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Selection of weapons collected by security officers at an airport Dangerous weapons seized from holiday flights at Manchester Airport.jpg
Selection of weapons collected by security officers at an airport

A weapon, arm, or armament is any implement or device that is used to deter, threaten, inflict physical damage, harm, or kill. Weapons are used to increase the efficacy and efficiency of activities such as hunting, crime (e.g. murder), law enforcement, self-defense, warfare, or suicide. In broader context, weapons may be construed to include anything used to gain a tactical, strategic, material, or mental advantage over an adversary or enemy target.


While ordinary objects such as sticks, rocks, bottles, chairs, and vehicles can be used as weapons, many objects are expressly designed for the purpose; these range from simple implements such as clubs, axes, spears, and swords, to complicated modern firearms, tanks, intercontinental ballistic missiles, biological weapons, and cyberweapons. Something that has been re-purposed, converted, or enhanced to become a weapon of war is termed weaponized, such as a weaponized virus or weaponized laser.


The use of weapons is a major driver of cultural evolution and human history up to today, since weapons are a type of tool which is used to dominate and subdue autonomous agents such as animals and by that allow for an expansion of the cultural niche, while simultaneously other weapon users (i.e., agents such as humans, groups, cultures) are able to adapt to weapons of enemies by learning, triggering a continuous process of competitive technological, skill and cognitive improvement (arms race). [1]


An array of Neolithic artifacts, including bracelets, axe heads, chisels, and polishing tools Neolithique 0001.jpg
An array of Neolithic artifacts, including bracelets, axe heads, chisels, and polishing tools

The use of objects as weapons has been observed among chimpanzees, [2] leading to speculation that early hominids used weapons as early as five million years ago. [3] However, this can not be confirmed using physical evidence because wooden clubs, spears, and unshaped stones would have left an ambiguous record. The earliest unambiguous weapons to be found are the Schöningen spears, eight wooden throwing spears dating back more than 300,000 years. [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] At the site of Nataruk in Turkana, Kenya, numerous human skeletons dating to 10,000 years ago may present evidence of traumatic injuries to the head, neck, ribs, knees and hands, including obsidian projectiles embedded in the bones that might have been caused from arrows and clubs during conflict between two hunter-gatherer groups. [9] But the evidence's interpretation of warfare at Nataruk has been challenged. [10]

Ancient history

A balls wheeled ballista drawn by armored cataphract horses, c. 400 Ballista-quadrirotis.jpeg
A balls wheeled ballista drawn by armored cataphract horses, c.400

The earliest ancient weapons were evolutionary improvements of late Neolithic implements, but significant improvements in materials and crafting techniques led to a series of revolutions in military technology.

The development of metal tools began with copper during the Copper Age (about 3,300 BC) and was followed by the Bronze Age, leading to the creation of the Bronze Age sword and similar weapons.

During the Bronze Age, the first defensive structures and fortifications appeared as well, [11] indicating an increased need for security. Weapons designed to breach fortifications followed soon after, such as the battering ram, which was in use by 2500 BC. [11]

The development of iron-working around 1300 BC in Greece had an important impact on the development of ancient weapons. It was not the introduction of early Iron Age swords, however, as they were not superior to their bronze predecessors, but rather the domestication of the horse and widespread use of spoked wheels by c.2000 BC. [12] This led to the creation of the light, horse-drawn chariot, whose improved mobility proved important during this era.[ citation needed ] Spoke-wheeled chariot usage peaked around 1300 BC and then declined, ceasing to be militarily relevant by the 4th century BC. [13]

Cavalry developed once horses were bred to support the weight of a human. [14] The horse extended the range and increased the speed of attacks.

