14 exceptional weapon designs from history that were ahead of their time

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The scope of ‘hi-tech’ designs is not just limited to our modern affairs. As it turns out, history has had its fair share of brilliant (and sometimes bizarre) weapon conceptions that were arguably ‘advanced’ in every sense of the word. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at fourteen such advanced weapon systems from history that were surely far ahead of their time.

*Please note – By ‘designs’ we have also taken into account the conceptual designs that were conceived by military engineers throughout history.

1) Gastraphetes (probably invented in late 5th century BC) –

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Literally translated to “belly-releaser”, the Gastraphetes was an ancient handheld crossbow-like mechanism described and drawn in a detailed manner in Heron of Alexandria’s compiled Belopoeica. In terms of design, this crossbow weapon was cocked in a unique manner by placing one’s belly along a concave groove at the rear end of the stock (hence its name), and then pressing down with his manageable strength. So, in other words, more potential energy was stored as compared to the single arm of the archer when using a hand-bow. This translated to a greater range (which was generally 50 m or over 160 ft more than conventional bows), along with better accuracy since the crossbowman can could take his time to aim.

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As for its historical context, the Gastraphetes was possibly invented between the period of 421 BC to 401 BC, by Zopyros – a Pythagorean engineer from Southern Italy. The weapon was perhaps used in a successful manner during the siege of Motya (a Carthaginian island-fortress) in 397 BC. And the technology was perfected even more by the later decades, with Gastraphetes’ possible usage by Alexander’s army during the Siege of Tyre in 332 BC.

2) Chu-Ko-Nu (probably invented in 4th century BC) –

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While our earlier mentioned Gastraphetes was a precursor design to crossbows, there was another ancient weapon system that went beyond the limitation of crossbows and their cocking times, to account for a semi-automatic mechanism. The end result was the Chu-Ko-Nu (or Zhūgě nǔ in Chinese), a repeating crossbow that could fire up to ten steel-tipped bolts in succession, in just 15 seconds! As one can comprehend from the above image, this semi-automatic weapon was operated by holding the stock in the left hand, and then working the rectangular lever (in a forward and backward manner) with the right hand. So, unlike the regular crossbow which was usually supported by the shoulder, the balance for Chu-Ko-Nu was kept by only using the hands.

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This drawback was more than made up for with the sheer firing rate of the mechanism – that could usually discharge successive arrows within an interval of 2 seconds. This however curtailed its effective range at around 75 yards, given the limited potential energy being produced by the internal mechanism. This had led to the hypothesis that Chu-Ko-Nu was probably used by specialized teams with loose formations (so as to reduce friendly fire) upon massed ranks of enemies – like from the top of a city wall. In that regard, the earliest evidence of the weapon had been found to date from 4th century BC; though its effective design was probably perfected by Zhuge Liang (181–234 AD) during the Three Kingdoms Period in China. There are also literary sources that narrate how just 1,000 Chinese crossbowmen unleashed over 500,000 arrows in a single day at the advancing Hsiung Nu (Hun) cavalry, during a particular encounter in 1st century BC- thus hinting at a similar type of weapon being used.

3) Polybolos (probably invented in 3rd century BC) –

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While we talked about a repeating crossbow in the form of the Chu-Ko-Nu, the Greek-made Polybolos was easily the most complex repeating artillery system of the ancient world. Supposedly invented by Dionysius of Alexandria, a 3rd-century BC Greek engineer who worked at the arsenal of Rhodes, the mechanism was akin to a catapult that could boast of a ‘machine gun’ like setup. To that end, its description as given by Philo of Byzantium in late 3rd century BC, entailed an array of inverted gears that powered its chain-link drive. This advanced installation (which by the way is also the oldest known application of such a mechanism) was used for both the cocking (placement of bolts after bolts into a fixed slot) and their firing sequence.

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This flat-link chain in turn was connected to a windlass that was worked on by the soldier (in both counter-clockwise and clockwise manner) to lock, load and fire in a repeating fashion. To that end, the repetitive ambit itself was achieved with the help of a wooden magazine designed over the ‘mensa’ (the box that houses the bolt before its firing) that could easily store over a dozen bolts. In fact, this very repetitive attribute of the weapon system gave its name Polybolos, which roughly translates to “throwing many missiles”. And if interested, you can also take a gander at other Greek and later Roman artillery pieces that may been inspired by the use of such torsion-based mechanisms.

