armourA Stone Age spear: 250,000 years ago

An elephant dies, in what is now Germany. It has between its ribs a shaft of yew. The point has penetrated the elephant’s hide because it is hardened, by heating in a fire. It is a spear, dating from the Lower Palaeolithic era – the earliest human weapon to have been discovered.

As soon as humans separate from the apes and begin to walk on two feet, they no doubt hurl sticks and stones at each other. Equally a wooden branch or a chunk of rock is a natural tool for bludgeoning an animal to death. But such weapons are used as they are found. A sharpened spear – useful for throwing or prodding, in war or the hunt – is in a different category. The long story of the race begins.

The arms race: from 250,000 years ago

There are two obvious areas in which progress can be made in the improvement of primitive weapons, or flint technology. One is the sharpness of the point of a missile, increasing the damage done when it reaches the target. The other is the force with which it can be propelled, extending its range and impact.

Stone Age man discovers that a sharp flint can be attached to the end of a spear, or else can be set at right angles into a wooden handle to be used with a chopping motion. One such point has been found embedded in the skull of a bear, which came to a violent end about 100,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region (near what is now Trieste).

Stone Age man also finds ways of increasing the power of a human arm. The most obvious is by extending its effective length. This is the principle of the sling for throwing a stone. It is impossible to know when the sling was first used (made of vegetable fibres or animal skin, it will not survive for the archaeologist), but its power is attested in the biblical story of David and Goliath. Slingers play an important role in warfare throughout ancient . Spear-throwing devices, known from about 14,000 years ago, are more sophisticated weapons of the same kind.

But the greatest advance in projecting a missile is achieved with the bow.

The bow and arrow: from 15,000 years ago

The sudden release of stored energy, when a forcibly bent strip of wood is allowed to snap back into its natural shape, is more rapid and therefore more powerful than any impulse of which human muscles are capable – yet human muscles, at a slower rate, have the strength to bend the strip of wood.

The principle of the bow is discovered about 15,000 years ago. Bows and arrows feature from that time, no doubt both in hunting and warfare, in the regions of north Africa and southern Europe. The wood is usually ewe or elm. Stone Age technology is capable of producing sharp flint points for the arrows, often with barbs to secure them in the victim’s flesh.

The impact of metal: from 7000 BC

Flint can be shaped into a blade, but only a fairly short one – a dagger rather than a sword. The next development in man’s armoury must await a major technological revolution, the working of metal. Not until the introduction of artillery, in the 14th century AD, will there be another change of comparable significance in the story of warfare.

Copper, the first metal to be adapted to human purposes (from about 7000 BC), is too soft to be of much benefit in combat. Knives and sickles for practical use in the village are the typical copper implements, though battle axes and even helmets of copper are known. But the discovery of bronze, in about 2800 BC, transforms the situation.

Bronze is sufficiently rigid to form an effective sword blade; it will take a sharp edge; and, a matter of great importance with such a precious commodity, it can be reused.

Bronze implements are made by casting. If a sword shatters, the pieces will be melted and used again. Archaeologists have unearthed early hoards of Bronze weapons and tools including lumps of shapeless Bronze, melted down and stored for future casting. And casting solves what has been one of the basic difficulties of weapon manufacture in Stone Age technology – how to fit the sharp part to the handle.

The casters of bronze can make spear points with a hollow projection, into which the wooden shaft of the spear will fit snugly and securely. Sword and dagger can be produced with a projecting spike or haft, round which a hilt can be built up in a suitable substance for the warrior to grip. Axes will come from the mould with a hole already in place for the handle.

For small objects, such as spear points and axe heads, this is a very flexible technology. Weapons can be made wherever a small furnace can be set up, to bake the clay moulds and melt the bronze alloy.

Suits of : from 1300 BC

Bronze can be used for protection, as well as for weapons of aggression.

In Mycenae, from about 1300 BC, a warrior will ride to war in his chariot. He may wear a bronze suit of armour, though leather almost certainly remains the normal form of protection. This is the period of warfare reflected in Homer’s Iliad, but the gleaming suits of armour described there are the stuff of heroic fantasy. Reality, in so far as it survives, is altogether clumsier – closer to Ned Kelly than Achilles.

