A list of war-related terms and their definitions.


AbteilungGerman term for a detachment or battalion in either the German (later West German or East German) or Swiss armed forces. During World War II (1939-1945), an Abteilung was generally for a unit of about 1,000 soldiers and was used in the Waffen-SS and other groups.

Aircraft carrier.

Aircraft carriersA large, motorized warship with a flat topdeck to serve as a runway for fixed-wing aircraft. Invented by the British in 1918, developed by most major navies in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and first used in World War II (1939-1945), its effectiveness was dramatically proved at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, and then the Battle of Midway, in June of 1942, when planes from three American carriers, Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, commanded by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, destroyed four Japanese carriers, Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu, commanded by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto. The carrier immediately superseded the battleship as the primary instrument of naval firepower.


AmabuthoThis term is often used interchangeably with “regiment” for Zulu armies. The number of warriors in this unit ranged from 900 to 4,000.

Antiaircraft gun.

Antiaircraft weaponsA machine gun, often with two or more barrels for wide-pattern fire; pedestal-mounted with rapid 360-degree traverse in fixed batteries, land vehicles, or ships; designed for accurate, long-range, high-angle fire to shoot down enemy aircraft. Developed late in World War I (1914-1918) and popularly known as “ack-ack” (both from its sound and from British signalmen’s variant pronunciation of its acronym, AA), it was a standard weapon in World War II (1939-1945) but was superseded by guided antiaircraft missiles in the late twentieth century.

Antiballistic missile (ABM).

Antiballistic missilesDeveloped by the United States in the late 1950’s and widely deployed by both the United States and the Soviet Union by the 1970’s, any guided missile, either ground-launched, sea-launched, or air-launched, with a nuclear warhead designed to explode in the vicinity of incoming enemy missiles, rendering them harmless. ABM systems were supposed to be severely limited as a provision of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), but verification proved difficult.

Antimissile missile.

Antimissile missilesMissiles;antimissileAny missile intended to destroy an incoming enemy missile before it can do any damage. Satellite-guided antimissile missile systems were a fundamental component of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as “Star Wars,” in 1983, but their technology was still not practical decades later. Antiballistic missiles are a special type of antimissile missile.

Antitank gun.

Antitank weaponsA rifled firearm specifically designed to destroy tanks. The earliest, in 1918, was the German 13.3-millimeter Mauser Tankgewehr bolt-action rifle, firing armor-piercing bullets. By World War II (1939-1945), antitank weaponry was recognized as very important. Most were field pieces, such as the German 37-millimeter Panzerabwehrkanone (PAK36) and the Soviet 100-millimeter M-1944, all firing armor-piercing shells. After World War II, recoilless guns, mortars, and rocket launchers firing guided armor-piercing missiles replaced antitank guns.


Arbalest (missile thrower)Originally, after about the eleventh century, the French word for crossbow, derived from two Latin words, arcus, or bow, and ballista, or big, rock-shooting crossbow. Around 1400, the term also began to mean a particular type of large, very powerful, heavy-draw Northern European crossbow, whose bow was shorter than average and either reinforced with steel or made entirely of steel.


ArbanThe smallest unit in the Mongol army, consisting of 10 soldiers.

Armor-piercing shell.

Armor-piercing shells[armor piercing shells]Special antitank or antiship artillery ammunition, in two varieties: kinetic and chemical. The former is a hard, high-velocity, usually pointed shell that punctures the armor and then explodes inside the target; the latter is designed to explode either near or on the armor, shattering it from the outside. Development of armor-piercing ammunition was necessitated by the introduction of ironclad warships in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and tanks in World War I (1914-1918).


ArmyA general term to describe the land force of the defense forces of any country. In the Byzantine Empire, an army consisted of 9,000 soldiers (or three meroi). In the British army, specifically, “army” refers to a land formation that consists of more than one corps. In the latter case, the armies are given numerical prefixes, such as First Army and Second Army.

Army group.

Army groupA land-force formation that includes two or more numbered armies. An example of an army group occurred during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941; army groups were given geographical descriptors: Army Group South, Army Group North, and so on. Army Group Africa consisted of Italian and German soldiers. In all these cases, army groups were commanded by a field marshal. The Japanese army in World War II (1939-1945) was divided into six army groups; and during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), there were also army groups, which might have anywhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million soldiers. After World War II, armies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were formed into army groups combining soldiers from a variety of allied countries.


Artillery;definedSometimes called ordnance, the term comprises all firearms, or weapons powered by explosions, that must be operated by more than one soldier for maximum effectiveness, such as cannons, most rockets, and most missiles, as well as some pre-gunpowder heavy siege weapons such as catapults, onagers, trebuchets, and large varieties of the crossbow. Artillery is traditionally classified as either heavy or light.


Assagai (spear)A short-handled, long-bladed, double-edged traditional spear of the Zulu nation of South Africa. Used mainly as a multiple thrusting weapon, it could also be hurled as a javelin or wielded for slashing. It fit well into the standard “chest-and-horns” assault and surround tactics of the Zulu, in which a large body of troops in close ranks would run suddenly at the enemy to gain advantage in hand-to-hand combat, as they did when they destroyed the British at Isandhlwana in 1879.

Assault helicopter.

Helicopters;assaultA versatile fighting aircraft developed by the United States in the 1950’s, first used extensively in the Vietnam War (1961-1975) and refined by the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. The mainstay of modern air cavalry, its tactical equipment includes computerized search-and-destroy weapons, antitank guns, machine guns, rockets, air-launched minelaying systems, and sophisticated navigation devices for rapid, ground-hugging flight. Among the most prominent types are the Soviet Mi-24 and Mi-28 and the American Apache and Black Hawk.

Assault rifle.

Rifles;assaultFully automatic rifle that can fire either single-shot or rapid fire, developed by many nations during World War II (1939-1945) but primarily by Mikhail Kalashnikov (b. 1919) for the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944. His AK-47 rifle[AK forty seven rifle]AK-47, named for the year of its invention, is the most famous weapon of this type. Others include the Israeli Uzi and the American M-16. Most models have a straight stock to prevent the recoil from pushing successive shots gradually too high during rapid fire.

Atomic bomb (A-bomb).

Atomic bombAn extremely powerful explosive device involving the fission of radioactive elements, invented during World War II (1939-1945) by an American team of scientists in fulfillment of the secret, federally funded Manhattan Project. It was first tested on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico; first used on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped Little Boy, a uranium bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan; and used for the second and last time in the twentieth century on August 9, 1945, when the United States dropped Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, on Nagasaki, Japan.

Automatic firearm.

Automatic weapons;firearmsAny firearm that loads automatically, usually from either a bandolier belt or a magazine, and fires more than one shot for each squeeze of the trigger. The reloading process is typically powered by the energy from each previous shot, as hot gas, recoil, or blowback. The first sustained use of automatics in warfare was as the various Browning, Maxim, Spandau, and Vickers heavy machine guns that caused millions of casualties in World War I (1914-1918).


BallistaeA gigantic crossbow used in both ancient and medieval warfare, developed by the Romans but patterned after the mounted crossbows invented by Archimedes. Tactically employed as a catapult, it was cocked with a winch and ratchet, usually wheeled, and capable of hurling bolts or stones of up to about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) accurately for relatively long distances (about 400 yards or meters) at tolerably low trajectory.

Ballistic missile.

Ballistic missilesA large, long-range guided missile, usually with a nuclear warhead, developed by the United States in the late 1950’s, self-propelled by a rocket engine on a high-trajectory, often stratospheric, course, and guided in its upward arc but usually free-falling in its descent. Its earliest prototype was the Nazi VZ (Vergeltungswaffe Zwei) rocket, used with a high explosive warhead against London from September, 1944, to March, 1945.


BallistiteSmokeless powder introduced in 1887 by Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896) and consisting of 40 percent low-nitrogen nitrocellulose and 60 percent nitroglycerin. The product could be manufactured as small flakes and was a common propellant for firearms until after World War II(1939-1945). In the English-speaking world, cordite, a similar mixture invented shortly after ballistite, was more common.


BandThis term, often referring to warrior bands, was used to describe the many Native American military units during the nineteenth century.

Bangalore torpedo.

Bangalore torpedoesTorpedoes;bangaloreAn indefinitely long metal tube, consisting of a series of short lengths screwed together, with an explosive charge at one end and a fuse inside the tube. By pushing it slowly toward or under its target, demolition teams could remain in positions of cover and cut paths through barbed wire, neutralize minefields, or blast fortifications. The Allies, notably the amphibious forces on D day, used it extensively during World War II (1939-1945).


BannerA unit within the Manchu army, the vast majority originally mounted, who would follow a particular banner in battle; altogether there were eight banners. During the Qing DynastyQing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in China (1644-1912), it came to represent a military unit within the Chinese army consisting of thousands of soldiers, almost exclusively of Manchu descent. Manchu soldiers came to be known as bannermen.

Barbed wire.

Barbed wireThick wire with sharp metal points built in at regular intervals, first patented in the United States in 1867, first used for civilian purposes to mark boundaries, and extensively deployed as a defensive obstacle in both world wars. Since the late twentieth century, varieties have been manufactured with embedded fiber-optic cable so that computerized sentry systems can determine precisely where the enemy breaches it and immediately direct defensive fire to that spot.

Barrage balloons.

