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What is the most destructive power in history? Is it a rocket torpedo that shoots straight to the surface from a submarine, flies through the air toward an enemy sub, and then dives at its target? Is it the electrically powered machine gun that spews out 110 rounds per second to obliterate its opponent completely? Maybe it’s an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with nuclear warheads, capable of killing hundreds of thousands with a single atomic bomb. Then again, is it the tank with thermal-imaging sight that senses an enemy vehicle’s heat so it can see—and kill—even it total darkness?
Actually, it is none of these. One must go all the way back to the beginning of weapons development, when humans first figured out that certain tools made warfare a lot more effective. A person’s arm, for example, could not throw a stone or stick very far, so people devised slings and sharp tips to let their projectiles travel farther, faster and land harder. Iron-tipped spears, javelins and swords came into existence when humans learned to use and shape metals thousands of years ago. Other early warfare devices included bows and arrows, catapults , and with the domestication of the horse, the horse-driven chariot.
None of these primitive weapons seem to answer the above question, so skip ahead to the transport of gunpowder from China to Europe in the thirteenth century. With the introduction of gunpowder, the armor of the famed “knights in shining armor” gradually became useless against the penetration of ammunition shot from a harquebus, musket, or cannon . By the fourteenth century, most European armies used gunpowder, rockets and other explosives in warfare. Yet the art of war was revolutionized again by the revolver and the automatic firearm in the nineteenth century.
The first major war to use the rapid-fire guns was WWI. New contraptions were needed to protect the soldiers, now huddled in trenches, unable to move, let alone fight. Enter the tank. Infantry could now be on the offensive. Progress in the building of warships led to stronger, more lethal submarines that fired torpedoes from beneath the waves. Torpedo-boat “destroyers” were then created to combat the submarines.
Germany’s defeat in WWI led to its development of ballistic missiles, one of the inventions that reformed warfare again. Advances in automatic weapons and aviation were the latest innovations on the battlefront. However, it was the deadliest weapon ever created- the atomic bomb- that decided and ended the war once and for all.
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Knowing all this, what is the world’s most destructive power? Is it the tank, the machine gun, or the submarine? Or is it a warship, a torpedo, or a swarm of ballistic missiles? It is none of the above. History’s most destructive power is the human capacity to innovate . Variety is the spice of death, for humans have always found ways to kill one another . From the beginning of time until today, people have used their ingenuity to create more effective and powerful tools of war. The most dangerous weapon of all is the human mind.
One great innovator in ancient warfare was Philip II of Macedonia. His infamous son, Alexander the Great, used these tactics later on to conquer most of the known world. Philip’s brilliant new takes on warfare emphasized quality, rather than quantity. Macedonia was a small country, but a year-round standing army, rather than citizens needed to fight in wartime, was quite powerful. In addition, although Philip used many of the same weapons as his adversaries, his army itself was a totally new instrument, arranged into a combined fighting force .
One tactic that Philip improved was the classic Greek phalanx, a close formation of infantry with shields joined together and overlapping spears. (Imagine a human porcupine. That is a phalanx.) Philip doubled the original 6 foot long sarissa-spears the soldiers carried in length to a spear about thirteen feet long.
The phalanx, however, is very vulnerable when the enemy confuses the soldiers inside. Philip foresaw this and placed heavy cavalry troops near the sides of the phalanx to defend it. The shields of the phalanx, on the other hand, together with its wall of spears, made the phalanx both an offensive and defensive area .
Alexander the Great inherited his father’s incredible war machine. Alexander used his father’s system of war, yet had his own ideas as well. His strategies must have been very good; Alexander never lost a single battle! One of Alexander’s methods of war was to “march divided and fight united.” Each part of his army was a piece of one whole. Another tactic of Alexander’s was to pursue and destroy the enemy, not just defeat them. Once he decided to attack, he never abandoned the offensive until the opposition was obliterated completely .
