From Longbows to Drones

Weapons that Changed the Shape of War

Written by Peter Bowen

To Each His Drone

With its dizzying array of micro aerial vehicles, Reaper drones and Hellfire missiles, Gavin Hood’s EYE IN THE SKY captures with nail-biting suspense the chilling reality of modern warfare. But the story is about much more than military hardware. “It’s a movie about morally complex questions and very real ethical dilemmas set in the world of modern drone warfare,” explains Hood. One issue raised by the film’s vision of drone technology is the idea of a clean war, the dream that more advanced military technology might render military affairs devoid of risk and danger. In Legitimacy and Drones: Investigating the Legality, Morality and Efficacy of UCAVs, Delphine Hayim notes that, “The strongest claim in favor of clean war is definitely the unprecedented level of targeting accuracy of remote piloted systems.” The discourse of “surgical strikes” and “laser precision” around drones promote the idea that military affairs are becoming more like modern medicine. But every historical period has had its own drone-like revolution, a weapon that appeared to transform the very nature of war by distancing one side from the violence of battle. We look at seven such weapons through human history.


A CatapultThe Catapult: The End of Man’s Valor

In ancient Greece, the catapult was among the first weapons that rained down hell on the heads of the enemy. The catapult emerged around 400 BC as military technicians slowly increased the size of a bow until a single man could no longer control it and it became a free-standing weapon all its own. As the size of the arrows launched from the catapult increased, so did its range and impact. Indeed, its Greek name “Katapeltes” roughly translates into shield crusher, and the intent of the weapon was to pierce armor as well as fly arrows over walls and armies. Later rocks, projectiles, and flammable material were added to the arsenal in addition to arrows. The Greek historian Plutarch reported that when the catapult’s long-range power was first demonstrated to Archidamos III, the King of Sparta, he cried out, “By Heracles, this is the end of man's valor.” At the time, battles, fought mostly hand-to-hand with swords, spears and brute force, were a show of strength, not technical ingenuity. And for the most part, the Greeks preferred it that way. However by the time Philip of Macedonia set out to conquer the world, he was strategically employing the more sophisticated cord-powered torsion catapult for his foreign sieges. Historian Serafina Cuomo stresses that the catapult in its time was as much a psychological weapon as a tactical one. “You didn't just have to have catapults to use them,'' Cuomo told the New York Times. ''You needed your potential enemy to know that you had catapults so they would not attack you in the first place.''


“The Battle of Azincourt,” 15th-century miniature, Enguerrand de MonstreletThe Longbow: Death from Above

No weapon so defined a national identity as the longbow did for the English in the Middle Ages. In 1415, the Battle of Agincourt showcased how the longbow turned the tide of war when a British army primarily made up of longbow men defeated a French army more than five times its size. Firing up to 12 arrows a minute, the English showered defeat upon the heavily armored French troops. One observer later described the blood-soaked fields as being covered by snow because of the vast amount of white feathers left behind by the arrows. Various reports marveled at the weapon’s force and accuracy. The longbow allowed an archer to kill from a distance of 200 yards and penetrate armor from 100. Despite its remarkable power, the longbow was cumbersome to deploy, requiring years to develop the skill and muscles to use it effectively. As such, England’s success with the longbow took nearly a century to develop. In the decades before the Battle of Agincourt, master craftsmen developed the size, girth and pliability of wood to make the longbow more effective. At the same time, the government made archery a national priority. In 1363, Edward III enacted the Archery Law, which demanded all capable men to practice their skills on Sundays and holidays. The act even forbade “on pain of death, all sport that took up time better spent on war training, especially archery practise.” Such discipline paid off in the end, with the longbow rightly being credited for the British success during the Hundred Years' War, especially at the decisive Battle of Agincourt.