Barrage balloonsDefensive antiaircraft apparatus used in both world wars, especially by the British. Small balloons trailing long cables or nets were tethered at high altitude in the hope that enemy aircraft attacking below the balloons would catch their wings on the dangling obstacles.

Baselard (or basilard).

Baselard (European dagger)A double-edged European dagger common from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, typified by two prominent crosspieces, one at the pommel, or the end of the Hiltshilt, the other at the guard, or the joint between the hilt and the blade.


BattalionAn infantry unit that is commanded, in the case of the U.S. and British armies, by a lieutenant colonel. Within the British army, over time, its size has changed considerably. Traditionally at full strength it was similar to that of a Roman legion, around 1,000 soldiers. In the Australian army in World War I (1914-1918), it had, at full strength, about 1,000 soldiers. For the German army in World War I, battalions were subdivisions of regiments, usually with three battalions in a regiment, numbered I, II, and III. Overall, a German battalion had, at full strength, 23 officers, 3 regimental medical officers and paymasters, and 1,050 other ranks. By 1917, because of the shortage of soldiers, most battalions had about 750 soldiers in them. In the U.S. Army, battalions can have as little as three companies (300 soldiers) or as many as 1,200 soldiers.

Battering ram.

Battering ramsAn ancient and medieval siege engine for breaching enemy walls, consisting of a large pole, usually a tree trunk, with a metal head, sometimes pointed, slung horizontally from ropes under a sturdy frame so that it could be swung back and forth with great force. The frame, covered with water-soaked hides to prevent defenders from burning it, could be wheeled up to the target wall by soldiers underneath it, chocked, and put to work.


BatteryA unit of artillery, commanded by a major. To some degree the equivalent of a company of infantry or a squadron of cavalry.


Battle-axes[Battle axes]A slicing and chopping weapon invented in the Stone Age when someone lashed a sharp stone to the end of a stick, developed throughout the Bronze Age, and nearly perfected during the Iron Age, when more sophisticated versions evolved from both the mace and the hand ax. Although warriors needed great strength to wield it well, it proved popular in all pre-firearm cultures, especially in the eighth to eleventh centuries among the Vikings, who revered their axes and often gave them proper names, such as Skarphedin’s gigantic Rímmugýgr, or “Ogress of War,” in Njal’s Saga.


Battleships;definedA gigantic, armored, motorized ship bristling with long-range, large-caliber, breech-loading cannon, mounted mostly in turrets, intended primarily for ship-to-ship combat. It dominated naval warfare from the late nineteenth century until the aircraft carrier was proved superior at Midway in 1942. Before 1906 it was relatively slow, with the intermediate battery larger than the main battery, but thereafter the standard was the dreadnought, faster, larger, more heavily armed and armored, and with its strength disproportionately concentrated in the main battery.


Bayonets;definedAn edged weapon attached to the muzzle of a firearm, usually a musket or rifle, first used in Europe in the seventeenth century to substitute for a pike. The earliest, the plug bayonet, was inserted into the muzzle itself. The socket bayonet includes a sleeve to fit over the muzzle; the sword bayonet has a regular sword hilt with an adapter slot that slides under the barrel; and the integral bayonet is permanently affixed to the firearm. Bayonet tactics evolved into complex and deadly offensive maneuvers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since the twentieth century, bayonets have mostly been multipurpose survival knives conveniently detachable from a soldier’s personal weapon.


BazookasAn American recoilless antitank weapon, the M9A1, common in World War II (1939-1945). A short-range, handheld, direct-fire, line-of-sight weapon firing unguided projectiles, it was superseded after the war by more sophisticated recoilless guns and especially by mortars firing guided antitank missiles.

Big Bertha.

Big BerthaAny of several large German howitzers mounted on railway cars and used extensively in World War I (1914-1918) on the western front until 1916, when the newer Allied heavy artillery outranged them. The designation especially refers to the Krupp 42-centimeter L-14, because Gustav Krupp’s wife’s name was Bertha.


BilboA high-quality, wide-bladed, double-edged, fancy Spanish rapier of the Renaissance, so called from the place of its manufacture, Bilbao, Spain.


Bill (pole arm)Type of pole arm whose head includes a regular spear point, a hook for unhorsing mounted knights or cavalrymen, and numerous perpendicular spikes. One of the first pole arms, it evolved from the pruning hook, or billhook, and was in use from the early Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century. Many variants exist, some resembling the voulge, with a small ax-blade instead of the spikes, but the required feature is the hook.

Biological weapons.

Biological weaponsOrganic substances introduced into enemy areas by bombing, artillery, or infiltration, designed to cause debilitating disease outbreaks. Sometimes, but not quite accurately, known as germ warfare, the employment of such weapons includes loading medieval trebuchets with dead horses, tampering with water supplies, and releasing noxious aerosol particles in enemy airspace. Among the diseases that could be caused by these tactics are cholera, influenza, anthrax, typhoid, dysentery, encephalitis, malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, and smallpox.


BiremesA galley with two banks of oars. Shortly after the naval ram was invented, around 800 b.c.e., the Greeks and Phoenicians developed fast galleys to exploit this weapon. More oarsmen meant more speed and power, but, since single-banked ships long enough to hold crews of more than 50 were impractical, the bireme was developed around 700 b.c.e., with an upper bank of oars on outrigger fulcrums so as not to interfere with the lower bank. It was between 25 and 35 meters long, carried a crew of about 100, and reached top oared speeds between 7 and 9 knots per hour.


BlockbusterA popular name for the high-capacity bomb, the giant aerial bomb dropped by both the Allies and the Germans in World War II (1939-1945), so called because each one was capable of demolishing an entire city block. Developed first and best by the British, the largest could hold 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) of TNT (trinitrotoluene), RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine), PETN (pentaerythitol tetranitrate), or some combination of these explosives.


BlowgunsA long, straight, thin, smallbore, hollow tube through which light projectiles, usually darts, are driven with amazing accuracy to surprising distances, solely by the force of rapidly but smoothly exhaled breath. Independently developed by many preliterate tropical cultures, such as those of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brazil, its darts are sometimes poisoned, and a flared mouthpiece is often added to concentrate the breath for more power.


BlunderbussesA short-range, short-barreled, muzzle-loading, smoothbore, personal firearm developed in either Holland or England early in the seventeenth century and common through the eighteenth, characterized by a flaring muzzle to facilitate loading and to scatter the shot, which could be either a single bullet or a pellet load. Extremely inaccurate, with the effect of a sawed-off shotgun or scattergun, it was typically used as a defensive or deterrent weapon for property owners, ships’ officers, and stagecoach drivers.

Bofors gun.

Bofors gunA type of light, mobile, antiaircraft gun, usually 40 millimeters, intended for use especially against low-flying planes, and named after the Swedish company that introduced it in the 1930’s. Naval varieties are typically mounted with double, quadruple, sextuple, or octuple barrels.

Bolt-action rifle.

Bolt-action weapons[Bolt action weapons]Rifles;bolt-action[bolt action]Any breech-loading rifle that uses the manual action of a sliding bolt to open the breech block and eject the spent cartridge. The bolt handle is pushed up out of a slot to unlock the breech and down into the slot to lock it. The weapon can be either repeating, if it can take a magazine, or single-shot, if it cannot. Typically, the repeaters have military application, while single-shot bolt-actions are for sport. Developed in the 1860’s and 1870’s, bolt-action weapons were the norm in the Boer Wars (1880-1902)Second Boer War (1899-1902) and World War I (1914-1918).


Bombs;definedAny offensive explosive device designed to detonate only under certain conditions, but especially, since World War I (1914-1918), one dropped from an airplane, thrown, or otherwise delivered aerially, but not by artillery.


BombardsA primitive smoothbore mortar, probably dating from the early fifteenth century, characterized by a narrow powder chamber; an extremely short, sometimes flaring, barrel; and a huge-caliber bore, sometimes as wide or wider than its length.


Bombers;definedAn aircraft designed to drop explosive devices accurately on target. The first bombers were observation planes dropping handheld bombs early in World War I (1914-1918). By the end of that war, both sides had specialized planes for bombing missions, particularly the British DeHavilland and the German Gotha. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were the first wars in which airpower played a dominant role, and during their courses, aerial bombing became a carefully studied science.

Booby trap.

Booby trapsAn offensive obstacle designed to kill, maim, or terrorize unsuspecting soldiers or passersby. Extensively used by the Viet Cong against the Americans in Vietnam, by native populations against invading forces, by fortress defenders, and by terrorists, the wide variety of booby traps includes car bombs, mines, mail bombs, pitfalls, nets, tripwires, spikes, spring traps, snares, positioned firearms, and time bombs.


BoomerangsAn aboriginal Australian, aerodynamically enhanced throwing stick, designed in two basic forms: one flying a curved path and returning to the thrower, and the other flying a straight, far, end-over-end path but not returning. The former is used mainly for hunting and exhibitions, the latter for war. War boomerangs exist in many styles but are generally heavier and may have cutting edges or protuberances. Some throwing sticks, similar to boomerangs, were found in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

Bouncing bomb.

Bouncing bombThis device, created by the British inventor Barnes Wallis, was designed to penetrate the defenses of the German dams in World War II (1939-1945). The idea came to Wallis when he watched a boy skimming a stone at a village pond; he used it effectively in the dam-buster raids Operation Chastise in May, 1943.