The Romans made fewer changes to the setup of their armies, and many changes concerning the cavalry, artillery and machine fighting. The many-layered phalanx was changed to a three-legion army with five maniples, or divisions, in each legion. The Romans used new weapons: the spear-like javelin; the gladius, a two-foot long double-edged sword; and the catapult. The catapults were used in the siege of cities as well as in active combat .
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Feudalistic form of government was the standard in most of Europe. During these times, the Middle Ages, and the Crusades, “knights in shining armor” were the ideal fighters. Chain mail or suits of armor protected the soldiers the common weapons of the time- simple arrows, swords, and lances. As metal workers designed new suits of armor to protect the knights inside them, armies demanded better weapons to penetrate the armor. By the thirteenth century, English craftsmen had lengthened the average foot-long bow to a “longbow”, which was just that- a long bow. The six-foot long longbows, as well as the newly introduced crossbows, could penetrate armor .
An even more lethal force was introduced when gunpowder came to Europe. With the discovery of gunpowder, we began the technological era of war. As Lecky points out, “Hence onwards it is the great inventions [of man] more so than the great men [themselves] which disturb…society .” Troops no longer had to rely on mechanical devices or their own muscle power to kill, and humans’ destructive ability skyrocketed.
The first gunpowder-operated weapons were essentially cannons. One to three feet long, early cannons were large tubes of brass or iron attached to wooden poles. The gunner grasped the pole with one hand, using the other hand to ignite the gunpowder through a touchhole at the closed end of the barrel (the breech). Once the powder was lit in one end of the barrel-like tube, the blast hurled stones and other projectiles with deadly force .
The first guns, however, were clumsy to load and operate. Until innovators improved the handgun, firearms were not nearly as lethal as the longbow, crossbow or sword. Guns’ performance advanced as handguns evolved. Inventors replaced the wooden poles with wooden handles called stocks, which permitted the gun to be fired from shoulder level like a crossbow. In the early fifteenth century, the matchlock gun appeared. The matchlock was a short lever attached to the breech that held a piece of slow-burning twine. When pushed forward, the lit twine set fire to a bit of gunpowder sprinkled in a small pan next to the touchhole. The explosion of the “priming” powder then traveled through the touchhole to ignite the gun’s main powder charge that was packed within the breech.
Firearms continued to improve as people discovered better ways to light the main charge. In the late 1400’s, the wheellock was introduced. Wheellocks relied on the sparks that were created when a piece of iron pyrite rubbed against a small, rough edged wheel—a device similar to that found in today’s cigarette lighters. The “cock,” a small metal lever that held the piece of pyrite, had to be pulled back by the gunner’s thumb before each shot. Although the wheellock worked, soldiers needed a less fragile and delicate mechanism for the battlefield.
A century later, a more durable device was invented by the Dutch. The flintlock’s cock grasped a tiny piece of flint, a kind of quartz that produces sparks when struck against steel. Pulling the trigger sent the cock (called so because of its “pecking” at the steel like a rooster) snapping forward to strike a steel plate directly above the priming pan. Sparks from this reaction ignited the primer, which in turn lit the main charge. Flintlock weapons were easy to operate yet resilient enough for use on the battlefield, and they became the standard firearm for the next two centuries .
A third artillery system, invented in the early nineteenth century, was the percussion system. This system was based on a metal pillar with a hole through the center. On top of the pillar was the “percussion cap”, a tiny copper top-hat-shaped cap in which there was a bit of explosive powder. Squeezing the trigger of the gun released a spring-loaded hammer that hit the copper cap and sent a flame through the metal pillar to ignite the main charge. Since all this took place within the cartridge inside the gun, moisture would not affect the ignition as is did with previous gun models. When the percussion system was patented in the 1800’s, the way was cleared for others to invent multi-shot revolvers and rapid-fire machine guns .
One of the first new inventions based on the percussion system was the revolver. Most guns at the time were single-shot guns that had to be reloaded after each use. A six-shooter revolver was the solution to the slowness of those guns. A revolving cylinder held the gunpowder and shot and spun at the base of a single barrel. This quick-firing weapon was credited in America with “winning the West.”
