A History of Weapons

By Tim Lambert

Prehistoric Weapons

Human beings have probably always killed each other. Early people used clubs, axes, and spears. They also used bows and arrows. (Cave paintings from Spain dating from 10,000 to 5,000 BC show men fighting with bows).

A wooden club is a surprisingly effective weapon. As early as 6,000 BC African cave paintings show people armed with clubs. Much later wooden clubs were still used in Africa and the Pacific. Early axes were made of wood and stone. (Like the tomahawk of the Native Americans). However, the sword was not a practical weapon until people had become skilled in making things from metal.

In Australia, people hurled large boomerangs at their enemies. However, war boomerangs were not designed to come back. Indigenous Australians also fought with spears. To protect themselves they carried a curved stick, which was held in the center. It was used to parry spears and boomerangs.

Ancient Weapons

Sumerian Weapons

The Sumerians lived in what is now Iraq. By 3,500 BC they had created a highly civilized society. The Sumerians fought with chariots pulled by donkeys. They also used bows and arrows. They also fought with spears, axes, and clubs.

Although they did not wear armor soldiers did wear leather jackets studded with bronze, which gave them some protection and they wore copper helmets and carried rectangular shields.

Egyptian Weapons

Egyptian soldiers went into battle protected only by wooden or leather shields. They fought with spears, swords, axes, daggers, and clubs or maces. They also used slings, bows, and arrows. (In skilled hands a sling is a very accurate and effective weapon).

In ancient Egypt, most men fought on foot but after about 1,700 BC the army also had chariots. Each chariot carried two men, one to drive and one to shoot arrows. (In ancient Egypt horses were mainly used for war. Donkeys were used as pack animals). However, only the most important soldiers wore armor made of bronze.

Assyrian Weapons

The Assyrians lived in what is now Iraq. Between 900 BC and 612 BC, they created a great empire in the Middle East. They used a combination of chariots, cavalry, and infantry. Each chariot carried a crew of 3, a driver, an archer, and a shield-bearer. Cavalry fought with bows and spears. The infantry fought with bows, spears, swords, and slings. The Assyrians also equipped their soldiers with sturdy boots, which helped on long marches.

Greek Weapons

Greek armies were based on infantry called hoplites. The hoplite had to buy his armor and weapons so he usually came from the middle class. Hoplites were protected by helmets, breastplates, and backplates and shin guards called greaves. They carried round bronze shields.

Hoplites carried 1.8-meter-long spears made of wood with a metal point. They also carried swords and daggers. When they went into battle Hoplites marched in lines with their shields overlapping to form a metal ‘wall’.

Only the rich could afford horses so they provided the cavalry. Cavalrymen carried two throwing spears and a sword. Poor men became archers or were armed with slings. They did not wear armor. The Athenians also had a large navy. The ships were called triremes. They had three rows of oars. Two rows poked out of portholes. The third row was on the top deck. Ships were armed with a ram at the prow. (To try and ram enemy ships).

Roman Weapons

Roman legionaries wore a helmet called a cassis. His torso was protected by segmented armor called lorica segmentata. He was protected by a curved shield made of layers of wood covered in leather. A Roman shield was called a scutum. He carried a throwing spear called a pilum but his main weapon was a short sword called a gladius.

There were also auxiliary soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. When they finished their service (after 25 years) they became Roman citizens.

When they were on the move Roman soldiers marched at a steady pace. They covered 30 km a day. At the end of each day, they built a camp. They dug a ditch and used the earth to make a rampart. An army on the move carried wooden stakes, which were erected on the rampart. The soldiers slept in tents.

Roman soldiers also formed a formation called a testudo (the Latin word for tortoise). They held their shields over their heads to form an interlocking ‘roof’. (Soldiers at the front held their shields in front of them to form a ‘wall’). The testudo protected soldiers from arrows and javelins.