Bows and arrows;definedInvented in the Stone Age, a simple combination of string and spring to hurl projectiles, usually arrows, much farther, more powerfully, and more accurately than they could be thrown by hand. The shape, tension, material, length, weight, and curve of a bow all affect its spring energy. Bows are of four basic kinds: simple, made of a single piece; backed, two pieces of different materials glued together; laminated, three or more pieces of the same material glued together; and composite, three or more pieces of different materials glued together.

Bowie knife.

Bowie knifeAn American single-edged fighting knife about 20 inches long overall, named for American frontiersman James Bowie (1796-836), but actually designed by his brother, Rezin. Evolved from the frontiersman’s hunting knife and the straight-bladed “Arkansas toothpick,” it featured a simple hilt; a flat, wide crossguard with a prong at each end angled about 45 degrees toward the point; a tempered steel blade, mostly straight, but, from the point toward the hilt about 3 inches, convex in front and concave in back; and a strip of soft metal, such as brass, inlayed along the back of the blade to catch enemy blades. It was edged blade-length in front and along the concave portion in back.


Breech-loading weapons[Breech loading weapons]Any firearm that loads its ammunition through the rear of the barrel. Attempted for centuries, but barely practical in time for the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865), it soon thereafter superseded muzzle-loaders and made repeating arms and automatic weapons possible.

Bren gun.

Bren gunA British light machine gun, the Bren Mk1, first produced in 1937 and used extensively in World War II (1939-1945). Because the British based its design on the Czech ZB/vz26, invented eleven years earlier, they coined its name from the “Br” in Brno, where the Czech gun was made, and the “En” in Enfield, where the British gun was manufactured. The Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, North London, was founded in 1804 and has been responsible for a great number of historically important weapons.


BrigA sailing, two-masted, square-rigged, wooden warship, related to the nonnaval brigantine, smaller than a frigate but bigger than a sloop of war or corvette, carrying between 12 and 32 guns on one or one and a half decks. Brigs were common from the eighteenth century until the end of the age of sail.


BrigadeAn army unit that, in the British army, is an operational formation led by a brigadier (or brigadier-general). The number of soldiers serving in a brigade varies tremendously. Essentially a brigade has to consist of two or more fighting units, along with an operational formation structure. In the Australian army in World War I (1914-1918), a brigade consisted of four battalions (4,000 soldiers at full strength), and three brigades formed one division. After World War II (1939-1945), in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a brigade would consist of 4,000-5,000 soldiers, but in the Swiss and Austrian armies, there could be as many as 10,000 soldiers in a brigade. Words similar to “brigade” are used in other countries; in the Estonian army, for example, a brigaad includes 8,750 infantry soldiers.


BroadswordsA large, straight European sword dating from the early Middle Ages, usually double-edged, often two-handed, intended for slashing, chopping, and cutting, rather than thrusting.

Browning automatic rifle (BAR).

Browning automatic riflesRifles;BrowningAutomatic weaponsAn American light machine gun, the .30-06-caliber M-1918A2, invented by John M. Browning (1855-1926). Weighing only 20 pounds, air-cooled, with gas-powered reload and a bipod at the muzzle, it was well known as the squad automatic of World War II (1939-1945).

Bunker-busting bomb.

Bunker-busting bomb[Bunker busting bomb]A bomb developed to penetrate targets buried deep underground. Although prototypes of this bomb were used in the Gulf War in 1991, their first major use was by the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2002.


CaltropsA small, throwable, defensive obstacle consisting of four metal spikes protruding from a central vertex, each at an angle of 120 degrees to the other three, so that whichever three form a tripod on the defended ground, the fourth will be sticking straight up. At Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce devastated the English cavalry with caltrops.

Canister shot.

Canister shotA type of case shot, preloaded into a brittle tin shell designed to disintegrate immediately upon firing and thus add its own fragments to the antipersonnel pattern of projectiles. It differs from grapeshot by being sealed in a container and from case shot by specifically incorporating a tin shell. Its advantage over both was ease of loading.


Cannons;definedA firearm too big to be carried by an individual soldier, an artillery piece, invented early in the fourteenth century, that exists in three basic forms: gun, howitzer, and mortar, which are distinguished by caliber, trajectory, projectile velocity, range, and barrel length.


CarbinesA rifle with a short barrel designed to be convenient for cavalrymen. Developed by the French during the wheel-lock era, it achieved its greatest renown in the nineteenth century, when early breech-loading carbines such as the Sharps, Enfield, Springfield, and Winchester became standard British and American cavalry issue.


CarronadesA short-barreled, large-caliber, relatively lightweight, smoothbore naval cannon, inaccurate but highly effective at short range, introduced by the Carron Company of Scotland in 1779 and common until the mid-nineteenth century.

Case shot.

Case shotShort-range, wide-dispersion, antipersonnel muzzle-loading artillery ammunition. Consisting of small metal balls or shards and common during the last hundred years of the muzzle-loading era, it differs from grapeshot by being sealed in a container, which would either break, burn, or disintegrate as soon as the charge was fired, thus allowing the load to spread. A variety of case shot sealed specifically in a tin shell is canister shot.


Catapults;definedAn ancient and medieval artillery engine using a lever to hurl large projectiles. Its power came from a leaf spring; the torsion of a twisted skein, as in the onager; or a huge counterweight, as in the trebuchet. Made obsolete by the development of the cannon, catapults nevertheless remained fairly common in warfare until the sixteenth century and were used as recently as World War I (1914-1918) to hurl grenades into enemy trenches. The term also refers to devices used to launch planes from aircraft carriers.


CellAlthough usually used to describe political groupings in which secrecy ensured that members of the cell did not know the identities of other members in order to avoid infiltrators and people who had been captured, this term was also applied to the soldiers in the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (Viet Cong) during the Vietnam War (1960-1975).

Chain shot.

Chain shotA type of ammunition for smoothbore, muzzle-loading cannons. Compact when loaded but expanding when fired, it was designed for naval use in the sixteenth century to cut the rigging of enemy ships. Later it was also used by ground troops as an antipersonnel charge.


ChariotsAn ancient attack vehicle, a two-wheeled backless cart with high front and sides, pulled by usually one or two but sometimes as many as four horses. It could contain either a single occupant, who both drove and fought, or two, one to drive and the other to shoot arrows, thrust spears, or slash with his sword. At Gaugamela in 331 b.c.e., the Persians used chariots with protruding scythes affixed to rotate with the axles, but the maneuvers of Alexander’s phalanxes snagged the scythes with one another and rendered the chariots ineffective.


Chassepot (rifle)A bolt-action 11-millimeter rifle invented in 1866 by Antoine Alphonse Chassepot (1833-1905) and carried by French soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Based on the Dreyse needle gun, which was standard in the Prussian army after 1848, it used a combustible paper cartridge. When the trigger was pulled, a needle pierced the cartridge from behind before hitting the primer and firing the charge.

Chemical weapons.

Chemical weaponsOrganic or inorganic agents, usually delivered by shell, intended to poison the enemy. Safety for the attacker is often achieved through the binary system, whereby two ingredients are kept isolated from each other within the shell until impact, when they combine to create the poison. Since World War I (1914-1918), various provisions of the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties have limited chemical warfare, especially the use of poison gas.

Cheval de frise (pl. chevaux de frise).

Cheval de frise (European defensive obstacle)Literally, a Frisian horse, a late medieval and early modern defensive obstacle consisting of many long spikes protruding radially from a central log, barrel, or other convenient cylindrical object serving as an axis. A good anticavalry defense for musketeers, it could safely be moved into position by four soldiers, two at each end. Not much used after the eighteenth century, it was finally superseded by barbed wire in the late nineteenth century.


Claymore (broadsword)Swords;ClaymoreA gigantic two-handed Scottish broadsword with a blade up to 6 feet long. The traditional blade of Scotland, known in Gaelic as claidheamh mòr, it was developed in the late Middle Ages and used extensively throughout the Renaissance and early modern era.


ClubsA short, stout, heavy, sticklike object, usually wooden, with a large knob on one end to crush skulls or break bones. Of prehistoric origins, it could have either a plain, blunt warhead or a spike driven through the warhead for added deadliness. Almost exclusively a weapon of traditional, preliterate, or aboriginal cultures, it nevertheless appeared also in more advanced cultures as armor-breaking weapons: the mace and the war hammer. Perhaps the most famous club is the Irish shillelagh, cut from the blackthorn tree.

Cluster bomb.

Cluster bombsBombs;clusterDeveloped by the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and common since the 1960’s, an aerial bomb that jettisons its casing at a predetermined altitude to release dozens or even hundreds of small bombs, or bomblets, typically used as an antitank, antivehicle, or antipersonnel weapon.


CohortConsisting of approximately 480 soldiers (except for the first cohort of every legion, which had 800 soldiers), this term for a unit in the Roman army was subsequently used to describe a body of soldiers, of varying sizes, who were designated a particular task, like a column.


ColumnA division of an army, often with no specific number of soldiers, that had the job of moving to a particular place, especially for sieges or for a specific task.


CompanyIn late medieval and early Renaissance times, this term often referred to the subunit of an army with a separate commander, such as Sir John Hawkwood’s White Company, and there was no specific number of soldiers. Gradually the term “company” come to signify a subunit of a battalion or regiment, and in the case of the British army, it has, at full strength, 120 soldiers, commanded by a major. A company is further divided into two or more platoons. In the German army, the company is the subunit of a battalion, usually with twelve companies in an infantry battalion, making a total, at full strength, of about 80 soldiers.

