Warfare has shaped world geography and the constant quest to conquer more land by ancient rulers drove engineers to create insanely complex and effective weapons. While modern weapons have gotten so complex that they seem almost futuristic to years past, there are certain weapons of past warfare that stand out as being ahead of their time. Here 5 of the most incredibly engineered weapons used by militaries of the past.
The carroballista was a cart-mounted weapon system that essentially stood as a portable artillery system. The machine was operated by two men and was first created sometime in the 5th century BC. The huge crossbow-like mechanism would shoot massive pointed bolts downrange. Due to the sheer size of the mechanism, this weapon contained one of the largest stored energy to size ratios of ancient weaponry.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The man standing to the rear of the machine would crank the spring backward to store potential energy. The man standing on the machine would aim the weapon then place a bolt in the sliding mechanism. Once properly loaded and aimed, the man in the rear would pull the trigger bar to launch the bar projectile.
Ancient Romans mainly used this weapon, distributing 55 of each platform in each legion of their army. The most impressive engineering aspect of this machine was it’s power to weight ratio. The entire machine was light enough to easily be moved by 2 people but the potential energy it stored dwarfed most other weapons on the battlefield.
The polybolos was another ancient weapon that would shoot arrow-like rods. This weapon was designed by Greek engineers and was likely the most complex weaponry system ever built in the 3rd century BC. The main difference this machine brought to the portable arrow firing machine realm was its ability to achieve repeating fire. Many consider this weapon to be the first “machine gun.”
[Image Source: SBA73 via Flickr]
The entire gun was driven by a chain-link drive system which was used to both cock the weapon and fire it. The chain was connected to a windlass that was turned by the soldier using the weapon. As the soldier turned the windlass, the chain would rotate the mechanism through the lock, load, and fire sequences with no other input needed. A magazine of arrows was stored over the bolt case that helps upwards of 15 arrows at a time.
The Claw of Archimedes
The claw of Archimedes was one of the most impressive and large naval defense weapons of past that didn’t involve any sort of projectile. Archimedes was set with the task to protect the city of Syracuse by emperor Hiero. The claw was specifically designed for this city as it was a coastal stronghold and boasted significant coastal defense walls.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The attacking Romans would try to pull up close alongside the sea wall and place ladders as to allow troops to climb up and over, thus getting past the majority of Syracuse’s defenses. The claw designed by Archimedes was a system designed solely to stop this form of invasion from happening.
It was a large beam mounted on the wall, using the wall structure as a fulcrum. On the sea side of the beam, a long rope with a claw was attached. On the interior side of the beam, a series of ropes and pulleys was used to allow a crew to transfer horizontal pulling force into upward lifting force on the hook side of the claw. When a ship got close to the wall, the claw could be positioned and the crew would rapidly pull the claw upwards. When implemented correctly, the hook would catch the side of the Roman boat and cause it to capsize.
It is rumored that when the Roman ships fought the claw of Archimedes, they couldn’t see what was lifting their boats due to the protection of the wall. This caused them to believe they were fighting against the gods. The claw of Archimedes fought off the invasion for 3 years on the coast of Syracuse.
Egypt in the 2nd century BC constructed a warship that was absolutely state of the art. It stretched 130 meters long and was 18 meters wide. The ship displaced about 52,000 cubic meters and was driven by 4 steering oars and 40 other tears of oars, 20 on each side. In terms of size, this ship would have been the largest war machine ever constructed.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Ancient reports place the crew at 400 sailors for rigging, 4,000 sailors for rowing, and 2,850 marines ready to attack. This totaled 7,250 men, meaning that more men were onboard this ship than any modern warship today. What’s more impressive then the fact that a warship like this was built in 200 BC was that it was made out of timber in the middle of a desert. Lumber for the ship was likely sourced from Lebanon and transported to Egypt.
While this ship is the largest account of ancient warships we have, there would have been other large warships in the day as well including one designed by Archimedes that could throw 55 kg stones over 180 meters.
Enemy armies were very afraid of this weapon and it was kept under heavy lock and key. The original ingredients list was only known by a select fuel and eventually was lost due to secrecy. It is speculated that it consisted of some combination of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, resin, lime, and bitumen. With that said, the Greeks would have needed a special unknown ingredient to create a chemical with the necessary qualities sustained in Greek fire.