Weapons: these ever-changing martial tools have been used to forge nations, to create empires and to topple regimes. They have shaped society, signified ranks and, of course, been brutal implements of death. They’ve brought slaughter and destruction to millions of people, but they have also liberated those under the yoke of tyranny, defended the innocent and protected the vulnerable.
Every historian, military expert or armchair general will have their own opinion on which weapons have had the greatest influence through history and which should be discarded from this roll call of ten. Indeed, the number of significant weapons is considerable, and thus a truly definitive list could include 50 or even 100 entries. The weapons featured here have been chosen because of their technologically advanced capabilities or unique designs, which have echoed through subsequent weapons manufacture and the military tactics of the day, flying in the face of political change or the threat of annihilation.
In this article we will concentrate on hand-held weaponry for a degree of uniformity and ease of comparison. Perhaps a later article can accommodate the cannon, the tank, the Nimitz class aircraft carrier, the atomic bomb and the inter-continental ballistic missile. Which would make your top ten?
10) The M1 Garand
When Canadian engineer John Cantius Garand was hired by Springfield Armory in 1919 to develop a semi-automatic rifle, he fashioned what has become for Americans an iconic weapon. After many years perfecting his creation, Garand produced a firearm that would serve US forces well throughout the Second World War, Korea and even into Vietnam. Indeed, the Garand has had such an influence upon the American psyche that it is still used to this day by drill teams and honor guards.
The M1 Garand earned its much-loved status in the heat of battle. Its semi-automatic firing mechanism not only gave the US soldier the ability to attain a much higher volume of fire compared to the single shot bolt-action small arms of the rest of WWII’s combatants but also delivered excellent accuracy. The epitome of excellent design, coupled with the power of industrial might, it became the standard for many other gas-operated, automatically loading rifles including both the famous M16 and the iconic AK-47.
General George S. Patton is often quoted as describing the weapon as: “The greatest battle implement ever devised.” As of March 15, 2010, 182 M1 Garand Rifles are still actively in use by US Army units, with another 115 serviceable rifles held for possible future issue.
9) The Bayonet
In essence, the bayonet is simply a knife attached to the end of a rifle’s barrel for use in hand-to-hand combat. It is a throwback to the medieval warfare of centuries past, and yet today it remains an invaluable part of the modern soldier’s kit and is still carried into battle by almost every infantryman in the armies of today.
While the exact origins of the bayonet are unclear, the first references to its existence came in the 1640s and pointed – aptly – to the south-western French city of Bayonne. The earliest form it took was as a blade with a plug-shaped pommel for inserting it into the firearm’s muzzle, but this form was not ideal. Once plugged in it blocked the barrel completely and prevented any shots from being fired. It could also be difficult to remove if it was wedged in too firmly and if loose it would fall out or could become lodged inside an enemy, diminishing the wielder’s martial capacity.
The socket bayonet appeared in the latter half of the 17th century and was quickly adopted by many European armies. This important improvement moved the blade out of the way of the barrel and allowed the firearm to be discharged and reloaded while having the bayonet fixed. Its inception ensured that while single-shot muskets and rifles remained prevalent, so did the bayonet. Despite the bayonet’s status as a secondary or last ditch weapon, it would help to change the outcome of many battles and skirmishes, from the Crimean War though to modern day conflicts.
While the bayonet was sometimes vital (such as in its role in the infantry square of Napoleonic-era combat) it often saw more action as a tool for cooking, clearing flora or digging holes. It is perhaps the undeniably significant psychological value of having that reliable, cold steel as a companion that is perhaps its greatest historical role. The cry of “Fix bayonets!” will ever be associated with girding oneself for grim tasks ahead.
8) The MG42
With a record of resilience, reliability and ease of operation that has been proven in the heat of battle, and the capacity to produce a devastating volume of fire, the Maschinengewehr 42 was a terrifying beast. Its fast-firing action and distinctive muzzle report gave the weapon a fearsome reputation, so much so that the US Army employed a training film specifically to help combat its psychological effect on Allied troops. One soldier remarked: “I remember my first reaction was one of amazement at the crushing fire power of those guns. It seemed to me that the German soldier seldom used his rifle. He was a carrier of boxes of light machine-gun ammunition of which they seemed to have an endless supply!” Indeed, the German Army thought their machine guns critical to their structure and strategy and centered their infantry tactics upon the MG42 (in contrast to the Allies).
Building upon the varied successes and failures of the earlier MG34, the 42’s new design was not just a significant improvement but also meant the weapon required considerably less manufacturing time and materials. It was also designed with varying climate conditions in mind, from the icy conditions on the Eastern Front to the dust and dirt of the North African and Italian campaigns. Not only was the MG42’s firing rate swift (1,500 rounds per minute as noted by the German training manuals), but its quick-change barrel system allowed crews to swap in a new cool barrel in just a handful of seconds. This meant that it was possible for the user to lay down a withering amount of fire and suppress or eliminate a large number of enemy troops for as long as they had enough ammunition.
