weapon.

  • Louis Lipoff

    amour piercing shells were very effective

  • BB

    Some of this technology I did not even know about until this article. The idea of using the periscope was brilliant for the time since it would reduce the effectiveness of snipers. I wonder how effective it proved to be in battle. Also, it is pretty amazing that a civilian woman actually invented something for army purposes. I am curious if she was actually thinking about the military uses for it or if she just created it in order to protect herself. The idea behind it is still good, but the execution seems to be a little poor.

  • Craig Milby

    I can’t even imagine how terrifying it would be when you know a gas attack is coming. A possible way to survive was urine soaked rag over your face? Gas masks weren’t a thing at the start of the war so that was really your only option… Luckily the use of poison gas has been outlawed.

  • Stephen Ciocca

    I think the scariest of all the weapons listed here would have to be the poison gas because there was no way to escape it. You could not hid from it and before gas masks there was little to no way of preventing yourself from inhaling it. I think that if I were in the war the idea of poison gas would be absolutely terrifying due to the fact that you are pretty much helpless once it gets to you. I am glad that the use of poison gas has since been made illegal because the long term effects of the gas from World War 1 are still being felt today.

  • Billy White

    I do a lot of shooting and the weapon that caught my eye was the anti tank gun. I have shot some heavy hitters, guns that really wake you up when you pull the trigger. However I have never shot a gun with the fear of my shoulder or collar bone breaking. That type of power is impressive and intimidating. I would not be interested in firing a rifle with that type of power.

  • Matthew Grabowski

    Its amazing what weapons were used in desperate times. During this time any available advantage was taken in order to survive. It’s an aspect of this time that is sometimes overlooked.

  • ryan C

    Its pretty sweet the variety of things they used n those hard fought times. The things they made to take cover and so on.

  • SW

    Trench warfare seems like a death sentence for many men, between the snipers, gas, and the clubs I can not imagine many survived.

  • LHW

    http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2015/7/8/a-look-back-at-the-winchester-model-18/ This is not weird its just bad ass! Whats trench war without a trench gun?

  • kk

    I think that the coolest one would be the flame thrower. who wouldn’t want to mess around with a flame thrower. But the down fall is you would have to get pretty close to the opponent.

  • BV

    It’s so interesting to see the change in the weapons over time, each are unique on their own and have their own interesting parts. I like the flamethrower the most and I think it’s funny that they were scared at first but then copied them.

  • Isaac Talley

    You put in front of an idea to hurt people to get a point across the ideas start flowing. Death and Destruction is easy to come up with. I guess everybody has there own evil genius in them.

  • aaron s

    Getting hit by an anti tank rifle of that caliber would not be fun

  • Kamarin R

    Poison gas sounds like the scariest new weapon of WW1.

  • Andy frick

    Disparate times call for disparate measures. Love the innovation needed in trench warfare.

  • Dakota A rinier

    WW1 was the start of a new type warfare

  • DW

    These ideas seemed weird, but I guess that they must have at least been educational experiences for the different military members around the world. You don’t know until you try I guess.

  • Alex Hewitt

    The innovation pushed out in WW1 is impressive but you might be better off sticking to your older ways with no huge risk

  • Matt Smail

    i guess use whatever weapon you can get your hands on. i mean WW1 was a different type of warfare.

  • ac

    These are some crazy weapons!

  • Loren deck

    Some of these seem like they would work well if properly worked on others are just plain dumb

  • Nicholas Hillyer

    Got to give them some props for at least thinking outside the box and trying things.

  • Maxwell McCullough

    The thing is, is that almost all of these are still in use today. They may have limitations, like chemical warfare I believe is illegal. But nevertheless most of these are still in use. Even though some of these may be more refined Ex. Grenade catapult, we have grenade launchers now.

  • Montel Lollis

    I really wouldn’t call all of them weird weapons, but some were out of ordinary , but the good thing is to see how creative we can get as people.

  • Jessica May

    Slightly odd but I wouldnt say they were weird. just creative

  • Courtney G

    I guess you use what you have to to get the job done! Creativity can get you a long way!

  • Suzie M. Shaffer

    It made me laugh thinking about the British trying to use tear gas and the wind blowing and affecting their own troops. Opps!

  • Mackenzie H

    I totally forgot about the gas fans.

  • Michael Tovissi

    I find it strange that these were called “weird weapons” because some of these were used and evolved in future wars.

  • Payton Brown

    I wish that chemical warfare had never been used. Its a scary concept to think about being poisoned and each side trying to come up with the more dangerous gas.

  • Amanda Miller

    I can’t believe the different weapons they used in World War I and what’s funny is Britain using the tear gas and tear gassing their own troops.

  • MIA

    That’s funny that the tear gas ended up hurting the British! You would think that they would have tried to wait until the wind was done blowing… kind of common sense in my opinion.