In addition to land based weaponry, warships, such as the trireme, were in use by the 7th century BC. [15]

Post-classical history

Medieval Indian weapons Racinet1.jpg
Medieval Indian weapons

European warfare during the Post-classical history was dominated by elite groups of knights supported by massed infantry (both in combat and ranged roles). They were involved in mobile combat and sieges which involved various siege weapons and tactics. Knights on horseback developed tactics for charging with lances providing an impact on the enemy formations and then drawing more practical weapons (such as swords) once they entered into the melee. By contrast, infantry, in the age before structured formations, relied on cheap, sturdy weapons such as spears and billhooks in close combat and bows from a distance. As armies became more professional, their equipment was standardized and infantry transitioned to pikes. Pikes are normally seven to eight feet in length, and used in conjunction with smaller side-arms (short sword).

Ancient Chinese cannon displayed in the Tower of London Tower of London interior.jpg
Ancient Chinese cannon displayed in the Tower of London

In Eastern and Middle Eastern warfare, similar tactics were developed independent of European influences.

The introduction of gunpowder from Asia at the end of this period revolutionized warfare. Formations of musketeers, protected by pikemen came to dominate open battles, and the cannon replaced the trebuchet as the dominant siege weapon.

Modern history

Early modern

The European Renaissance marked the beginning of the implementation of firearms in western warfare. Guns and rockets were introduced to the battlefield.

Firearms are qualitatively different from earlier weapons because they release energy from combustible propellants such as gunpowder, rather than from a counter-weight or spring. This energy is released very rapidly and can be replicated without much effort by the user. Therefore even early firearms such as the arquebus were much more powerful than human-powered weapons. Firearms became increasingly important and effective during the 16th to 19th century, with progressive improvements in ignition mechanisms followed by revolutionary changes in ammunition handling and propellant. During the American Civil War new applications of firearms including the machine gun and ironclad warship emerged that would still be recognizable and useful military weapons today, particularly in limited conflicts. In the 19th century warship propulsion changed from sail power to fossil fuel-powered steam engines.

The bayonet is used as both a knife and, when attached to the front of a rifle, a polearm. Prussian bayonet clean.jpg
The bayonet is used as both a knife and, when attached to the front of a rifle, a polearm.

Since the mid-18th century North American French-Indian war through the beginning of the 20th century, human-powered weapons were reduced from the primary weaponry of the battlefield yielding to gunpowder-based weaponry. Sometimes referred to as the "Age of Rifles", [16] this period was characterized by the development of firearms for infantry and cannons for support, as well as the beginnings of mechanized weapons such as the machine gun. Artillery pieces such as howitzers were able to destroy masonry fortresses and other fortifications, and this single invention caused a revolution in military affairs, establishing tactics and doctrine that are still in use today.

World War I

The Vickers was the successor to the Maxim gun and remained in British military service for 79 consecutive years. Vickers machine gun in the Battle of Passchendaele - September 1917.jpg
The Vickers was the successor to the Maxim gun and remained in British military service for 79 consecutive years.

An important feature of industrial age warfare was technological escalation – innovations were rapidly matched through replication or countered by another innovation.

World War I marked the entry of fully industrialized warfare as well as weapons of mass destruction (e.g., chemical and biological weapons), and new weapons were developed quickly to meet wartime needs. The technological escalation during World War I was profound, including the wide introduction of aircraft into warfare, and naval warfare with the introduction of aircraft carriers. Above all, it promised to the military commanders the independence from the horse and the resurgence in maneuver warfare through extensive use of motor vehicles. The changes that these military technologies underwent were evolutionary, but defined the development for the rest of the century.[ This paragraph needs citation(s) ]


This period of innovation in weapon design continued in the inter-war period (between WWI and WWII) with continuous evolution of weapon systems by all major industrial powers. The major armament firms were Schneider-Creusot (based in France), Škoda Works (Czechoslovakia), and Vickers (Great Britain). The 1920s were committed to disarmament and outlawing of war and poison gas, but rearmament picked up rapidly in the 1930s. The munitions makers responded nimbly to the rapidly shifting strategic and economic landscape. The main purchasers of munitions from the big three companies were Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey and, to a lesser extent, in Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, and the Soviet Union. [17]