The weapon was undoubtedly successful; it fulfilled many roles throughout WWII and even now the MG42’s legacy lives on, forming the basis for a whole host of other machineguns. Some 400,000 were manufactured by Germany during the war, and the design would outlive the Nazis considerably and influence weapons development and infantry tactics around the world.
7) The Hoplon
This large, round and deeply dished shield was used to great effect by the ancient Greeks. It was both a superb defense – able to stop most weapons of the time – and its weight and thin, bronze-plated rim meant it could also be utilized as a bludgeoning weapon.
Called the aspis by the Greeks themselves, the shield’s handles were unlike any other of its time. There was a band for the left arm to slip through at the center, and a loop or rope for the hand to grasp near the edge. The unusual arrangement of these handles helps to illustrate how important the hoplon was to that great Hellenic combat formation: the phalanx.
This was a time when the armies of Greek city states comprised of citizens rather than professional soldiers, and thus a formation that would give the baker and the merchant strength in battle was paramount. At this the phalanx – and the hoplon – excelled. With the bearer’s elbow being at the shield’s center, half of the shield stuck out to the left, protecting his neighbor, and so each man became part of a greater force, interlocked and steadied.
Indeed, the handles of the shield made it so ill-balanced for single combat that no hoplite would want to break ranks and expose himself. The hoplon was everything to the hoplite: it gave him his name and it kept him and his neighbor alive. Indeed, to come home from battle minus your shield was a clear sign that you were a coward. As Plutarch’s Moralia pointed out, the Spartan mother girded her son for battle with the line: “Son, either with this or on this,” meaning; return with this hoplon alive and victorious or die bravely and be carried home upon it.
The phalanx was vital to the Greeks’ martial expulsion of the Persian Empire’s invading forces during the Greco-Persian Wars. It was used against them to great effect at Thermopylae, Plataea and Marathon and ensured that the ancient Greek culture has enjoyed a huge influence upon civilizations since then.
6) The Flintlock
The flintlock was relatively inexpensive and far more reliable than previous methods of propellant ignition such as the matchlock and wheel-lock. It was also easy to operate. Gunpowder was poured into the flash pan and the frizzen closed over it to keep the powder in. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer is released and the shard of flint it grips strikes the rough surface of the frizzen, creating a small shower of sparks. These sparks ignite the pan’s powder, firing the ball. So effective was the design that it remained unchanged for two centuries. It would see action all around the world and play a major part in some of the most decisive battles, campaigns and wars of European history.
The flintlock ‘period’ also saw the innovation of barrel rifling. The spiraling grooves caused the projectile to spin in flight, making it more accurate at longer distances. The French King Louis XIII was thought to have been the first recipient of a Marin le Bourgeoys made flintlock in 1610. After that, the new mechanism quickly became popular, and soon it became the mainstay of Europe’s armies, replaced only in the mid-nineteenth century by Reverend Alexander John Forsyth’s percussion cap. Even then, the transition to the much better percussion cap was slow.
The flintlock has also greatly influenced the military drills still in use today, as the weapon positions and drill commands were originally created to standardize the carrying, loading and firing of an infantryman’s flintlock weapon while in ranks. Even everyday speech is littered with references to the venerable flintlock: ‘flash in the pan’, ‘lock, stock and barrel’ and ‘to go off half-cocked’ to name but three familiar expressions.
5) The Gatling Gun
Doctor Richard Jordan Gatling was a prolific inventor who created an eclectic range of products, from rice-sowing machines to improved toilets and bicycles, but it was the innovation of his famous (or infamous) Gatling gun that ensures his place in this list. It has been called “the gun that changed everything” and represented a significant step forward in firearms technology.
Its six barrels, each firing a single shot, were rotated by means of a hand crank and could reach a firing rate of 200 rounds every minute – an astonishing and unparalleled amount for that time. Overheating a barrel through extended use is a problem that still affects today’s machine guns, but Gatling’s configuration of six meant they each had time to cool before firing the next bullet and restarting the cycle.
The Gatling harnessed the power of gravity to load its bullets via hopper or stick magazines which slotted on top of the gun. It was a simple but brutally effective weapon that allowed unskilled operators to use it to full effect. First used in anger during the American Civil War, it was later purchased by police departments, militias and even varied business owners. It achieved a lasting fame and even traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and became a tool of “domination and intimidation” to help expand European colonial empires – much like the Maxim gun would in later years.
Gatling himself insisted that his intentions in creating the gun were in fact peaceable. He said: “It occurred to me if I could invent a machine, a gun, which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.” Gatling’s multi-barreled design has echoed through the decades, and even today much-modernized versions of his 1862 patent are used by the armed forces. Some of these rapid-firing machines are capable of staggering firing rates of 10,000 shots per minute (or 166 shots per second).
