Leonardo’s War Machines – The Italian Genius May Have Deliberately Sabotaged His Own Designs

Born in the Tuscan town of Vinci on the 15th of April, 1452, Leonardo  Da Vinci is perhaps best known as the painter of the Mona Lisa. But he was also a sculptor, anatomist, inventor, scientist, and engineer.

Born into humble circumstances, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant woman. He displayed artistic talent at an early age and was sent to Florence at the age of fifteen to train as an artist.

In those times, an artist was regarded only as a skilled tradesman, like a blacksmith or a potter, and would be apprenticed to a master to learn their trade. Fortunately for Leonardo, he was apprenticed to the renowned Renaissance master Andrea Del Verrocchio, who was already highly regarded in Italian Society.

Years later, having established his reputation as an artist, Leonardo was living in Milan when, in 1499, war broke out. Milan came under attack from the French army and Leonardo fled for Venice.  There he found employment as a military architect and engineer.

Although Leonardo was a well-established artist, these were difficult times. He would not have been in a position to turn down paid work, despite the fact that his personal philosophy seemed to lean towards pacifism and vegetarianism.

However, a closer look at the inventions he created during this work shows us a man who was not only ahead of his time, but who was also, possibly, one step ahead of his employers…

Leonardo Da Vinci (Wikipedia)
Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Tank

Leonardo Da Vinci’s armored car was the fore-runner of the modern tank. It could move in any direction while carrying a large number of heavy weapons. As well as its practical use it was also intended to intimidate and disperse the opposing troops. Leonardo understood the psychology of battle and knew that this was an important tactic.

The design involves a rotating circular platform which carries a number of light canons able to rotate a full 360 degrees. The covering is shaped like a tortoise shell and is made of reinforced steel plates. The sloping design of the plates is better for deflecting enemy fire. To help guide the missiles and steer the tank, there is a sighting turret at the top.

Model of Leonardo's robot with inner workings, on display in Berlin.
Model of Leonardo’s robot with inner workings, on display in Berlin.

Without the benefits of modern engineering, the biggest task was how to keep it moving. Although horse power might have been most effective, Leonardo was worried that the horses’ behavior could be unpredictable in the confined space of the tank so he dismissed the idea and instead opted for man power. Eight men would be required to turn the cranks inside the tank to keep the wheels moving.

The tank, however, was never put into production during Leonardo’s lifetime. If it had, it would have been discovered to be completely useless. Although it seemed like every aspect of the designed had been thought through,  a major flaw has since been discovered. Modern attempts to construct the tank from Leonardo’s designs revealed that the cranks which moved the wheels were set in the wrong direction making it impossible for the tank to go forward.

Da Vinci's Tank (Wikipedia)
Da Vinci’s Tank.



Considering what we know about the Leonardo, it seems unlikely that such an obvious mistake could have simply slipped past by unnoticed. The most likely theory appears to be that Leonardo never wanted the tank to put into action, and this was his way of ensuring that it wasn’t.

It’s anyone’s guess what might have happened if this fault had been discovered at the time. Would it have simply been passed off as incompetence or would it have been seen as an act of treason?

Model of Leonardo Armored Vehicle in Milan. Photo Credit.
Model of Leonardo Armored Vehicle in Milan. Catalogo collezioni – CC-BY SA 4.0


The Crossbow

Like the tank, the crossbow was a fearsome weapon designed as much to intimidate as to attack. Leonardo’s giant crossbow was designed to fire stones or possibly even flaming bombs instead of arrows. At approximately 25 meters wide, the device required six wheels (three on each side) for mobility, and maximum flexibility. The bow itself would be made of thin wood.

The mechanism for firing was quite complex, especially as it would have to be done in the heat of battle. It needed two men to pull back the huge bows.  To fire it, a soldier would spin a crank to pull back the bow and load it with whatever kind of missile was being used. Once loaded, the soldier would either use a mallet to knock out a holding pin or pull it back with a rope before firing.

Arcuballista on wheels with a steel bow and incendiary bolt.
Arcuballista on wheels with a steel bow and incendiary bolt.

Again, the bow was never built during Leonardo’s lifetime but later attempts to construct the device from the many detailed drawings Leonardo left behind suggest that its real value was in the ability to terrify the enemy rather than its military efficiency, which may well have been what the inventor intended.

Perhaps Leonardo hoped that if the enemy were suitability intimidated there would be no need to inflict death and injury to secure a victory.

Sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500.
Sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500.


The Machine Gun

Leonardo’s 33-barreled organ gun could almost be seen as a forerunner of modern field artillery, and is one of the earliest attempts at designing a rapid firing gun. The biggest weakness of early gunpowder weapons was the time it took to reload during battle. Leonardo’s answer was this multi-barrelled weapon which consisted of 33 connected gun barrels of a similar calibre. These were set in three rows of 11 guns each, facing in opposite directions and mounted on a revolving platform with two large wheels for increased mobility.

33 canon organ (Wikipedia)
33 cannon organ.

The name refers to the fact that the rows of guns resemble the pipes of a church organ. When one row had been fired the device could be turned round, and that row could cool while the second row as being fired, then reloaded while the third row was being shot. This allowed a continuous sequence of firing, cooling and reloading. If managed quickly and efficiently, this would allow for continuous operation.

Polish multiple guns in Polish Army Museum, Warsaw. Photo Credit.
Polish multiple guns in Polish Army Museum, Warsaw. Bolando – CC BY-SA 3.0

Design and Reality

It is unclear whether or not Leonardo ever intended his weapons to be put to any practical purpose. Would the rulers really have been prepared to invest the money and manpower needed to build these strange new designs? Leonardo’s visions were so far ahead of their time that they must have seemed far-fetched and implausible to his contemporaries.

Although some of his inventions were successful, working versions of many of Leonardo’s more complex machines have only been built in modern times. Although they revealed many faults and complications, they still stand as a testimony to the inventor’s genius – especially as the perceived “faults” may have been cleverly worked in by the great artist, to keep his conscience clear.

Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE