A weapon is a tool to damage life or property, and as a result, also to
threaten and defend. When weapons are used skillfully, they are used
according to doctrines that maximize their desirable effects, while
minimizing collateral damage.
Metaphorically, anything used to damage (even psychologically) can be
referred to as a weapon. Weapons can be as simple as a club, or as advanced
as a nuclear warhead.
For a comprehensive list of weapons and doctrines see military technology
Weapon history is believed to begin in the stone age with flint knives,
handaxes and heads for lances.
A widespread early weapon, perhaps finally understood, is the "stone
handaxe." This is a flat, sharp-sided stone disc, with an egg-shaped or
triangular projection. Some paleontologists built one and threw it, and
noticed that it lands with the pointed edge digging into the ground. They
believe that it could be a "killer frisbee" to harvest animals from a
tightly packed wild herd.
The crucial weapon that appears to have given humans superiority to animals
was a lightweight flexible lance with a broad-bladed stone head (flint
chert, or obsidian). This lance was usually thrown from a spear-thrower.
This weapon probably killed the giant sloths and elephants. Modern versions
of these devices remain within the living memory of arctic tribes to hunt
whale and walrus.
When thrown from a spear-thrower, a lever to extend the arm, the lance
bends, storing energy, and then straightens. It then strikes animals at
effective ranges to over thirty meters. The range is definitely limited by
aim, not power. Anthropologists constructing lances and throwers have thrown
lances through several inches of oak. The broad, leaf-shaped heads penetrate
deeply, and cut arteries well.
Archery and swords have been crucial for warfare. Archery, because of its
firepower, short swords because of their lethality in close combat. The most
effective defense to these was a fortress. The doctrines to support
fortresses in the age of edged weapons may have caused much of medieval and
noble history. Of course, medieval siege weapons were used in countervailing doctrines.
During the 16th century to 19th century firearms became increasingly
important and effective. During the U.S. Civil War various technologies
including the machine gun and ironclad ship emerged that would be
recognizable and useful weapons of war today, in lower-tech regions of the
world. In the 19th century warships shifted also to use of fossil fuels and
were no longer dependent on sail.
The age of edged weapons ended abruptly just before World War I with rifled
artillery, such as howitzers which are able to destroy any masonry fortress.
This single invention caused a revolution in military affairs and doctrines
that continues to this day. See military technology during World War I for a
An important feature of industrial age warfare was technological escalation
- an innovation could, and would, be rapidly matched by copying it, and
often with yet another innovation to counter it. The technological
escalation during World War I was profound, and produced armed aircraft, the
hand grenade, and the tank.
This continued in the interim period between that war and the next, with
continuous improvements of all weapons by all major powers. Most modern
weapons of war are mild improvements on those of World War II. The aircraft
and tanks are faster, the rifles lighter, the artillery more mobile, the
radios more reliable, but they would all be recognizable to any soldier of
that era. See military technology during World War II for a detailed discussion.
In modern warfare, since all redoubts are traps, maneuver and coordination
of forces is decisive, overshadowing particular weapons. The goal of every
modern commander is therefore to "operate within the
observation-decision-action cycle of the enemy." In this way, the modern
commander can bring overwhelming force to bear on isolated groups of the
enemy, and tactically overwhelm an enemy. See military technology of the
late 20th century.
Traditional military maneuvers tried to achieve this coordination with
"fronts" made of lines of military assets. These were formerly the only way
to prevent harm to friendly forces. Close-order marching and drill (a
traditional military skill) was an early method to get relative superiority
of coordination. Derivative methods (such as "leapfrogging units to advance
a line") survived into combined arms warfare to coordinate aircraft,
artillery, armor and infantry.
Computers are changing this. The most extreme example so far (2003) is the
use of "swarm" tactics by the U.S. military in Iraq. The U.S. had
instantaneous, reliably encrypted communications, perfect navigation using
GPS and computer-mediated communications to aim precision weapons.
In swarm tactics, small units pass through possible enemy territory. When
attacked, they try to survive, and call down immediate overwhelming showers
of precision-guided air-dropped munitions for armor, and cluster bombs for
enemy troops. To consolidate such a region, nearby artillery begin
bombardment, and ground units rush in on safe vectors through the
bombardments, avoiding them by computer-mediated navigation aids.
Thus in modern warfare, satellite navigation systems and especially
computers create decisive advantages for ordinary military personnel with
weapons that are serviceable, but otherwise unremarkable.
See also riot control agent, non-lethal, weapon of mass destruction. Netwar
contains a discussion on using information technology as a weapon - more
commonly called information warfare. See also persuasion technology and
propaganda for discussions of the way information technology plays a role in
the changing of the minds of subject populations - both branches of