12 Weapons that Changed Everything
As the battle over gun rights in America reaches more and more baroque levels it’s easy to lose track of how we got here.
Weaponry and war has been a concern for humanity from its very earliest days. Empires from Greece, Rome and Persia to Napoleonic France and Colonial England have all been built on a backbone of superior firepower. From Roman’s peasants fearing Hannibal’s elephants to Irish farmers dreading the sight of Viking warships on the horizon, from Paul Revere’s “The British are coming!” to the 1950’s “Duck and Cover” drills, weaponry has haunted our nightmares for as long as it’s fueled the dreams of boys and conquerors.
The right of protection against tyranny was so important to our founding fathers that they included it as the Second Amendment to the Constitution. This debate still rages, as we weigh the costs of our gun culture against this principle. Technology, as always, drives innovation. And that is just as true with weapons as it is with the Internet.
Just as there is a through line that stretches from the Sears catalog to Amazon.com, there is an equally clear line from the sword to the predator drone.
History is shaped by these technological innovations. It is impossible to imagine a Roman empire without its Legionary sword, or a British one without muskets. The German blitzkrieg required fast engines and lots of gasoline. The Atomic bomb, which has shaped every political action since its first use at Hiroshima, required nuclear physics (and, obviously, flight).
With those historical realities in mind, take a look back at the technology that changed weapons and the weapons that changed everything.
Ok, so we don’t know exactly when and where this went down, but we all know it happened. Two cavemen had a dispute that led to violence…and in this melee, one caveman wrapped his brand new shiny opposable thumbs around a bone, stick or sharp rock and discovered that the damage he could inflict on his fellow man increased exponentially.
No longer would combat be restricted to teeth, claws, fists and feet. The age of weapons had begun.
The individual soldiers were armed with the “Sarissa,” a long heavy spear, and a shield, but a phalanx is most notable for being greater than the sum of its parts. The Greek soldiers would stand in rigid formation, their shields interlocked to protect not just themselves, but perhaps most importantly the man to their left. The phalanx conquered the Mediterranean by moving as a single unstoppable armored unit.
It was in many ways, the tank of its day, and the fact that we still use the word in modern speech is a testament to its effectiveness.
Roman Legionary’s Sword – If the Greeks mastered uniformity of movement, the Romans mastered standardization of equipment. The short bladed Gladius made up part of the arsenal of every Legionary, along with a shield short throwing spear and dagger.
By ensuring that every soldier had well-made equipment, usable in a variety of situations, the Romans created an empire that, at its peak, stretched from England to North Africa, from the tip of the Iberian peninsula to the Middle East.
Though records of the longbow are found as early as the 7th century, its status as a game-changer is primarily based on its usage in several battles during the 100 Years War, most famously (as immortalized by Shakespeare) at the battle of Agincourt. Like a giant battlefield-wide version of the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the British simply stood to the side and said “Instead charging over there and fighting…why don’t we just shoot them?” Ranged weaponry may have long predated the longbow, but the bows size gave it the power to punch through armor. Slowly but surely, the age of hand-to-hand combat was drawing to a close.
Prior to the invention of Gunpowder, warfare was almost entirely about upper body strength. Whether this was swinging a sword, thrusting a spear, or drawing a bow, victory was usually decided by who was stronger. David and Goliath is a famous story simply because Goliaths typically won.
But Gunpowder democratized warfare, making mechanical skill more important than physical strength.
The invention of gunpowder ushered in the age of the cannon.
The Chinese might have invented gunpowder, and the British might have built an empire on the musket, but it was the invention of the riffled barrel and the “Minie ball” style bullet that made gunfights truly deadly. A pre-rifling musket was a highly inaccurate weapon, where the odds of hitting your target had about as much to do with luck as skill. By rifling the barrel and using bullets fitted to this barrel, gun manufactures were able to produce a product that was deadly accurate. The American Civil War was the proving ground for this invention, and the high body count of such battles as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg proved its “success”
Rolling out with the advertising slogan, “God made all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal,” the Colt revolver has since go on to be one of the primary symbols of the settlement of the American West. With its revolutionary revolving chamber, it was able to fire six shots without reloading (hence “six-shooter”) where most infantry rifles required reloading after each shot. Additionally its relatively small size made it usable by women, children and really anyone who could lift it. For better or worse, the days of high capacity, rapid fire, hand-held weapons were upon us.
Though Richard Gatling’s ‘Gatling Gun’ is probably the early machine gun that most think of, it wasn’t until WWI that the full tactical and psychological impact of the machine gun was felt. In the brutal trench warfare that covered the European continent, weapons such as the British Vickers, German MG 08, and French Saint-Etienne put the power of an entire firing squad into one man’s trigger finger. Entire squadrons could be wiped out with one squeeze. It was the longbow revolution for the industrial age, and the end of soldiers marching to battle in formation. You only need to look at any modernist poetry at all, to realize the psychological impact this technology had on an entire generation.
If the machine gun was the longbow, the tank was its knight in armor. A big metal box on treads, the tank could go anywhere and shrug off gunfire like an annoying mosquito. Constructed on an assembly line and driven by gasoline, it was warfare via the industrial revolution.
The German Panzer rose to infamy as its ability to move fast and strike hard fueled the blitzkrieg, while the durable M4 Sherman enabled the Allied forces to march to victory across North Africa and eventually into the European theater.
Mao Zedong famously said, “Change must come through the barrel of a gun.” Without question, the gun that symbolized change for the 20th century was the AK-47. Technically called the “Automat Kalashnikova – 47,” the AK was everything its American counterpart the M-16 was not — cheap, easy to manufacture, reliable and accurate, and it didn’t hurt that it just looked cooler. The AK became the standard weapon of USSR, China, and all of the Warsaw Pact nations. The ease with which it could be manufactured and its reliability in multiple weather types also made it a gun of choice for the various cold war revolutions. Hollywood also did their part, preferring its curved clip and natural wood stock to the more boxy and matte black M-16.
Upon seeing the successful test for the A-bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key minds behind the development of the Atomic bomb, recalled , the line from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And so he had.
Though easily the least used weapon on this list, it was without a doubt the weapon that shaped all of post WWII politics in the 20th century.
Even before the bomb,
WWII had made it clear that war was no longer something that happened to soldiers on a battlefield…it was something that happened to everyone.
And that was never clearer than when two Japanese cities were nearly totally destroyed, simply by dropping a hunk of metal from the sky.
The Romans introduced manufacturing to warfare. The longbow brought distance and gunpowder brought power.
The machine gun removed effort from the equation, but drones take the final step in the dehumanization of warfare.
You don’t even have to be there.
And it probably takes less engagement than a spirited round of Call of Duty…