10 of History’s most terrifying weapons

Since Ug first picked up a rock and smashed Pug over the head with it and Pug came back with a sharpened rock and put Ug’s eyes out we’ve been involved in one long arms race.

Today our militaries are capable of vaporising entire communities without even leaving their home countries.

The race will never end until, perhaps, we finally invent the ultimate weapon and end up using it.

1 – Greek Fire

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greek fire catapult

Greek fire was the nuclear bomb of its age and probably helped the Byzantine Empire survive far beyond its allotted time. Amazingly, when the Empire fell, the secret was lost forever, and historians still don’t know exactly how this terrifying weapon was made.

It was so important to the Byzantines that they considered it a gift from God and it played a massive role in seeing off two besieging fleets. It was discovered, or invented, some time in the 7th century, just in time to help protect the permanently embattled Empire from expansionist Muslim forces. It has been given the credit for several important naval victories and even the Byzantines subsequent fight back and expansion.

Despite enemies capturing Greek fire-equipped ships, no-one was ever able to work out the recipe. The closest we have come suggests that it used resin from coniferous trees and sulphur – it was an early chemical weapon. Water was no good at putting it out, hence its value in sea battles, but it was also put into grenades and shot into cities.

Part of the power of Greek fire was undoubtedly psychological, an early case of shock and awe, and the Byzantines made the most of this effect by building the flame throwing apparatus into terrifying-looking beasts on their ships.

When Constantinople finally fell to the Turks, the secret of Greek fire as lost forever.

2 – Napalm



Greek fire’s secrets died with the Byzantine Empire, and it took centuries before it had an offspring in the shape of napalm, which was most notorious during the Vietnam War, when the horrific effects of this petrol-based weapon – often on children – were beamed into America’s living rooms.

It was developed in Harvard in 1943, with the horrifying but brilliant idea, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could make burning petrol stick to people’.

It was first used in World War II and has been maiming and killing ever since. It was used in Korea by outnumbered western forces and the French used it in their war in Indochina, as Vietnam was called immediately after the Second World War.

But it was the Vietnam War that made napalm notorious. In 10 years, the US dropped 388,000 tons of napalm on the country.

It burns at a very high temperature, around 1,800 Fahrenheit, for 10 minutes and if it’s stuck to you there’s nothing you can do. Many napalm victims are suffocated as the fire strips the oxygen from the air.

It is now illegal to use napalm against civilians, but the weapon itself is not outlawed.

3 – The Gatling Gun


The precursor of the machine gun was most notoriously used against poorly-armed natives as European colonialists expanded their empires at the barrel of several guns.

We’ve got Richard Gatling to thank for this hand-cranked six-barrelled killing machine. Amazingly, Gatling believed that his invention would help put an end to war – fewer soldiers would be needed in this mechanised world and people would come to see what a terrible waste war was.

It was first fired in anger in the American Civil War, from where it spread to South America. The British dragged them across Africa, pointing them at massed, charging tribesmen to great effect. The Russians also used the Gatling – they bought 400 of them – against the nomads of central Asia.

During the Spanish American War, three guns were recorded to have fired 18,000 rounds in just eight-and-a-half minutes.

By the start of the 20th century, the Gatling gun was at the end of its life. It had been replaced by more efficient automatic guns, but it was the Gatling which opened to the door to the machine gun, described by horrified World War I officers as ‘concentrated essence of infantry’.

4 – The Paris Gun – Big Bertha

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big bertha paris gun

The German army was very keen on technology, and very keen on putting one over on the French. Put them together and you get a supergun designed specifically to take on France’s capital.

The German’s intended it as a psychological attack on Parisians – it wasn’t accurate enough to be a serious artillery threat – but they failed in that aim by succeeding too well. The citizens of Paris thought they were being bombed by a new, silent air craft when shells came raining down. They simply refused to believe that a gun could fire that far.