The Gun: Death from a Distance

Although China created the first firearms in 13th century as a means to weaponize gunpowder, guns didn't emerge as a significant military advancement until the 16th century. In 1503, when the French and Spanish faced off in Southern Italy during the Second Italian War’s Battle of Cerignola, the arquebus, an early version of the rifle, made history. With an army of 6,300, of which 1,000 were arquebusiers, the Spanish handily defeated the 9,000 French. Like the longbow, the arquebus allowed soldiers not only to kill from a distance, but also to penetrate armor. But unlike the longbow, these early guns needed neither the physical prowess, nor skill, that archers required to be effective soldiers. For the first armed soldiers, skill was to a large degree beside the point, since most early rifles lacked the mechanical ability to be shot accurately in the first place. What they provided was a weapon full of sound and fury, signifying terror. Over the next few centuries, advances in metallurgy, chemistry, and mechanical technology refined the accuracy and safety of guns. Finer boring increased precision, and innovations in firing mechanisms made for quicker loading and shooting. By the 19th century revolvers, as well as rifles, had become highly efficient killing machines. In 1872, Colt developed its Single Action Army revolver which housed six bullets that could be shot in rapid succession. The power and ease of the gun prompted Colt to advertise, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” In the American Indian Wars, however, the gun gave a distinct advantage to the US government and settlers. So successful was the revolver that it was later dubbed “the gun that won the west.”


Hiram Maxim and his gunThe Machine Gun: Death in the age of Mechanical Reproduction

In 1862 Dr. Richard J. Gatling realized the dream of a repeating firearm when he invented a hand-cranked rapid-fire weapon that he called the Gatling gun. A lifelong inventor and medical doctor, Gatling originally designed the multi-barreled weapon as a way to help the many soldiers who were dying of disease during the American Civil War. “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 large extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished,” argued Gatling. Despite the good intentions of his twisted logic, the gun saw little action during the war. Union forces, suspicious of Gatling’s North Carolina roots, hesitated to bring it into battle. In 1884, another American inventor, Hiram Maxim, turned Gatling’s invention into an automatic weapon, albeit for much less altruistic reasons. At the 1881 Paris Electrical Exhibition, Maxim was advised, "If you wanted to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility." Taking this advice to heart, he devised a way to use the force of the weapon’s recoil to advance a magazine clip, thus turning his Maxim gun into a fully automatic machine gun. While barely deployed in any European wars, the Maxim gun proved instrumental in a number of colonial skirmishes against rebelling indigenous forces. During the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan on September 2, 1898, the British forces used 40 Maxim guns to decimate the local tribesmen. While only about 48 British forces were lost, 11,000 of the enemy were killed, with additionally 16,000 seriously wounded. “It was not a battle, but an execution,” Lieutenant Ronald Forbes Meiklejohn noted of the battle. “The bodies were not in heaps, bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres.” While the French and Germans also developed machine guns, using them to suppress their own colonial rebellions, the weapon failed to provide a decided advantage when all sides used it during World War I.


The sinking of the LusitaniaThe Submarine: Death from Below

In 1718, the carpenterYefim Nikonov wrote the Russian Tsar Peter the Great that he had designed a “secret battleship to go underwater and to sink enemy vessels.” With the Russian leader’s sponsorship, Nikonov constructed with three years a working prototype of a submersible vessel that couldemerge from the deep, blowing combustible material onto a target ship. When Peter died in 1725, the project was shelved. But the dream of a military submarine continued. In the next century, the French, American, and Chilean government all attempted to create a workable submarine with mixed results. By the late 19th century, two innovations turned this science experiment into a serious weapon. First was the ability to create a mechanized engine to propel the sub, as well as regulate air pressure. Second was the invention of torpedoes in 1866. While the Japanese and Russian armies created submarines for military use, it wasn’t until World War I that the Germans used the submarine as a weapon that would change how wars were fought. The English, who had long sung that Britannia ruled the waves, found their naval superiority rudely challenged by German U-boats as soon as war broke out. Within the first ten weeks of conflict, U-boats sank five British cruise ships. On May 7, 1915, their horrific potential became headline news when U-boats sank the RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 passengers. The event became both a rallying cry and wake-up call about the threat posed by submarines. The Germans announced in newspaper editorials, “With joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our Navy. It will not be the last.” In America, The Nationmagazine labeled the sinking of the Lusitania "a deed for which a Hun would blush, a Turk be ashamed, and a Barbary pirate apologize.” In end, the sinking proved a pyrrhic victory for Germany, as it soon became a political tool needed to persuade America to join the war.