Composition B.

Composition BAlso called cyclotol, a castable mixture of 40 percent TNT (trinitrotoluene) and 60 percent RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine), insensitive to temperature and shock, commonly used as a military explosive because of its tremendous power to crush and shatter. It was the usual load of Allied bangalore torpedoes in World War II (1939-1945).

Composition C.

Composition CPlastic explosive consisting of 80 percent RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine) and 20 percent plasticizing agent, designated C-1 through C-4 according to which plasticizer is used. Like all practical military explosives, it is insensitive to environmental conditions, safe to handle, and long-lived. It is frequently used in land mines.


CorditeAn efficient form of smokeless powder invented in Britain in 1889 by Sir Frederick Augustus Abel (1827-1902) and Sir James Dewar (1842-1923), consisting of nitroglycerin, guncotton, petroleum jelly, and acetone pressed into thin brown cords. Similar to ballistite, it was used extensively in small arms ammunition throughout the twentieth century.


CorpsIn the ancient Egyptian army, a corps consisted of some 4,000 soldiers. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, within the British army, the term was often used interchangeably with “regiment,” when reference was being made to an infantry regiment. From the late nineteenth century, the “corps” referred to an army formation that consisted of two or more divisions but was itself smaller than an army. Traditionally in military books and maps, a Roman numeral was ascribed to the Corps: VI Corps, VII Corps, and so on. In the German army in World War I (1914-1918), at the start of the war, a German corps consisted of two divisions, each of 17,500 soldiers. There were also instances when specific units in the British, Australian, or Canadian armies had special corps that kept the former use, making them similar in size to regiments, that is, 1,000 or more soldiers. Examples of these include the Camel Corps, Medical Corps, Veterinary Corps, and, in the case of the German army in World War II (1939-1945), the Afrika Korps.


CrossbowsA shooting weapon invented in China about 500 b.c.e. and known in Europe by the end of the first millenium, consisting of a short, thick bow transversely attached to a wooden stock that featured a trigger, a groove to guide the projectile, and usually a detachable cranking mechanism to draw the string. Its ammunition was either stones, pellets, or short arrows called bolts or quarrels. With a range of about 400 yards (370 meters), it was so accurate and powerful that in 1139 the Lateran Council banned its use against Christians. After the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the British preferred the longbow, which could shoot six times as fast, but the crossbow, with its longer range, remained dominant on the Continent through the fifteenth century. By the mid-sixteenth century, it was obsolete in warfare, superseded by firearms, although it is still occasionally used by commandos because it is silent and also for its range and accuracy.

Cruise missile.

Cruise missilesA tactical, self-propelled, ground-hugging, guided missile developed by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A “smart bomb,” capable of pinpoint accuracy, it can carry either nuclear or nonnuclear warheads and can be launched from land, sea, or air. The American sea-launched Tomahawk and the air-launched ALCM turbofan-powered cruise missiles proved devastating against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.


CulverinsA long, smoothbore, muzzle-loading, medium- to large-caliber European field cannon of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Since cast iron technology was not yet dependable for large objects, its barrel was not cast but constructed of overlapping and superimposed hoops of wrought iron. A typical culverin had a 6-inch bore and fired an 18-pound ball.


CutlassesA short, curved, wide-bladed saber with a thrusting point and a stout hand guard, developed in Europe in the seventeenth century, remotely related to the English falchion of the thirteenth century, and used mostly in naval warfare and by pirates.


DaggersNext to stones, probably the most ancient of all weapons, originally made of chipped flint. A sharp-pointed, straight-bladed knife intended primarily for stabbing, it can be held with the little finger toward the blade for powerful downward stabbing or with the thumb toward the blade for more versatile thrusting and slashing.


DavachA subunit within the Irish army in early medieval times, which included enough soldiers to man one fighting ship.


DefoliantsAny chemical weapon intended to destroy plant life and thus prevent the enemy from taking cover in the forest or living off the land. The most notorious was Agent Orange, used extensively by the United States in Vietnam and subsequently discovered to have debilitating long-term side effects on exposed personnel.

Depth charge.

Depth chargesAn antisubmarine high explosive device, first used in 1916 by the British against the German U-boats in World War I (1914-1918). Since World War II (1939-1945), depth charges have been standard armaments on destroyers, destroyer escorts, and PT boats. Typically, several are catapulted overboard simultaneously in different directions, set to explode at different depths to maximize the chance of hitting the target either directly or with shock waves.


DerringerA small, easily concealable, short-barreled, medium- to large-caliber, usually single-shot rifled pistol, first manufactured about 1850 by Henry Deringer (1786-1868) of Philadelphia. With the D lowercased and another r added, the name became generic. John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) used a derringer to assassinate Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).


DestroyersA fast, relatively small, motorized warship of the twentieth century, intended to defend fleets and convoys from all sorts of attack: surface, undersea, and air. It is armed with a great variety of weapons, including torpedoes, depth charges, antiaircraft guns, medium-caliber cannons, and sometimes missiles.

Destroyer escort.

Destroyers;escortsA motorized warship, smaller and usually slower than a destroyer, developed by the United States early in World War II (1939-1945) to support destroyers in their mission to defend fleets and convoys. Since 1975, it has been also known in the U.S. Navy as a frigate.


DetachmentA loose term to define a military unit assigned to another command on the battlefield; there is no set size.


DetailA military unit within the British army, run from headquarters, for transport, intelligence, catering, or another purpose.


Dirk (Scottish dagger)A dagger used by the British navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and by Scots generally since the Middle Ages. This traditional Scottish weapon, regularly issued to regimental pipers, is characterized by a wide, straight, symmetrical, double-edged, tapering blade about one foot long. The genuine Scottish dirk has no guard, but the naval dirk does.

Dirty bomb.

Dirty bombA device that uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. Although tests have taken place in the United States, it is believed that the weapon is still speculative.


Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]A small, maneuverable, propeller-driven airplane capable of steep, steady dives and abrupt, rapid climbs, intended to drop bombs accurately at low altitude and escape before antiaircraft fire or enemy fighter aircraft could bring it down. Armed with either bombs or torpedoes, it is especially effective for attacking ships broadside. Dive-bombing originated as a tactic in World War I (1914-1918) but achieved prominence in World War II (1939-1945) through such planes as the German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, the Japanese Aichi D3A and Yokosuka D4Y, and the American Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver.


DivisionIn early modern times, a division was an administrative grouping made up of a number of infantry regiments, with no set size. During the eighteenth century, within the British army, a division was a subset of a battalion similar to what became known as a platoon. Since the late nineteenth century, a division in the British army, along with those of many other countries, has come to be a field formation comprising two or more brigades. In addition to these brigades, there is a divisional command structure that often has extra units assigned to it. In the Australian army during World War I (1914-1918), a division consisted of three brigades, and each brigade consisted of four battalions, making the number of soldiers in a division, when at full strength, around 12,000. In the German army in World War I, a division, at full strength, consisted of 8,407 infantry, 170 cavalry, 1,363 artillery, 838 pioneers, 757 divisional troops, and 108 in the divisional headquarters.


Drone planesAn unmanned aerial vehicle used in reconnaissance missions and also for remote-controlled bombing. Its task is to fly into areas where it would be risky to send crewed aircraft. Much use of drones has been made by the United States in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and by Israel.

Dumdum bullet.

Dumdum bulletBullets;dumdumA hollow-point or soft-nosed bullet designed to expand quickly upon impact, causing tremendous internal damage and leaving a horrible exit wound. Developed around 1891 by the British at their colonial arsenal in Dum Dum, India, near Calcutta, they used it in India and the Sudan in the 1890’s until it was banned by the Hague Convention of 1899.


DynamitePowerful high explosive invented in 1867 by Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), consisting of an inert, porous substance saturated with nitroglycerin. Its greatest advantage is rendering nitroglycerin safe to handle, but because it cannot be stored for long periods without becoming unstable, it has limited military application.


ElephantsA type of pachyderm that not only provided transportation for soldiers and equipment but also functioned as the first “tanks.” Used in warfare in India from prehistoric times and by the Persians against the Greeks in the fourth century b.c.e., elephants gained military importance, most famously in their role in Hannibal’s crossing the Alps to attack Italy in 218 b.c.e. Elephants, aside from being monstrously strong, are fearless, difficult to kill, and a terror to enemy horses.


EquiteAn elite Roman cavalry unit designed to protect the emperor and other high-ranking individuals.

Explosive projectile.

ExplosivesProjectiles;explosiveAny hurled device designed to explode either on impact or at a predetermined point in its flight. Not limited to artillery shells, they may include hand grenades, long-range guided missiles, and even medieval firepots.


Falchion (sword)A short, single-edged sword popular from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries in Europe, featuring a wide, heavy, straight-backed blade, a convex cutting edge near the point, and usually an S-shaped crossguard. It evolved into the cutlass.


FalconetA very light, smoothbore, muzzle-loading, small-caliber European field piece of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, characterized by a long, narrow, cast-metal barrel, usually bronze. The largest known was a 3-pounder (that is, it fired a 3-pound ball). The name means “little falcon.”

Fanika (or Fahnlein).

FanikaFahnleinA Finnish term used to describe a military unit in the Swedish army that follows a single banner into battle. Traditionally it consisted of about 1,000 soldiers, similar to a battalion, but during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) there were only some 500 soldiers in each fanika.