Siege Weapons

The Assyrians lived in what is now Iraq. From 900 BC to 612 BC they ruled a great empire in the Middle East. They used battering rams inside a wooden vehicle on wheels. The ram was a long pole with a metal point. It was suspended on ropes and was swung to smash gates and walls.

The Assyrians also used siege towers made of wood and wickerwork, which were mounted on wheels and were pushed near to the walls of an enemy city. On top were archers who shot arrows into the enemy city. Later the Macedonians invented a catapult powered by twisted rope. The rope was twisted tighter and tighter then released, firing a stone. It was later used by the Romans. They often called it an onager (wild ass).

Weapons in the Middle Ages

Saxon and Viking Weapons

In battle upper-class Saxons wore chainmail. Ordinary Saxons just wore an iron helmet and held a round wooden shield. They fought with spears, swords, and battle axes. The usual Saxon tactic was to form a ‘shield wall’ by standing side-by-side holding their shields in a line. The shield wall was a very effective tactic. The Saxons only lost the battle of Hastings because some of them broke formation.

The Vikings were dreaded throughout Europe. They too fought with spears, axes, and swords. Some of them wore chainmail. They also formed shield walls. The Vikings also built forts. They dug a ditch and created an earth bank with a wooden palisade on top. Inside buildings were arranged in four groups of four.

Later the ‘backbone’ of Medieval armies was the armored knight mounted on a horse. Norman knights wore chainmail, armor made of iron rings joined together. In the 14th century, chainmail was replaced by plate armor. Metal plates were attached to each part of the body. Norman knights carried kite-shaped shields. Later in the Middle Ages shields became smaller.


The Normans built wooden forts called motte and bailey castles. An artificial mound of earth was created, called a motte and the living quarters were built on top. Below was a walled yard called a bailey where food and animals were stored. The whole thing was sometimes protected by a moat.

However, these early wooden forts were vulnerable to fire, and later castles were built of stone. In the center was a stone tower called a keep where the inhabitants lived. Surrounding it was a curtain wall. However, even if attackers breached the curtain wall the defenders could retreat into the keep and continue to hold out.

The weakest part of a castle was its gate but there were ways of strengthening it. A building called a gatehouse was built. Often it was approached by a drawbridge over a moat. Gatehouses usually had an iron grid called a portcullis that could be raised or lowered vertically. Behind the portcullis was a covered passageway running through the gatehouse. Sometimes there was a second portcullis at the other end of the passageway.

If you got past the drawbridge and the first portcullis you would have to fight your way to the second portcullis and the defenders would not make it easy for you. In the roof were holes through which the defenders could drop stones or pour boiling liquids. Around the curtain wall were arrow slits called embrasures. Furthermore, the tops of the castle walls often had overhangs. In them were openings through which boiling liquids could be poured or stones could be dropped. They were called machicolations.

Stirling Castle

However, attackers could use a variety of siege weapons. The simplest was a battering ram. The users were protected by a wooden shed but the defenders might set it on fire. They could also use a crane with giant ‘tongs’ to try and grab the ram.

To climb the castle walls you could use ladders but that was dangerous as the defenders could push them over. Attackers might use a wooden siege tower on wheels. Inside it was ladders for soldiers to climb. At the top was a drawbridge. When it was lowered the attackers could swarm over the castle walls.

Attackers could also use a kind of crane called a tenelon to get over the wall. On the end of a long wooden arm was a basket containing soldiers. The basket could be swung over the castle walls. The attackers could also hurl missiles using siege engines. A medieval catapult called a mangonel was powered by twisted rope. (It was similar to those used by the Romans). The rope was twisted tighter and tighter then released, firing a stone.

Another Medieval siege weapon was called a trebuchet, which worked by a counterweight. A trebuchet had an arm set on a pivot so it had a long and a short end. The long end held the missile and a heavy weight was attached to the short end. The long end was winched down and when it was released the weight at the short end swung down. The long end swung up firing the missile. (However, the defenders could also use engines to hurl missiles back into the attacker’s camp).

