10 Advances in Weaponry That Changed History

Atlatls // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Atlatls // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Atlatls // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today’s world was shaped by yesterday’s weapons. Mankind’s ever-evolving arsenal is constantly reshaping our technologies, our political climate, and our relationship with nature. Here are 10 key developments that transformed the planet we call home.


The spear is one of the oldest known tools; in fact, it might even pre-date our species. In 2012, archaeologists recovered the stone tips from some models in South Africa, leading them to conclude that spears were likely invented around 500,000 years ago. Given their extreme age, these were most likely made by Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Eventually, primitive man paired this ancient weapon with a device that made spears faster, deadlier, and more accurate than ever before. The atlatl—or “spear-thrower”—is an unassuming stick carved out of wood or bone. A hook projects upwards from the rear end while the front comes with a handgrip on the underside. Primitive hunters would grab the handle, place a spear on top of the gadget, and aim it at their target. Then, using a precise sweeping motion, they’d fling the spear forward. By creating extra leverage, the atlatl enabled people to throw these projectiles more forcefully than an unassisted human arm ever could—meaning our ancestors were now free to initiate attacks on dangerous game animals like mammoths and whales from a fair distance away. (The oldest atlatls on record were built in France around 17,500 years ago.)


The Hyksos, a group of conquerors hailing from Asia Minor, began a gradual takeover of Egypt in about 1700 BCE, thanks in part to their superior technology [PDF]. Their Bronze Age weapons had, by and large, never before been seen in Egypt. The Hyksos introduced the Egyptians to bronze armor and the chariot, and brought with them state-of-the-art axes whose metal heads were affixed to the shaft via a socket. In contrast, Egyptian soldiers still relied on an outdated axe-making technique which involved splitting the axe shaft and then riveting on the head. This put the locals at a big disadvantage because while their axe blades were liable to fly off mid-swing, those of the Hyksos remained firmly attached. Ironically, the Hyksos's advanced weaponry was later used by southern Egyptian rebels to drive them out once and for all in 1521 BCE.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many historians credit the Byzantine Empire with shielding western Europe from Arabic and Turkish advances. It fended off enemies thanks, in part, to antiquity's most mysterious chemical weapon: Greek fire. The composition of this substance was a well-guarded secret; today’s experts can only speculate about what its ingredients might have been. Potent enough to burn on the ocean’s surface, it was almost impossible to extinguish. In 941 CE, the Byzantines used this magic elixir to decimate a Rus naval fleet on the Black Sea. Similarly, in the eighth century CE, Greek fire helped thwart an attempted Arabic naval siege of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire’s capital city. To launch and ignite the incendiary mixture, Byzantine troops could pump it into clay or ceramic containers which—like modern grenades—violently exploded when hurled against a target. Another delivery method involved expelling jets of Greek fire-induced blazes through an early kind of flamethrower.


Medieval history buffs love to talk about the game-changing Battle of Crecy. Waged in a French village of the same name on August 26, 1346, the contest pitted about 10,000 Englishmen against a Gallic force of 40,000 to 50,000. Although they were outnumbered, the English managed to keep their own casualties down to roughly 300 soldiers while the French lost somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 men—along with the battle. The key to England’s success was a newly-adopted weapon: the dreaded longbow. Originally designed by the Welsh, the English army first began using them in the 1330s, during the reign of King Edward III. At a time when most bows didn’t exceed four feet in length, the typical longbow stretched six feet from end to end, and could easily shoot down opponents from 180 yards away with enough force to penetrate chain mail. Because of its power, the introduction of the longbow changed the rules of European warfare. Previously, mounted cavalries had been considered the most important part of a medieval military campaign. But longbows were a good deal cheaper than—and tended to make short work of—horses. As a result, equestrian knights gradually found themselves replaced by skilled archers and foot soldiers, who were mostly peasants—a fact that would profoundly affect the continent’s economic future.


