10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield

Peter Baxter - April 8, 2018

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
A reenacted ‘Warwolf’ variation of a Trebuchet, using a human powered treadmill system to draw back the firing arm. This one is hurling a flaming projectile. Bellum Historiae

Trebuchet, Early Siege Artillery

Here we have the opening act in the development of early artillery. A trebuchet was in essence a siege device, and it was an advance on the simple design of a catapult, within which classification the Ballista is included. It preceded cannon as the preferred means of launching a heavy projectile, typically against the walls of a castle or fortification. The word derives from the French trébuchet or ‘trap’, but the origins of the device are Chinese.

Early Chinese examples, which first appear in the historical record during the fourth century BCE, tended to use manpower to deploy the arm, as did later examples adopted by the Byzantines in the mid-sixth century CE. The more complex, and effective use of a counter-weight to swing the arm tend to appear once the system had been adopted by Christian and Muslim armies in the twelfth century CE. This began the evolution of highly complex versions that were capable of hurling a heavy projectile considerable distances.

The French, of course, adopted it during the early Middle Ages, giving it its universal name, but when it reached England, it was referred to as the ‘Trebucket’, or more formally, the Ingenium, or ingenious device in the Latin. It was in fact introduced to England in 1216, when Louis, Dauphin of France, crossed the English channel and laid siege to English port town of Dover. The trebuchet was used against the walls of Dover castle, and while it failed to breach the wall, English engineers observing from the turrets were extremely impressed. Once the French had given up and gone home, the English set about building an even more massive version, called ‘Warwolf’, which used a system of human-powered treadmills to winch the arm into position.

The physics of a trebuchet are relatively simple, and once fine-tuned, could be extremely effective. It consisted of a lever and a sling, with the lever pivoted at a point about a sixth of its length. A heavy weight was positioned at the short end, and when fired, the choreographed release of the throwing arm, in combination with the ‘whip’ of the sling, produced an elegant ‘hurl’ that sent whatever had been placed in the sling in the direction of the enemy.

The object thrown, of course, was usually a heavy stone, but casks of burning tar were also very effective when tossed over the walls and into the city beyond, and superheated gravel or sand was another popular version, which, when sprayed on the enemy, would get under armor and cause great distress. Another common trick was to load up the sling with rotting corpses and other contaminated detritus to spread disease within the besieged city.

The Trebuchet was certainly a fearsome and effective weapon, which passed out of common in war with the arrival gunpowder and ballistics, but its fascinates students of warfare, and the evolution of trebuchet design continues to this day.

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
A 16th century Italian hand cannon, a short-range weapon with minimal accuracy, and probably as dangerous to the shooter as the target. Sales Room

Gunpowder, and the Range of Ballistic Possibilities Thereof

It can be said with reasonable certainty that modern, industrial warfare began with the introduction of gunpowder. The simple chemical combination of powdered charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate, achieved at the hands of an anonymous Chinese alchemist in the ninth century, set the world on a course of destruction and bloodletting unprecedented in history.

The discovery of gunpowder, according to accepted history, was achieved in a quest for the Elixir of Life, and it came to be known as the ‘Fire Potion’, and while life was not extended by its ingestion, it was soon discovered that life could easily be extinguished by its use in ballistics.

This discovery followed on from the more benign use of gunpowder in fireworks, which was also a signature Chinese contribution to the world, but such is the fiendish nature of human intelligence that before long rockets and fire arrows began to appear on the battlefield.

By the Middle Ages, gunpowder manufacture had spread to the Muslim world, and then to Europe, with textual evidence of gunpowder manufacture in England appearing for the first time in the mid-fourteenth century. Rudimentary cannon appeared in the ranks of English and French armies at about the same time, and in Ottoman armies soon afterwards, or perhaps even before. Who precisely put together the deadly combination of explosive and projectile to produce the first mortar type cannon is now lost in history, but it certainly changed the game radically.

The first noticeable effect of gunpowder ballistics on the battlefield was the almost immediate redundancy of the traditional walled fortress, which could now be reduced to rubble in a matter of days. The next major advance came in scaling the technology down, and producing hand-held cannon, which appeared for the first time in the mid-fifteenth century. This put firearms into the hands of the individual soldier, producing modern infantry.

From then to the arming of a modern soldier with rifles and machine guns became simply a matter of chronology. The first identifiable firearm in the modern pattern was the Arquebus, which was essentially a miniature cannon with a glowing match firing system and a crude wooden stock. The limitations of this system this are obvious, and the evolution of ignition devices progressed from matchlocks to wheel locks, and then flintlocks and percussion caps. These, however, were all muzzleloaders, and with the development of the paper cartridge, modern ammunition was born, as was the modern breechloader.

