In all eras, warfare has been a complex and costly enterprise. The outcome and characteristics of the confrontation of organized groups of armed men to resolve the question of power, territory, and resources have always depended on the means and skills they possessed. Therefore, the development of technology, as well as the level of social organization and knowledge of the world around them, has always gone side by side with war and directly influenced its appearance.
Catapults and crossbows have a certain simple mechanical charm that today’s rockets and rifles cannot match. Swords and shields also conjure up images of a bygone era of chivalry and honor, when paladins fought face to face and dedicated their lives to a beautiful lady or suzerain.
Because of this familiar romantic stereotype, we forget that in all times, warfare has not been the same; it has always changed. Armies have always tried new tactics and new unique weapons to defeat the enemy.
One of the greatest examples of this was the Battle of Agincourt. The English army, composed mainly of peasant soldiers with longbows, destroyed the noble French knights with their arrows with armor-piercing tips. Then, in hand-to-hand combat, the English used long-handled battle hammers to throw their enemies off their horses, flatten their armor, and plunge broad knives into their vulnerabilities.
But ancient wars used weapons even stranger and more unusual than these, as people of different cultures over the centuries invented more and more ways to destroy their own kind.
Here are ten ancient unique weapons you’ve probably never heard of.
One of the strangest ancient weapons was used more often on city streets than on the battlefield: the man-catcher. Interestingly, it was one of the few medieval unique weapons that were designed specifically to incapacitate an enemy without killing or wounding him. While some man-catchers had spikes clearly designed to inflict injury, the vast majority were simply a wooden rod topped with a two-pointed blunt fork.
They were used by night watchmen and guards in medieval cities to restrain the hands of troublemakers or criminals. This restrained them until help arrived or they calmed down.
The man-catcher was sometimes used on the battlefield, though this was much rarer. These varieties were more elaborate, often with sharpened spikes and sprung arcs to grab the limbs of victims.
Sometimes they were used to knock an enemy off his horse, but such a technique required some skill. More often, they were used to capture wealthy nobles in order to take a ransom for them at the end of the battle.
There are no specific sources that tell us when human catchers were first used. All we know is that they were used throughout the Middle Ages all over the world, from Europe to Japan, until the 1600s.
#9. Bagh Nakh (Tiger’s Claw)
India is known as the home of all kinds of unique weapons. Bagh Nakh translates to “the claw of the tiger. Although no one knows exactly when it first appeared, its popularity grew after Sikh warriors of the Nihang Order began using it after 1500.
In brief, it was a type of knuckles hidden in the palm of the hand. It included four or five metal claws that were used to strike an opponent. Nihang Sikhs often wore them in their turbans as concealed weapons but also sometimes fought with them in battle.
They were used in behind-the-scenes fighting to attack and kill surreptitiously. It is known that this object was used when Emperor Shivaji met with Afzal-khan. They agreed to meet without weapons, but Shivaji wore armor and grabbed a Bagh Nakh just in case. When Afzal-khan unexpectedly attacked the emperor, Shivaji used the Bagh Nakh to save his life, killing the enemy with it.
Although the caltrop remains a rather mysterious weapon even today, it has been used with great success for at least 2,000 years. It is essentially a piece of iron with four spikes of equal length.
Caltrop comes from the Latin word “calcitrapa,” which literally means “foot trap.”
It is designed so that no matter how it is thrown to the ground, one of the spikes will always point upward. And since no special skill is needed to lay them, the caltrops could quickly be spread over a wide area.
The main purpose of medieval caltrop was to damage horses’ hooves and thus stop the cavalry from advancing armies, etc. Several spikes were placed in the right place and distributed over a small area. Because it was a small medieval weapon, advancing armies could not detect its presence until it was too late. Thus, the medieval caltrop effectively served the purpose of defense.
