Despite the ever-increasing firepower of tanks, planes and artillery, the humble infantry weapon still has a vital place in determining the outcome of war. Throughout history, from Agincourt to Afghanistan, the soldier with the most powerful and effective gun has had a decisive advantage over his enemy. From the matchlock musket to the most modern of machine guns, we catalog the most revolutionary guns in the history of warfare.
10. The Tanegashima (Japanese Matchlock)
Matchlock guns quickly supplanted the Yumi longbow in Japanese warfare thanks to their ease of use and excellent armor-penetrating qualities. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 saw one of their first notable uses: the generals Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga cunningly concealed their soldiers behind stakes and wooden stockades and poured a continuous stream of fire into the enemy to break their cavalry charges. Ironically, the use of massed horsemen was also a new tactic that had been introduced only a single generation before. This victory led to a revolution in Japanese battle tactics that lasted until the Edo period, a time of relative peace in which guns weren’t needed quite so much.
9. The Flintlock Musket
In the 17th century, the clumsy matchlock and arquebus were soon swept away by the development of the flintlock, a more reliable style of musket that used a flint striking on steel to ignite its charge. The new flintlock-era guns were a major development in firearm technology that made soldiers more mobile and firing easier and quicker. The weapon was so successful that it quickly replaced all previous versions of the musket (such as the Wheellock) and became the most ubiquitous weapon of the common soldier. This in turn moved the fighting style of European armies away from mixed pike and shot and into the more familiar early-modern musket lines.
8. The Gatling Gun
In the early 1860s, an American doctor named Richard Gatling patented a revolutionary new weapon: a hand-cranked, multi-barreled piece of light artillery capable of spitting out a continuous stream of bullets into the enemy ranks. This early machine gun had an unprecedented rate of fire of 200 rounds per minute and as a result was quickly adopted by both sides during the American Civil War. It was later to be refined into more powerful and portable forms as the machine gun, which would become the single most influential weapon on the battlefield and forever change the face of infantry combat. This is ironic, considering the fact that the gun’s inventor created it to demonstrate the futility and brutality of war.
7. The Needle Rifle
In the increasingly fast-paced battlefields of the 19th century, a quicker rate of fire was always necessary, but there was a limit to what could be accomplished with muzzle-loaders (which had to be rammed and primed after every shot). The Dreyse needle-gun, the first mass-produced breech loading rifle, completely changed the playing field by allowing soldiers to fire up to 12 rounds per minute, three or four times faster than contemporary muzzle-loading weapons. The weapon quickly entered Prussian service and gave the army a decisive advantage in the Austro-Prussian war, and later variants of the gun formed the basis for the standard weapons of most armies of that era.
6. The MP 18
With its short, stubby body and pepperbox head, this gun didn’t appear very impressive compared to larger contemporary rifles and machine guns. But despite appearances, the MP 18 was a crucial component of German offensive tactics in WWI, particularly in the final series of attacks against the Western Front in the spring of 1918. The weapon’s 500-round-per-minute rate of fire could sweep a trench of soldiers in seconds and contributed greatly to the German gains in the final offensive of the war. This devastating new class of gun was thought to be so inhumane that it was specifically banned in Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.
5. The Colt Revolver
Although other pistols had been produced which could fire multiple shots, the first truly practical version was developed by Samuel Colt in 1836. This weapon was based on newly developed cartridge technology and could shoot six times without needing to be reloaded. The new weapon soon became highly valued in law enforcement, in the underworld, and as a secondary weapon for soldiers. In fact, the Colt revolver is so iconic that an example from 1873 sold at auction for $242,000!
4. The American Longrifle
Originally a simple hunting weapon, the American longrifle (or Kentucky rifle) soon found another use during the American War of Independence. The weapon’s most important feature was its rifled barrel, which caused the bullet to spin as it was exiting the weapon and made its trajectory far more predictable than that of smoothbore musket bullets. This in turn made it far more accurate at long ranges, perfect for skirmishing and guerrilla warfare. The longrifle played a decisive part in winning the War for the colonists, which has perhaps helped it earn the reputation of being a distinctly American weapon.
3. The M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle
A military favorite for decades, the Browning was developed to provide supporting fire for infantry while they attacked. Lightweight and compact, this automatic weapon’s unique feature was its versatility and consequent ease of use by infantry. The automatic rifle’s design made the later infantry tactics of WWI and WWII possible and helped to break the stalemate which had been created by trench warfare: by greatly increasing the firepower of individual soldiers while allowing them to maintain their mobility, it made them more tactically maneuverable and capable of penetrating enemy defenses.
2. The StG 44
Introduced in 1943, the German StG 44 was the world’s first true assault rifle. The weapon’s revolutionary design combined the best elements of the bolt action rifle, the submachine gun and the light machine gun into one compact package, allowing the infantry soldier to use automatic and semi-automatic fire while still having reasonable range and power compared to contemporary submachine guns. Both British and American military intelligence were skeptical of the weapon, believing it to be impractically heavy and even rather fragile. While the StG 44 may have been invented too late to do the Germans much good in WWII, it still led to:
1. The AK-47
The former standard rifle of the Soviet Army, the Kalashnikov is now the most ubiquitous gun in the world: these firearms are produced in at least 14 countries and are used by the state armies of another 82. In modern conflicts they have been fired by everyone from African warlords to Iraqi infantrymen to terrorist guerrillas in Afghanistan. The gun’s low cost, which can be as little as $30 in some parts of Africa, makes it the weapon of choice for impoverished countries; AK-47s are also so simple that 10-year-olds can be, and are, taught to fire them. At the present time, this rifle has probably killed more people than any other weapon in history. In modern warfare, nuclear weapons are confined to cold, concrete bunkers, while the real weapon of mass destruction is named AK.