The greatest drawback of muskets was that they were of little use in close quarters. Without blades, points or purpose built crushing surfaces, their wielders were at a disadvantage up close. As a result, they were fielded alongside infantry armed with melee weapons. 17th century Europe saw infantry fielded in alternating blocks of pikemen and musketeers. Half the army was no use at long range, and the other half vulnerable at close quarters.
Becoming popular in the late 17th century, the bayonet was a blade that could be attached to the end of a musket, transforming it into a stabbing weapon. Musketeers now had a weapon with enough reach and deadly potential to hold their own against cavalry charges and other close quarter attacks. Early bayonets used a plug system, being shoved into the end of the musket, but this prevented their users from firing just before close combat. The offset ring bayonet, which quickly became popular among European armies, let generals equip all of their infantry the same way, becoming deadly both at range and up close.
Invented in late 15th century Germany, but not widely used until the 19th century, the rifling of gun barrels allowed a further transformation in their use.
Smooth bore weapons such as the musket were wildly inaccurate. By adding grooves to the inside of the barrel, rifling spun the ball, making it travel in a far straighter line. Though initially used by the same large blocks of infantry as the musket, the rifle turned infantry warfare back around. With suitable training and experience, men with guns could accurately hit one another.
Rifling led the way to modern infantry warfare, with individual targeting, loose formations and even snipers.
The Interrupter Machine Gun
It took centuries of development for cannons to allow ships to fight one another, instead of being fighting platforms for groups of infantry. Under the intense pressure of World War One, it took only a year for airplanes to undergo the same transformation.
In the early stages of the war, pilots fought in the skies for the first time. Initially used to scout out enemy forces, they soon became scenes of combat. Pilots took pistols and bombs into the sky, then mounted weapons on their aircraft to attack each other. But they faced a problem – to sight along a weapon, they needed it mounted in line with the aircraft, and doing this created the near certainty of shooting out their own propeller blades.
Several less reliable options were tried before the Germans introduced the Fokker-Leimberger interrupter gun. First fielded in July 1915, its ingenious mechanisms prevented it from firing while the propeller was in the way. Pilots could now use their whole planes as deadly weapons. True aerial warfare had arrived.
Though only used in anger twice, the atomic bomb transformed the strategic and political face of war. The huge scale of its destructive power led to a scaling back of conflicts, as the most powerful militaries in the world stopped fighting each other for fear of mutually assured destruction. Instead they reverted to proxy wars and local conflicts, throwing their influence and resources into other people’s fights in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The increasingly massive wars the great powers engaged in from the 18th to the 20th century came to an end, for now at least.
The shadow cast by the cloud over Hiroshima had ended the vast conflicts the great powers once engaged in. A weapon need not be used to make the battlefield a very different place.