Gunpowder formula // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You’d be hard-pressed to name an invention that’s had as big an impact on the course of human events. Gunpowder was born in China at some point during the ninth century CE. It’s generally thought that the substance was first produced when local alchemists mixed charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate as part of a medical experiment. “In China, you still see people who sometimes use gunpowder as a medicine,” says historian Laichen Sun, who adds, “It didn’t take long for the Chinese to see that this new elixir also could have a practical application in war.” Indeed, by the year 1232 CE, China had started using primitive, gunpowder-based grenades and landmines to ward off Mongolian invaders. (The Mongols, in turn, are often credited with introducing the material to India, Europe, and the Middle East.) Within the next few centuries, handheld firearms—the tools that, among many other things, enabled European explorers to conquer the Americas—had also come into being.  


In medieval Europe, noble families often lived behind castle walls, which had the effect of handicapping any attempt at centralized governance. If, say, a French baron were to disregard his king’s orders, he could avoid suffering any consequences simply by hiding behind the walls of his estate. Back then, laying siege to one of these buildings was a difficult and time-consuming task with a miniscule chance of success, even for the biggest medieval forces. But when large gunpowder weapons started to appear on the continent, they changed this whole equation. During the 15th and 16th centuries, massive cannons—along with strategically-placed mines—efficiently breached previously impenetrable castle walls. To defend themselves from such assaults, noblemen now had to rely on standing armies. Paying for all those troops required enormous tax bases—the kind that only large, centralized governments could preside over. This incentivized monarchs to start consolidating power within their kingdoms and develop the first European nation-states.


Minie balls // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although rifles have been around since the 1400s, they didn’t become popular combat weapons until fairly recently. That’s because, for centuries, loading them was a real pain. Early rifle ammo had to have the same diameter as the barrel’s interior, meaning soldiers would need to forcefully ram every bullet down the rifle's shaft. Then along came Claude-Étienne Minié, a French army captain who changed rifle usage forever. In 1849, Minié created a lead, conical bullet with an opening at the base. Unlike most rifle ammo, he designed these to be a bit smaller in diameter than the barrels they were intended for, meaning a soldier could drop one into his gun with ease. Once the trigger was pulled, the bullet’s bottom would expand—at which point, it’d catch the grooves and start spiraling. Just like that, Minié made rifles a lot more user-friendly. His new bullets, referred to as “Minié balls,” offered reliable, long-range accuracy, which was first capitalized on by the British during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Later on, both Union and Confederate forces adopted them in the American Civil War, which contributed to the conflict's utter devastation.


On September 15, 1916, a World War I standoff between British and German soldiers in northern France became the first battle in history to feature tanks, when the British turned up with 49 of them. Weighing 28 tons apiece, the gargantuan vehicles could each hold a crew of eight men and sported a combination of light machine guns and heavier firearms. At first, they didn’t impress. Though the tanks were built to roll across every obstacle from trenches to barbed wire, all but 22 broke down before reaching the front lines. And of those that did reach their destination, seven stopped working once the fighting began in earnest. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the tank would go on to play a major role in the Second World War; the 1941 Battle of Brody alone featured 800 Axis-built ones and 3500 Russian models



Earlier inventors (including Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim) paved the way for semi-automatic and automatic weapons like Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47. But as author C.J. Chivers argues, none of these devices shaped modern warfare quite like the lightweight, low-cost, easy-to-manufacture Kalashnikov. Its development coincided with nuclear proliferation, and while nuclear weapons "served to freeze borders in place and prevent total war … the Kalashnikov percolated from state to state, army to army, group to group and man to man and became the principle firearm used for modern war and political violence, in all of its many forms," Chivers says. Because the weapon was given designation as an official Soviet firearm, the gun was produced in huge quantities and shipped all over the USSR—whether people wanted them or not. From there the weapons circulated around the globe, and served as inspiration for countless copycats eager to harness the AK-47's power for themselves. "The Kalashnikov, in actual practice over the past 60-plus years, has proven much more deadly" than "big-ticket weapons" like submarines or atomic bombs, Chivers points out. "But it gets a lot less official attention." 


No list of history-altering technologies would be complete without acknowledging the first atomic bombs and their ongoing political aftermath. In August 1945, a pair of these weapons were dropped onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people by some estimates. From there, the United States and Soviet Union began their decades-long nuclear arms race which resulted in both superpowers stockpiling enough of these devices to destroy the planet several times over. Today, nine countries are known to have at least one such weapon at their disposal.