Most Incredible Ancient Weapons

Let's unsheathe the most incredible ancient weapons!

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From ancient flamethrowers to death whistles and a giant iron hand capable of capsizing entire ships, let's travel through time to investigate the most incredible ancient weapons to have ever existed!

Hwacha

When most people think of rocket launchers, they picture high-tech weapons that launch an innovative range of projectiles. However, as advanced as they appear, they aren’t a recent invention. In fact, the first recorded rocket launchers can be traced all the way back to 11th-century China.

Their neighbors soon caught on and in 1409 CE, a Korean model known as the Hwacha was launched, literally. You may not be expecting much from a 600-year-old weapon, but the thing packed a punch. At first glance, the Hwacha doesn’t look too deadly; it’s a wooden cart, with sticks poking through a box on its top.

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Except, they’re not sticks, they’re 100 explosive-powered arrows! And the boxlike part is also not a simple box, it’s actually a launchpad! Each gunpowder-filled paper tube had a fuse attached to it, like fireworks, all of which were linked together to form one long fuse.

So instead of lighting the fuse for each arrow individually, when the main fuse was lit, all 100 of the arrows would fire at roughly the same time. Just imagine being on the battlefield when all of a sudden a wave of explosive-propelled arrows starts raining down all around you!

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Running away from the battlefield is also not an option, because it’s believed that the range of those explosive launchers was close to 1,650 feet. For some context, that’s about 38% further than the range of medieval archers who would’ve used bows and arrows around the same time.

Chinese Fire Lance

If you had to guess, when would you say firearms were first created? They feel pretty modern, so maybe the 18th century? Surprisingly, the first-ever gunpowder-powered weapon actually dates all the way back to the 10th century, 950 CE to be specific!

The fire lance, as it was called back then, was created in China during the historic Jin Song wars. It was a polearm spear-like weapon and strapped to the front was a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder and a slow match. Once the fuse was ignited, the gunpowder tube would pump out a stream of flames toward the enemy. Literally an ancient flamethrower!

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As gunpowder was modified and improved through the centuries, so did the power of the fire lance. In one version, pellets were stuffed into the bamboo tube and fired out, like bullets, therefore an ancient flamethrower shotgun!

By the 13th century, fire lances discarded the lance point in favor of relying solely on the gunpowder blast. The weapon became so powerful that the projectiles they fired on their own had enough force to fatally injure people.

But as badass as it sounds, there were some serious drawbacks. The weapons were designed to only blast one or two shots, max. Plus, the effective range of the weapon was only 10 feet, meaning you had to get really close to your enemy if you wanted to take them down.

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Despite these limitations, it didn’t take long for word to spread about the new weapon on the block. By the end of the 14th century, the malevolent mortars weren’t just causing havoc in eastern Asia but had spread to the Middle East and Europe. It looks like people all over the world were having a blast!

War Wolf

Just the name “War Wolf” is enough to strike fear into the heart of the toughest man. But what sort of weapon could such a name belong to? Did people saddle up actual wolves and ride them onto the frontlines? Sadly, no. It’s actually a kind of trebuchet, a medieval siege machine used to hurl large stones or other missiles at an enemy stronghold.

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Standing at a dizzying 60 feet, the beast is believed to be the largest trebuchet design ever brought to life. The mega-machine works by using a massive counterweight that’s raised and held in position by a trigger mechanism.

When the trigger is released, the counterweight falls, and the sling whips upwards, flinging boulders or fiery projectiles hundreds of feet through the air. The War Wolf was created in the 14th century when England was battling with Scotland.

In 1304, Stirling Castle thanks to its huge walls and high vantage point was the final Scottish stronghold to resist English rule. For four months the English laid siege to Stirling Castle, constantly bombarding the fortification with lead balls, yet it wouldn’t fall. So, Edward I, the King of England, brought in the War Wolf.

The towering trebuchet took 5 carpenters and 49 workers over 3 months to complete. But it was worth it. When the War Wolf was finished, the sight of it alone was apparently enough to convince the Scottish resisters to surrender. But Edward didn’t listen. After all, what’s the point in building a toy if you’re not going to use it?

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Modern estimates claim that the towering trebuchet hurled 300 lb rocks over 650 feet at a speed of 120 miles per hour. No prizes for guessing what the War Wolf did to Stirling Castle. Yes, the curtain wall of the fortification was completely demolished.

Bagh Nakh

The Bagh Nakh, otherwise known as tiger claw, is a small, 2-inch-long slashing device hailing from 17th century India. The two rings at either side of this sharp scratcher enabled the weapon to be inserted onto the user’s fingers, so it looked just like a claw.

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And, if you’re not a fan of the long blades, smaller versions of the Bagh Nakh could also be discreetly concealed in your palm, until it was time to strike down an unsuspecting enemy. If shredding your opponent like a tiger wasn’t metal enough, some fearsome folk even poisoned their claws.

