A weapon is a tool used to kill or incapacitate a person or animal, or destroy a military target. It may be used to attack and defend, or in some instances just to threaten. The use of weapons has been recorded since the advent of cave painting, and the process has been formulated resulting in both martial arts and strategic doctrines.
Metaphorically, anything used to damage (even psychologically) can be referred to as a weapon. A weapon can be as simple as a club, or as complex as a nuclear warhead.
For a comprehensive list of weapons and doctrines see military technology and equipment.
From the earliest traces of mankind up to our modern civilization, weapons have been a facet of human development. Weapons development has accelerated along with other areas of technology in more modern times. In ancient times, from the dawn of humanity through the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, weapons were primarily extensions of an individual's strength, essentially making up for the human body's lack of natural weapons such as claws. These weapons allowed the bearer to be substantially more lethal than a similar human without such a weapon.
The Medieval period, including the Middle Ages, marked a period of distinct advancement in weaponry. Due to some of the unique influences of the period, weapons revolved around two major areas. First was that of knights. These horsemen required new weapons, as well as promoting development of weapons to defeat them. Second was that of castles. The building of castles on a large scale necessitated new weapons to help defend and attack them.
The Rennaissance marked the beginning of the implementation of technological devices in warfare. The most long-lasting effect of this was the introduction of cannon and firearms to the battlefield, where they are still at the core of modern weaponry. However, many other machines of war were experimented with.
From the American Revolution through the beginning of the 20th Century, human-powered weapons were finally excluded from the battlefield for the most part. Sometimes referred to as the Age of Rifles, this period was characterized by the development of firearms for infantry and cannons for support, as well as the beginnings of mechanized weapons such as the machine gun.
World War I marked the entry of fully industrialized warfare, and weapons as well were developed quickly to meet wartime needs. Many new tecnologies were developed, particularly in the development of military aircraft and vehicles. World War II however, perhaps marked the most frantic period of weapons development in the history of humanity. Massive numbers of new designs and concepts were fielded, and all existing technologies were improved between 1939 and 1945. Ultimately, the most powerful of all weapons was invented: the nuclear bomb.
After World War II, with the onset of the Cold War, the constant technological development of new weapons was institutionalized, as participants engaged in a constant race to develop weapons and counter-weapons. This constant state of weapons development continues into the modern era, and remains a constant draw on the resources of most nations.
The first weapon was certainly a stick, or stone used to increase the destructive effect of a blow from the wielder. The usefulness of such tools made their development of paramount importance for a humanity consisting of small, thinly spread, hunter-gatherer communities.The first known traces of weapons are from the stone age with flint knives, handaxes and heads for lances. There is, however, no evidence for handaxes being thrown but very good evidence for them having been used to butcher animals. If hunted rather than scavenged (which is probably the most likely way hominds obtained meat), then wooden spears were likely used. by aim, not power. Anthropologists constructing lances and throwers have thrown lances through several inches of oak. The broad, leaf-shaped heads penetrate deeply, and easily cut arteries.
Some of the earliest evidence for arrows are from ca. 20,000 BC in the Levant (the so-called 'Geometric Kebaran' period), made with several very small sharp pieces of stone embedded in an arrowshaft.
Archery and swords have been crucial for warfare. Archery, because of its firepower, and short swords because of their lethality in close combat. The most effective defense to these was a fortress. The doctrines to support fortresses in the age of edged weapons may have greatly influenced medieval and noble history. Of course, medieval siege weapons were used in countervailing doctrines.
During the 16th century to 19th century firearms became increasingly important and effective. During the U.S. Civil War various technologies including the machine gun and ironclad ship emerged that would be recognizable and useful military weapons today, particularly in lower-technology conflicts. In the 19th century warships propulsion changed from sail power to using fossil fuels.
The age of edged weapons ended abruptly just before World War I with rifled artillery, such as howitzers which are able to destroy any masonry fortress. This single invention caused a revolution in military affairs and doctrines that continues to this day. See military technology during World War I for a detailed discussion.
An important feature of industrial age warfare was technological escalation - an innovation could, and would, be rapidly matched by copying it, and often with yet another innovation to counter it. The technological escalation during World War I was profound, and producing armed aircraft and tanks.
This continued in the period between the end of that war and the next, with continuous improvements of all weapons by all major powers. Many modern military weapons, particularly ground-based ones, are relativeley minor improvements on those of World War II. See military technology during World War II for a detailed discussion.
The greatest development in weaponry since World War II has been the combination and further development of two weapons first used in it - nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile, leading to its ultimate configuration the ICBM. The mutual possession of these by the United States and the Soviet Union ensured that either nation could inflict terrible damage on the other; so terrible, in fact, that neither nation was prepared to go to war with the other. The indiscriminate nature of the destruction has made nuclear-tipped missiles essentially useless for the smaller wars fought since. However computer-guided weaponry of all kinds, from smart bombs to computer-aimed tank rounds, has greatly increased weaponry's accuracy.