British soldiers in the trenches

Chemical Weapons: Death in the Air

Although chemicals have been turned into weapons since the ancient Greeks poisoned the wells of Sparta, it wasn’t till World War I that chemical warfare became a coordinate military strategy. In fact, one man, the German scientist Fritz Haber, was the guiding force behind his country’s development and use of chlorine and mustard gas as weapons. Haber, an accomplished scientist who would be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for “for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements," a process that helped manufacturers create nitrogen-based fertilizers for farming, was also an ardent patriot. In 1914, Haber turned over the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry to the development of chemical weapons. "During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during wartime he belongs to his country," Haber argued to his colleagues, including his friend, the young German scientist, Albert Einstein. Although the German military was less than enthusiastic, Haber pushed on, directing in person the use of chlorine gas in 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. After setting off hundreds of gas canisters, the results were immediate and nightmarish. A Canadian soldier remembers seeing “a queer greenish-yellow fog that seemed strangely out of place in the bright atmosphere of that clear April day.” Within moments, confusion erupted in the trenches. The French troops “fought with the terror, running blindly in the gas-cloud, and dropping with breasts heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces,” recounts war correspondent Captain Hugh Pollard. “Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with tearing nausea at short intervals.” Although thousands died, the psychological effects were even more devastating. Stories of the deadly green cloud spread through the trenches and the cities. Haber returned to Berlin a national hero. But his success was short lived. His wife, who viewed her husband’s promotion of chemical weapons as “barbaric,” committed suicide. After the war, Haber, despite winning the Nobel Prize, was ostracized by the scientific community. When Hitler came to power, Haber, a converted Jew, was under attack in his own country to such a degree that he had to leave Germany. Dying in Switzerland in 1934, Haber never witnessed perhaps the cruelest irony of his career. Zyklon B, the poison gas his laboratory helped developed, undoubtedly was used on many of his Jewish relatives condemned to concentration camps by the Nazis in the next decade. While chemical weapons have rarely been used in major military conflicts since World War I, their horrific potential lingers on. They were used by the Nazis in concentration camps during the Holocaust. In the 80s, Suddam Hussein used mustard gas against Iranian forces and Kurdish rebels. In the current Syrian Civil War, Bashar Assad's forces––and more recently ISIS––have used chemical weapons against civilian populations. Chemical weapons have even become a tool of terrorism. In the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks, a radical group released sarin gas during rush hour, causing a citywide panic and the death of 12 people.


The Rocket: Death at the Speed of Sound

The first modern rockers took flight in the 1920s when Robert Goddard experimenting in Massachusetts created a series of liquid-fueled missiles. Twenty years later the Germans would transform that technology into a new military threat. Inspired by Goddard’s initially research, the brilliant young scientist Wernher von Braun spent over a decade developing the technology that would produce the V-2 rocket, the first long-range guided missile. In 1944, Hitler, looking for a miracle weapon to win the war, pushed forward to produce V-2s in massive numbers. By September 1944, V-2 missiles were in flight, and within a span of months over 3,000 rockets were launched at allied cites, most notably Antwerp and London. While the V-2 rockets never produced the damages, or casualties, the Nazis hoped for, they proved remarkably successful in creating widespread psychological terror. Unlike earlier rockets, whose buzzing sound warned populations of their approach, the V-2 announced itself only it had exploded. People had no idea when or where they would be hit. For Germany, a weapon that never put a crew or pilot in danger was a powerful incentive. After the World War II, the US forgave––or overlooked––much of von Braun’s Nazi past in order to harness his genius for its emerging rocket program. “We got to the Moon using V-2 technology but this was technology that was developed with massive resources, including some particularly grim ones,” suggest space historian Doug Millard. The V-2 technology also became the basis for the thousands of ICBMs (Intercontinental ballistic missiles) that both the US and USSR rushed to create and store during the Cold War.


discover more in the bleecker street blog

bleecker blog