So not only would their foe be left with deep wounds, but also poison running through their bloodstream. A modified version of the Bagh Nakh even came with a blade built into the side just in case scratching your enemies to death wasn’t enough!

The Iron Claw of Archimedes

From small claws to big claws, meet the Iron Claw of Archimedes. Legend has it that this ancient weapon was indeed a claw of sorts. Despite the name, it wasn’t used for taking a super-sized scratch at enemies.

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In 214 BCE, during the Siege of Syracuse, fleets of Roman ships were attacking the city that now makes up modern-day Sicily, so they decided to create the colossal claw machine. The arcade-like weapon, devised by Greek inventor Archimedes, was used as a defense against ships approaching the ancient city’s sea walls.

Historical accounts describe the Claw of Archimedes acting like a crane over the wall, equipped with some sort of grappling hook at the end. The chain to which the hook was attached was controlled by a pulley and beam system.

So, when an enemy ship came towards the sea wall of Syracuse, the claw would be lowered down onto the attacking ship. Once it had a grip on the ship, men or oxen would use the pulley system to raise the hook, lifting the ship with it. With the ship raised, it would then suddenly be released, crashing back into the water and smashing the vessel.

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Even if the ship wasn’t obliterated, there were written accounts detailing how the hook would capsize ships and cause mass confusion. While no dimensions were left, giant versions of the claw based on its limited descriptions have been created to test its plausibility, many versions of which succeeded in lifting up a ship from the sea. It may not prove that such a mighty claw ever really did exist, but it certainly could have.

The Hellburners

They may sound like the latest punk rock band, but Hellburner ships were actually one of history’s most brutal weapons. As their name eludes, they weren’t regular ships. They were fireships; vessels filled with explosives, purposefully set on fire and steered into an enemy fleet!

Hellburners

In 1585, Spanish ships were circling the then-Dutch city of Antwerp. To save the city, the Dutch tasked Italian combat engineer Federigo Giambelli to create the 16th century’s answer to a nuclear explosion. Inside two ships, Giambelli constructed chambers. Within each chamber, he packed 7,000 pounds of gunpowder. And then, the chambers were surrounded with rocks, hooks, and metal to make the impact of the blast just that little bit more destructive.

On the first ship, named Fortune, the explosion was meant to be set off by a slow-burning fuse. But, unfortunately, the Fortune drifted away from the Spanish ships, with its explosion doing little damage. All hope was not lost though, because the second ship, aptly called Hope, was still to come.

Instead of a delayed fuse, the Hope used a time bomb; an advanced mixture of clockwork and gunpowder that would automatically light the fuse at a preset time. On this occasion, the vessel drifted straight into the path of the Spanish ships, before successfully going boom. The explosion was so loud that it was said it could be heard 50 miles away!

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Unsurprisingly, the blast of the bomb and the raining debris was pretty destructive, costing the lives of some 1,000 Spanish troops. In fact, the detonation was so large, that historians believe it was the largest man-made explosion at that point in history. Who needs nukes when you’ve got Hellburners?

Greek Fire Secret Weapon

Nearly 1,000 years before the Hellburners set sail, there was another ancient weapon wreaking havoc on the high seas. Except this time it wasn’t a ship itself, but an ingenious weapon carried on board. From 674 to 678 CE, Constantinople the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire was under siege.

An Arab fleet of ships secured bases along the coast and blockaded the city while attacking Constantinople’s fortifications. With his city under threat, the great inventor Callinicus of Heliopolis created a weapon so powerful that it changed the course of the war.

Named Greek Fire, the ancient flamethrower worked by launching a flammable mixture from tubes on the prows of Byzantine ships onto the Arab vessels! The flames were shot out of pressurized siphons, giving them better range and accuracy to ensure the deadly mixture made it aboard the enemy ships.

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The fire would then gush onto the Arab fleet, destroying the vessels and forcing the men to escape the wreck or be burned alive. However, there’s one problem with having what’s essentially a flamethrower at sea: the water. But Greek Fire was so flammable that apparently, it could even burn on water!

The weapon was so effective that it wiped out the Arab navy, and ended the four-year-long siege. We're still wondering what could create such a dangerous liquid as that secret recipe has been long lost to time, and the ingredients can only be hypothesized today.

Naphtha, a flammable liquid is thought to be the main component. This was likely mixed with potassium nitrate. And finally, a sprinkling of sulfur, which when added produced a booming noise and cloud of smoke. Please, don’t attempt to make Greek Fire at home.

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Macuahuitl

According to Spanish texts from the 16th century, the Aztec people engaged in some particularly gruesome human sacrifices in the name of their gods. Like offering up their still-beating hearts before throwing their remains down the hundreds of steps of the towering Templo Mayor.

