10 advanced weapon designs from history that were technologically far ahead of their times

6) Greek Fire (probably invented in 7th century AD) –

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Designed as an incendiary weapon, the Greek Fire is one of the very few contrivances whose gruesome effectiveness was noted by various then-contemporary sources, both Arabs and Greeks. Said to be originally created by a Syrian Engineer named Callinicus (who was a refugee from Maalbek), the technology was sort of a precursor to napalm, and it entailed vicious ‘liquid fire’ that continued to burn even while floating in water. In fact, some writers have gone on to explain how the viciously efficient Greek Fire could only be mitigated by extinguishing it with sand, strong vinegar or old urine.

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Suffice it to say, the weapon was perfectly tailored to naval warfare; and as such the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) used it in numerous marine-based encounters to secure victories – with notable examples involving the crucial successes achieved against two Arab sieges of Constantinople. However, the procedures of making and (subsequent) deployment of Greek Fire remained a closely guarded military secret – so much so that the original ingredient has actually been lost over time. Still researchers speculate that the composition of the substance might have pertained to chemicals like liquid petroleum, naphtha, pitch (obtained from coal tar), sulfur, resin, quicklime and bitumen – all combined with some kind of a ‘secret’ ingredient.

7) Ulfberht Swords (probably forged in early 9th century AD) –

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One of the most baffling cases of military history, is the evidence of the so-called Ulfberht swords of the Viking elites. Crafted with advanced technology that basically became the standard in 18th century (800 years after the Viking Age), these weapons were made of ‘crucible steel’ with greater carbon content. In fact, the carbon percentages analysed from the swords were found to be whopping three times higher than comparable swords from the epoch (9th century to 11th century AD), which in turn endowed the blades with outstanding strength.

This unique subject matter was made popular by NOVA/National Geographic’s 2012 documentary ‘Secrets of the Viking Sword‘, and according to the film, over 170 such hi-tech Ulfberht swords have been salvaged by archaeologists. Now, from the perspective of medieval sword-making, the very first predicament of the conventional process entailed the removal of impurities (known as slag) from the ore. This was because early-medieval blacksmiths didn’t have the advantage of heating the ore to very high temperatures (of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) that would make the procedure of removal easier – due to the unavailability of the required furnaces. As a result, the expert smiths back then had to pound the hot metal during forging, so as to maintain the high quality of the blades.

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However during latter times after the Industrial Age, craftsmen were able to achieve higher temperatures for impurity removal, and they further improved upon the process by mixing carbon that made the brittle iron stronger. And intriguingly enough, the aforementioned Ulfberht swords from the Viking Age conformed to the metallurgical quality of these later-aged advanced crucible steel weapons – as is evident from greater carbon content and lack of slag in their respective compositions.

8) Land Mine (probably invented in 13th century AD) –

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According to Joseph Needham, in his book Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese forces under the Song Dynasty did use explosive landmines as a defensive strategy against the marauding Mongols. On particular incident during this time pertains to the year 1277 AD when one Lou Qianxia crafted an ‘enormous bomb’ that was successfully detonated when the Mongols were besieging a southern Chinese settlement. The follow-up to such military actions led to the documentation of the said technology in the famed 14th century Chinese manual Huolongjing. The explanation for these landmines mainly related to the use of hollow cast iron balls that were presumably filled with gunpowder.

Intriguingly enough, the Huolongjing also has a detailed passage that describes the use of tactical landmines that could be set off by enemy movements (thus mirroring our present-day technology). According to the text –

These mines are mostly installed at frontier gates and passes. Pieces of bamboo are sawed into sections nine feet in length, all septa in the bamboo being removed, save only the last; and it is then bandaged round with fresh cow-hide tape. Boiling oil is next poured into (the tube) and left there for some time before being removed. The fuse starts from the bottom (of the tube), and (black powder) is compressed into it to form an explosive mine. The gunpowder fills up eight-tenths of the tube, while lead or iron pellets take up the rest of the space; then the open end is sealed with wax. A trench five feet in depth is dug (for the mines to be concealed). The fuse is connected to a firing device which ignites them when disturbed.

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And interestingly, there were instances when the enemy was lured into the ‘trespassing zone’ of mines by placing weapons on the mounds concealing the firing devices (that were usually slow-burning bowls). Fueled by our innate desire to get hold of shiny (and free) objects, the poor soul would trigger the setup by the overturning this bowl, thus leading to the fuses being lit for the imminent detonation.

