World War 1 was known as, “The war to end all war”, by many in the 20th century, including H.G. Wells. Due to the rapid advancement in technology and engineering, warfare was being changed dramatically. One of the things that was being affected the most was weapons, from firearms, to artillery, to vehicles designed for combat. Weapons were revolutionized to be more accurate, more versatile, and overall deadlier. They impacted the war greatly and still influence the modern weapons we use today.
Technology developments in engineering, metallurgy, and optics were able to allow new, complex weapons that were able to shape World War 1 into what we know it as today. The war needed weapons to be built in the heat of all the fighting, so advancements in weapon technology were made to cater to the threats soldier’s faced at the time. One of these things was trenches. Trench warfare extremely common in the war, and often lead to a stalemate in battle, where neither side would be able to get past the other side’s trench, but both would end up losing thousands of lives. Taking over a trench meant going through No Man’s Land, getting into the enemy trench, and either killing everyone in the trench or driving them out. It was especially difficult trying to do this all with a normal rifle, as the trenches were too small and tightly packed, and there was little to no cover. To battle this, the flamethrower saw its debut. Designed by Germany, the flamethrower was used to help clear out a trench after a soldier was able to get in. This would allow the Germans to be able to literally burn the enemies alive, without causing too much structural damage to the trench. Another challenge was battling at night, where you couldn’t see your targets, which are already hidden in their trench. The British designed tracer bullets to combat this, with the .303 SPG Mark VIIG was the first successful model created in 1916. It created a bright green or white light as it was fired, by emitting a small amount of flammable material. They turned out to be even more useful when the British found out they could use them against the German Zeppelins, by igniting the Hydrogen in the balloons. The United States also found a way to advance warfare in vehicular combat. To give themselves an edge in the war, they created the first mini-gun to be used in a plane. They did this by trying a gun to the plane using a belt and pointing it out the window. Because this would require 2 people to fly and aiming wasn’t easy, it wasn’t widely used at first. Later, they came up with interrupter gear, which would allow them to shoot through the blades of the helicopter without striking the blades. This design turned out to be extremely successful, and was quickly adopted by Germany and their allies.
Infantry weapons weren’t the only things being changed, however. World War 1 also saw the beginning of other weapons, such as turrets. These were designed to be held down on a flat surface at a distance so the shooter could gun their targets down with extreme firepower. The first use of the guns were found in the beginnings of the war. At the time, it was simply a heavy machine gun that needed 4-6 men to hold it down on the ground, but could fire 400 rounds in a minute, equal to the firepower of 100 guns. Similar to this were mortars, which needed even more men to work. 12 people would have to haul 900 pound (Nearly half a ton) shells into what were essentially long ranged cannons. They could be used for suppression fire (Keeping the enemies from advancing from their trenches by firing in their paths) or fired with other mortars in succession, which was known as barrage fire, and was used to take the enemies or their vehicles out. However, mortars pale in comparison to Big Bertha, a howitzer created by the Germans. Big Bertha’s barrel was 42 cm (17 inches) in diameter, and fired shells in pairs weighing an astonishing 3,400 pounds together. It was loud, accurate, and deadly, firing 10 shells per hour. Although it was originally used for coastal defense, later designs led to a mobilized version which were more versatile. In war, the Big Bertha was notorious for it’s power, and feared by many.
Comparing the weapons used in World War 1 to the weapons we use today, it’s clear we’ve made even bigger advancements in technology. In 1915, one year after the war started, the world’s first submachine gun was created in Italy, called the Villar Perosa. Originally planned to be used for air assaults, the gun was unlike most other guns commonly found being wielded by ground troops. It featured two barrels, thumb triggers, and didn’t sport a stock, but fired 9mm ammunition. Each barrel had it’s own 25 round magazine and firing mechanism, giving the gun a very high total rate of fire. As war went on, however, airplanes became more and more impervious to gunfire, and the Villar Perosa wasn’t able to hold up in battle against them. Instead, they were issued to soldiers, and were used in infantry combat. When you compare that to a modern submachine gun like the MP5, we can see our improvements in technology over time. The MP5 is a very accurate, customizable weapon created during the second world war. Still used by law enforcement today, it’s one of the most famous firearms ever created and is famed for it’s accuracy and reliability. It’s also able to fire 10mm ammunition and can be fitted with optics, under barrel attachments, and other customizations. Another example of the change in technology can be seen with rifles. The Lee Enfield, the main rifle used by British soldiers, was a bolt action weapon, meaning it had to be manually loaded before each shot. The bolt was fast, fast enough to make enemies believe they were under fire from fully automatic machine guns during battle. It sported a 10 round magazine, and was commonly seen during the war. The rifle, however, had a firing mechanism that was especially susceptible to jamming due to dirt and grit, which often became a problem in the trenches. When compared to a rifle used today, like the M4A1, we can see the advancement in technology again. The M4A1 is a gas operated, fully automatic, all purpose assault rifle. Firing 5.56mm NATO ammunition at 950 rounds per minute with a standard 30 round magazine, it clearly has much more firepower than it’s predecessor’s used in World War 1. It also has an advanced Rails Interface System, allowing it to be extremely flexible with attachments and adding to it’s already great versatility. Although it was originally created to replace pistols in the 70s, it stills holds up as one of the most widely used firearms available. In both of these cases, we can see the evolution of firearms over the decades. Guns went from basic and often limiting designs to expansive, interchangeable, and complicated designs. In just under a century, we’ve gone from a time where guns were mainly semi automatic or bolt action rifles used for shooting from one trench, across a field, to another trench while combating the threats of vehicular combat, gas attacks, artillery, and other threats of war, to a time where weapons can fire hundreds or even thousands of rounds per minute automatically up to hundreds of feet within a single second. As time has gone on, weapons have become more and more deadly.
In conclusion, weapons truly changed warfare in World War 1. With the advancement of technology, trench warfare often led to a stalemate, indicating that there needed to be a change in tactics to appease this advancement. War also became more than a battle of firearms as well, as different weapons such as mortars and machine guns gave their debut in warfare and became separate threats themselves. Weapons were becoming capable of much more than simply shooting from trenches, as we can see with today’s weapons. As people realized this, weapons became deadlier and deadlier.
A video on WW1 weapons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxa6Ce3uX6A
Flamethrowers being in a trench
Maxim 08 machine gun
A side by side comparison of the Lee Enfield and Modern M4A1