But, if you thought that was brutal, there’s one weapon from Aztec history that’s even more spine-chilling: the Macuahuitl! It’s not known exactly when the wooden paddle first emerged, but by the time Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, it was widely distributed among Aztec soldiers.

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The Macuahuitl doesn’t get its ruthless reputation from the paddle, but from the obsidian blades which line the edges. This naturally forming volcanic glass is razor sharp, and has a cutting edge 500 times greater than even the sharpest steel blade! It’s so sharp and precise that it’s even used in a variety of scalpel blades.

But the Aztecs weren’t using obsidian to make precise incisions, they were more looking to chop their enemies’ heads off. And, unsurprisingly, the Macuahuitl was pretty good at that. Spanish accounts talk about their effectiveness of not only removing the heads of men but even horses!

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In instances when chopping their foes' heads off wasn’t necessary, Aztec warriors would inflict many shallow cuts on their victim with the obsidian blades, before clubbing them unconscious with the paddle and carting them back for sacrifice.

Aztec Death Whistles

Seems like the Aztecs had a thing for suffering because their wild weaponry didn’t stop at the Macuahuitl. Back in 1999, archeologists made a shocking discovery in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. It was a skeleton, clutching what looked like toy whistles. Though they weren’t toys, but something far more sinister.

Later studies revealed that the victim was holding death whistles. The teeny tiny instruments were an important part of Aztec rituals, supposedly helping guide the spirits of the dead through the afterlife. But, historians believe there may have been an even more fearsome use for these instruments. When blown into, Aztec death whistles emit a scream.

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It’s theorized that the Aztecs used the whistles as a form of psychological warfare. When the Spanish conquistadors clashed with Aztecs in the 16th century, they described the Aztec warriors using drums, shells, and other instruments during battle. Supposedly, the collective sound of hundreds of psychotic screams would’ve been a tactic to confuse and bewilder any enemies that the Aztecs were facing.

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Urumi

A sword is normally a sharp, rigid, bladed weapon but not all ancient swords follow those rules. The Urumi first appeared in India and it looks more like a dog leash than a sword. It’s not known exactly when the sword came into use, but some experts believe it dates back to the Sangam Period, around 1,800 years ago.

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Instead of stabbing, the flexible-edged steel blade of the Urumi enables wielders to use this weapon like a whip. But it’s not always just a single whipping blade doing the damage, far from it! Sri Lankan Urumis can have up to 32 blades, with each one reaching lengths of up to 5 feet!

The sharp edges of the weapon are capable of cutting or tripping an enemy up. On top of that, the bendy blades enable the Urumi to whip around an enemy’s shield, no one’s safe from this thing! Not even the user.

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Without good whipping skills, untrained fighters are just as likely to injure themselves as they are to strike down an enemy. But as brutal as the weapon sounds, there’s something even more badass about it! After finishing swinging and slashing, some Urumi designs can even be wrapped around the wearer’s waist like a belt.

The Lantern Shield

The Italian Renaissance is famous for being an age of discovery, with designs from Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo revolutionizing Western Europe. But there’s one piece of ingenuity that eclipses even the work of the greats. Meet the lantern shield, which, as the name suggests, is a shield with a lantern.

It’s not known who exactly invented this wacky weapon, but it’s thought to originate in 15th-century Italy. The shield wasn’t that big, with a diameter of just under 1 ft. But what it lacked in size, it more than made up for in style. Attached to the shield was an armored glove, with two spikes protruding from it. And if that wasn’t thorny enough, a long straight sword blade was fitted below the armored glove.

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But the craziest thing about the shield wasn’t the elaborate design or its spiky features. It was that soldiers placed a lantern behind the shield, and could pull down on an attached lever to open a little porthole to shine its light out while still having their shield raised. A flame-fueled lantern at the top of your shield doesn’t sound like the brightest idea, no pun intended!

However, the weird weapon wasn’t used in normal combat situations. Instead, the lantern shield was used in night duels. Italian authorities patrolled the city streets at night looking for criminals with their super shields. At first, it may seem unhelpful to have a light beaming out of your shield, after all, it will give away your location to enemies.

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But therein lies the beauty of the weapon. As someone gets closer to the shield, the brightness of the lantern increases, and the harder it is for them to see! Thus, giving the wielder time to strike down their opponent.

The Man-Catcher

Not too long after the Italians began blinding one another with their lantern shields, another incredible weapon emerged in Europe. The creatively named Man Catcher looks like the unholy love child of a litter picker and a pinball machine and is thought to have been used in Europe in the late 1700s. The weapon was made to pick up humans.

It consisted of a pole mounted with a two-pronged head. The prongs could be pushed open, allowing them to fit around most targets’ necks before locking back into a closed position. And, just for extra nastiness, some versions of this weapon were even fitted with inward-facing spikes, meaning if you got caught, struggling was not an option!