4) Archimedes’ Death Ray (probably invented in late 3rd century BC) –

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While the name definitely hints at a common Steampunk/science-fiction trope, Archimedes’ Death Ray contraption has been the subject of innumerable historical debates that have either tried to prove or disprove its existence or at least effectiveness. In any case, the use of the so-called Death Ray mechanism was first mentioned by the historian Galens, 350 years after the Roman siege of Archimedes’ home-city of Syracuse (which in took place in 214 BC). Designed by the great Archimedes himself, the weapon setup possibly entailed a series of mirrors that collectively reflected concentrated sunlight onto the Roman ships. As a result, the concentrated form of light affected an increase in temperature, thus ultimately leading to the burning of the ships from afar (take a look at a modern ‘death ray‘ that aptly proves this phenomenon).

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Now when it comes to credibility, Discovery’s Mythbusters already took two digs at the technology, and sort of disproved its potential. On the other hand, MIT conducted their tests in 2005 (by using mirrors in parabolic arrangement and a replica of a Roman ship), and they were actually able to set the ship on fire. However, in their case, the ship was stationery – which would have been impractical in a real-time scenario with the undulating waves and the ongoing naval maneuvering. But even this predicament was solved, when a Greek scientist named Dr. Ioannis Sakkas was actually able to set a moving ship on fire from a distance of 160 feet (49 m). He did it by distributing a total of seventy mirrors (each having 15 sq ft area) among seventy (or sixty) men, and the concentrated beam reflected from these individual pieces was able to set a rowboat aflame, thus possibly lending credence to Archimedes’ Death Ray weapon.

5) Giant Warships (probably engineered by 3rd century BC) –

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According to a description penned by Athenaeus, Ptolemy (Ptolemaios) IV Philopator, who ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 221 to 204 BC, had constructed a state-of-the-art warship (known as Tessarakonteres) that was 130 m (420 ft) long, 18 m (57 ft) wide, and 22 m (72 ft) high, thus accounting for a gargantuan volume of around 52,000 cubic meters. To complement this gigantic size, the warship was supposedly ‘driven’ by a set of four steering-oars that were 14 m (45 ft) long, and accompanied by 40 tiers of oars. These oars were also counter-balanced with lead that made them easier to handle for the oarsmen.

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And since we brought up the crew, this is where the Tessarakonteres really notched it up on the grandeur factor. According to the aforementioned account, the giant Hellenistic warship with its seven rams, was supposedly manned by 400 sailors (for rigging and regulating the sails); 4,000 rowers (for handling the oars); and 2,850 armed marines – thus accounting for a total of 7,250 men, which is more than the crew numbers required aboard the largest existing aircraft carrier in the world! More importantly, this seemingly impracticable ship was built by using massive quantities of timber that were probably imported from Lebanon, as Egypt didn’t have many forests to boast of. And what’s more; there are also other accounts for such imposing crafts from the ancient world, including a special ship that had a huge catapult (designed by Archimedes himself) that could hurl 55 kg (120 lbs) stones over a distance of 180 m (600 feet).

6) The Roman Pilum Spear (probably in usage by 3rd century BC) –

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According to Polybius, every Roman soldier carried two types of pila into the battlefield, with one being ‘thick’ and another being ‘thin’. Archaeological evidences (mainly from site of the Roman siege of Numantia, in Spain) conforms to this assessment. To that end, both types of the pila were made from around 1.4 m (4.6 ft) long wooden shafts, and these shafts in turn were connected to narrow soft-iron shanks through pyramid-shaped points. However, the ‘thin’ variety differed in the sense that it had its shank socketed, while the ‘thicker’ variety had a flat (and wide) iron piece riveted to a fatter section of the wood.

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Anyhow, beyond their shape and thickness, the pilum was engineered as a potent javelin-like throwing weapon that would mostly only favor the Romans. How so? Well, the design in itself was furnished so that it carried most of the weight behind the aforementioned pyramid-point. This endowed the weapon with incredible penetrating power that could go through enemy shields and even injure the shield bearer. And, then came the ingenious part – once the pilum got stuck into the shield, it became very difficult to remove the pointed javelin (mostly due to its varying cross-sectional thickness). This forced the enemy to let go of his shield during the thick of battle. Moreover, the narrow-shanked varieties would twist upon impact, thus making them useless for the enemy – in case they wanted to throw these pila back towards the advancing Roman army.

7) The Corvus (probably in usage by 3rd century BC) –

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During the time-line of the First Punic War fought between Rome and Carthage (264 – 241 BC), the Carthaginians were known for their prowess in the naval field, partly due their maritime experience in trading and overseas colonies that stretched beyond centuries. On the other hand, the Romans were considered as relative newcomers to the Mediterranean sphere of influence. In spite of this, it was the sheer ingenuity of the Roman army engineers that brought victory to the Romans in what might have been the largest naval battle in the history of mankind. We are talking about the Battle of Cape Ecnomus (in 256 BC) – that pitted around 350 Carthaginian ships (with more than 150,000 rowers and marines) against 330 Roman vessels (with around 140,000 rowers and soldiers); all the figures being according to the account of Polybius (in World History).