Farm tools.

Farm tools as weaponsThroughout history, when large numbers of peasants either revolted or were impressed into service, their weaponry included their familiar tools from home. Scythes, sickles, threshing flails, pitchforks, and pruning hooks were extensively used in such conflicts as the Crusades (1095-1270), the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and the French Revolution (1789-1799). Minor modifications turn a sickle into a curved dagger or a pruning hook into a pole arm.


Fasces (Roman)A bundle of rods holding an ax. Used in war, it became the symbol of the authority of the Roman Republic and came to have significance similar to that of the later parliamentary mace in Britain and former British colonies. During much of the first half of the twentieth century, it was adopted as the symbol of the Italian Fascist Party.


FeluccaSlender, swift, lateen-rigged, wooden sailing ship of the Mediterranean, developed in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Favored by the Barbary corsairs until their demise at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it typically carried ten to fourteen guns (seldom, as many as twenty).

Field piece.

Field pieceAny light or medium-weight cannon designed to be highly mobile and versatile in the thick of battle. The term especially refers to the horse-drawn cannons of the muzzle-loading era. Most of the victories of Napoleon I involved his expert use of such artillery.

Fighter aircraft.

Fighter planesEarly in World War I (1914-1918), personnel in observation planes would fire pistols at enemy observation planes. Soon, two-seater planes were equipped with a swivel machine gun for the copilot. In 1915 Anthony Fokker (1890-1939) invented for the Germans a gear system to allow mounted machine guns to fire forward without hitting the propeller, thus creating the first practical fighter planes. Ideal fighters are small, fast, and maneuverable. Propeller fighters such as the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, the German Messerschmitt, the British Spitfire, and the American Flying Tiger reached their zenith in World War II (1939-1945) and were superseded by jets in the late 1940’s.

Fighter jet.

Fighter planesAlthough developed first by the Germans and later by the Allies during World War II (1939-1945), jet fighter aircraft did not see much action until the Korean War (1950-1953). Outstanding jet fighters include the Russian MiG(Mikoyan-Gurevich) series and the American F-11 Tiger, F-86 Sabre, and F-104 Starfighter.


FirepotAn ancient and medieval incendiary weapon, consisting of a ceramic container filled with an inflammable substance. Flung from a catapult, onager, or trebuchet, it was designed to ignite easily upon impact.


FireshipsA derelict wooden sailing ship or barge, set afire and sent among the enemy’s wooden ships. It represented an effective and common naval tactic from ancient to early modern times.


FlailsA type of mace with one, two, or three warheads, usually solid iron spheres studded with spikes, attached to a thick, reinforced wooden handle by short lengths of chain. It was used for the same purpose as the mace, to crush armor, but the chains provided a whiplike effect that added velocity and force to the warhead.


FlaksInvented by the Germans in 1936, the 88-millimeter Flugabwehrkanone (FLAK36) automatic cannon, with an effective range of about 26,000 feet (8,000 meters), was the standard Nazi antiaircraft gun of World War II (1939-1945) and the basis of several later antiaircraft and antitank weapons. Allied airmen soon applied the term to antiaircraft fire in general, especially the hazardous flying debris from exploding antiaircraft shells.


FlamethrowersAn offensive incendiary device whereby a single infantryman can safely and effectively shoot a stream of burning liquid from a high-pressure nozzle to distances of about 200 feet (60 meters). Developed during World War I (1914-1918) and used extensively in World War II (1939-1945) and Vietnam (1961-1975), it was a significant advance in military technology because fire is often dangerous for the attacking and attacked armies alike. Soldiers using flamethrowers typically wear flameproof armor, head to toe.


FleetEither the entire navy of any country or a substantial group of ships involved in a military action, under the command of an admiral.


FlintlocksA muzzle-loading firearm ignition mechanism, invented around 1610 and common from 1650 until the end of the muzzle-loading era in the mid-nineteenth century, a simple improvement of the Snaphancesnaphance, from which it differs by being single-action rather than double-action. When its trigger is pulled, the hammer pushes the pan cover away from the pan, thus creating sparks, igniting the primer, and firing the weapon.

Fragmentation bomb.

Fragmentation bombsBombs;fragmentationInvented during World War I (1914-1918), an artillery shell or aerial bomb whose thick but brittle metal casing is scientifically designed to shatter upon impact, sending jagged debris in all directions as antipersonnel projectiles.


Francisca (ax)A throwing ax used by the Franks in the early Middle Ages and by some Germanic peoples and the Anglo-Saxons in England. French in origin, a double-headed version of the francisca was used during World War II (1939-1945) by the pro-German Vichy government.


FrigatesA sailing, square-rigged, three-masted wooden warship larger than a brig but smaller than a ship of the line. It usually carried between twenty and forty-eight guns on two decks. The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” launched in Boston in 1797, was a forty-four-gun frigate. From 1950 to 1975, the U.S. Navy designated some large destroyers as frigates, and after 1975 the Navy used the term to refer to destroyer escorts.


Fusil (musket)A light, small-caliber, French flintlock musket of the seventeenth century. British soldiers armed with these weapons were called fusiliers. Subsequently, fusil became the ordinary French word for rifle.


GalleonsA warship developed in Spain and England in the fifteenth century, trimmer and more streamlined than the floating fortresses of the fourteenth century. Without their high, overhanging forecastles and poops, but with three or four full-rigged masts, it was the first ship able to hold position against the wind while delivering broadsides to the enemy. The British were victorious over the galleons of the Spanish Armada in 1588 not only because of the weather but also because Sir Francis Drake’s galleons were smaller, shallower, faster, and more maneuverable. The galleon was superseded in the seventeenth century by the British man-of-war.


GalleysA long, low, slender, shallow-draft warship of the eastern Mediterranean, usually rowed but equipped with a single square sail. Developed in Greece, Crete, or Phoenicia around the ninth century b.c.e. and later adopted by the Romans, it was the primary warship until the fall of the Roman Empire. With the foremost part of the prow at or just below the waterline reinforced and sharpened, its basic tactics involved ramming the enemy ship broadside; then it could be boarded. sunk, or set afire. Galleys were used in war as recently as the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

Garand rifle.

Garand rifleRifles;GarandA semiautomatic .30-06 caliber rifle invented in the 1930’s by John C. Garand (1888-1974), engineer at the U.S. Armory, Springfield, Massachusetts. Also called the M-1, it had an eight-round magazine. When the U.S. Army made it the standard infantry weapon in 1936, it was the world’s first semiautomatic rifle to be so honored. American ground troops carried it in World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).

Gas shell.

Gas shellsA basic element of chemical and biological warfare, an artillery projectile filled with poison gas released at or just before impact. Used extensively in World War I (1914-1918), armed chiefly with mustard gas, phosgene, or lewisite, it differs from a gas grenade in that it is fired rather than thrown. Even though military poison gas was outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, most countries have continued to develop such weapons.

Gatling gun.

Gatling gunsA primitive machine gun invented in 1862 for the Union army in the American Civil War (1861-1865) by Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903), characterized by several, usually six to ten, revolving barrels that were cranked around to produce rapid fire. The Gatling gun was superseded by the machine guns of Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916) in the 1890’s, but the Gatling principle was employed for airborne and antiaircraft weapons in the late twentieth century, when very high rates of fire, in excess of six thousand rounds per minute, were desired.


Gladius (sword)A short, straight thrusting sword carried by the Roman infantry legions. From its name derives the word “gladiator.” It was superseded in battle by the spatha in the Christian Roman Empire.


GlaivesA type of pole arm whose head consists of a single blade resembling that of a sword. Common variants include a curved, single-edged, saberlike blade and a broadsword blade. It was developed by the French during the High Middle Ages and used primarily for slashing.


Grape shotA type of spreading antipersonnel and anticavalry muzzle-loading artillery ammunition, consisting of ten or twenty loose, grape-sized, solid metal balls packed as a group into a cannon. Very common in warfare from the eighteenth century until the end of the muzzle-loading era, it differs from case shot and canister shot by not being sealed in a container. The effect was like that of a giant shotgun. The Russians fired grapeshot into the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854.

Greek fire.

Greek fireAn early medieval, and perhaps ancient, incendiary mixture of unknown ingredients, usually delivered by catapult in breakable containers and extensively used in naval warfare because it was unaffected by water. Some say it ignited on contact with saltwater and was first used in 673 by the Byzantines defending Constantinople against the Arabs. Others, who discount the story that Archimedes set Roman ships afire with mirrors during the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.), suggest that he may have been the inventor and first user of Greek fire.


GrenadesA small bomb, either thrown by hand or launched from a hand-carried device. Developed in Europe in the sixteenth century, it originally contained either gunpowder or an incendiary mixture, but later versions contain smoke screens, poison gas, or other chemical agents. Grenades are detonated by percussion, impact, or a short fuse activated just before throwing or launching.

Grenade launcher.

Grenades;launchersDating from the fifteenth century and in constant military use ever since, any short-barreled, wide-bore, muzzle-loading, personal firearm designed to throw grenades farther and more accurately than they can be thrown by hand. Some muskets and rifles can be temporarily converted into grenade launchers with specialized muzzle attachments. The 40-millimeter American M203 grenade launcher, standard infantry equipment in the 1990’s, is easily combined with the M-16 rifle to create a double-barreled weapon.

Guided missile.

