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5 of History’s Most Impressive Ancient Weapons

Since the beginning of time, man’s propensity to kill has led to impressive developments in weaponry. 

From massive contraptions capable of reducing reinforced fortifications to rubble, to those designed to decimate infantry formations indiscriminately, weapons have evolved to fill a number of roles. 

Ancient weapons came in nearly every shape and size, and while some required their users to get up-close-and-personal with the enemy, others had ranges of hundreds of yards. 

Many used tension or torsion for power, while some utilized newly developed propellants like blackpowder to hurl projectiles across vast expanses of land and sea. 

Let’s take a look at 5 of the most impressive ancient weapons.  

1. Ballista

Balliste fireing
Balliste fireing is licensed under CC-BY-SA

For lovers of epic ancient weapons, there’s really no beating the ballista. 

Ballistas were devastating military machines that may best be described as crossbows on steroids.

They were often referred to as ‘bolt throwers,’ because they threw (shot) arrow-like projectiles called bolts.  

Ballistas evolved from similar but more rudimentary Greek weapons, and began showing up on battlefields around the 4th century BC.

Though they resembled crossbows in design, they were different in one very distinct way.  

Whereas crossbows derived their propulsive force from the flexing of a solid but pliable strip of wood, ballistas relied on twisting energy called torsion. 

Hence, they were also commonly called ‘torsion engines,’ though the name belies their lethal nature. 

To create and capture maximum torsion energy, ballistas were constructed with two separate wooden arms–as opposed to one large one like in crossbows. 

Near the weapon’s centerline, each arm was inserted into a vertically mounted coil of rope, leather or sinew, often made up of several cords or skeins twisted together. 

Each was connected at the top and bottom to stout planks anchored to the weapon’s frame which held them in place as pressure increased.  

The outward ends of the arms were connected to cables, which were in turn affixed to a ratchet mechanism at the rear of the weapon that retracted the bolt carriage and projectile prior to firing. 

This ratcheting motion created powerful stored energy, that when released, propelled the projectile toward its target with amazing force. 

Ballistas came in small infantry versions, medium-sized horse-drawn adaptations, and massive incarnations that required significant manpower to transport, assemble, and fire. 

Though they were ungainly and had relatively low rates of fire, even projectiles from the smallest ballistas were capable of penetrating body armor when equipped with hardened tips.

Ballistas most commonly fired bolts, but could be modified to accommodate circular and conical stone shot for smashing castle walls and other fortifications. 

Some accounts claim that the largest ballistas could hurl projectiles weighing nearly 50 pounds more than 400 yards with accuracy. 

2. Greek Fire

These days the Greeks are most well-known for their timeless contributions to governance and philosophy, but they weren’t slackers when it came to weapons either. 

Greek Fire was an incendiary concoction invented around the 6th century that consisted of various substances like oil, tar, charcoal, sulfur, and phosphorus.

It was primarily used as an anti-ship weapon, and was usually contained in large tubes adorned with fearsome dragons affixed to the bows of naval vessels.

In conjunction with the billowing smoke and shooting flames that resulted when the weapon was fired, it had terrifying psychological effects on unsuspecting enemies.  

Greek Fire played significant roles in repelling opposing fleets in a number of battles, like the Siege of Constantinople in the 7th century.

On the downside, as a result of its phosphorus content, it would often spontaneously combust when exposed to air, making it volatile and dangerous to users and targets alike.  

Later developments included barrels equipped with pressurized nozzles that propelled the substance outward in the manner of modern flamethrowers. 

Before this advancement however, Greek Fire was often hurled from one ship to another in buckets, and like modern napalm, water wouldn’t extinguish it. 

The art of compounding the mixture was such a closely guarded secret that its precise composition remains unknown to this day.

Greek Fire was also used in earthen hand grenades that saw action in both land and naval battles. 