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In a bid to nullify the enemy’s numerical advantage, the Roman army devised a mechanism known as corvus (meaning “crow” or “raven” in Latin) or harpago. This was a sort of a boarding bridge that could be raised from a 12-ft high sturdy wooden pillar, and then rotated in any required direction. The tip of this bridge had a heavy spike (the ‘corvus‘ itself) that clung on to the deck of the enemy ship, thus locking the two ships together. The Roman soldiers crossed across this makeshift bridge, and directly boarded the enemy ship. This naval tactic gave the Romans the upper-hand, since they were known for their expertise in close-quarter combat, as opposed to the Carthaginians who mainly relied on mercenaries. Unfortunately, the corvus was seemingly abandoned in the post 255 BC era, perhaps because of its destructive effect even on Roman warships.

8) Greek Fire (probably invented in 7th century AD) –

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Designed as an incendiary weapon, the Greek Fire is one of the very few contrivances whose gruesome effectiveness was noted by various then-contemporary sources, both Arabs and Greeks. Said to be originally created by a Syrian Engineer named Callinicus (who was a refugee from Maalbek), the technology was sort of a precursor to napalm, and it entailed vicious ‘liquid fire’ that continued to burn even while floating in water. In fact, some writers have gone on to explain how the viciously efficient Greek Fire could only be mitigated by extinguishing it with sand, strong vinegar or old urine.

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Suffice it to say, the weapon was perfectly tailored to naval warfare; and as such the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) used it in numerous marine-based encounters to secure victories – with notable examples involving the crucial successes achieved against two Arab sieges of Constantinople. However, the procedures of making and (subsequent) deployment of Greek Fire remained a closely guarded military secret – so much so that the original ingredient has actually been lost over time. Still researchers speculate that the composition of the substance might have pertained to chemicals like liquid petroleum, naphtha, pitch (obtained from coal tar), sulfur, resin, quicklime and bitumen – all combined with some kind of a ‘secret’ ingredient.

9) Ulfberht Swords (probably forged in early 9th century AD) –

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One of the most baffling cases of military history, is the evidence of the so-called Ulfberht swords of the Viking elites. Crafted with advanced technology that basically became the standard in 18th century (800 years after the Viking Age), these weapons were made of ‘crucible steel’ with greater carbon content. In fact, the carbon percentages analysed from the swords were found to be whopping three times higher than comparable swords from the epoch (9th century to 11th century AD), which in turn endowed the blades with outstanding strength.

This unique subject matter was made popular by NOVA/National Geographic’s 2012 documentary ‘Secrets of the Viking Sword‘, and according to the film, over 170 such hi-tech Ulfberht swords have been salvaged by archaeologists. Now, from the perspective of medieval sword-making, the very first predicament of the conventional process entailed the removal of impurities (known as slag) from the ore. This was because early-medieval blacksmiths didn’t have the advantage of heating the ore to very high temperatures (of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) that would make the procedure of removal easier – due to the unavailability of the required furnaces. As a result, the expert smiths back then had to pound the hot metal during forging, so as to maintain the high quality of the blades.

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However during latter times after the Industrial Age, craftsmen were able to achieve higher temperatures for impurity removal, and they further improved upon the process by mixing carbon that made the brittle iron stronger. And intriguingly enough, the aforementioned Ulfberht swords from the Viking Age conformed to the metallurgical quality of these later-aged advanced crucible steel weapons – as is evident from greater carbon content and lack of slag in their respective compositions.

10) Land Mine (probably invented in 13th century AD) –

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According to Joseph Needham, in his book Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese forces under the Song Dynasty did use explosive landmines as a defensive strategy against the marauding Mongols. On particular incident during this time pertains to the year 1277 AD when one Lou Qianxia crafted an ‘enormous bomb’ that was successfully detonated when the Mongols were besieging a southern Chinese settlement. The follow-up to such military actions led to the documentation of the said technology in the famed 14th century Chinese manual Huolongjing. The explanation for these landmines mainly related to the use of hollow cast iron balls that were presumably filled with gunpowder.

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Intriguingly enough, the Huolongjing also has a detailed passage that describes the use of tactical landmines that could be set off by enemy movements (thus mirroring our present-day technology). According to the text –

These mines are mostly installed at frontier gates and passes. Pieces of bamboo are sawed into sections nine feet in length, all septa in the bamboo being removed, save only the last; and it is then bandaged round with fresh cow-hide tape. Boiling oil is next poured into (the tube) and left there for some time before being removed. The fuse starts from the bottom (of the tube), and (black powder) is compressed into it to form an explosive mine. The gunpowder fills up eight-tenths of the tube, while lead or iron pellets take up the rest of the space; then the open end is sealed with wax. A trench five feet in depth is dug (for the mines to be concealed). The fuse is connected to a firing device which ignites them when disturbed.

