World War I is often considered the first true ‘modern war’, a conflict fought between industrialised countries equipped with modern weapons. It saw the rise of powerful weapons such as heavy artillery, machine guns and airplanes – and the decline of 19th century weapons like sabres and bayonets. This page contains brief summaries of the most significant weapons of World War I:
The bayonet was a comparatively simple weapon: a bracketed dagger attached to the end of a rifle barrel. Its primary function was to turn the rifle into a thrusting weapon, so its owner could attack the enemy without drawing too close. Bayonet charges were designed for psychological impact: men were trained to advance in rows, with faces contorted, lungs blaring and bayonets thrusting. Small arms and machine guns made these charges largely ineffective, but they were effective propaganda. When not employed as weapons, bayonets were detached and used as all-purpose tools, used for anything from digging to opening canned food.
The rifle was standard issue for infantrymen from each country: it was relatively cheap to produce, reliable, accurate and easy to carry. British soldiers were issued with the Lee-Enfield 303, while most Germans received a 7.92mm Mauser. Both were known for their durability and long range (both could fire accurately at around 500 metres, while the Enfield could potentially kill a man two kilometres away). But this long range was largely wasted on the Western Front, where distances between trenches could be as low as 40 metres. Rifle cleaning, maintenance and drilling occupied a good deal of an infantry soldier’s daily routine.
In World War I, pistols or revolvers were issued mainly to officers. Enlisted soldiers only received pistols if they were required in specialist duties, such as military police work or in tank crews, where rifles would be too unwieldy. The most famous pistol of the war was the German-made Luger, with its distinctive shape, narrow barrel and seven-shot magazine. British officers were issued with the Webley Mark IV, a reliable if somewhat ‘clunky’ weapon. The Webley could reportedly fire even when caked with mud – but it was also heavy and difficult to fire accurately. For this reason many British officers resorted to using captured Lugers. Pistols were not usually a significant weapon, though they were sometimes important as concealed weapons, or for close combat in the trenches.
The image of infantrymen charging pointlessly into machine gun fire is a common motif of the war. There were fewer machine guns deployed in the war than is commonly thought – but where used they often proved deadly. At the outbreak of war Germany had the upper hand in both the quality and quantity of machine guns. The German army had more than 10,000 units in 1914, while the British and French had fewer than 1,000 each. Machine guns of the time were capable of firing up to 500 rounds per minute – but they were cumbersome, very heavy (often more than 50 kilograms) and required at least three well trained men to set up and operate effectively. Their rapid rate of fire also caused machine guns to quickly overheat, requiring elaborate water and air based cooling systems to prevent them from jamming or exploding.
Grenades are small bombs, thrown by hand or launched from a rifle attachment, which are detonated on impact or by a timer. Germany, as it did for other small arms, led the way in grenade development. Early British models like the Mark I (a cylindrical device attached to a long stick) were awkward to use and prone to accidental detonation. These were superseded by the pineapple-shaped Mills bomb, with its safety pin and firing lever. Mills bombs were produced with four and seven second fuses. Allied soldiers were trained to hurl Mills bombs over-arm – in fact the best cricket players were often co-opted as grenade specialists.
Essentially a 1-2 man small-calibre artillery piece, mortars launched grenades or small bombs short distances. Since most focus had been on long-range artillery, mortars had fallen out of favour (in 1914 Germany had just 150 mortars, Britain barely any). But the development of trench warfare created an important use for mortars: they could be fired from the safety of a trench, lobbing explosives into enemy trenches from on high. Mortars were often used to target machine-gun nests, sniper positions or smaller defensive positions. They made a distinctive ‘whoomp’ sound when launched, which was often a signal to take cover.
No development had a greater effect on the battlefields of World War I than heavy artillery. Artillery pieces were essentially huge cannons that fired explosive rounds against enemy positions, causing enormous damage to men, equipment and the landscape. During World War I they become larger, easier to handle and more accurate in their fire; they were also mobile, though moving large artillery guns became difficult if not impossible in ragged or muddy areas. There was no denying the deadly impact of artillery: more soldiers were killed by exploding shells and shrapnel than any other weapon of the Great War. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, almost 1.8 million shells were fired on German lines in the space of a week. The largest single artillery piece was the German-built ‘Paris gun’, used to shell the French capital from 120 kilometres away.