As the hand-held firearm was developing, so too was cannon, and before long, cartridge and canister technology led to shells and breechloading artillery. The heyday of modern artillery, of course, was the attritive warfare in the trenches of Western Europe during WWI.

Certainly that anonymous Chinese alchemist could hardly have imagine the power that unleashed with that quest for the Elixir of Life.

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
Hiram Maxim with his patent self-loading machine gun. The most efficient killing machine on the modern battlefield. Military History Now

The Machine Gun, and the Birth of Industrial Warfare

As with all things technological, developments tend to build upon one another, and a rapid firing gun was nothing new when, in 1884, Hiram Maxim perfected the first practical self-powered machine gun. Prior to this, numerous patents existed for mechanically operated machine guns, the Gatling Gun being probably the most famous. The Maxim Gun, however, the most ubiquitous machine gun on the battlefield for the next fifty years, utilized the unique principle of harnessing the recoil power of the previous bullet to load the next. This allowed for a massive improvement in the rate of fire, and a simple water jacket was employed to reduce the inevitable heating that would result, creating a weapon of war that claim more lives on the battlefield than any other.

The essential design of the Maxim gun was quickly adopted, and it flooded the ranks of early twentieth-century armies, just in time for the outbreak of the first truly global war in history. So much of the carnage of WWI is attributable to the machine gun. It arrived on the battlefield at point when traditionalist military commanders still believed that courage and cold steel was what won battles, and sending waves of troops over the top to be cut down by walls of fire seemed the ultimate test of that theory.

On the more battlefield, machine guns have become ubiquitous. Individual infantry assault weapons all have a fully automatic capability, although in most tactical units a general purpose machine gun is used as infantry support. The most common system today is a gas-powered reload the utilizes pressure from the blast to operate a gas piston, although the modern Gatling Gun, and its variations, use mechanical power to achieve an almost unbelievable rate of fire.

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
A British Mark IV Tank, a beat of a machine that looked better than it functioned, but it blazed the trail for an entirely new concept of warfare. Tank Encyclopedia

Tanks, and the Advent of Armored Warfare

On 15 September 1916, German soldiers in their trenches were astonished to see a large metal canister lumbering towards them, propelled forward on tracks, and blazing away with double machine guns. This was the iconic British Mark I tank, the very first of its kind ever to appear on a battlefield. The Mark I did not advance very far, and it proved to be quite a handful to operate, but it nonetheless marked a quantum shift in the way that war would be fought.

This revolution would be slow to develop, and its impact would only be nominally felt on the battlefields of WWI. It certainly got the Germans thinking, however, and before long the German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen entered production. Then, on 24 April 1918, just under two years after the first appearance of the Mark I, the first tank battle in history was fought at Villers-Bretonneux in France.

This battle also did not amount to much, and within a few months the curtain closed on WWI in Europe, and both sides went back to the drawing board to develop and improve this latest idea in warfare. Hardly an original idea, of course, since armored battle machines had been in existence since the earliest siege engines, but this was certainly something new.

Despite the heavy punitive conditions imposed on Germany in the aftermath of WWI, by the time the first shots of WWII were fired, the Germans were far in the lead in the evolution of tank design and tactics. Almost before the French knew what had hit them, the German Panzer divisions rolled across western Europe almost unopposed.

The British, in a state of shock, went quickly to work, and began producing various marks of tank, none of which ever really came to compare with the German. Tank warfare on a major scale began in North Africa, where desert conditions were entirely conducive to a war of mass maneuver. The imbalance of quality of tanks, however, was only really corrected when the Americans came into the field.

The greatest tank battles, of course, were fought on the Eastern Front, between the massed ranks of cheaply built Russian tanks, and the mighty Panzers, and in this case quantity proved more decisive that quality.

The next major deployment of tanks in battle came in the Arab/Israeli wars, and in the Middle East, tanks are still a decisive factor. The Cold War saw mass tank deployment in Europe, and the refinement of the concept to perhaps its highest degree. It was in the first Gulf War, however, that the tank returned to the desert, and advances in technology proved just how devastating this weapon could still be.

In the modern context, however, with the development of missile technology, tanks are tending to lose their relevance, but from the day that the Mark I entered the battlefield, not much was ever the same again.

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
A German release of chlorine gas on the Western Front. The Conversation

Chemical Warfare, the Second Worst Idea in Modern Warfare

WWI did not only see the first deployment of tanks, but also the first large-scale, industrialized use of chemical agents as a weapon of war. According to most historians, the first use of chemical agents on the battlefield was the use of poisoned arrows by various Greek armies during the Bronze Age. Numerous references have been made throughout history of the regular poisoning or contamination of water sources to frustrate the march of large armies. In small wars around the world, this is still a common tactic. The Chinese were known to deploy arsenical smoke against their enemies, but it was not until the industrial era that things turned really nasty.