Guided weaponsDeveloped by the United States, the Soviet Union, and many other industrialized nations after World War II (1939-1945), a self-propelled, usually rocket-propelled, air- or space-traversing missile, distinguished from an ordinary missile by its being capable of having its course corrected during its flight. It can be ground-launched, air-launched, surface-ship-launched, or submarine-launched. Among water-traversing missiles containing guidance systems, guided torpedoes are generally not called guided missiles, but sea-launched tactical antiship missiles, such as the French Exocet and the American Harpoon, are. Inventing missile guidance systems required the prior development of radar, radio, and computers.


Guisarme (pole arm)A type of pole arm whose head includes two blades curving away from each other, sharpened on the outer, or concave, edges. Invented in Europe in the eleventh century, it was used until the fifteenth for slashing, unhorsing, tripping, and thrusting.


Guns;definedIn military parlance, always a cannon, never a personal firearm. As a piece of ordnance, it is usually a big, powerful, long-range cannon firing with a flat trajectory and thus is distinguished from howitzers and mortars.


GuncottonAn explosive compound, also called nitrocotton, a variety of nitrocellulose invented by German chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799-1868) in 1845 and produced by soaking plain cotton in nitric acid and sulfuric acid. Guncotton burns too fast to be a safe and efficient smokeless propellant for firearms, but it was later used in the invention and manufacture of practical smokeless powders.


Gunpowder;definedAlthough Roger Bacon (c. 1220-c. 1292) was the first Westerner to give exact directions for making gunpowder (in 1242), gunpowder had been developed by the Chinese many centuries earlier. A simple mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, gunpowder revolutionized warfare by enabling projectiles to be fired long distances from hollow tubes closed or partially closed at one end. Later improvements, such as powder B, ballistite, and cordite, include less volatile and less smoky varieties.


HalberdsA versatile type of pole arm whose head includes an ax on one side, a spike, pick, or hook on the other side, and a spear point at the tip. Developed in Switzerland in the thirteenth century, gradually improved through the sixteenth, and still carried by the Swiss Guards of the Vatican, it was an important multipurpose weapon of European foot soldiers during the Renaissance, employed to unhorse, thrust, parry, or slash. Horsemen would frequently become intimidated by companies of well-seasoned infantry armed with halberds.

Hand cannon.

Hand cannonsA primitive European muzzle-loading personal firearm, developed about 1400, featuring a long stock, short barrel, smooth bore, and large caliber. Intended to be fired from a bench-rest position, it featured, under the stock near the muzzle, a protruding spike to hook over the rest to prevent recoil. It was superseded by the harquebus about 1450.

Hand grenade.

Hand grenadesHandarms;grenadesGrenadesInvented in the sixteenth century and in constant military use ever since, a small explosive device designed to be thrown by hand and detonated by either impact or a time fuse. Among its most prominent users were the British Grenadiers of the eighteenth century. Twentieth century examples include the German Steilhandgranate (potato masher), the Japanese 97, and the American Mk2 “pineapple.”


HarquebusesA European muzzle-loading firearm developed about 1450. Fired by either a matchlock or a wheel-lock mechanism, it was in general use until about 1550, when the snaphance was invented and the flintlock musket became possible. Also called an arquebus, hackbut, or hagbut, it evolved from the hand cannon, was heavy, bulky, short-range, and inaccurate, and was typically fired from a monopod or tripod.


HazaraA relatively small unit within the Mongol army, sometimes called a minghan, consisting of 1,000 soldiers, similar in size to a Roman legion or modern battalion. Subsequently the Mongol army was reorganized into ming bashi, which also consisted of 1,000 soldiers.

Heavy artillery.

Heavy artilleryArtillery;heavyLarge cannons that differ from light artillery not only by weight but also by caliber, mobility, and purpose. Such guns are suitable for fortress defense, shore batteries, and siege work, but not for battlefield situations where quick adaptability could be the key to victory. The peak use of heavy artillery was in World War I (1914-1918), when guns of 40 centimeters and larger were moved by railroad or mounted on battleships.

Horse artillery.

Horse artilleryArtillery;horseA type of field artillery in which the gunners ride horses. Until the end of the eighteenth century, guns, carriages, and caissons were pulled by horses while the gun crews and drivers walked. One of Napoleon’s most important tactical innovations was to develop the horse artillery, dramatically increasing the versatility, mobility, and effectiveness of his cannon. In the American Civil War (1861-1865), the term referred to the Confederate practice of disassembling small howitzers, loading the components on packhorses, running them with the cavalry through terrain where normal gun carriages could not pass, then quickly reassembling them at the next battle.


HostThe term used in ancient Egypt to designate 250 chariots, which were subdivided into corps of 25 chariots each.


HowitzersA type of cannon, originating in the seventeenth century, with a barrel longer than that of a mortar but shorter than that of a gun, designed to fire medium-velocity projectiles at medium to high trajectories.


HundertschaftA term that arose in early medieval times to describe a unit of about 100 fighting men. Subsequently it continued to be used to denote a unit of around 100 men, notably by the German State Police and the German Federal Police.


HuoThe smallest subunit of a Chinese medieval army. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it consisted of 10 soldiers.

Hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).

Hydrogen bombBombs;hydrogenA thermonuclear device that uses the power of an atomic fission reaction to fuse heavy hydrogen atoms, deuterium and tritium, into helium. Fused in this way, hydrogen releases about four times as much destructive energy as the same mass of uranium or plutonium in an atomic bomb. The United States tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1952, the Soviet Union in 1953.


IkhandaA corps within the Zulu army from the 1820’s to the 1870’s. During the Zulu (or Anglo-Zulu) War of 1879, the number of soldiers in a Zulu ikhanda varied considerably. The entire Zulu army was divided into three of these, and they consisted of between 2,400 and 15,000 warriors, each with a number of amabuthos, or regiments.


ImpiA nonspecific term referring to a number of Zulu warriors. The size of impi units varied considerably.

Incendiary bomb.

Incendiary bombsBombs;incendiaryAny chemical device intended to cause an outbreak of flames among the enemy, including fire bombs, napalm bombs, Molotov cocktails, and firepots. Some commonly used inflammatory agents are white phosphorus, gasoline, thermite, and magnesium.

Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Intercontinental ballistic missilesMissiles;ICBMsA strategic weapon of mass destruction, the focus of the Cold War (1945-1991) arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States; a very long range, nuclear-armed guided missile, such as the Soviet SS-9, SS-16, SS-17, SS-18, and SS-19, and the American Minuteman III and Titan II, land-launched from underground silos. Similar, but shorter-range, missiles, such as the American Polaris and Trident, can be launched from submarines.


Ironclad shipsA motorized or, less commonly, sailing wooden warship armored with metal plates on its hull and topsides, developed early in the American Civil War (1861-1865). As demonstrated in the classic draw between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862, it revolutionized naval warfare.

Jacketed bullet.

Jacketed bulletProjectiles;jacketed bulletA small arms projectile consisting of a soft metal core, usually lead, coated with a harder metal, often copper, which is still soft enough to grip the rifling inside a gun barrel. It was standard military issue throughout the world as of the late nineteenth century. The main advantage of such ammunition is that it can be fired at higher velocity, thereby gaining a flatter trajectory and hence a longer range.


JavelinsThe generic term for any light, usually short, spear whose sole purpose is to be thrown, sometimes with a throwing device to extend the arm and increase the weapon’s range. Invented during the Stone Age, it was common among most ancient troops, especially the Greek hoplite infantry. One famous type of javelin is the Roman light pilum.

Jeddart ax.

Jeddart axesAxes;jeddartA type of pole arm whose head consists of a grappling hook on one side and, on the other side, a long ax-blade with an undulating edge and a spear point. Developed from the halberd and voulge, contemporaneous with the Lochaber ax in the sixteenth century, it could be used for scaling walls and unhorsing riders, as well as for thrusting, chopping, and slashing.


JeepsNamed by altering the acronym “GP” for “general purpose,” a small, light, fast, tough, dependable, all-terrain motor vehicle with four-wheel drive, an 80-inch wheelbase, and often a machine gun mounted in the back, developed by the Americans in the late 1930’s and used extensively in World War II (1939-1945), Korea (1950-1953), and Vietnam (1961-1975). (Jeep became a trademark for a civilian vehicle based on the military original.)


See Jujitsu.


JujitsuAn unarmed Japanese martial art whose origins are lost in antiquity but whose basic principles were codified by samurai in the seventeenth century. Named from two Japanese words meaning “gentle skill,” it is not the same as Judojudo, “gentle art,” a more recent derivative that emphasizes leverage and throwing. True jujitsu also involves complex maneuvers of kicking, punching, and holding.


KarateBased on ancient Chinese boxing techniques, this hard-hitting, unarmed Japanese martial art features extraordinary leaps, chops, and kicks. It became systematized during the seventeenth century on the island of Okinawa and was named from two Japanese words meaning “empty hand.” Tae kwon doTae kwon do, or “Korean karate,” evolved from it in the 1950’s.

Kidney dagger.

Kidney daggerDaggers;kidneySometimes called ballock dagger, a symmetrical, double-edged, usually ornate European dagger of the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, so called from the shape of its guard.


KnivesA hand weapon with a multipurpose short cutting blade, dating from prehistoric times and differing from a dagger in its versatility, from a sword in its length, and from a bayonet in its independence.


