Fun Facts: Weapons and Battles
"Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without results."
- Sir Winston Churchill
Iron-working was first used in the Near and Middle East around the end
of the second millennium B.C. It allowed for several enhancements in
weaponry and equipment. For example, the introduction of iron swords
made it possible for a more skilful infantry army to reach a decision
without the pushing and shoving match that usually happened in previous
The ancient Assyrians instituted several key innovations in warfare
between around 1,000 B.C. and 500 B.C. One was
mounted archers, which opened up many tactical possibilities on the
battlefield. The Assyrian kings also made sure that their troops were
always well-equipped and that weapons were kept in repair. This was not always
done in the past, often with disastrous results on the battlefield.
The Assyrians also instituted an ongoing training program for their
troops, who, like most armies of the time, were basically a part-time
militia. Superior organisation also allowed the Assyrians to put more
men into the field for longer periods of time. Although accurate
numbers are impossible to obtain, it is estimated that the Assyrians
were capable of fielding armies of at least 30,000 to 40,000 men.
An authentic "lost weapon" is Greek fire, which the Byzantine Empire
used on several occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries to
defend Constantinople against attacking Muslims. Constantinople might
have fallen but for Greek fire, and conceivably the Muslims might have
taken over a weak and divided Europe. To this day, we don't know
exactly what the "recipe" for Greek fire was. All we know is that it
burned all the more fiercely when wet (hence it likely contained some
sort of petrol compound), and that it could be floated toward the
enemy's wooden ships.
The main innovation in terms of military technology in the early
Middle Ages was the stirrup. From 100 to 500, there was a
seemingly never-ending wave of nomad horsemen armed with swords,
spears, and bows coming out of the central Asian steppe. The
archers would fire volley after volley into the foot troops. Then,
when the defenders seemed suitably weakened, mounted lancers would
charge in. With the aid of the stirrup, the shock effect of these
horse lancers was nearly irresistible. Germanic and other European
tribes adopted these Oriental techniques,
and out of this came not only the destruction of the western Roman
Empire, but also the development of a mounted, armoured "man-at-arms."
This included the legendary "knight in shining armour," but most of
these men were simply well-trained and experienced swords for hire.
A method of hardening steel swords in the Middle Ages was the
damascene process of thrusting a superheated blade in the body of
a slave and then into cold water. Crusaders discovered, to their
dismay, that swords made of Damascus steel were more resilient and
harder than those of European manufacture. Europeans did not
discover the secret until 500 years after the Crusades, however,
when it was discovered that thrusting a red-hot sword into a mass
of animal skins soaking in water had a similar effect to the
Damascus method. The nitrogen given off by the skins in the water
produces a chemical reaction in the steel.
Tintoretto, a famous Italian painter, in the famous oil painting Israelites Gathering Manna
in the Wilderness, represents them armed with shotguns.
However, the first recorded use of guns was in 1326, several
thousand years after the ancient Israelites. Other famous paintings
contain anachronisms as well. In Cigoli's painting of the presentation of
the infant Jesus at the temple, Simeon is depicted wearing a pair of
spectacles. A French painting depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden;
in the background, in full costume, is a hunter with a gun, shooting ducks.
It is not true that the early Chinese used gunpowder only for fireworks.
They had forms of guns (invented in 1288),
bombs, grenades, rockets, landmines, flamethrowers, small cannons, and other weapons.
One of the most unusual military maneuvers ever was performed
in 1191, during the third Crusade, when Richard the Lion-Hearted
captured the city of Acre.
The inhabitants were barricaded inside, so King Richard had
his soldiers throw 100 beehives over the walls. The people
in the fortress surrendered immediately.
Early guns took so long to load and fire that bows and arrows - in
trained hands - were twelve times more efficient.
Babur, the first Moghul emperor of India, marched through the Khyber
Pass onto the North Indian plain in 1526. The then North Indian
ruler, an Afghan king, Sultan Ibrahim, leading an army of 100,000
men, attacked the invaders and lost, despite the nearly ten-to-one
odds in manpower in his favour. The reason for Babur's triumph was
an ancient Chinese invention that the Sultan had never heard of -
Francisco Pizarro, the nearly illiterate Spanish adventurer, was able to conquer
the grand empire of the Incas using a force of no more than 106 foot
soldiers and 62 horses.