The first mention of the use of these unique weapons came from the Roman Empire when Roman authors discussed the use of Murex Ferreus (“serrated objects of iron”) to destroy horse-drawn chariots, which were in use at the time by various cultures throughout Europe. They were used as early as the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C., but reports where the number of combat deaths may be mentioned date back to Alexander’s campaigns in Persia around 331 B.C.
It was used all over the world, from Japan, where the spikes were rarely longer than 2.5 centimeters, to India, where large, elaborate claws were used to stop fighting elephants.
With the invention of gunpowder, the need for them declined, but they were still used on rare occasions. In fact, these unique weapons have not disappeared to this day. Caltrops were used as antipersonnel weapons in the Korean War to prevent ambushes and have been used in the 21st century to neutralize vehicles.
Derived from an agricultural tool, the military billhook (sometimes called “English bill” or simply “bill”) was a fairly common weapon in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its flexibility and simple construction made it a favorite weapon of many poor soldiers or conscripted peasants.
It was a favorite lancet weapon of the English. It was used from the 14th to 17th centuries, from the Scottish frontier to the wars in France. George Silver, the English author of the weapon, recommended this ancient weapon more highly than the sword.
Its appearance varied considerably throughout Europe, but it was invariably a multipurpose weapon. Its broad, curved blade could be used in the analogy of a glaive to inflict slashing wounds, while a small hook on the end could grasp the edges of armor and drag opponents to the ground from their mounts. Later billhooks were equipped with a long spike on the top, allowing them to be used as spears or spades when necessary.
They went out of fashion throughout Europe in the 1500s and were replaced by pikes and arquebuses. Despite this, professional soldiers in England stuck to the old billhook and bow combination as far back as the Battle of Flodden, when the Scots had long since abandoned such equipment. Samples of English billhooks have even been found at Jamestown, so it is assumed that they were still in use in 1607.
#6. Shield Lantern
At the dawn of the Renaissance, Italy was the place where everything was concentrated. Whether interested in art, science, or technology, the world’s best and brightest minds were gathered in Italian cities, supported by wealthy princes and merchants.
The best and fanciest armor was made in Italy, especially in Milan. All the wealthiest and most fashionable men in Europe had their armor made precisely by Italian smiths.
Not surprisingly, one of the strangest and most elaborate shields in human history was designed just during the Renaissance in Italy. Dueling was very popular among the country’s youth at that time. Many young people went out after dark to fool around and find an opponent or to participate in pre-planned duels. The invention of the shield lantern was a matter of time.
In the beginning, they were just shields with hooks to which a lantern could be attached so that the duelists could see in the dark. Over time, however, the device improved, and by the Renaissance heyday, it was equipped with all sorts of details: serrated gauntlets designed to grip and break the opponent’s sword, spikes protruding from the front of the shield, and even sword blades that were embedded in the shield, making it quite an independent weapon.
The strangest detail, however, was a small flap covered with a piece of leather. The wielder mounted a lantern behind this flap. According to dueling manuals of the time, these unique weapons could be used to blind an opponent in an extreme case, temporarily incapacitating him.
#5. Feathered Spear
Many people know that spears began to be used as early as ancient Rome and Greece. But few people know that over the centuries, they improved, and medieval spears were more advanced than their ancient counterparts and much more accurate. These unique medieval weapons, often called darts, had a feather at the bottom of the barrel that held them in flight.
They resembled giant arrows and appeared periodically in medieval artwork. They were not constructed quite like ordinary spears, for the armorers used lighter, less durable wood but larger and heavier tips to do more damage on impact. They did a lot of good in the early Middle Ages, but as bows and crossbows became more popular, their use declined.
The feather spear was also used in other parts of the world. Native Americans used a special device known as an atlatl. This wooden tool was used to throw a feathered spear with double force, working only with the wrist. Similar devices, only made of leather, existed in ancient Greece but disappeared long before the Middle Ages.
There is no precise term for this medieval weapon. Most commonly, they are called darts. But it is unlikely that they can be used to play darts.
#4. Chakram (Chakkar)
Throwing knives are very common in movies and computer games, but their Indian counterpart, the fighting ring, is even stranger.