KnobkerriesA Zulu striking or throwing club, carved from a single piece of hardwood, with a long, thin, straight handle and a smooth, small to medium-sized spherical or ovoid knob for the warhead.


See Corps.


Kris (dagger)A traditional Malay dagger, common throughout Southeast Asia, characterized by a long, asymmetric, double-edged, distinctively wavy or serpentine blade. A spur on one side of the base of the blade typically blends into a sort of hand guard. The handle is often ornate and the blade is sometimes ridged, laminated, and inlayed with elaborate designs or battle scenes.


Kukri (dagger)A traditional, single-edged, guardless, long knife or short sword of the Gurkhas of Nepal, characterized by the distinctive shape of its blade: straight out from the hilt to about a third of its length, then bent abruptly downward toward the edge at an angle of about 35 degrees. The back of the blade thus resembles a hockey stick, but the edge is sinuous and, from the vertex of the angle to the point, usually convex.


LancesA light, long, narrow spear, often with a hand guard, carried by horsemen. An ancient weapon, it was used for tournament jousting in the Middle Ages, fell out of military favor in the Renaissance, but was revived by Napoleon. Throughout the nineteenth century until World War I (1914-1918), the lance was common among European and Asian cavalry regiments and Native American horsemen.

Land mine.

Mines;landLand minesAn explosive obstacle or booby trap, typically buried just under the surface of the ground and easily detonated by pressure or a tripwire. A mainstay of twentieth century warfare, most land mines are antipersonnel devices, but some, set to detonate only from heavy pressures, are used as antitank or antivehicle weapons.


Langue-de-bœuf (pole arm)[Langue de boeuf]A type of pole arm whose head consists mainly of a long, double-bladed spear point named for its shape, like that of the tongue of an ox (langue de bœuf in French). Developed by the Swiss and French in the fifteenth century, it was an early form of the partisan.


LasersAn acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” This emission of light in a continuous narrow beam of all the same wavelength (visible, ultraviolet, or infrared) was developed in the late 1950’s. Its most successful military use is in rangefinding and guidance systems for precision-guided munitions (PGMs). The United States used laser-guided bombs with great effectiveness in the 1991 Persian Gulf War (1990-1991).


LegionThis division of the Roman army consisted of approximately 4,500-5,500 soldiers. In early Rome, at full strength, it was formed by 4,200 legionaries and 300 equites, but during the Roman Republic it had 5,200 legionnaires, as well as a range of auxiliaries.


LewisiteA Poison;gaspoison gas, C2H2AsC13, a colorless or brown, fast-acting blistering agent and eye irritant, smelling of ammonia and geraniums, synthesized in 1918 by Winford Lee Lewis (1878-1943), then a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service. It was used briefly by the Americans toward the end of World War I (1914-1918).

Light artillery.

Light artilleryA cannon with a small to medium caliber and a light barrel, distinguished from heavy artillery mainly by its superior versatility. Usually wheeled and sometimes portable by as few as two or three soldiers, it can be quickly redeployed, realigned, and redirected amid volatile battlefield predicaments. The category includes field artillery, tank guns, automatic cannons, antiaircraft guns, antitank mortars, and most howitzers.

Limpet mine.

Limpet mineMines;landNamed after the marine gastropod mollusk that clings to undersea surfaces, a twentieth century naval explosive device containing magnets for divers or amphibious saboteurs to attach it to an enemy ship’s metal hull below the water line. American versions from World War II (1939-1945) weighed about 10 pounds and used a time-delay fuse to detonate a high-explosive charge, usually torpex.

Lochaber ax.

Lochaber axAxes;LochaberA type of pole arm whose head includes, on one side, a hook for scaling walls or unhorsing riders and, on the other side, a long, wide, convex blade. About half the length of the blade extends beyond the end of the staff. Developed in Scotland late in the sixteenth century, it was popular with clansmen in their struggles against the English until Culloden in 1746.

Long-range bomber.

Long-range bombers[Long range bombers]Bombers;long-rangeDuring World War II (1939-1945), the Americans developed aircraft that improved offensive punch by flying faster and farther for bombing runs. Early in the war, they replaced their B-17 bomber[B 17 bomber]Flying B-17 Fortress bomberB-17 Flying Fortress with the Superfortress (B-29) bomberB-29 bomber[B 29 bomber]B-29 Superfortress, which flew at 350 miles per hour and could bomb a target 2,000 miles from base and return safely. The Enola Gay, Enola Gay (bomber) which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was a B-29. From the 1950’s until the 1990’s, the B-52 bomber[B 52 bomber]Stratofortress (B-52) bomberB-52 Stratofortress was the world standard for long-range jet bombers.


LongbowsThe mainstay of English military success from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, the longbow made archery more accurate and deadly, as well as inexpensive and uncomplicated. It was a simple bow about 6 feet long, drew about 80 or 90 pounds, and shot a 3-foot arrow about 270 yards (250 meters). In its time, the only personal weapon that could outrange it was the Crossbowscrossbow, but the crossbow was slow, and a practiced archer could shoot ten or twelve arrows per minute. The longbow proved devastating against the French at Crécy in 1346.


LongshipsShips and shipbuilding;longshipsA long, low, slender, shallow-draft vessel of the eighth to eleventh centuries, usually propelled by a single square sail amidships but also equipped with oars. Developed in Scandinavia by expert seafarers, it was the swiftest ship of its time and struck terror throughout coastal Europe as the preferred raiding ship of the Vikings. From the name of its flat rudder, “steer-board,” always lashed to the right side of the ship, derives the word “starboard.”

Lucerne hammer.

Lucerne hammerA type of pole arm that evolved from the voulge in the fifteenth century and whose head consists of a heavy, four-pronged warhead: a stout, thick spear point for thrusting; a pick perpendicular to the staff; and two claws opposite the pick and also perpendicular to the staff. Its sole purpose was to smash or penetrate armor.


MacesA type of club, developed early in the Bronze Age and refined during the Middle Ages, consisting of a short, thick staff and a massive metal warhead with four to six blunt blades or flanges parallel to the shaft and equally spaced around the head. Alternately, a mace warhead could be a solid metal sphere studded with spikes. It was used extensively by mounted knights to smash or dent armor. After knights in armor disappeared from warfare, the mace continued to be used as a ceremonial symbol of authority.


MachetesA long knife or short sword that originated in the tropical Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century, with a short, thick, single-edged, heavy blade for cutting sugarcane, hacking through jungle, or slashing enemies.

Machine gun.

Machine gunsDeveloped in the second half of the nineteenth century, a complex automatic rifle capable of rapid fire with ordinary small arms ammunition. Prototypes were developed by James Puckle (1667-1724), Richard Jordan Gatling, and Thorsten Nordenfelt (1842-1920), but the first successful true machine gun was invented around 1884 by Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916) and adopted by Britain, Germany, and the United States in the 1890’s. Loosely, the term can refer to any automatic weapon.

Man-of-war ship.

Man-of-war ships[Man of war ships]Developed in Britain early in the seventeenth century, any large sailing warship, especially either a frigate or a ship of the line, square-rigged and with at least two gun decks. Bigger, faster, more fully rigged, and more heavily armed than the ship it replaced, the galleon, it survived until the end of the age of sail and made the British navy supreme.


Mangonel (catapult)A medieval torsion-powered catapult closely related to the onager but smaller and, because its throwing arm traveled through an arc of only 90 degrees, less efficient. When cocked, the arm was horizontal; when released, it hit the padded leather buffer at the vertical, thus dissipating all its follow-through energy. Like all torsion engines, it was adversely susceptible to changes in humidity affecting the twisted skein.


ManiplesA subunit in the Roman Republican army that consisted of 120 legionnaires. There were thirty maniples in each legion.


MatchlocksIntroduced in Europe in the early fifteenth century and used until the early eighteenth century in the West and until the mid-nineteenth century in Asia, muzzle-loading firearm ignition mechanism consisting of a lighted wick or match that the trigger action brought into contact with the pan of powder after the pan cover was lifted by hand.

Meros (pl. meroi).

Meros (Byzantine army unit)A unit within the Byzantine army consisting of about 3,000 soldiers. It was further divided into ten tagmata. Three meroi formed an army.

Metal-case cartridge.

Metal-case cartridge[Metal case cartridge]Cartridges;metal-caseThe earliest cartridge cases were either paper or cloth. They were satisfactory for muzzle-loaders but impractical for breechloaders, especially when the shooter wanted to reload quickly and cleanly. The metal case replaced the paper case in the 1870’s and had several important advantages, chief among which was that it expanded to seal the breech as soon as the weapon was fired. It not only made breech-loading efficient but also made automatic weapons possible.


MilitiaTraditionally, any nonregular military unit made up of volunteers drawn from areas about to be attacked. In Britain, militias originated with the Anglo-Saxons during the Viking raids.


MinesA naval or land booby trap, an explosive weapon usually set to detonate by pressure. Floating mines, moored just below the surface, were typically equipped in both world wars with Herz horns, a German invention that, when hit, triggers an electrochemical reaction that detonates the high explosive charge. Land mines can be laid by sappers or sown by mortars or from cluster bombs. Antimine apparatus includes probes, metal detectors, bangalore torpedoes, tanks equipped with flails, ploughs, or rollers, and minesweeping ships.


Minenwerfer (German mortar)Literally, a mine thrower; a rifled, muzzle-loading, short-barreled, 25-centimeter German mortar of World War I (1914-1918), often loaded with gas shells.

