The Periodic Table of Weapons

Periodic Table of Weapons
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Our Legacy of Violence

Many millions of years ago a chimpanzee patrolling his territory first clenched a fist around a heavy stone to forever rid himself of a rival. For as long as there have been tools there have been weapons. The first were rocks, spears, and clubs – the simplest tools for the task.

The earliest known throwing sticks and spears appeared 400,000 years ago. Humans formed permanent agricultural settlements after the close of the last ice age, and by the 5th century BC had developed both sophisticated cultures based on writing and regional empires based on conquest with bronze weaponry. Settlements were soon fortified against the peril of this aggression, and new weapons were developed to destroy towns and enslave their inhabitants.

Ancient methods of war

Bronze gave way to iron, the sword to the pike, the bow to the longbow, and, eventually, peasant militias led by aristocrats gave way to professional armies led by bureaucratic states. The arts of strategy and tactics developed, and elephants and cavalry charges broke and trampled massed infantry. At the dawn of the modern era, gunpowder pierced the knight's armor with musket balls and blew away the walls of free city-states, assimilating both into a ruthless new order, one shaped more than ever by pervasive violence.

At the close of the modern era, the greatest empires as well as many of their vassal states all possessed the means to commit all human life on earth to destruction in but a few minutes by unleashing terrific atomic forces entirely unknown mere decades before they came to be routinely exploited.

Modern methods of war

Human life, ever fragile, has been made far more so by the passage of time and the accumulation of knowledge. For the technology that advances human safety and security in tangential ways – ranged weaponry for hunting, metal tools for farming – also endangers human lives in fundamental ways – the bow and the spade can be brought deliberately to bear against the same bodies that fists and claws were always more than enough to crush and rend.

It may be destined that human genius will always favor the destruction of life over its preservation. And yet, the latest frontiers of knowledge – nanoscience, biotechnology, and computation – promise to reshape humanity in fundamental ways never before imaginable. Perhaps they will narrow the gap between the capacities of tools to destroy our lives and communities and the capacity of our lives and communities to endure these threats that have determined the shapes of our cultures since as far back in time as we can look. They may even tip the balance entirely. Only time will tell.

The Epochs

Ancient Age

Before Recorded History

As long as there have been humans, there has been conflict. Prehistoric warfare was an intimate affair, conducted on a very small scale. The development of the first ancient city-states allowed for agricultural surplus, which in turn gave rise to centralization and the first organized armies.

Weapons of Note

  • Fists
  • Stone
  • Club
  • Javelin
  • Sling
  • Hand Axe
  • Spear
  • Composite Bow
  • Atlatl

Bronze and Iron Ages

From 3500 BCE to 400 CE

The Bronze and Iron Ages are marked by vast advances in metalworking, which in turn brought about innovations in the manufacture and design of weapons and armor. These eras gave rise to the first dedicated weapons without uses as tools — most notably the sword — and major improvements in siege weaponry.

Weapons of Note

  • Mace
  • Dagger
  • Gladius
  • Catapault
  • Yumi
  • Gastraphetes
  • Trebuchet
  • Crossbow

Middle Ages

From 400 CE to 1500 CE

Major technological, cultural, and political shifts forced a dramatic transformation in the character of warfare from antiquity. Standing armies became commonplace, and tactics changed rapidly to reflect the rise of the castle, advanced bows, heavy cavalry, and gunpowder weaponry.

Weapons of Note

  • flangedmace
  • turkosabre
  • longsword
  • battleaxe
  • pike
  • firelance
  • grenade
  • warhammer
  • scimitar
  • katana
  • pollaxe
  • bill
  • longbow
  • arquebus
  • handcannon
  • cannon
  • bardiche
  • halberd
  • repeatingcrossbow

Early Modern Age

From 1500 CE to 1800 CE

The early modern age is distinguished by the widespread use of gunpowder weaponry and accordingly shifting battlefield tactics. The size and scope of conficts exploded, and armies dominated by heavily armored cavalry gave way to light infantry armed with muskets and mobile field artillery.

Weapons of Note

  • rapier
  • cutlass
  • musket
  • blunderbuss
  • fieldgun

Modern Age

From 1800 CE to Present

Warfare in the modern age is the story of scientific enterprise and industrial mass production. Weapons — particularly small arms — are far easier to use than a sword or bow, and the professional warrior has been supplanted by the conscripted soldier.

Weapons of Note

  • singleshotpistol
  • multishotpistol
  • semiautopistol
  • machinepistol
  • personaldefenseweapon
  • breakshotgun
  • levershotgun
  • pumpshotgun
  • combatshotgun
  • minierifle
  • semiautorifle
  • assaultrifle
  • antimaterielrifle