4) The Longbow
Bows have been around in one form or another for thousands of years, but one particular type stands out from the rest: the longbow. It has been called the machine gun of the Middle Ages: powerfully accurate, with considerable range and blessed with a brisk rate of fire. A skilled military bowman could loose up to 12 to 15 aimed arrows each minute and still hit a man-sized target 200 yards away – as the French found out to their cost during the Hundred Years War. At the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt outnumbered English armies routed well-armored French opponents, inflicting many thousands of casualties while sustaining only a small fraction in return. Indeed, the longbow's intelligent implementation made England ‘the foremost power in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. England's armies became the most feared units in Europe.’
It is thought that the longbow originated in Wales, spreading to England during the 12th century and evolving by the 13th century to become ‘the most effective individual missile weapon system of Western Europe until well into the gunpowder age.’ Even firearms couldn’t beat it for both range and rate of fire until the mid-19th century.
However, even the heaviest of longbows had difficulty penetrating the steel plate armor (especially at range) which gained popularity after 1350, and eventually by 1595 the bow was dropped from military service, supplanted by guns. England’s rulers encouraged training in the use of the longbow throughout the centuries, which typically began at the age of seven. At one time all sports were outlawed on a Sunday except for archery, while crossbows were banned outright.
3) The Roman Gladius
The Roman Empire was one of the most influential cultures in the history of civilization; so influential, in fact, that the legacy of the Roman culture is still evident around us in architecture, language and literature. Helping to propagate Rome’s culture was the success of its armies, and what aided their campaigns was the sword grasped in the legionaries’ hands.
During the Punic wars the Romans encountered a weapon that they would come to adopt as the Gladius Hispaniensis. This short, stabbing sword proved to be the perfect addition to Roman battlefield tactics and would become a contributing factor to Rome’s martial prowess. The Empire’s military doctrine was one of cohesion and unity. Whereas other nations at the time fought as a collection of individual fighters, the Roman cohort was drilled to get up close with the enemy and engage them in close quarters where the wielding of larger weapons made for rank-breaking and clumsy fare. In these tight quarters the gladius excelled, thrust as it was around or between the Roman scutum (shield).
The gladius was in no way significantly superior to other hand weapons of the time, but its role as the literal cutting edge of Rome’s conquering armies ensures its importance among weapons.
2) The Maxim Gun
Sir Hiram Maxim’s 1884 recoil-operated invention would change the face of the battlefield and alter world history forever. Operated by a four to six man crew, the Maxim was a water-cooled and belt-fed heavyweight. Although the poor reliability record of the crank-operated machine guns that came before Maxim’s weapon stopped it from being snapped up immediately, his flamboyant sales techniques, successful trials and the gun’s ability to fire continuously for hours on end (and even its much-recounted aptitude at felling trees) soon convinced the Western world of its awesome capabilities.
There are numerous accounts of the Maxim being employed against armies without similar technology, where it inflicted thousands of deaths upon the enemy, while the defending force triumphed with very few casualties. During the 1893 Matabele Wars, 50 British soldiers were able to overcome some 5,000 Ndebele warriors with their Maxim guns.
As writer and historian Hillaire Belloc wrote: “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.” During the First World War each of the major combatant nations used their own versions of the Maxim. The firepower was so great that each side was forced into entrenchment and years of muddy and miserable stalemate that was punctuated by huge loss of life and the deafening boom of artillery bombardments.
Ultimately, the Maxim and its successors would lead to the development of a countermeasure that would become a ubiquitous part to the world’s armies: the tank.
1) The AK-47
The AK-47 is a legendary firearm. It is the most widely-manufactured single weapon in modern history. With a form that has become iconic, it is synonymous with revolution, civil war and communism. Its image adorns t-shirts, posters and even a national flag. Even someone with little knowledge of firearms would probably be able to identify the venerable AK-47.
Designed in the late 1940s by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov for the Soviet Army, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 that bears his name was not just easy to fabricate but also quickly earned a reputation for being straightforward to use and undemanding to maintain – not to mention cheap. While by some margin not the most accurate rifle in the world, the large gaps between its moving parts meant that the rifle was a rugged battlefield tool which could tolerate operating conditions that would jam a lesser weapon.
It is estimated that some 100 million members of the Kalashnikov family of firearms are currently in existence (most of them are likely to be AKMs, a ‘modernized’ version of the AK-47 with a stamped receiver, produced since 1959). They are used by the armed forces of at least 82 countries and are manufactured by at least 14 other nations.
The rifle and its later variants have been produced in such huge numbers that even armed forces which are not issued with the AK as standard are still instructed in its use. With so many units worldwide, ‘the world’s favorite weapon’ might still make more history.
In spite of the gun's popularity and success, Kalashnikov himself received no financial benefits other than his state pension. He would even go on to outline his regret that the weapon has not been regulated effectively and ended up in unscrupulous hands, remarking that he wished he had invented the lawnmower instead.