And interestingly, there were instances when the enemy was lured into the ‘trespassing zone’ of mines by placing weapons on the mounds concealing the firing devices (that were usually slow-burning bowls). Fueled by our innate desire to get hold of shiny (and free) objects, the poor soul would trigger the setup by the overturning this bowl, thus leading to the fuses being lit for the imminent detonation.

11) The Muslim Floating Rocket or Torpedo (probably conceptualized in 13th century AD) –

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A Syrian chemist and engineer named Najm Al-Din Hassan Al-Rammah penned a book in the 13th century known as Kitab Al-Furusiyya wa Al-Manasib Al-Harbiyya (Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices). And as can be comprehended from its title, many of the designs in the book pertained to fascinating weapon systems, with one particular illustration showcasing a torpedo-like device that could move on water surface. Shaped like an egg, this weapon contraption was envisioned to be made from two sheet iron pans (connected at their edges), thus resulting in a pear-like structure that would have carried an explosive mixture of naphtha, metal filings and probably saltpeter.

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And the best part is – this shell was envisaged to be propelled by a large rocket system! Furthermore, the self-moving ‘torpedo’ entailed a probable guiding mechanism with a tail-like structure that would have kept the in-motion missile in a straight path. But unfortunately, researchers have not been able to find any source that mentions this floating-rocket’s actual use in any historical military engagement.

12) 33-Barreled Organ (conceptualized in late 15th century) –

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During the late 15th century, canons were mostly of rudimentary make with their antediluvian mechanism allowing for very slow rate of fire. And the great Leonardo da Vinci did observe the tactical predicament, and as a solution contrived the 33-barreled organ. In essence, the multi-barreled weapon system was envisioned to have 33 different small-caliber guns that were to be arranged along 3 rows (with 11 guns each). This so-called ‘organ’ (resembling the pipes of a musical organ) was then to be supported upon a revolving platform that could also be mobile due its wheels on each side.

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It is rather interesting to know that the seemingly similar volley gun was actually in usage in variant forms even before the birth of da Vinci (like the ‘Ribauldequin‘ used during the Hundred Years War). However, da Vinci’s 33-barreled organ was more akin to the 19th century machine gun models – like the Gatling gun that boasted of higher rates of fire without the problem of the barrel getting overheated.

13) Armored Car (conceptualized in late 15th century) –

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Another incredible conception from da Vinci, the Armored Car is surely the forerunner to the contemporary military tanks. Designed as a massive circular platform reinforced with sturdy metallic plates, and driven by wheels – the Armored Car was envisaged to have a crew of 8 members inside the hull. Additionally, the weapon platform would carry an array of light cannons, with the gunner having 360 degrees field-of-view that was to be aided by a sighting turret at the top.

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Suffice it to say, the entire contraption was to be powered by humans – with the men inside working upon the cranks that would make the wheels spin. Leonardo da Vinci even thought of including horses into the cranking scope; but later thought against it due to the uncontrollable nature of animals. But the most baffling part about the Armored Car is the arrangement of the cranking systems that seemingly go in opposite directions – thus ultimately making the vehicle immobile. According to some historians, this may have been an intentional flaw, since the ‘pacifist’ da Vinci didn’t want his war machines to be developed further for actual military actions.

14) Turtle Boats (designed in the late 16th century AD) –

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When the Japanese forces under Emperor Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, they boasted of two significant advantages over their foes – their Portuguese supplied muskets, and their aggressive tactic of boarding enemy ships (supported by cannon fire). However, Korean Admiral Sun-Shin Yi had an answer for these ploys in the form of the newly designed Turtle Boat (Geobukseon in Korean). Constructed with the aid of newly raised private money, this relatively small fleet consisted of around 120 ft long ships (with beams of 30 ft) covered in iron plates. The core frame was made from sturdy red pine or spruce, while the humongous structure itself incorporated a stable U-shaped hull, three armored decks and two massive masts – all ‘fueled’ by a group of over 80 sinewy rowers.

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However, the piece de resistance of the Turtle Boat was its special roof that consisted of an array of metallic spikes (sometimes hidden with straws) that discouraged the Japanese from boarding the ship. This daunting design was bolstered by a system of 5 types of Korean cannons emerging from 23 portholes, that had effective ranges of 300 to 500 m (1000 ft to 1600 ft). And finally, the awe-inspiring craft was made even more intimidating – with a dragon-head on the bow of the vessel that supposedly gave out sulfur smoke to hide the ponderous movement of the boisterous boat.
Part of this article was originally published in our sister site HEXAPOLIS.

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