The sharpened metal disc is essentially a military Frisbee. It has been used by nomads for hundreds of years, although the oldest records of its use go back more than 2,000 years. They could vary greatly in size, from very small, the size of the palm, to quite impressive 0.6 meters.
They can be thrown in different ways. The most common technique is to rotate the disk on the finger and quickly release it, although cases of throwing chakras with the swing of the hand are also known. They can be thrown on the move or in diagonal throws that increase speed.
In battle, these unique weapons were used en masse by the warriors of the rear ranks, who launched them high into the air and dropped them on the heads of their enemies. In combat, chakras were carried on their arms, allowing them to be taken in fairly large numbers. The largest ones were carried around the neck.
They were also useful in close combat, destroying any enemy.
Nets have been used in warfare by many different cultures for thousands of years, but they reached their peak of popularity in the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. Gladiator games began as recreations of real battles in which most gladiators wore the clothing of either the Romans or their common enemies. Over time, however, gladiator games–and gladiator classes–developed a culture of their own.
Most fighters wore large, elaborate helmets adorned with whatever they could. While these helmets were impressive, they could also put a warrior at a disadvantage, especially when he was fighting a retiarius.
The retiarius was a gladiator whose entire armament consisted of a trident and a net. He used it to snag his opponent’s helmet, impede his movements, and throw him to the ground. Retiarii were among the most popular gladiators in ancient Rome and were often the favorites of spectators. Because they required very little armor and their unique weapons were very cheap, they were also among the most numerous. One class of gladiators, the Secutors, emerged solely to counteract the effectiveness of the retiarii.
Secutors wore a very simple helmet without a crest so that the retiarius’ net could not get caught in it. It also had very small eye holes so that the enemy could not hit them with the trident.
By the end of the first century A.D., this pair was one of the most popular in the gladiatorial world. This continued until the decline of the Roman Empire.
The Hopesh is one of the oldest unique weapons in the history of human warfare, made entirely of metal. The first specimens were made in Mesopotamia around 2500 B.C. The design quickly spread to Egypt, where it became a favorite weapon of the warrior class and possibly the first sword in the world.
Swords, as we know them today, became common in the 16th century B.C., but prior to that, the hopesh dominated the Middle East. Whether it could be considered a sword, historians have not yet come to a conclusion. It evolved from a sickle, a farm tool, and an axe, which people began to use in warfare.
The result was an odd-looking curved weapon with a sharp, axe-like blade and a huge amount of metal behind it that allowed it to pierce armor as well as cut through an enemy. The pointed tip meant that it could also be used as a stabbing weapon.
The Hopesh was one of the most desirable unique weapons of its time. But it was incredibly expensive. Only professional warriors and nobles could afford to own one, so it quickly became a symbol of Egypt’s ruling elite.
As time went on, more and more khopesh was made with blunted edges, apparently intended for decoration or tombstones. By the time the era of the pharaohs ended, these unique weapons often appeared even in the graves of powerful rulers themselves.
The use of a throwing knife requires considerable skill. Of course, a warrior must be able to throw the weapon accurately, which requires a great deal of practice. But he must also be able to estimate the distance and decide how to direct the blade so that the sharp end strikes the target.
Many cultures around the world have tried to simplify the task. Like the aforementioned chakra, the Japanese shuriken is deadly no matter which part of the weapon strikes the target, while the boomerang has a much larger surface area that can inflict damage.
The Azande tribe of Africa came up with a unique solution to this issue. They created the multi-bladed throwing knife known as the kpinga. The blades were oriented so that the unfortunate enemy would be struck by the sharp edge, no matter how the knife was thrown. They were most often thrown overhead but could also be aimed with a targeted, low throw to hit the victim’s legs.
The kpinga was one of the prestigious, unique weapons, a status symbol that was only available to the rich and powerful or to professional warriors. The right to produce them belonged to one clan, the Avongars. Sometimes they became part of a wedding dowry.