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In times of war, the wicked weapon was used to pull men from horseback and drag them to the ground. It may not seem like the most efficient way of slaying your enemy, but that wasn’t always the goal. Opposing knights that were caught alive could be used for ransom, making the man catcher the perfect weapon for plucking out a pricey person.

Most people would assume that this quirky contraption is now confined to the history books, but the man catcher is still popular today! In the 21st century, Japanese police use a modified version of the man catcher. But, luckily they’ve ditched the metal spikes for padding and blunt endpoints.

Chakram

Anyone who’s watched Xena: Warrior Princess will recognize the steel discs as one of the main weapons in her arsenal. But the fearsome frisbee wasn’t just made up for a fictional TV show! The Chakram may not always don the split blade design of the weapons seen on TV but don’t discount the damage these discs can do.

Although its exact origin isn’t known, we do know that from the 16th century, the bladed, circular weapon was used by the Sikh military. Typically each one had a diameter between 5-10 inches, and a flat aerodynamic design, which allowed them to be thrown some 200 feet!

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To help launch the weapon, many users adopt a throwing style known as tajani. To start with, the weapon is twirled on the index finger and then thrown with a flick of the wrist. The spinning and quick flick generates both power and distance to the throw. Plus, by spinning their finger along the blunter inner ring of the weapon, users avoid cutting themselves.

That’s probably a wise thing considering historical texts claim that when used right, the discs have the ability to slice off entire limbs! Due to the incredibly sharp circular blade of the chakram, along with the speed it travels, the weapon keeps rotating even as it penetrates whatever it’s launched into.

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Siege of Caffa

In 1343, the Mongols besieged the city of Caffa, and the siege dragged on for three long years. But by 1346, the desperate Mongol army was struggling to break through. To make matters worse, they were facing a deadly outbreak of the Bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death!

The Bubonic plague was a fatal infection, caused by the bite of infected fleas traveling on rodents. Once bit, victims suffered from high fevers, muscle cramps, and buboes; large circular boils around their armpits and groins. The only blessing is that the suffering didn’t last long, with most of the infected passing away less than eight days after the initial infection.

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Despite the horrors of the Black Death, Mongol ruler Jani Beg refused to abandon the siege. Instead, he came up with a horrific plan. Rather than discard the infected bodies, the Mongols attached them to cannonballs and catapulted them over Caffa’s walls. It was 14th-century biological warfare at its finest!

So, not only did the citizens of Caffa have to deal with having their city surrounded, but now infected corpses were also raining down on them! Despite the efforts of the people of Caffa to dispose of the bodies, the city quickly became infected.

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While Jani Beg’s plan of sending Caffa into meltdown worked, there was also one unintended consequence of the wicked weapon. Those who survived the ordeal sailed to Western Europe, inadvertently bringing the plague with them. And with that, the Black Death ravaged across Europe, with a death toll somewhere around the 50 million mark.

Ōdachi

For centuries, swords have been one of mankind’s most popular weapons. Their variable shapes and weights make them the perfect weapon to carry around and quickly whip out if trouble arises. However, there’s one ancient blade that doesn’t adhere to these rules.

In 14th century Japan, one type of sword reigned supreme: The Ōdachi. Your average Ōdachi measured in at 3 shaku, which was roughly 36 inches. Considering longswords of the time were about the same length, these were pretty long blades. But Ōdachi didn’t stop at 3 shaku. A 5-shaku blade, one that was roughly 60 inches long, was twice the length of your average sword.

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In fact, it was so long that it was impossible to draw from a sheath on the waist. Either the wielder carried it on their back, or they had a servant carry it for them. The difficulty in drawing the sword, its heavy weight, and the shift to fighting with guns, led to the Ōdachi falling out of favor. That’s not to say it disappeared completely, however.

In the 15th century, the Ōdachi Norimitsu was created. This was a 12-shaku sword; double digits, which meant it was 148 inches long, more than 12 feet in total! But, badass as it sounds, it’s likely that this sword was created for ornamental purposes, rather than for Japanese giants. And if you think that’s already a big blade, it pales in comparison to the Haja-no-Ontachi.

This Ōdachi sword, believed to have been forged around the 18th century, has a frankly ridiculous length, stretching over a whopping 15 feet long! For some context, if you were to hold the Haja-no-Ontachi upright, it would reach around the same height as a female giraffe!

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On top of that, the weapon weighs over 165 pounds. It’s no surprise this beast donned the nickname Great Evil-Crushing Blade. Fortunately, the Haja-no-Ontachi was forged purely as a ritual object for religious purposes.

If you were amazed at the most incredible ancient weapons, you might want to read our articles about advanced swords, mythological weapons, and the most incredible armor. Thanks for reading!

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