Tanks were another of World War I’s legacies to modern warfare. These large armoured carriers, impervious to rifle and machine-gun fire, were initially called ‘landships’. When the first prototypes were being developed, the British military’s cover story was that they were building ‘mobile water tanks’, hence the name. The first British tank, the Mark I, was rushed into battle at the Somme and proved susceptible to breakdown and immobility. But designers and operators soon learned from these problems, and by late 1917 the tank was proving a most useful offensive weapon – though none of them could move faster than just a few kilometres per hour.
Mines were large bombs or explosive charges, planted underground and detonated remotely or by the impact of soldiers’ feet. Navies also used sea mines, which floated on the ocean and exploded on contact with ships. The relatively immobile warfare of the Western Front meant there was little use for anti-personnel mines – however trench soldiers often dug tunnels to plant huge mines under enemy trenches and positions. One such attack occurred at Hill 60 during the Battle of Messines (June 1917) where Australian tunnelling specialists detonated 450,000 kilograms of underground explosives, killing thousands of German troops.
Barbed wire and caltrops (single iron spikes scattered on the ground) were used extensively in ‘no man’s land’ to stop enemy advances on one’s own trench. Barbed wire was laid as screens or ‘aprons’, installed by wiring parties who often worked at night. Attacking infantry often found large barbed wire screens impossible to penetrate; many died slow lingering deaths entangled in the wire. The positioning of wire often had strategic purpose: it could keep the enemy out of grenade range from the trench, or funnel them toward machine-gun positions. More than one million kilometres of barbed wire was used on the Western Front.
Flamethrowers, pioneered by the Germans but not widely used, were terrifying weapons. Usually wielded by an individual soldier sporting a backpack or tank, flamethrowers used pressurised gas to spurt burning oil or gasoline up to 40 metres. Their chief use was as a trench clearing weapon: the burning fuel filled trenches, landing on both equipment and people and forcing them to withdraw. But the comparatively short range of flamethrowers required their carriers to be within close proximity of the enemy, where they were easy pickings for a competent rifleman. The British experimented with a larger fixed-position flamethrower, using it to clear frontline trenches at the Somme.
Torpedoes are self propelled missiles that can be launched from submarines or ships, or dropped into the sea from the undercarriage of planes. The first torpedoes, produced in the 1870s, ran on compressed air and were slow and inaccurate. The German navy pioneered the diesel powered motorised torpedo. By 1914 German torpedoes could travel at up to 75 kilometres per hour over a range of several miles. This gave German U-boats a deadly advantage over Allied ships, particularly lightly armed naval vessels and unarmed civilian shipping. As the war progressed the British made rapid advances in torpedoes and sank at least 18 German U-boats with them.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Weapons of World War I” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/weapons/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].
By HistoryNet Staff
7/25/2014 • Drafts, Gear
“Military science develops so rapidly in times of actual war that the weapons of today soon is (sic) discarded and something better taken up.”—Attributed to a German agent in Rotterdam in 1915 news stories.
Humans proved themselves remarkably ingenuous and adaptable when it came to finding new ways to maim and kill during the First World War. The list below explores many of the weapons used to produce millions of casualties in four short years.
Rifles. All nations used more than one type of firearm during the First World War. The rifles most commonly used by the major combatants were, among the Allies, the Lee-Enfield .303 (Britain and Commonwealth), Lebel and Berthier 8mm (France), Mannlicher-Carcano M1891, 6.5mm (Italy), Mosin-Nagant M1891 7.62 (Russia), and Springfield 1903 .30–06 (USA). The Central Powers employed Steyr-Mannlicher M95 (Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), Mauser M98G 7.92mm (Germany), and Mauser M1877 7.65mm (Turkey). The American Springfield used a bolt-action design that so closely copied Mauser’s M1989 that the US Government had to pay a licensing fee to Mauser, a practice that continued until America entered the war.
Machine guns. Most machine guns of World War 1 were based on Hiram Maxim’s 1884 design. They had a sustained fire of 450–600 rounds per minute, allowing defenders to cut down attacking waves of enemy troops like a scythe cutting wheat. There was some speculation that the machine gun would completely replace the rifle. Contrary to popular belief, machine guns were not the most lethal weapon of the Great War. That dubious distinction goes to the artillery.
Flamethrowers. Reports of infantry using some sort of flamethrowing device can be found as far back as ancient China. During America’s Civil War some Southern newspapers claimed Abraham Lincoln had observed a test of such a weapon. But the first recorded use of hand-held flamethrowers in combat was on February 26, 1915, when the Germans deployed the weapon at Malancourt, near Verdun. Tanks carried on a man’s back used nitrogen pressure to spray fuel oil, which was ignited as it left the muzzle of a small, hand-directed pipe. Over the course of the war, Germany utilized 3,000 Flammenwerfer troops; over 650 flamethrower attacks were made. The British and French both developed flamethrowing weapons but did not make such extensive use of them.
Mortars. Mortars of World War I were far advanced beyond their earlier counterparts. The British introduced the Stokes mortar design in 1915, which had no moving parts and could fire up to 22 three-inch shells per minute, with a range of 1,200 yards. The Germans developed a mortar (minenwerfer, or “mine thrower”) that had a 10-inch barrel and fired shells loaded with metal balls.
Artillery. The 20th century’s most significant leap in traditional weapons technology was the increased lethality of artillery due to improvements in gun design, range and ammunition‚—a fact that was all too clear in the Great War, when artillery killed more people than any other weapon did. Some giant guns could hurl projectiles so far that crews had to take into account the rotation of the earth when plotting their fire. Among smaller field guns, the French 75mm cannon developed a reputation among their German opponents as the “Devil Gun.” French commanders claimed it won the war. French 75 mm field guns also saw action in the Second World War, during which some were modified by the Germans into anti-tank guns with limited success.
Poison gas. On April 22, 1915, German artillery fired cylinders containing chlorine gas in the Ypres area, the beginning of gas attacks in the First World War. Other nations raced to create their own battlefield gases, and both sides found ways to increase the severity and duration of the gases they fired on enemy troop concentrations. Chlorine gas attacked the eyes and respiratory system; mustard gas did the same but also caused blistering on any exposed skin. Comparatively few men died from gas. Most returned to active service after treatment, but the weapon incapacitated large numbers of troops temporarily and spread terror wherever it was used. The use of poison gas was outlawed by international law following the war, but it has been used in some later conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88).
Tanks. Ideas for “land battleships” go back at least as far as the Medieval Era; plans for one are included among the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. The long-sought weapon became reality during the First World War. “Tank” was the name the British used as they secretly developed the weapon, and it stuck, even though the French simultaneously developed the Renault RT light armored vehicle, which had a traversable turret, unlike the British designs. (Various reasons have been given for choosing the name “tank,” from shells that were shaped like water-carriers to the British concealing construction of their secret weapon under the guise of making irrigation tanks for sale to Russia.) The first British tank (“Little Willie”) weighed approximately 14 tons, had a top speed of three mph, and broke down frequently. Improved tanks were deployed during the war, but breakdowns remained a significant problem that led many commanders to believe the tank would never play a major role in warfare. The Germans developed an armored fighting vehicle only in response to the British and French deploying tanks. The only German design of the war, A7V, was an awe-inspiring but cumbersome beast that resembled a one-story building on treads.
Initially, tanks were doled out in small numbers to support infantry attacks. The Battle of Cambrai, November 20, 1917, is generally regarded as the first use of massed tank formations; the British deployed over 470 of them for that battle. However, the French had already successfully employed 76 tanks during the battle at Malmaison on October 23, 1917, one of the most impressive French victories of the Great War.
Aircraft. The air war of World War I continues to fascinate as much as it did at the time. This amazing new technology proved far more useful than most military and political leaders anticipated. Initially used only for reconnaissance, before long planes were armed with machine guns. Once Anthony Fokker developed a method to synchronize a machine gun’s fire with the rotation of the propeller, the airplane became a true weapon.
Early aircraft were flimsy, kite-like designs of lightweight wood, fabric and wires. The 80–120 horsepower engines used in 1914 produced top speeds of 100 mph or less; four years later speed had nearly doubled. Protection for pilots remained elusive, but most pilots disdained carrying parachutes regardless. Over the course of the war multi-engine bombers were developed, the largest being Germany’s “Giant” with a wingspan of 138 feet and four engines. It had a range of about 500 miles and a bomb-load capacity of 4,400 lbs., although in long-range operations, such as bombing London, Giants carried only about half that much.
Submarines. Britain, France, Russia and the United States of America had all developed submarine forces before Germany began development of its Unterzeeboats (Undersea boats, or U-boats) in 1906, but during World War I submarines came to be particularly associated with the Imperial German Navy, which used them to try to bridge the gap in naval strength it suffered compared to Britain’s Royal Navy. Longer-range U-boats were developed and torpedo quality improved during the war. Submarines could strike unseen from beneath the waves with torpedoes but also surfaced to use their deck gun. One tactic was for the low-riding subs to slip in among a convoy of ships while surfaced, attack and dive. An unsuccessful post-war effort was made to ban submarine warfare, as was done with poison gas.