Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History
Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History
Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History

* Book Type:

Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: by Joel Levy
Series Name: Fifty Things That Changed the Course of History
Audience: Trade
Specs: full-color throughout, further reading, useful websites, index, ribbon marker
Pages: 224
Trim Size: 6 3/4" X 9" X 7/8"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20140911
Copyright Year: 2014
Price: Select Below


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Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History

A beautifully presented guide to 50 weapons and their historical impact on civilization.

Fifty Weapons that Changed the Course of History is a fascinating guide to the arms and armaments that have had the greatest impact on the development of human civilization. Like the other titles in this series, the book organizes the weapons into brief illustrated chapters. Concise narratives describe the weapons, the "who, where, when, why and how" of their introduction and uses, and explain their influence in one or more of four categories -- Social, Political, Tactical, and Technological.

The stories span human history, from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who devised the spear and the wheel, which brought about the war chariot, to gunpowder, which democratized warfare and has been the basis for almost every weapon used in war from that point on.

Entries include:

  • The longbow, which led an outnumbered English army to a famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415
  • The Soviet T-34, the most effective and influential (in terms of design) tank to feature in World War II
  • The Tomahawk cruise missile, which revolutionized tactics in modern warfare
  • The Gatling Gun, the first rapid-repeating gun, which turned the tide in the Americans' favor during the Spanish-American War.

The saga of human civilization has been formed and scarred by conflict. Defining episodes of violence -- sometimes long and simmering, at other times sudden and cataclysmic -- have produced new forms of weaponry. Some of these have been decisive, such as the terrifying war elephants deployed by Hannibal at the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. Others have become iconic in our culture. Chief among these is the easily copied AK-47, at first the symbol of communism and now of terrorism, and the most widely found firearm in the world. Some weapons have been definitive in their simplicity, such as the bayonet; in other cases, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, the sheer complexity is dazzling.

Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History tells the story of the last 3,500 years through the arms and armaments that have shaped it. This is the story of the weapons that formed our world, and is sure to attract a wide readership.


Joel Levy is a writer and journalist specializing in history and science. He is the author of more than a dozen books, and has also written features and articles for newspapers and magazines. He is the author of A Bee in a Cathedral.



The supposed deathbed lament of John Napier, who protested that "for the ruin and overthrow of man, there were too many devices already framed," articulates a common distaste for the application of technological and scientific genius to the business of killing. (Napier's protestations ring hollow for the man himself, who was driven by sectarian antipathy to contrive a host of strange and terrible "devices for the ruin and overthrow of man," including "devices of sailing under the water. . . a closed and fortified carriage to bring arquebusiers into the midst of an enemy. . . [and] a kind of shot for artillery. . . calculated to clear a field of four miles' circumference of all living things above a foot in height: by it, he said, the inventor could destroy 30,000 Turks, without the hazard of a single Christian." From Domestic Annals of Scotland, Robert Chambers)

Although this book is not intended as a glorification of warfare and killing, it celebrates the art and technology of weapons, and admires the creativity and ingenuity of weapon makers, ancient and modern, renowned and anonymous. Through an examination of 50 of the most significant weapons in history, it explores how technology has changed warfare, and by extension the rest of human history.

War may not be the most important determinant of the course of history -- its degree of influence compared to, say, economy, geography, or individual actors, is subject to debate -- but clearly it is one of the primary factors, and perhaps the one with the most apparent and easily traceable impact. It thus follows that the tools of warfare are important factors in history, especially when developments in these tools, whether incremental or revolutionary, have a material impact on the outcome of battle. So although this book looks at specific weapons in detail, exploring technical aspects of their development, mechanisms, and effects, its purview extends much farther, to encompass grand themes of history, epochal changes, and underlying currents. Through the history of the spear, for instance, we can glimpse the history of human colonization of the planet (see page 12), while the technical details of the stirrup may have had profound consequences for the course of Western civilization (see page 44).

The choice of topics covered must, inevitably, be contentious and, to a degree, arbitrary: history has not been altered by exactly 50 weapons, no more or fewer. In particular the list has been composed within some fuzzy constraints, based on my personal and not always consistent interpretation of the term "weapon." I have excluded most vehicles, especially ships and planes, on the basis that these are less weapons and more platforms for weapons; but on the other hand I have included tanks and the horse. I have tried to include only specific devices or implements, excluding more general concepts such as iron, money, or railroads, all of which can claim to have been the primary determinants of military success at one time or another; on the other hand, I have included smallpox and stirrups.

Each entry is dated and categorized. The dates given do not necessarily reflect the invention/origins of the weapon, but refer to its heyday -- the start of the time or period when it had its greatest impact. Sometimes this comes long after the weapon first came into being: hand grenades, for instance, date back to the earliest beginnings of gunpowder technology, but arguably became most influential as a military technology from the First World War onwards. The pike -- a long-hafted blade weapon -- is essentially a spear, and hence its origins date back to earliest prehistory, but its glory days as a weapon did not come until the Renaissance "pike and shot" era of the 16th–17th centuries. The categories used to describe each weapon -- social, technical, political, and tactical -- are likely to be as contentious as the contents list itself. Broadly speaking they describe the main ways in which the weapon impacted on history. Any battlefield weapon can be argued to have tactical significance, but some weapons have impacts beyond the battlefield; the horse and stirrup, for instance, had transformative effects on society and the economy, while the importance of ballistic missiles is probably more political than military.



    Stone Ax
    Bow and Arrow
    Bronze Age Sword
    Horse and War Chariot
    Siege Engines
    Greek Fire
    Medieval Sword
    Counterweight Trebuchet
    Medieval Crossbow
    Early Cannon
    Renaissance Pike
    Smallpox (and Germ Warfare)
    Field Artillery
    Needle Gun
    Breech-Loading Field Artillery
    Gatling Gun
    Maxim Machine Gun
    Short Magazine Lee-Enfield
    Lewis Gun
    Hand Grenade
    Poison Gas
    Mk I/IV Tank
    Thompson Submachine Gun
    Browning M2 Heavy Machine Gun
    M1 Garand
    T-34 Tank
    V Weapons
    Mk1 "Little Boy"Atom Bomb
    Kalashnikov AK-47
    M18A1 Claymore Antipersonnel Mine
    Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
    M16 Rifle
    RPG-7 Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher
    M1 Abrams Tank
    BGM-109 Tomahawk Cruise Missile
    Smart Bomb
    Improvised Explosive Device (IED)
    Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Drones

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