A trebuchet

Attackers could also tunnel under the castle walls. The tunnels were supported by wooden props. When ready they were covered in animal fat and burned. The tunnels would collapse and hopefully so would the walls.

However, in the 14th century warfare was changed by the longbow. Longbows were not new (archaeologists have found examples thousands of years old). However, in the 14th century, the English learned to use the longbow in a new way. In the early Middle Ages, archers were used to ‘soften up’ the enemy before knights charged. (They were used that way at Hastings).

However, in the 14th century, the English devised a new tactic of having dismounted knights protect the archers and allowing the enemy to charge. The enemy cavalry was decimated by volleys of arrows.

The longbow was used to win decisive victories at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). An archer could shoot an arrow every 5 or 6 seconds. He could shoot an arrow up to 225 meters. The one disadvantage of the longbow was that it took years to learn to use one properly.

The Romans used a version of the crossbow called a hand ballista. However, it died out in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The crossbow reappeared in the 10th century. Some crossbows were so powerful they had to be loaded by a mechanical device called a cranequin. The arrows from a crossbow were called bolts or quarrels. It was such a terrible weapon that in 1139 the Pope decreed that it should not be used against Christians but only against Muslims.

However, crossbows fired only slowly. The crossbowman or arbalester (arbalest was another word for a crossbow) was vulnerable to fire while he reloaded. While he did so he had to hide behind a large shield called a pavise, which was held by another soldier. A crossbow’s slow rate of fire was all very well during the siege but it was not a very useful weapon in a pitched battle.

Weapons 1500-1800

16th Century Weapons

In the 16th century guns transformed warfare. Early guns were lit by a slow match (string was soaked in saltpeter and when it was lit it smoldered). The slow match was touched to the gunpowder to ignite it. However, in the early 16th century, the wheellock was invented. A metal wheel spun against a piece of iron pyrites generating sparks that ignited the gunpowder. As a result, most cavalry stopped using lances. Instead, they carried two or three pistols each, ready to fire, and sabers.

Meanwhile, the traditional English weapon was the longbow but handguns were increasingly used. The longbow slowly went out of use during the 16th century. However, muskets took a long time to reload, and during that time the infantry needed protection from cavalry. They were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear).

Forts and walled towns had bastions. They were triangular sections of the wall that jutted out from the rest of the wall. They provided flanking fire. In other words, guns on the bastion could fire at approaching soldiers from the sides. Solid cannonballs (called shots) were useful for firing at walls during sieges and for firing at enemy ships.

However, for killing enemy soldiers or sailors canister or case shot was used. That was a cylindrical container filled with sharp stones or pieces of metal. When fired the cylinder burst and sprayed the enemy.

Aztec Weapons

In the early 16th century, the Aztecs were fearsome warriors. They fought with slings and spears made of wood with blades edged with pieces of sharp obsidian. However, their main weapon was a wooden club called a maquahuitl, which was also lined with pieces of razor-sharp obsidian. Aztec warriors also carried shields made of hides. Yet they were no match for the Spaniards with their cannons, horses, and steel weapons.

Inca Weapons

Incas knew of the bow and arrow but they relied mainly on the sling and stone. It is a surprisingly accurate and deadly weapon. Incas did not have swords but in hand-to-hand fighting, they used wooden clubs tipped with stone or bronze. Many Incas wore a costume of quilted cotton, which gave some protection against the wooden and stone weapons of other South American peoples. Some Inca soldiers also protected their backs and chests with plates of wood or metal. They also carried wooden shields.

The Inca army was supplied by a network of storehouses. They also had stone fortresses on mountains. When the Incas killed their enemies they sometimes covered their skulls with gold and used them as drinking cups. They also made dead enemies’ teeth into necklaces and even made drums from human skin.

Japanese Weapons

In the 16th century both the Japanese and the Indians learned to make guns. In feudal Japan, the Samurai were hereditary warriors who followed a code of behavior called bushido. Samurai were supposed to be completely loyal and self-disciplined. Rather than be captured by the enemy samurai were supposed to commit suicide by disemboweling themselves. This was called seppuku.