The earliest known suit of armour comes from a Mycenaean tomb, at Dendra. The helmet is a pointed cap, cunningly shaped from slices of boar’s tusk. Bronze cheek flaps are suspended from it, reaching down to a complete circle of bronze around the neck. Curving sheets of bronze cover the shoulders. Beneath them there is a breast plate, and then three more circles of bronze plate, suspended one from the other, to form a semi-flexible skirt down to the thighs. Greaves, or shinpads of bronze, complete the armour.

The Mycenaean warrior’s weapons are a bronze sword and a bronze-tipped spear. His shield is of stiff leather on a wooden frame. Similar weapons are used, several centuries later, by the Greek hoplites.

The composite bow: from 1500 BC

In about 1500 BC a much more efficient form of bow makes its appearance. It is the short curving bow, familiar in art as Cupid’s bow. It is known, from its method of construction, as the composite bow.

Its secret, providing much greater power from a smaller and lighter weapon, is that it is built up from layers of materials which react differently under tension or compression. On the front side of the bow (away from the archer) lengths of animal tendon are glued; they will be stretched when the bow is bent. On the inner side are strips of animal horn, usually bison, which will be compressed.

The composite bow fires a light arrow (the archer can carry as many as fifty in his quiver) with accuracy up to 200 yards. It also has the enormous advantage of reaching only from the head of the archer down to his waist.

This makes it a very convenient weapon in two new forms of warfare which are developed in the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia and in neighbouring regions to the north and east – fighting from a chariot and fighting from horseback. The composite bow will have a long history in warfare, though associated more with Asia than with Europe. As late as the 19th century AD it is still the weapon of certain Manchu regiments in the Chinese army.

The range of weapons now available will not be much altered, apart from improvements in material or design, until the arrival on the battlefield of gunpowder. Some, such as the conventional bow and the sling, have descended straight from the armoury of Stone Age man. Other are still visibly his weapons except that their edges or points are now bronze rather than stone or wood; this is true of the mace (in essence a primitive club), the battleaxe, the spear and the arrow. But the bronze dagger is incomparably better than Stone Age weapons, and the bronze sword is an innovation. So is the composite bow.

These, for centuries to come, are the arms of both infantry and cavalry.

Men of steel: from 1100 BC

A major technological development extends the arms race, when bronze gives way to iron. Bronze is a relatively precious metal because one of its constituents, tin, is scarce. Iron, by contrast, is the most abundant metal in the earth’s surface.

Once man has discovered how to harden iron into steel (in about 1100 BC), the technology is in place for a rapid escalation of warfare. Soon the armies of the world will be able to put into the field a far greater number of soldiers, armed to devastating effect and at relatively little cost.

The first iron army is that of Assyria – notorious from the 9th century BC for its brutal effectiveness in an unceasing campaign of aggression against its neighbours.

But more primitive societies can be heavily armed too in the new age of iron. By the 8th century BC the people of the Hallstatt culture of central Europe (predecessors of the Celts, and great workers of iron) are providing themselves with superb swords, which they take with them to their graves. Of unprecedented length, these weapons are well adapted both for thrusting and slashing, with a sharp point and a keen cutting edge.

Battering rams and siege towers: from the 9th century BC

Fortified towns arrive with civilization, and sieges are as old as organized warfare. But siege implements are simple until the Assyrians.

They pay special attention to the battering ram. Soldiers in early sieges swing a heavy timber ram against a town gate. They are vulnerable to missiles or heated oil from above. Under the Assyrians the ram becomes an engine. It is suspended from the roof of a timber structure, which in turn is mounted on wheels so that it can be pushed into position. Protected within this contraption, soldiers can swing the ram relentlessly against the gate. Archers, in protected turrets on top of the engine, exchange shots on almost equal terms with the defenders on the walls.

A siege tower is trundled towards a besieged town on the same principle as the mobile battering ram, but with a different purpose – to provide a platform as high as the town or fortress walls, from which the invaders can launch an attack.

In the 4th century BC engineers in the armies of Philip of Macedon and of his son, Alexander the Great, build mobile siege towers which can be taken on campaign. They also develop the catapult which becomes the principal siege weapon of both Hellenistic and Roman armies.

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