Criminalizing poison gas

Realistic critics understood that war could not really be outlawed, but its worst excesses might be banned. Poison gas became the focus of a worldwide crusade in the 1920s. Poison gas did not win battles, and the generals did not want it. The soldiers hated it far more intensely than bullets or explosive shells. By 1918, chemical shells made up 35 per cent of French ammunition supplies, 25 per cent of British, and 20 per cent of the American stock. The “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare”, also known as the Geneva Protocol, was issued in 1925, and was accepted as policy by all major countries. In 1937 poison gas was manufactured in large quantities, but not used except against nations that lacked modern weapons or gas masks. [18] [19]

World War II and postwar

A variety of firearms from the World War II and postwar eras on a firearm rack Victory Show Cosby UK 06-09-2015 WW2 re-enactment Trade stalls Militaria personal gear replicas reprod.originals zaphad1 Flickr CCBY2.0 Misc. machine guns weapons etc IMG 3874.jpg
A variety of firearms from the World War II and postwar eras on a firearm rack

Many modern military weapons, particularly ground-based ones, are relatively minor improvements of weapon systems developed during World War II. World War II marked perhaps the most frantic period of weapons development in the history of humanity. Massive numbers of new designs and concepts were fielded, and all existing technologies were improved between 1939 and 1945. The most powerful weapon invented during this period was the nuclear bomb, however many other weapons influenced the world such as jet aircraft and radar, but were overshadowed by the visibility of nuclear weapons and long-range rockets.[ This paragraph needs citation(s) ]

Nuclear weapons

Since the realization of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the nuclear option of all-out war is no longer considered a survivable scenario. During the Cold War in the years following World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a nuclear arms race. Each country and their allies continually attempted to out-develop each other in the field of nuclear armaments. Once the joint technological capabilities reached the point of being able to ensure the destruction of the Earth x100 fold, then a new tactic had to be developed. With this realization, armaments development funding shifted back to primarily sponsoring the development of conventional arms technologies for support of limited wars rather than total war. [20]


By user

– what person or unit uses the weapon

By function

– the construction of the weapon and principle of operation

By target

– the type of target the weapon is designed to attack

Manufacture of weapons

Ordnance being produced at Pantex in Amarillo, Texas, United States during World War II Pantex ordance plant 1944-01-26.jpg
Ordnance being produced at Pantex in Amarillo, Texas, United States during World War II

The arms industry is a global industry that involves the sales and manufacture of weaponry. It consists of a commercial industry involved in the research and development, engineering, production, and servicing of military material, equipment, and facilities. Many industrialized countries have a domestic arms-industry to supply their own military forces – and some also have a substantial trade in weapons for use by its citizens, for self-defence, hunting or sporting purposes.

Contracts to supply a given country's military are awarded by governments, making arms contracts of substantial political importance. The link between politics and the arms trade can result in the development a "military–industrial complex", where the armed forces, commerce, and politics become closely linked.

According to research institute SIPRI, the volume of international transfers of major weapons in 2010–14 was 16 percent higher than in 2005–2009, [22] and the arms sales of the world’s 100 largest private arms-producing and military services companies totalled $420 billion in 2018. [23]


The production, possession, trade and use of many weapons are controlled. This may be at a local or central government level, or international treaty. Examples of such controls include:

Gun laws

All countries have laws and policies regulating aspects such as the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification and use of small arms by civilians.

Countries which regulate access to firearms will typically restrict access to certain categories of firearms and then restrict the categories of persons who may be granted a license for access to such firearms. There may be separate licenses for hunting, sport shooting (a.k.a. target shooting), self-defense, collecting, and concealed carry, with different sets of requirements, permissions, and responsibilities.

Arms control laws

International treaties and agreements place restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation and usage of weapons from small arms and heavy weapons to weapons of mass destruction. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country.

Arms trafficking laws

Arms trafficking is the trafficking of contraband weapons and ammunition. What constitutes legal trade in firearms varies widely, depending on local and national laws.

Lifecycle problems

There are a number of issue around the potential ongoing risks from deployed weapons, the safe storage of weapons, and their eventual disposal when no longer effective or safe.

In science fiction

Strange and exotic weapons are a recurring feature or theme in science fiction. In some cases, weapons first introduced in science fiction have now been made a reality. Other science fiction weapons such as force fields and stasis fields remain purely fictional, and are often beyond the realms of known physical possibility.

At its most prosaic, science fiction features an endless variety of sidearms, mostly variations on real weapons such as guns and swords. Among the best-known of these are the phaser used in the Star Trek television series, films and novels and the lightsaber and blaster featured in the Star Wars movies, comics, novels and TV series.

In addition to adding action and entertainment value, weaponry in science fiction sometimes become themes when they touch on deeper concerns, often motivated by contemporary issues. One example is science fiction that deals with weapons of mass destruction like doomsday devices.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Artillery</span> Long-ranged guns for land warfare

Artillery are ranged weapons that launch munitions far beyond the range and power of infantry firearms. Early artillery development focused on the ability to breach defensive walls and fortifications during sieges, and led to heavy, fairly immobile siege engines. As technology improved, lighter, more mobile field artillery cannons developed for battlefield use. This development continues today; modern self-propelled artillery vehicles are highly mobile weapons of great versatility generally providing the largest share of an army's total firepower.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Infantry</span> Soldiers who fight on the ground on foot

Infantry is a specialization of military personnel who engage in ground combat on foot. Infantry generally consists of light infantry, irregular infantry, heavy infantry, mountain infantry, motorized infantry, mechanized infantry, airborne infantry, air assault infantry, and naval infantry. Other types of infantry, such as line infantry and mounted infantry, were once commonplace but fell out of favor in the 1800s with the invention of more accurate and powerful weapons.

A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head. The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with fire hardened spears, or it may be made of a more durable material fastened to the shaft, such as bone, flint, obsidian, copper, bronze, iron, or steel. The most common design for hunting and/or warfare, since ancient times has incorporated a metal spearhead shaped like a triangle, diamond, or leaf. The heads of fishing spears usually feature multiple sharp points, with or without barbs.

Arms control is a term for international restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation and usage of small arms, conventional weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. Historically, arms control may apply to melee weapons before the invention of firearm. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants through international treaties and agreements, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chemical warfare</span> Using poison gas or other toxins in war

Chemical warfare (CW) involves using the toxic properties of chemical substances as weapons. This type of warfare is distinct from nuclear warfare, biological warfare and radiological warfare, which together make up CBRN, the military acronym for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear, all of which are considered "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs), a term that contrasts with conventional weapons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Disarmament</span> Act of reducing, limiting, or abolishing weapons, usually on a national scale

Disarmament is the act of reducing, limiting, or abolishing weapons. Disarmament generally refers to a country's military or specific type of weaponry. Disarmament is often taken to mean total elimination of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear arms. General and Complete Disarmament was defined by the United Nations General Assembly as the elimination of all WMD, coupled with the “balanced reduction of armed forces and conventional armaments, based on the principle of undiminished security of the parties with a view to promoting or enhancing stability at a lower military level, taking into account the need of all States to protect their security.”

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Military technology</span> Application of technology for use in warfare

Military technology is the application of technology for use in warfare. It comprises the kinds of technology that are distinctly military in nature and not civilian in application, usually because they lack useful or legal civilian applications, or are dangerous to use without appropriate military training.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Projectile</span> Object propelled through the air

A projectile is an object that is propelled by the application of an external force and then moves freely under the influence of gravity and air resistance. Although any objects in motion through space are projectiles, they are commonly found in warfare and sports.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Non-lethal weapon</span> Weapon intended to be less likely to kill a living target than conventional weapons

Non-lethal weapons, also called nonlethal weapons, less-lethal weapons, less-than-lethal weapons, non-deadly weapons, compliance weapons, or pain-inducing weapons are weapons intended to be less likely to kill a living target than conventional weapons such as knives and firearms with live ammunition. It is often understood that unintended or incidental casualties are risked wherever force is applied, but non-lethal weapons try to minimise the risk of casualties as much as possible. Non-lethal weapons are used in policing and combat situations to limit the escalation of conflict where employment of lethal force is prohibited or undesirable, where rules of engagement require minimum casualties, or where policy restricts the use of conventional force. However, these weapons occasionally cause serious injuries or death due to allergic reactions, improper use and/or other factors; for this reason the term "less-lethal" has been preferred by some organizations as it describes the risks of death more accurately than the term "non-lethal", which some have argued is a misnomer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Siege engine</span> Pre-gunpowder fortress-warfare machines

A siege engine is a device that is designed to break or circumvent heavy castle doors, thick city walls and other fortifications in siege warfare. Some are immobile, constructed in place to attack enemy fortifications from a distance, while others have wheels to enable advancing up to the enemy fortification. There are many distinct types, such as siege towers that allow foot soldiers to scale walls and attack the defenders, battering rams that damage walls or gates, and large ranged weapons that attack from a distance by launching projectiles. Some complex siege engines were combinations of these types.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">United Kingdom and weapons of mass destruction</span>

The United Kingdom possesses, or has possessed, a variety of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The United Kingdom is one of the five official nuclear weapon states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The UK renounced the use of chemical and biological weapons in 1956 and subsequently destroyed its general stocks.

Ancient warfare is war that was conducted from the beginning of recorded history to the end of the ancient period. The difference between prehistoric and ancient warfare is more organization oriented than technology oriented. The development of first city-states, and then empires, allowed warfare to change dramatically. Beginning in Mesopotamia, states produced sufficient agricultural surplus. This allowed full-time ruling elites and military commanders to emerge. While the bulk of military forces were still farmers, the society could portion off each year. Thus, organized armies developed for the first time. These new armies were able to help states grow in size and become increasingly centralized.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Early thermal weapons</span> Weapons during the classical and medieval periods that used heat or burning for damage

Early thermal weapons, which used heat or burning action to destroy or damage enemy personnel, fortifications or territories, were employed in warfare during the classical and medieval periods.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ranged weapon</span> Any weapon that can engage targets beyond hand-to-hand distance

A ranged weapon is any weapon that can engage targets beyond hand-to-hand distance, i.e. at distances greater than the physical reach of the user holding the weapon itself. The act of using such a weapon is also known as shooting. It is sometimes also called projectile weapon or missile weapon because it typically works by launching solid projectiles ("missiles"), though technically a fluid-projector and a directed-energy weapon are also ranged weapons. In contrast, a weapon intended to be used in hand-to-hand combat is called a melee weapon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Industrial warfare</span> Mass produced weapons on a grand scale

Industrial warfare is a period in the history of warfare ranging roughly from the early 19th century and the start of the Industrial Revolution to the beginning of the Atomic Age, which saw the rise of nation-states, capable of creating and equipping large armies, navies, and air forces, through the process of industrialization.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to military science:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Underwater firearm</span> Firearms that can be effectively fired underwater

An underwater firearm is a firearm designed for use underwater. Underwater firearms or needleguns usually fire flechettes or spear-like bolts instead of standard bullets. These may be fired by pressurised gas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gun</span> Device that launches projectiles

A gun is a device designed to propel a projectile using pressure or explosive force. The projectiles are typically solid, but can also be pressurized liquid, or gas. Solid projectiles may be free-flying or tethered. A large-caliber gun is also called a cannon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of weapons</span>

Major innovations in the history of weapons have included the adoption of different materials – from stone and wood to different metals, and modern synthetic materials such as plastics – and the developments of different weapon styles either to fit the terrain or to support or counteract different battlefield tactics and defensive equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chemical weapon</span> Device that uses chemicals to kill or harm individuals

A chemical weapon (CW) is a specialized munition that uses chemicals formulated to inflict death or harm on humans. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), this can be any chemical compound intended as a weapon "or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves."


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