Weapons Technology from the Stone Age to the Computer Age

Today's Weapons Technology

As Star Wars fans debate whether putting a crossguard on a lightsaber represents a realistic improvement, a Texas defense technology firm has created a more practical counterpart in the form of the Metal Vapor Torch, a belt-carried lock-cutting tool that generates a burst of flame hot enough to slice through a half-inch steel bar. Although not a weapon, the Torch’s resemblance to a lightsaber serves to illustrate how technology has revolutionized the capability of traditional weapons.

The Original Weapon: The Saga of the Fist

The first weapon was the hand, as chronicled by Olympic boxer and U.S. intelligence pioneer John Grombach in his classic book “The Saga of the Fist.” The most instinctive punch is a swinging haymaker blow. Ancient boxers discovered how to deflect and dodge such telegraphed blows, and as boxing grew more refined it borrowed speedier linear techniques from fencing. In the West, this led to the straight leads associated with early boxers such as James Corbett, and adapted to leading jabs after the introduction of gloves. In the East, linear techniques emerged in Kung Fu styles such as Wing Chun, as demonstrated dramatically by Bruce Lee.

Throughout history, boxers have sought an edge by supplementing bare knuckles with extra equipment. A startup called Responsive Sports is developing smart boxing gloves to help boxers train by measuring performance and providing audible guidance. If you’ve got a Tony Stark-sized budget, armored battle suits are available, including the U.S. Army’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), designed to protect soldiers with an Iron Man exoskeleton.

Extending the Hand: Sticks

Instinctive swinging blows inspired the use of sticks as clubs. In 19th-century France, martial artists modernized stick fighting by inventing Canne de Combat, a cane fighting system. Today’s stick fighters can choose from a variety of high-tech canes, ranging from lightweight telescoping batons to Charles Davis’ heavy-duty Tactical Combat Master.

The Cutting Edge: Knives

Another extension of the hand is knives, adapted for battlefield use in such forms as daggers and swords. Since the end of the trench warfare era, most combat knives have served dual utility functions. Master knifemaker Jay Fisher provides an overview of the difference between combat and non-combat knives and the variety of high-tech blades available today.

Death from a Distance: Bows

Stone Age hunters extended the range of the hand with projectiles, inspiring the bow. Bronze Age Egyptians combined composite bows with chariots for a military advantage. Bows continued to serve a central military function in Europe until the advent of firearms in the 16th century—transforming archery into sport. Archers of the early 20th century developed the modern compound bow, introducing cables and pulleys for added leverage. Today’s archer can browse suppliers such as Cabela’s to select from a variety of compound bows made of high-tech materials.

The Big Bang: Guns

Since the introduction of gunpowder, firearms have developed through a series of improvements to different performance features, as outlined by Jim Supica. Early “hand cannons” gradually gave way to flintlocks, breech loaders, and automatic weapons. Today’s firearms technology includes smart rifles that can use Google Glass to aim around corners and laser-guided bullets that can adjust direction in mid-flight.