The main piece of armor to protect a samurai’s torso was called a haramaki. It had skirts called kaskazuri to protect the lower torso. A samurai’s helmet was called a kabuto. A kabuto had neckguards called shikoro. It sometimes had a crest called a kaijirushi. The neck was also protected by a piece called the nowdawa. Samurai also wore masks called mempo. They wore armored sleeves called kote to protect their arms.

Indian Weapons

Indian soldiers fought with a curved sword called tulwar or with a type of saber called a shamshir. (Known in Europe as a scimitar). Indian soldiers also used a steel ax called a khanjar. They also fought with a form of dagger called katar. It had a handle shaped like the letter ‘H’. You held the handle with your fist and stabbed your enemy with a punching motion. Indian soldiers also used a form of ax called a bhuj. It looked like a short, heavy knife with a long handle.

In Northwest India, Sikhs used a steel quoit called a chakram. The outer edge was very sharp and when thrown it would slash the enemy. n Indian warriors carried a round shield called a dhal made of steel or hide. They wore helmets called tops with ‘curtains’ of chain mail to protect the neck. They also wore a metal ‘sleeve’ called a dastania to protect the lower arm. Indians also fought with matchlock muskets, which they called bandukh toradas.

17th Century Weapons

In the early 17th century firearms were either matchlocks or wheel locks. A matchlock held a slow-burning match, which was touched to the powder when the trigger was pulled. With a wheel lock, a metal wheel spun against iron pyrites making sparks. During the 17th century, both of these were gradually replaced by the flintlock which worked by hitting a piece of flint and steel making sparks.

Furthermore, in the early 17th century the cartridge was invented. The musket ball was placed in a container, which held the right amount of gunpowder to fire it. The soldier no longer had to measure powder from a powder horn into his gun.

Apart from artillery, there were two branches of an army. The cavalry was usually armed with wheel-lock pistols and sabers. They were protected by backplates, breastplates, and helmets. The infantry consisted of men armed with muskets and those armed with pikes. A musket took a long time to reload and the soldiers were very vulnerable while they did so. Therefore they were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear). In theory, there were two musketeers to each pikeman. The pikemen usually had a steel helmet but musketeers did not usually wear armor.

The bayonet was invented in about 1680. With a bayonet fixed a musket could be used as a weapon even if it had been fired and was not reloaded. The bayonet did away with the need for pikemen. The English army began using grenades in 1677. An early grenade was simply a hollow metal ball filled with gunpowder and with a fuse. There were no fundamental changes to weapons in the 18th century but artillery became lighter and more mobile.

Modern Weapons

19th Century Weapons

The Industrial Revolution transformed warfare. Railways meant armies could be transported much faster than before. The telegraph meant that messages could also be transmitted much faster.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) developed the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used at Copenhagen in 1807 and they set most of the town on fire. However, rockets lacked both range and accuracy and after the Napoleonic Wars, they fell from favor.

Meanwhile, in 1807, a Scot named Alexander Forsyth patented the percussion cap. When a trigger was pulled a hammer hit a container of fulminate of mercury, which exploded and ignited the charge of gunpowder. The percussion cap replaced the flintlock. Breech-loading guns greatly increased the rate of fire. The British army began using breech-loading guns in 1865. The range of guns was improved by rifling. Some guns had been rifled for centuries but it only became commonplace in the 19th century.

In the late 19th century rifles were improved further by the introduction of magazines, which greatly increased the rate of fire. Meanwhile, in 1836, Samuel Colt began making revolvers. Traditionally the cavalry fought with pistols and swords but the revolver made swords obsolete.

In the 19th century, many people experimented with machine guns. In 1862 Richard Gatling invented the Gatling gun. However, the first successful machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884. It was adopted by the British army in 1889.