9) The Muslim Floating Rocket or Torpedo (probably conceptualized in 13th century AD) –

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A Syrian chemist and engineer named Najm Al-Din Hassan Al-Rammah penned a book in the 13th century known as Kitab Al-Furusiyya wa Al-Manasib Al-Harbiyya (Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices). And as can be comprehended from its title, many of the designs in the book pertained to fascinating weapon systems, with one particular illustration showcasing a torpedo-like device that could move on water surface. Shaped like an egg, this weapon contraption was envisioned to be made from two sheet iron pans (connected at their edges), thus resulting in a pear-like structure that would have carried an explosive mixture of naphtha, metal filings and probably saltpeter.

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And the best part is – this shell was envisaged to be propelled by a large rocket system! Furthermore, the self-moving ‘torpedo’ entailed a probable guiding mechanism with a tail-like structure that would have kept the in-motion missile in a straight path. But unfortunately, researchers have not been able to find any source that mentions this floating-rocket’s actual use in any historical military engagement.

10) Turtle Boats (designed in the late 16th century AD) –

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When the Japanese forces under Emperor Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, they boasted of two significant advantages over their foes – their Portuguese supplied muskets, and their aggressive tactic of boarding enemy ships (supported by cannon fire). However, Korean Admiral Sun-Shin Yi had an answer for these ploys in the form of the newly designed Turtle Boat (Geobukseon in Korean). Constructed with the aid of newly raised private money, this relatively small fleet consisted of around 120 ft long ships (with beams of 30 ft) covered in iron plates. The core frame was made from sturdy red pine or spruce, while the humongous structure itself incorporated a stable U-shaped hull, three armored decks and two massive masts – all ‘fueled’ by a group of over 80 sinewy rowers.

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However, the piece de resistance of the Turtle Boat was its special roof that consisted of an array of metallic spikes (sometimes hidden with straws) that discouraged the Japanese from boarding the ship. This daunting design was bolstered by a system of 5 types of Korean cannons emerging from 23 portholes, that had effective ranges of 300 to 500 m (1000 ft to 1600 ft). And finally, the awe-inspiring craft was made even more intimidating – with a dragon-head on the bow of the vessel that supposedly gave out sulfur smoke to hide the ponderous movement of the boisterous boat.

Honorable Mentions –
33-Barreled Organ (conceptualized in late 15th century) –

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During the late 15th century, canons were mostly of rudimentary make with their antediluvian mechanism allowing for very slow rate of fire. And the great Leonardo da Vinci did observe the tactical predicament, and as a solution contrived the 33-barreled organ. In essence, the multi-barreled weapon system was envisioned to have 33 different small-caliber guns that were to be arranged along 3 rows (with 11 guns each). This so-called ‘organ’ (resembling the pipes of a musical organ) was then to be supported upon a revolving platform that could also be mobile due its wheels on each side.

It is rather interesting to know that the seemingly similar volley gun was actually in usage in variant forms even before the birth of da Vinci (like the ‘Ribauldequin‘ used during the Hundred Years War). However, da Vinci’s 33-barreled organ was more akin to the 19th century machine gun models – like the Gatling gun that boasted of higher rates of fire without the problem of the barrel getting overheated.

Armored Car (conceptualized in late 15th century) –

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Another incredible conception from da Vinci, the Armored Car is surely the forerunner to the contemporary military tanks. Designed as a massive circular platform reinforced with sturdy metallic plates, and driven by wheels – the Armored Car was envisaged to have a crew of 8 members inside the hull. Additionally, the weapon platform would carry an array of light cannons, with the gunner having 360 degrees field-of-view that was to be aided by a sighting turret at the top.

Suffice it to say, the entire contraption was to be powered by humans – with the men inside working upon the cranks that would make the wheels spin. Leonardo da Vinci even thought of including horses into the cranking scope; but later thought against it due to the uncontrollable nature of animals. But the most baffling part about the Armored Car is the arrangement of the cranking systems that seemingly go in opposite directions – thus ultimately making the vehicle immobile. According to some historians, this may have been an intentional flaw, since the ‘pacifist’ da Vinci didn’t want his war machines to be developed further for actual military actions.

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