The six-bullet revolver was at the time the quickest gun available. That changed with the invention of the first practical machine gun—the infamous Gatling gun. The first Gatling guns in 1876 fired at the rate of 1,000 rounds per minute, but Richard Gatling continued to refine his weapon until it could achieve an astounding rate of 1,200 rounds per minute. That’s twenty bullets being fired every second! Still, the Gatling gun wasn’t capable of continuous firing while the trigger was pulled; the Gatling gun was cranked by hand to operate its firing mechanism. The Gatling gun was also very heavy, and although armies were originally thrilled with the manual machine guns, they eventually demanded lighter, yet more powerful weapons. That powerful weapon was the Maxim automatic machine gun .
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Because of this, all firearms produce a recoil when they are fired. Maxim’s automatic machine gun harnessed this energy to power it automatically through all the stages of firing. A soldier only had to press the trigger on the machine gun to capture the recoil energy and fire ammunition. The Maxim gun was also far lighter than the Gatling gun, and it could be taken apart and put back together easily for cleaning, transport and repairs. At almost no effort by the gunner, the Maxim gun shot out 650 round per minute. In the words of one historian, Maxim’s weapon “swept the world as no other gun has done before or since.”
Its success was helped by Maxim’s tour of Europe, demonstrating the power of his lethal contraption. European officers were amazed that a weapon Maxim carried with just one arm and operated by himself could produce such an impenetrable hail of lead. Maxim asked one army commander in chief whether the gun fired fast enough. “Indeed,” the astounded Austrian officer responded, “Too fast. It is the most dreadful instrument that I have ever seen.”
By 1890, Maxim was supplying guns to most of Europe, and his success led other innovators to create other machine gun designs. Maxim’s recoil-operated system was patented, so other ways to power the automatic machine gun were found. For instance, the Hotchkiss gun was gas-powered, and the Austrian “blowback” guns used the pressure of the escaping bullet. By the beginning of WWI, most of the world’s armies had adopted some form of the automatic machine gun.
Automatic weapons were the weapons of WWI. The mind boggling killing power of machine guns forced soldiers to dig and fight from trenches in order to avoid the “kill zone” above ground level. Something was needed to put the soldiers on the offensive, yet protect them from the bombardment of ammunition. An all-terrain armored vehicle was exactly what British general Ernest Swinton envisioned to get past the German machine guns .
Mounted on “caterpillar” tracks, the vehicles would be able to cross trenches and travel at the same speed as their supporting foot soldiers. The vehicle would also have a revolving turret armed with either two Maxim machine guns or two cannons. This new vehicle, the tank, was first used at the end of WWI, in 1916 .
Another element of WWI that had never been used in war before was the use of chlorine and mustard gas by the Germans in 1915. Why risk the lives of troops if an army could kill thousands of the enemy with a fast-traveling, deadly germ?
Not only did land battle change, but warfare in the air and sea were revolutionized as well during the time period of WWI. Although submarines had existed for years before WWI, U-boats, torpedoes and submarines became increasingly popular. Also, planes and blimp-like zeppelins were used for the very first time in WWI for delivering supplies, dropping shells, and fighting other enemy combat planes in “dogfights” to protect the men on the ground .
After the defeat of Germany in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to have an army of more than 100,000 soldiers, build an air force, or stock artillery with a range beyond 17 miles. However, there was a loophole in the Treaty of Versailles—the science of rocketry was still in its infancy, and ballistic missiles were not prohibited. A decade later, the Germans used this oversight to develop the V-2 ballistic missile.
A ballistic missile is a long-range missile that is guided by preset mechanisms in the first part of its flight, but is a free-falling object as it approaches its target, a lot like a ball thrown into the air that free-falls on its way down. Germany didn’t use the V-2 to its full potential, though, because by 1943 the Allies were fully aware that the ballistic missile program on the German island of Peenmunde was very advanced, and so the Allied Armies sent hundreds of aircraft to destroy it.