War at sea was changed by exploding shells, by steam engines, and by iron ships. In 1858 the French launched La Gloire. It was made with plates of iron fixed onto timber. However, in 1860 Britain launched HMS Warrior. This ship was made with an iron hull instead of a wooden hull with iron plates fixed on it. Soon the traditional gun deck on warships was replaced by turret guns on the top deck.

HMS Warrior

Then in the 1860s, Robert Whitehead developed the modern torpedo. The British Navy began making torpedoes in 1871. In the 19th century, new explosives were invented to replace gunpowder. TNT was invented in 1863 and dynamite followed in 1867. Cordite was invented in 1889.

In the 19th century, European armies fought several colonial wars in Africa. African warriors fought with spears and throwing axes as well as the bow. They also used throwing knives, which had several blades pointing in different directions.

20th Century Weapons

When the First World War began in 1914 infantry couldn’t advance without terrible losses because firearms were now so powerful. The result was a deadlock. By the end of 1914, both armies had dug lines of trenches with barbed wire and machine guns.

In 1915 the Germans used gas on the western front. At first, they used chlorine. However, troops were supplied with gas masks. Finally, in 1917, the Germans used mustard gas. Yet gas failed to break the stalemate. Meanwhile, in 1915 the Germans used the first flamethrowers.

Both sides tried to destroy the enemy trenches with mines. They dug tunnels under the enemy’s trenches and then detonated mines to obliterate them. However, both sides used listening devices to warn them if the enemy was trying to do that. If they detected sounds of digging they would dig their counter-tunnels into the tunnels the enemy was making. A fight would then take place underground.

Meanwhile, in 1916 the British introduced the tank. They were used in the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. Unfortunately, they were too few and too likely to break down to prove decisive. Tanks were first used in large numbers at Cambrai in November 1917. In 1918 British and French tanks proved decisive in winning the war. Meanwhile, the first submachine guns were developed in 1918.

One new weapon in the First World War was the U-boat. People had experimented with submarines since the early 17th century but it was the invention of the diesel engine that made submarines feasible. The British launched their first submarine in 1901 but during the First and Second World Wars, German U-boats sank hundreds of Allied merchant ships.

During the First World War, the Allies introduced weapons to counter the U-boat menace. Some U-boats were destroyed by mines and from the end of 1915 by depth charges. The Allies also used Q-ships (merchant ships with disguised guns). Furthermore, from April 1917 allied ships traveled in convoys with escorts. By 1918 aircraft technology had improved so many planes could escort convoys. Despite all these measures submarines continued to play an important part in naval warfare.

Meanwhile, in 1915, the Germans began using Zeppelin airships to bomb British cities. However, Zeppelins proved very vulnerable to fire from planes and anti-aircraft guns.

At the beginning of the First World War, aircraft were used to observe the enemy. During the war aircraft technology changed rapidly. However, the war ended before the new aircraft could play a decisive part. During the Second World War, aircraft realized their full potential. Dive bombers were used to support the army while other planes were used to bomb cities and destroy the enemy industries. In July 1918 aircraft took off from HMS Furious and bombed Zeppelin sheds. It was a portent of things to come.

Although aircraft carriers came too late to play a significant part in the First World War they played a decisive part in naval warfare in the Second World War. In 1944 jet engines were introduced and planes became still faster. In 1947 a plane flew faster than sound for the first time.

During the Second World War, tanks continued to play a dominant role despite the development of anti-tank guns. However, during World War II there were two new developments. The Germans began using rockets. On 13 June 1944, they launched the first V-1 flying bomb. More dangerous was the V-2 rocket. It had a range of 200-220 miles. It rose to a height of 50 miles and traveled at over 2,000 mph.

In 1954 the Soviet Union made the first ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The other development was the atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945, one exploded over Hiroshima. On 9 August another exploded over Nagasaki. Each killed tens of thousands of people. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949.

In 1952 American scientists invented the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. The USSR exploded a hydrogen bomb in 1954. The first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus was launched in 1955. During the Vietnam War, the Americans experimented with laser-guided missiles. However, they were not used on a large scale until the Gulf War of 1991.

Last revised 2024