There is some uncertainty about the exact details of the Paris gun, which the Nazis destroyed before the Allies could get their hands on it. However, its range was an unheard of 81 miles and the shell flew up to 25 miles into the air, the first man-made object to enter the stratosphere. A crew of 80 was needed to operate it and they had to take into account the speed of the Earth’s rotation to aim it.

To call it a failure, doesn’t take into account the death and destruction it did achieve. Had it started firing its shells earlier than 1918, perhaps it could have had an impact on the outcome of the war. At least 320 shells were fired at Paris from behind the distant German lines and they killed 250 people and injured 620. One hit on a church – packed with Good Friday worshippers – killed 88 people.

The gun was destroyed by the Germans as the war was lost and specifically referenced in the Versailles Treaty which ended the war. That may have been one of the reasons the German army became so interested in rocketry as a weapon.

5 – The V2


v2 rocket

Given more peaceful uses, the science perfected by the Nazis at the end of World War II has formed the basis for all of our space travel. As a weapon it terrified the citizens of London who thought that the defeated German Luftwaffe could no longer continue the Blitz which killed so many Londoners.

It has been called a ‘revenge weapon’, because the war was essentially lost by the time it came into action.

The V2 was the first ever ballistic cruise missile and a follow-up to the V1 or ‘buzz bomb’.

Wernher von Braun was the mastermind behind the rocket, and would later go on to play a major role in the American nuclear weapons programme.

The first firing was against Paris in September 1944, and the first victims were in London, where three people, including a three-year-old girl, were killed by these terrifying and unexpected weapons which came so quickly out of the sky.

The British government tried to hush up the attacks for fear that they would spook the populous. With a slave labour force to build them, the Germans hurled thousands of these rockets against France, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Nearly 3,000 Londoners were killed by V2s, with 6,500 injured. The worst hit killed 160 people in a department store.

A very simple trick helped reduce the damage. The British secret service put it around that the rockets were flying over London to land up to 20 miles away. It worked, and the Germans adjusted their aim and they started to drop short.

But that trick was pretty much the only answer to V2s, which travelled at supersonic speeds from the greatest altitude ever reached by a manmade object. They had a primitive computer on board and could be guided by radio.

In all, around 7,000 people were killed by V2s, but many more probably died in the horrific labour camps where they were built.

6 – The AK47

ak47 gold saddam


ak 47 marines


There are better guns than the AK47, but there aren’t any more numerous killers than the gun Colonel Kalashnikov designed. There isn’t an accurate figure for the number of AKs killing people in wars and crime around the world, but it’s probably more than 90 million.

The AK47 was designed for revolutionary uses. It is cheap and easy to make – it’s now produced all around the world – simple to use and repair and can survive pretty much anything.

The Soviets were inspired to produce their own assault rifle after capturing early German examples in 1942.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, then a sergeant, managed to get himself involved in the process because he designed his own guns while on leave – you’ve got to have a hobby I suppose. By 1947, the design had been perfected, cannibalising ideas from all sorts of other weapons, and with modifications the AK has remained in use ever since.

The fact was, that Kalashnikov had designed a weapon that could be made and used almost anywhere. Fired with revolutionary zeal, the Russians exported the process to friendly countries all around the world.

From the gangs of Los Angeles to the child soldiers of central Africa, this terribly simple weapon continues to export death more than 60 years after its invention.

7 – Nimitz-class aircraft carrier


The British invented gunboat diplomacy at the height of the Empire. The Americans have gone one better and if one of these massive, massively powerful and heavily armoured small towns turns up off your coast you’d better start paying attention to US foreign policy aims.

They are 333m long and run on nuclear fuel. With the full complement of crew on board there are more than 5,000 sailors and airmen ready to travel the oceans bringing American power to bear around the world. Each one costs around $4.5 billion to put together.

The 10 Nimitz class ships are covered with 2.5 inches of Kevlar armour and a range of missile defence systems. They can carry a maximum of 130 Hornet aircraft and, although the US Government never comments on the matter, many people believe they carry nuclear weapons too. Because they are relatively light on armaments they always travel with a Strike Group usually consisting of at least six other war ships and a couple of submarines.