The Peenmunde raid set the German missile program back so gravely that they could not use their first V-2 until mid-1944 when they bombed London. Between September of 1944 and March 1945 V-2s killed 2,500 Londoners. Thankfully, although Germany had the ability to develop atomic weapons, Hitler’s enthusiasm and command came far too late.
In the end, it was America’s atomic bomb that ended WWII for good. While the atomic bomb was the deadliest weapon ever used, it also helped end a war that could have caused more bloodshed than the deaths caused by the bomb itself .
It stands to reason that as innovators create more advanced weapons, warfare will become increasingly destructive. Just compare the spear or sword to a machine gun, or a horse-driven chariot to a tank! Yet surprisingly, the opposite seems to be happening. It is the higher technology weapons that cause less death, and the simplest weaponry that catches the world unaware.
Sophisticated technology, such as “smart” bombs and new kinds of missiles, torpedoes depth charges and machine guns can destroy targets with little or no human input. That is not only safer for the army using them, but also those on the receiving end, especially innocent civilians. Unlike bombs from decades past, smart weapons don’t have to destroy whole cities, tens of thousands of civilians, or entire armies to eliminate the opposition’s ability to make war. For example: Got an enemy arms factory between two apartment buildings? A few Tomahawk missiles, shot from a plane, ship or submarine 780 feet away, can level the arms factory in less than an hour and a half—without touching the apartment buildings. Superior laser-guided bombs don’t have to raze entire city blocks to insure the destruction of a single building as in WWII; during the Gulf War in the 1990’s, smart bombs could obliterate a similar building by flying down its chimney! Hundreds of lives on both sides are saved by the high technology of today .
However, there is one “smart” bomb that causes more destruction than any other, and that is the suicide, or homicide bomber. Strapped into layers of explosives, these human weapons know exactly where to go to murder more civilians—pizza shops, discos, supermarkets—places so harmless that any other foe would not dare to attack it. Other infamous suicide/smart bombs were the hijacked civilian planes that shattered the World Trade Centers in New York. For the first time ever, a hijacked plane was not used to hold its passengers hostage, but to kill them together with thousands of innocent people on the ground. Where one could easily identify inventions of war, the use of everyday technology for hostile purposes is a dangerous innovation.
Biological and chemical weapons, though against international law to use, are more toxic and lethal than ever. Enhanced by genetic engineering, inexpensive and easy to produce, biological weapons are becoming more and more dangerous, and there are evil people in the world who would use them. A former U.S. secretary of state may have best expressed this when saying, “At stake in all this is not just the violation of codes of international conduct, but civilization itself… such agents of mass destruction may come to be seen as… just another ‘weapon of choice.’” Humans’ ability to realize the potential of newer weapons is a very scary thing.
As one can see, throughout the ages, weaponry has been improved upon and improved upon, each time yielding the potential to cause more bloodshed—or to end it. Not only are more efficient weapons being invented, but machines to defend against these new weapons. For example, in 1999, simulating an incoming ballistic missile, a U.S. test rocket flying at supersonic speed was obliterated by a 20-foot long High-Altitude Defense Missile. It now appears that ballistic missiles might one day meet the same fate in warfare . One can only hope the humanity’s awesome power to innovate will ultimately lead not just to violence and destruction, but better and better ways to prevent bloodshed.
1 Jason Richie, Weapons: Designing the Tools of War, 7
2 Richie, 8
3 Stephen Bull, An Historical Guide to Arms & Armor, 16
4 Richie, 15
5 Tim Wood, What They Don’t Teach You About History, 40
6 J.F.C. Fuller, Armament & History, 39
7 Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 74
8 Fuller, 43
9 Hansen, 83
10 Richie, 10
11 Fuller, 83
12 Richie, 10
13 Richie, 11
14 Bull, 133
15 Richie, 32
16 Richie, 79-80
17 Richie, 83
18 Richie, 85
19 Richie, 96-97
20 A.J. Field, www.schoolhistory.co.uk
21 Richie, 107
22 John Keegan, The Second World War, 580-584
23 Richie, 123-125
24 Elaine Landau, Chemical and Biological Warfare, 100
25 Richie, 128