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The Most Dangerous Weapons of All Time

Old iron cannon and guardhouse on the strong walls of the historic fortress of Farol da Barra in the city of Salvador, Bahia

The Most Dangerous Weapons of All Time

What is the most dangerous weapon across time? Warfare is in a constant state of evolution, with nations looking for the upper hand when it comes to force multiplication. As you can imagine, this has led to some substantial technological jumps over the years.

Ballista

Ballista
This siege weapon made taking cities easier for Rome’s legions.

The Romans were masters of war, you certainly can’t dispute that. The most dangerous weapon of the first century came in the form of the Ballista. This was a larger siege weapon that operated like a crossbow, firing massive bolts hundreds of yards.

Manuballista

most dangerous weapon
Early crossbows were essentially just small ballistas.

The development of archery was a game changer when it came to the way wars were conducted. Roman crossbows, or manuballista, would have been a contender for the most dangerous weapon of the 2nd century. Crossbows came into their own later on, however.

Scorpio

most dangerous weapon
Roman Scorpios were built with rapid fire in mind.

The Scorpio has a long history in Rome but came to the fore during the 3rd century. Functionally, it operates similarly to a ballista or crossbow. What made this the most dangerous weapon of its day was the sheer amount of tension on the firing arms. These weapons could fling bolts up to 330 feet with around 4 bolts per minute as the firing rate.

Pilum

most dangerous weapon
When a legion engaged, the spears were loosed first before a charge with their swords.

The pilum, or spear, is a weapon that served Romans well for centuries. However, the advent of better metallurgy made the pilum the most dangerous weapon of the 4th century. Roman soldiers were armed to the teeth, and would typically engage with spears first. These were throwing weapons, so imagine dozens to thousands of spears flying at a formation.

Long Bow

most dangerous weapon
English long bows could punch through plate mail with the right arrows.

The humble bow and arrow is something that changed the battlefield. As we’ll see in the 5th century, this ended up being the most dangerous weapon of its days. It wouldn’t gain the infamy England gave it until later on, but you’re still looking at something that would punch through armor. The rate of fire was much faster than siege weaponry, so you could have entire formations of archers firing hundreds of arrows at enemies.

Polearm

most dangerous weapon
Polearms saw use in combat from their introduction well into the 19th century.

Throughout much of human history, the most dangerous weapon in the hands of a soldier is a polearm. It isn’t hard to see why, you’ve got plenty of lengths to control the space of an engagement. When looking at weapons of the 7th century, we see the polearm’s earliest use in China. This is a combination of a spear and other bladed weapons, commonly an axe or sword.

Throwing Axes

saxon axe
Throwing axes more than made up for the lack of archers in the Anglo-Saxon tribes.

The Anglo-Saxons would be the dominant force in modern-day England for much of the 8th century. They weren’t accomplished archers by any means, nor did they rely on slings. Instead, the most dangerous weapon they possessed was a throwing axe. These are similar to normal hand axes, but throwing any bladed object is going to be a bad day for whoever is on the receiving end.

Iron Weapons

Iron Arrow
Refined metallurgy made for more durable weapons, and eventually steel.

By the 9th century, metallurgy in some parts of the world had become astounding. Iron weapons had been in use since the days of the Romans, but you would see them fielded in all the great armies of Europe. It is hard to pinpoint what the most dangerous weapon of the time is, but I’d give the nod to iron arrowheads. You’ve got the power of the long bow combined with something that made short work of armor.

Winged Spears

Winged Spearhead
These might have been meant for game, they certainly saw use on the battlefield.

While winged spears were intended for hunting, armies of the 10th century were raised from peasants and nobility. As such, you could expect more than a few hunters in service of a local lord to use winged spears. These are nasty weapons, intended to prevent sticking. As such, it is certainly the most dangerous weapon of its day. Warriors didn’t have to worry about the blade sticking, allowing for more follow-up thrusts.

Catapult

Wooden Medieval Catapult Ballistic Device. Ancient Military Technology
Refined catapults were a nightmare for city defenders.

Catapults have been in use since the days of Ancient Greece. However, the 11th century saw refinements to the mechanisms. This ended up being the most dangerous weapon of its time, employed in many sieges across the world. While cumbersome, they could throw anything 100s of feet away.

Recurve Bows

Young woman with recurve bow and arrow practicing outdoors. Traditional archery
The people of the Steppes made effective use of the recurve bow during their conquest of Asia and Europe.

The longbow is a potent weapon but takes a lifetime to master. Imagine something that makes your archers a force multiplier no matter the size of your army. Enter the recurve bow, the most dangerous weapon of the 12th century. These bows were highly effective in the hands of the Mongol hordes, cutting a bloody path through Asia and Europe.

Cannons

Cannons still exist in the form of modern artillery pieces essentially.

As soon as gunpowder was discovered, it was weaponized. The 13th century saw the introduction of cannons to the arsenal of siege weaponry used by feudal lords. Gunpowder saw its earliest use in China before migrating to the rest of the world. It is the most dangerous weapon of its day, bar none.

Trebuchet

A trebuchet in the grounds of Corfe castle in Dorset
Early gunpowder weapons were inaccurate compared to something like the trebuchet.

Trebuchet are similar to catapults in functionality but have far more range. The 14th century was the last time we’d see concentrated effort in siege weaponry before the dominance of gunpowder. However, it was considered the most dangerous weapon of its time thanks to its superior range compared to primitive artillery.

Handgonne

Handgonne
Portable firearms started life as smaller cannons essentially.

You aren’t reading this one incorrectly, I promise. The 15th century saw the rise of portable firearms that could be wielded by soldiers. As such, portable cannons like the handgonne started to show the shape of things to come. Needless to say, it was plenty dangerous in the right hands.

Arquebus

most dangerous weapon
The arquebus allowed armies to be raised from peasantry with minimal training.

The 16th century saw firearms in full use, with the arquebus being at the top of the heap. This was the most dangerous weapon of its time and an early example of standardization in military forces. The great armies of Europe and the Ottoman Empire got to work making standard calibers so ammunition was universal among its armies.

Basilisks

most dangerous weapon
Such a massive cannon would do horrific damage to structures and military formations.

Sometimes a cannon isn’t just enough, at least going by 17th-century standards. The Age of Enlightenment was also soaked in blood, as you might imagine. The Basilisk was a massive cannon, usually employed in defensive positions. These sizable artillery pieces could punch holes through formations.

Flintlock Firearms

most dangerous weapon
Flintlock guns were more accurate and reliable than earlier firearms.

Personal firearms were a massive boon for armies of the day. The 18th century saw universal adoption of flintlock firearms as the standard armament of armies. These rifles and pistols were more reliable than previous mechanisms and were a final step toward modern firearms.

Gatling Gun

most dangerous weapon
The Gatling Gun would pave the way for the modern machine gun.

The 19th century was host to many wars, but few weapons could approach the Gatling Gun in efficacy. Mortars and field guns of the day were certainly effective, but rapid fire was the way forward. The Gatling Gun saw heavy use in the American Civil War, where it made quick work of entire formations.

Atomic Bomb

Few weapons have awed the world like the nuclear bomb.

While this certainly isn’t a personal weapon, you can safely say it is the most dangerous weapon ever devised. The atomic bomb made its debut at the end of the Second World War and changed the world overnight. Nations could wield enough power to wipe cities off the map, all with a single bomb.

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