They’ve been deployed in every American military mission since 1975 and whenever tensions rise somewhere around the world a Nimitz class deployment is as unmistakable as the rattling of a sabre.

8 – The English or Welsh Longbow

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Weapons these days are generally highly complicated, but simple machines can be just as devastating, as the longbow showed on mediaeval battlefields.

The Normans who invaded Britain were so impressed by the Welsh longbow men who tried to send them packing from Wales that they took it up themselves and signed up Welsh archers in great numbers.

The bows were made from yew wood which was dried for up to two years while it was slowly bent into shape.

What so amazed the Normans was the horrifying range and accuracy of the bows. Arrows could be fired up to around 300 yards. Under 100 yards – at armour clad knights often moving very slowly – they were deadly accurate.

Archers were highly trained, and their bodies are recognisable centuries after they died because of their almost deformed shoulders.

In battle, archers – who were otherwise lightly armed – would stand at the side of an army, often protecting themselves against charging war horses with stakes driven into the ground.

From behind their barriers they could unleash a deadly ‘arrow cloud’ on advancing soldiers. Specialised tips were developed to shoot through armour. With medieval medicine being what it was, injuries would often kill by infection long after the battle was one.

Henry V’s great victory at Agincourt in 1415 is just the most famous example of how an outnumbered army could wipe out the ‘flower of French chivalry’ with a simple weapon in the hands of low-status men.

Eventually firearms replaced the longbow, although in World War II the appropriately named Mad Jack Churchill went into battle armed with a longbow.

9 – Predator Drone



Just as the first machine gun, the first effective musket, even the first properly sharpened rock represented massive changes in the way men fought, the Predator drone has, and will, have a dramatic effect on the wars of the future. It’s super-accurate remote killing with enormous power and range.

Drones are now on the front line of the War on Terror and their use, which often causes innocent civilian casualties, is very controversial.

The Predator was first used in the wars that followed the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia and their obvious advantages meant that they were only going to become more and more important.

They’re cheaper than planes, easier to fly, can be operated by personnel continents away from the scene of the action and have zero casualty risk to the pilot.

The drones still have their weaknesses, but they are getting better and will continue to do so. The Reaper can fly at 240 miles-an-hour at 50,000 feet for 30 hours and carry 4,000lbs of bombs.

10 – The Bomb



For the first time in mankind’s history we have the power to wipe ourselves out. It’s all thanks to atomic weapons which, thankfully, have only been twice used in anger. Those two bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II were enough to change the world and plunge us into decades of paranoia with the peace kept by the reassuringly named doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’.

We have physicists to thank for this. However pure and peaceful their investigations – and much vital medical work is enabled by nuclear physics – the military soon worked out that there was something destructive that could be harnessed from the atomic labs.

The great breakthrough of nuclear weapons was their size. A small bomb could carry the power of thousands of tons of conventional explosive. Even the first experimental bomb was worth 20,000 tons of TNT. Soon that figure had increased to 10,000,000 tons for the first hydrogen bomb.

The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later another bomb – of a different type – was exploded over Nagasaki. The two attacks are reckoned to have killed 200,000 people.

The legality, never mind the morality, of these original weapons of mass destruction has been the subject of controversy ever since they first appeared. Only eight countries are definitely known to have them, with Israel a possible ninth.

Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme could well be the spark for the next American involvement in the Middle East.

No-one knows how many bombs there are now, but the best guess is more than 17,000. And they’re much more powerful now.

The Tsar Bomba, developed by the USSR and tested in 1961, is the most powerful device ever used by man. Its 57 megatons were 1,400 times more powerful than both the bombs dropped on Japan combined. It contained the explosive power of 10 times all the conventional explosives used in the whole of World War II and its ‘total destruction’ zone had a radius of around 35km.

If the most terrifying weapons in history are ever used again, we may not live to tell the tale.


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