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In Brief: The Evolution of Weapon Technology

Posted December 16, 2014
Soldiers walk to the ramp of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that will return them to Kandahar Army Air Field. A new computer model could help predict the impact of plasma bubbles on future military operations. Credit: SSG Kyle Davis – HHC 1ST BCT, 10TH MOUNTAIN

Credit: SSG Kyle Davis – HHC 1ST BCT, 10TH MOUNTAIN

Mankind has used many tools over the millenia which have evolved to our needs. Weapons have been a part of our history as far back as the archaeological record of humanity extends. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History notes that three wooden spears found in Germany were carbon dated to be about 400,000 years old. Here is a look at the history of weapons and their evolution, and how we got from wooden spears to the modern weapons of today

Early Weapons

While early humans across the world developed countless variations of clubs in our prehistory, the first real weapon system was the atlatl and dart system. Found on every continent on Earth except Antarctica, the atlatl is a device that throws a flexible dart at speeds of over one hundred miles an hour, and was used by early hunters around the world.

At the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago, the bow and arrow spread across the world and became the dominant projectile-throwing device of many world cultures. Bows come in countless shapes and sizes, but they all operate using the same basic physics. When the bow strong is pulled back, energy is stored and when it is released it propels the arrow at great speed. Bows would remain the world’s premiere projectile throwing device until the era of the firearm.

Firearms Evolution

Firearms have come a long way over the 650 years since their first recorded use, which PBS notes was in 1364. In the earliest forms of firearms, a burning wick was placed to a touch hole on the barrel to ignite the powder inside. By the 1400s the matchlock device made for the first mechanically fired weapons, and over the next century and a half firearms evolved into flintlocks. The flintlock system remained virtually unchanged for two hundred years and flintlock muskets were used throughout the American Revolution. Musket design flourished in the late 18th century, and by 1860 the first repeating carbine was patented and was the principle firearm used in the American Civil War.

Repeating firearms such as Winchester rifles ushered in a new age of firearms, and in 1887 Winchester released the first repeating shotgun. In 1892, the first automatic pistol was invented, and just a year later the Borchardt automatic pistol featured an ammunition magazine in the grip. Automatic rifles, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle, were developed and widely used in the military conflicts of the 20th century. The repeating fire mechanism of automatic rifles was made possible through the use of the firearm’s recoil or the propellant gas used to initially propel the projectile to eject the bullet casing.

Weapons Today

Bows are still in use today, especially in the field of hunting, but they have evolved into powerful and efficient compound bows. Modern compound bows, created in the 1960s, are so efficient at storing energy in a tensed string that they require a system of pulleys and cables to regulate this energy so they do no exhaust their archers. When a compound bow is drawn, the weight of the pull actually decreases when the bow is at full draw, allowing an archer to hold the bow at the ready for a much longer period of time than is possible with a simple recurve bow.

Modern firearm advances haven’t been as huge as the gap between the flintlock and automatic rifle, instead focusing on material and technological innovation. For example, Lancer Systems is an more of an engineering firm than a traditional firearm manufacturer and focuses on innovative uses for ceramics polymers, thermoplastics, and compression molding in firearm production. Personal defense advancements have been highly technological as well. For example, the Armatix iP1, a smart gun that uses electronic chips located within the weapon and a wrist watch to identify the proper owner of the gun. In the wrong hands, it is little more than a paperweight.


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