In modern warfare, since all redoubts are traps, maneuver and coordination of forces is decisive, overshadowing particular weapons. The goal of every modern commander is therefore to "operate within the observation-decision-action cycle of the enemy." In this way, the modern commander can bring overwhelming force to bear on isolated groups of the enemy, and tactically overwhelm an enemy. See military technology of the late 20th century.
Traditional military maneuvers tried to achieve this coordination with "fronts" made of lines of military assets. These were formerly the only way to prevent harm to friendly forces. Close-order marching and drill (a traditional military skill) was an early method to get relative superiority of coordination. Derivative methods (such as "leapfrogging units to advance a line") survived into combined arms warfare to coordinate aircraft, artillery, armor and infantry.
Computers are changing this. The most extreme example so far (2003) is the use of "swarm" tactics by the U.S. military in Iraq. The U.S. had instantaneous, reliably encrypted communications, perfect navigation using GPS and computer-mediated communications to aim precision weapons.
In swarm tactics, small units pass through possible enemy territory. When attacked, they try to survive, and call down immediate overwhelming showers of precision-guided air-dropped munitions for armor, and cluster bombs for enemy troops. To consolidate such a region, nearby artillery begin bombardment, and ground units rush in on safe vectors through the bombardments, avoiding them by computer-mediated navigation aids.
Thus in modern warfare, satellite navigation systems and especially computers give a decisive advantages to ordinary military personnel armed with weapons that are otherwise unremarkable.
Types of weapons
There are essentially three facets to classifying weapon types: who uses it, how it works, and what it targets.
Who uses it essentially determines how it can be employed:
- Personal weapons are designed to be used by an individual person.
- Crew served weapons are larger than personal weapons, requiring more than one crew member to operate correctly.
- Fortification weapons are designed to be mounted in a permanent installation, or used primarily within a fortification.
- Mountain weapons are designed for use by mountain forces or those operating in difficult terrain and harsh climates.
- Vehicle weapons are designed to be mounted on any type of military vehicle.
- Railway weapons are designed to be mounted on railway cars, including armored trains.
- Aircraft weapons are designed to be carried on and used by some type of aircraft, helicopter, or other aerial vehicle.
- Naval weapons are designed to be mounted on ships and submarines.
- Space weapons are designed to be used in or launched from space.
How it works refers to the construction of the weapon and how it operates:
- Archery related weapons operate by using a tensioned string to launch a projectile at some target.
- Artillery are large firearms capable of launching heavy projectiles (normally explosive) over long distances.
- Biological weapons spread biological agents, attacking humans (or livestock) by causing disease and infection.
- Chemical weapons spread chemical agents, attacking humans by poisoning and causing reactions.
- Energy weapons rely on concentrating forms of energy to attack, such as lasers, electrical shocks, and thermal or sonic attack.
- Explosive weapons use a physical explosion to create blast concussion or spread shrapnel.
- Firearms use a chemical charge to launch a projectile down a rifled or smoothbore barrel.
- Incendiary weapons rely on combustible materials and an ignition mechanism to cause damage by fire.
- Non-lethal weapons are used to attack and subdue humans, but are designed to minimize the risk of killing the target.
- Mêlée weapons operate as physical extensions of the user's body and directly impact their target.
- Missiles are rockets which are guided to their target after launch.
- Nuclear weapons use fissile materials to create nuclear explosions above a target ("air-burst") or at ground-level.
- Primitive weapons make no use of technological or industrial elements, instead being purely constructed of easily obtainable natural materials.
- Ranged weapons cause a projectile to leave the user's hands and (ideally) strike a target afterwards.
- Rockets use chemical propellent to accelerate a projectile (usually with an explosive warhead) towards a target and are typically unguided once fired.
- Suicide weapons are typically explosive in nature and exploit the willingness of their operator to not survive the attack to reach their target.
What it targets refers to what type of target the weapon is designed to attack:
- Anti-aircraft weapons target enemy aircraft, helicopters, missiles and any other aerial vehicles in flight.
- Anti-fortification weapons are designed to target enemy installations, including bunkers and fortifications.
- Anti-personnel weapons are designed to attack people, either individually or in numbers.
- Anti-radiation weapons target enemy sources of electronic radiation, particularly radar emitters.
- Anti-ship weapons target enemy ships and vessels on water.
- Anti-submarine weapons target enemy submarines and other underwater targets.
- Anti-tank weapons are primarily used to defeat tanks, but may be targeted against other less well armored targets.
- Area denial weapons are designed to target territory, making it unsafe or unsuitable for enemy use.
- Hunting weapons are designed particularly for use against animals for hunting purposes.
- Infantry support weapons are designed to attack various threats to infantry units, supporting the infantry's operations.
Weapons by era