Guns and gunpowder gave Pizarro the advantage.
The first machine gun, the Puckle Gun, built in 1722, was also the most unusual.
It could fire two types of bullets. When targeting lesser enemies
such as other Christians, round bullets were used, but for truly hated enemies
such as Muslims, more destructive square bullets were used.
It has been estimated that around 17,500 American soldiers and sailors
died of disease and starvation
during the American Revolution aboard British prison ships docked at New
York City, a number more than double the number killed in actual battle.
The concept of "friendly fire" is not a new one. At the Battle of Waterloo
in 1815, there are many accounts of soldiers succumbing to fire or swordcuts
from soldiers in their own army.
The German chemist Christian F. Schönbein was experimenting
with a mixture of nitric acid and sulphuric acid in the kitchen of
his house in 1845. While his wife strictly forbade
such experiments in the home, she was out at the time. Schönbein
accidentally spilled some of his acid and, in a panic, he seized the
first thing at hand, his wife's cotton apron, sopped up the mixture,
then hung it over the stove to dry before his wife came home. When
the apron dried, it suddenly burned, and so rapidly that it seemed
simply to disappear. The astonished Schönbein investigated and
found he had formed what is now called "nitrocellulose" or "guncotton".
This was the beginning of the replacement of gunpowder on the
battlefield, where it reigned supreme for 500 years.
The only authenticated all-female army existed in the Kingdom of
Dahomey in the nineteenth century. The army contained more than 2,000
women, who used a variety of weapons.
After the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War on July 3, 1863,
nearby trees began dying from lead poisoning due to the large number of bullets
embedded in the wood.
St. Adrian Nicomedia is the patron saint of arms dealers.
During World War I, a gun was invented by Jones Wister that could
shoot around corners. It was never used, but a similar gun was used
by Germans in World War II.
Half of the people killed by bombs are those trying to make or set the bombs.
Dynamite is made, in part, from peanuts.
One day in 1893, James Ziegland of Honey Grove, Texas, walked out on his
fiancée, Metilda Tichnor, who killed herself. In response, her brother shot Ziegland and,
believing he had killed the man, then killed himself. His shot at Ziegland,
however, just grazed his face before burying itself in the trunk of a nearby tree.
In 1913, Ziegland decided to remove the tree from his property
by using dynamite. The explosion dislodged the bullet, shooting it
violently into Ziegland's head, finally killing him twenty years later.
A 1947 study found that during the Second World War, only about 15 to 25
percent of the American infantry ever fired their rifles in combat.
The City Council of Chico, California, once issued an edict banning
nuclear weapons from the city. Anyone caught detonating a nuclear
device within the city limits could face a fine of up to $500.
The Hundred Years' War actually lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453.
At the Battle of Crecy in 1346, 4,000 Frenchmen were killed,
but only 100 Englishmen.
In 1978, the nations of the world spent $800,000 a minute on arms,
or an annual total of $400,000,000,000.
A leather cannon was used during the reign of Henry VIII at the
siege of Boulogne. Leather guns were used by the Scots at the Battle of Newburn in 1640.
The shortest war ever lasted for 38 minutes, between 9:02 and 9:40 on
August 27th, 1896, between Britain and Zanzibar (now part of
Tanzania). When a British fleet sailed into Zanzibar harbour,
the Sultan of Zanzibar viewed this as a hostile act and ordered his only
warship to open fire. The British retaliated, destroying both the ship and
the Sultan's palace. The Sultan fled into exile.
After the end of World War II, several Japanese soldiers still continued to hold out
for years on remote islands in the Pacific, either not having heard about the Japanese
surrender, or believing that reports about it were just Allied propaganda. The last
Japanese soldier to lay down arms was Private Teruo Nakamura, who surrendered in December
In 1941, actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil
were awarded a patent for a radio-controlled torpedo-guidance system.
The United States navy later used the invention during World War II.