3. Trebuchet 

Trebuchet Castelnaud
Trebuchet Castelnaud by Luc Viatour is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Trebuchet were relatively complex medieval siege machines designed to destroy fortifications using large projectiles hurled from great distances. . 

Though similar to catapults, they were different in that they didn’t rely on a rigid arm swinging through a continuous vertical plane.

Instead, trebuchet derived their energy from gravity.

They did share a long arm with their catapult cousins, but instead of a basket to hold the projectile, they employed a loose sling made from cloth or woven natural fibers. 

Trebuchets were energized by lowering the arm’s lengthier end, which conversely raised the shorter portion, to which was attached a massive pivoted stone counterweight.

With the long arm pointing away from its intended target and locked into place at or near ground level, the projectile was loaded into the sling. 

The machine was then fired by releasing a trigger mechanism that allowed the weight to drop into freefall.

This sudden downward force caused the arm to pivot around a fulcrum, which sent the longer portion into a wide arc. 

At the swing’s apex, additional force was added by the sling’s forward momentum. 

Generally, the more counterweight and the longer the arm, the greater the range the machine had. 

4. Siege Engine 

Siege Engine 
Siege Engine by ChrisO is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In many respects, ancient siege engines were precursors to modern tanks. 

They often combined mobility, armor and firepower like modern military vehicles, but compared to their contemporary counterparts they were painfully slow and unwieldy. 

Siege engines were fairly large machines often the size of small buildings, designed to pulverize fortress walls that were all but impenetrable to the weapons that came before them. 

The earliest examples were little more than movable structures with sloped roofs to protect the soldiers inside, but they were used successfully by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. 

Later versions were able to get close to their targets, and many used massive pendulum-style battering rams attached to stout rafters to hammer fortifications mercilessly until they collapsed. 

Enterprising defenders often rained fire-tipped arrows and vats of hot tar down onto the structure and its occupants, which usually included infantrymen with ladders waiting to scale the walls and engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. 

Reports also claim that some siege engines used catapults, trebuchets, flamethrowers, and even large caliber mortars capable of launching massive stone shot at or over the walls with devastating effect. 

Many were assembled just out of range of enemy weapons before being pushed or rolled into place, while others were erected on-site under the cover of darkness, where they remained until they’d completed their missions or were destroyed. 

Due to the massive manpower required to transport, assemble and man them, siege machines saw only limited use, and with the advent of gunpowder their largely wooden structures became obsolete. 

5. Nest of Bees

Whereas many ancient weapons were designed to hurl only one projectile, the Nest of Bees sought to overwhelm enemies with large numbers of relatively small ones. 

The Nest of Bees was developed during the Song Dynasty around the 11th century, when the Chinese were experimenting with early weapons based on their revolutionary new military technology–gunpowder. 

Rockets of similar design were already being used during the Nest of Bees’ development, but most were so inaccurate that they had little effect on the battlefield. 

Even in its earliest forms blackpowder packed sufficient punch to propel projectiles at deadly velocities, but guidance remained a constant problem.

The Nest of Bees’ hexagonal tubes were filled with dozens of individual rockets resembling arrows, and were tapered at the bottom to ensure wide dispersal when the weapon was fired. 

Though they were sometimes used individually, they could also be stacked together into honeycomb-like formations capable of launching hundreds or thousands of projectiles simultaneously. 

This concentrated rocket fire often inflicted huge death tolls and horrific injuries on infantry formations hundreds of yards away. 

Nest of Bees were true force multipliers centuries before the term was officially coined, but they were also awkward, susceptible to inclement weather, and dangerous to their users. 

The rockets could be tipped with hardened anti-personnel heads, or with flammable materials such as pitch and oil-soaked cloth which would be lit before firing. 

Nest of Bees were used both on land and at sea, and by the end of their development they had relatively predictable flight characteristics that increased their effectiveness. 

Apparently they were such a spectacle when launched, that they often reduced the enemy’s willingness to fight in the face of such overwhelming firepower.

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