During the Crimean War, and in particular during the during the siege of Sevastopol, it was suggested that artillery canisters armed with cacodyl cyanide, a blood agent, might help to move things along. The British, however, the main players in the war, declared this an ungentlemanly way of fighting, as dastardly as poisoning wells, and they would not hear of it. The same basic proposal, this time using chlorine gas, was made during the American Civil War, but for reasons of bureaucratic incompetence no such thing was ever seriously deployed.

It was during WWI that the first real use of chemical weapons on the battlefield began. The Hague Declaration of 1899, and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibited the use of ‘poison or poisoned weapons’ in warfare, but despite this, more than 124,000 tons of gas were produced by the end of World War I. Although by no means alone, the Germans were the main culprits in this regard, initially firing chemical-laced shells at both Allied and Russian positions, and then in 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, hitting French and Canadian troops on a wide front with chlorine gas.

In total, some 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory and vesicant agents were deployed by both sides, including chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. Official statistics put total casualties at about 1.3 million, no small number of whom were civilians.

The Soviet Union made occasional use of gas to suppress internal rebellions, but the next major use of chemical weapons on the battlefield occurred in Ethiopia and Libya in the 1930s as the Italians sought to suppress local resistance to their occupation. This was in clear contravention of international treaty, and remains something of a stain on the military reputation of Italy.

The Germans, of course, killed millions of Jews by the use of poison gas, but it is debatable whether this can be defined as warfare in the conventional sense. In small wars in the post-war period, such as the Rhodesian bush war, limited use of contaminated clothing has been recorded. It was in the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s, however, that chemical weapons reappeared on a large scale, and since then in both Iraq and Syria.

This method of fighting a war has always been discredited, and no major conventional armies would admit to making use of it today, although significant stockpile of chemical weapons still exist in many parts of the world.

10 Weapons Systems That Completely Revolutionized the Battlefield
The Enola Gay, a bad day in human history. Military.com

Nuclear Weapons, Mutually Assured Destruction

On 6 August 1945, when the Enola Gay opened her bomb bay over Hiroshima, the world changed unalterably. The logic of unleashing atomic weapons on the unrepentant Japanese was sound enough – saving countless American lives in a protracted battle for the Japanese mainland – but the moral ramifications have plagued the world ever since. It followed just three weeks after the first successful nuclear test in the desert of New Mexico. Since then, over two thousand nuclear test explosions have taken place in various parts of the world, but no use of the system in war has occurred, and it remains a deterrent rather than a practical weapon.

The history of nuclear weapons is related to two iconic words: ‘Manhattan Project’. The Manhattan Project was a collaboration between British, American and Canadian scientists to develop a nuclear weapon in response to suspected Nazi efforts to do the same. The physics of nuclear reaction probably fall outside of the scope of this article, but once the nature of atoms had come to be understood, the weaponization of the concept was only a matter of time. No sooner had the United States achieved nuclear status than the Soviet Union sought to do the same, and thus began the definitive arms race of human history.

The United States and the Soviet Union remained throughout the life of the latter the major players, each fielding enough nuclear muscle to destroy the world several times over. Now the same essential scenario is posed by an armed and increasing belligerent rivalry between the United States and Russia. However, it is generally accepted that if nuclear war breaks out on planet earth, it will more than likely occur as consequence of a regional struggle between one or more of the minor players.

The greatest current threat of this exists along the India/Pakistan axis, although loud and belligerent threats are frequently heard from North Korea, whose nuclear status is as yet unknown. Another potentially explosive rivalry is that between Israel and Iran. Almost every responsible international forum, along with numerous think tanks intellectual talk shops have issued appeals for the nuclear genie to be crammed back into the bottle, but we all know that will never happen. That simply runs contrary to the belligerent nature of mankind. The irony, of course, is that great power can be both a tool and a weapon, and in responsible hands, the power of nuclear fission holds the key to many of our day to day life problems.

Who among nations hold nuclear power? Aside from the United States and Russia, we have France and the United Kingdom, of course, and the China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Analysts still agree that the greatest threat to mankind remains and irresponsible finger on a nuclear button, and while mutual destruction would be the inevitable result, we await an international leader mad enough not to care.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“War”. Ancient History. Joshua J. Mark, September 2009

“Stone Age Weapons: Arrows & Spears”. Study.com

“Bow and arrow”. Encyclopedia Brittanica. July 2017

“History of the Crossbow: Origins and Evolution.’ Best Crossbow Source

“Trebuchet”. Lords and Ladies

“How Gunpowder Changed the World.” Live Science. Heather Whipps, April 2009

“A Brief History of Nuclear Weapons States.” Asia Society