Ming bashi.

Ming bashiSometimes known as a minghan, a division in the Mongol army, which previously had been divided into hazara. The ming bashi was further divided into ten yuz bashi.

Minié ball.

Minié balls[Minie balls]Not really a ball, but a conical lead bullet with a hollow, expanding base, invented in 1849 by French army officer Claude-Étienne Minié (1804-1879). Firing the weapon pushed the bullet tightly into the rifling of the barrel, thus dramatically increasing its range and accuracy. The Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865) proved the superiority of the Minié rifle over both the smoothbore musket and the rifled musket, which used spherical ammunition.


See Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle.


MissilesAny self-propelled ammunition or projectile; loosely, the term can mean any hurled object. Its three main types of self-propulsion are jet engines, propellers, and rockets. Because rocket propulsion is by far the most common, some missiles, especially small ones, are loosely called rockets. In the late twentieth century, the term became mostly synonymous with “guided missile.”


Mitrailleuse (machine gun)Machine guns;MitrailleuseA hand-cranked machine gun developed in 1869 for France and characterized by thirty-seven barrels in a hexagonal pattern inside a single air-cooled barrel. A metal ammunition block inserted vertically into the breech, transverse to the barrels, held all thirty-seven rounds. The French used the mitrailleuse too far back from the front lines for it to be effective in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The term later became the ordinary French word for machine gun.

Molotov cocktail.

Molotov cocktailA terrorist and insurrectionist incendiary weapon developed in Europe in the early twentieth century and named after Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (1890-1986). Consisting of a glass bottle filled with gasoline and plugged with an oil-soaked rag, it is thrown like a hand grenade as soon as the rag is ignited.

Morning star.

Morning starA medieval clublike weapon with a spiked end (hence its name). Used by both infantry and cavalry, it became popular in the fourteenth century and was soon replaced by the more effective flail.


MortarsA short-barreled, large-caliber, usually muzzle-loading cannon designed to lob shells at low velocity and high trajectory with moderate accuracy for short distances, such as over the walls of a besieged fortress. It has been in constant military use since the fifteenth century, but in the late twentieth it became mostly an antiarmor, guided-missile-launching weapon.

Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV).

Multiple independently targetable reentry vehiclesA type of nuclear warhead on either an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), developed in the 1970’s, consisting of a cluster of guided missiles to saturate the general area of the target and make antimissile defense more difficult for the enemy.


MusketsAny muzzle-loading, long-barreled, personal firearm, originally smoothbore, though it could be either smoothbore or rifled. Invented in the fifteenth century, it was a standard infantry weapon for four hundred years until superseded by the breech-loading rifle in the 1860’s.

Mustard gas.

Mustard gasA poison gas, C4H8C12S, an acrid, noxious substance that penetrates and irritates skin, causes severe blisters, and can cause blindness. It was used extensively by both sides in World War I (1914-1918).


Muzzle-loading weapons[Muzzle loading weapons]Any firearm, either a personal weapon or an artillery piece, that loads its charge and projectile through the front end of the bore. Muzzle-loaders dominated for almost six hundred years, but, with the exception of mortars, most military firearms since the late nineteenth century have been breechloaders. The greatest drawback to muzzle-loaders is that they cannot repeat.


Naginata (Japanese spear)A traditional Japanese pole arm whose head consists of a long, high-quality, curved, saberlike sword blade rigidly attached to the staff with an overly long shank or tang. An expert in naginatajutsu, the martial art of wielding this weapon, was a very deadly warrior.


Não (Portuguese ship)[Nao]A sailing, deep-draft, broad-beam Portuguese merchantman and warship, called nau in Spain and carrack in England, developed in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, probably by Basque shipbuilders. Usually with three or four masts, armed with one or two decks of bronze cannons, and full-rigged, it was sturdy but slow. Famous nãos include the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’s flagship; most of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet that circumnavigated the world from 1519 to 1522; and the Henry Grâce à Dieu, Henry VIII’s naval flagship.


NapalmAn incendiary substance, ammunition for flamethrowers and firebombs, developed by the United States in 1942 and used extensively in the Pacific theater of World War II (1939-1945) and in Vietnam (1961-1975). Also called jellied gasoline (especially in its early years), it exists in several formulas, the most successful of which is napalm-B: 50 percent polystyrene, 25 percent benzene, and 25 percent gasoline. The name derives from two of its original ingredients, naphthenic acid, or aluminum naphthene, and palmitic acid, or aluminum palmate. Napalm adheres to its target, making it difficult to extinguish.

Nerve gas.

Nerve gasAny gas composed of a nerve agent or agents that forms a chemical weapon capable of being used against opponents. It was first developed in Germany in 1936 but was most extensively used against the Kurds in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988.

Neutron bomb.

Neutron bombBombs;neutronThe so-called dirty bomb, developed in the 1970’s, an enhanced radiation bomb intended as an antipersonnel tactical nuclear weapon, designed to do minimal damage to nonliving structures but to kill or incapacitate all animal life within a certain radius.


NiruA subunit in the Chinese army during the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1644-1912) consisting of about 300 bannermen who were drawn from the Manchu minority.

Nuclear-powered warship.

Nuclear weapons and warfare;shipsShips and shipbuilding;nuclearThe technology of substituting nuclear fuel for diesel in oceangoing vessels, especially effective for submarines, enabling them to stay submerged much longer and refuel less frequently, thus increasing the threat of the sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched in 1954.


NunchakuA Japanese weapon developed from the flail used in the threshing of rice. It consists of two sections of wood (or later metal), attached by a chain, and was similar in some ways to the European flail.

Oil pot.

Oil potDefensive weapon for besieged medieval garrisons, a large metal cauldron containing hot oil to be poured on attackers trying to scale the walls.


Onagers (catapults)A light, versatile, mobile catapult developed by the Romans, probably in the third century, so called because, after launching its load, when the throwing arm landed on the padded leather buffer at the front of the stout wooden frame, it kicked like its namesake, the Asian wild ass. Its power came from a skein twisted around one end of its arm, which traveled through an arc of about 135 degrees.


OrdnanceA term with two distinct meanings in military parlance, depending on context. On one hand, it means military equipment and hardware in general–not only weapons and ammunition, but also vehicles, tools, and durable supplies. On the other hand, and more properly, it means artillery, cannons, and their ammunition. Ordnance officers are responsible for procuring and maintaining this matériel and ensuring that the artillery is in good working order.


PackA grouping of submarines, specifically German U-boats in World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).


Parang (sword)The Malay name for the jagged-edged, oddly angled sword traditionally used by the Dyak headhunters and pirates of Borneo. The tip is sometimes squared off, with three or more separate points in line. The hilt is usually guardless and often elaborately decorated with horn, hair, or feathers.


Partisan (pole arm)A type of pole arm whose head consists mainly of a long, broad, double-bladed spearhead, characterized by two small, winglike extensions or flanges at the base of the spearhead curving up toward the point. It evolved from the langdebeve (French langue-de-bœuf) in the sixteenth century and was common throughout the seventeenth. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (act I, scene i, line 144), Marcellus asks whether he should strike the ghost with his partisan.

Patriot missile.

Patriot missileThis U.S. missile was developed in 1981 as a surface-to-air missile, used mainly to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. There was much publicity about its deployment and use during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.


PatrolA military unit involved in a specific task, on land, at sea, or in the air. It has no fixed size.

Patrol-torpedo (PT) boat.

Patrol-torpedo (PT) boatsA very small, very fast, shallow-draft, motorized vessel, typically armed with torpedoes, machine guns, and depth charges, used extensively by the Americans in the Pacific theater during World War II (1939-1945). John F. Kennedy became a war hero while commanding PT-109.

Percussion cap.

Caps, percussionA small container of priming substance that is detonated when struck in a specific way, thus setting off the main charge and propelling the projectile down the barrel of the firearm. Alexander John Forsyth (1769-1843), a Scottish minister, patented the first practical percussion firing mechanism in 1807. His invention proved to be among the most important in the history of firearms, because it eventually made possible metal-case cartridges, breech-loading, rapid fire, and quick reloading. Cartridges are designated according to the placement of their internal percussion caps: rimfire, centerfire, and the obsolete pinfire.


Petard (explosive device)Explosive demolition device of the sixteenth century, consisting of a container of gunpowder which could be placed against a wall, gate, portcullis, or drawbridge, then detonated in an attempt to open a breach. Because of its extraordinarily loud report, it was named after the French word for “to break wind.” Because so many of its users were killed by the explosion before they could get away, the phrase, “hoist with (or by) one’s own petard” arose, meaning literally to be “blown up by one’s own bomb,” or defeated by one’s own designs.


PetronelA large-caliber matchlock carbine developed in France in the late sixteenth century, featuring a banana-shaped butt, curved sharply downward for bracing the weapon against the chest.


PhosgenePoison gas, COC12, a colorless lung irritant that smells like freshly cut grass. It causes choking death by pulmonary edema (that is, by drowning in one’s own mucus) and was used extensively by both sides in World War I (1914-1918).


PikesA very long type of pole arm whose head consists mainly of a heavy but narrow spear point rigidly attached to the staff with a long metal shank. The pike dates from ancient times, but its most celebrated tactics involved infantrymen creating defensive formations such as the mobile cheval de frise against enemy cavalry in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to allow musketeers safety while reloading. Such pikes could be 16 feet (5 meters) long.


Pilum (spear)A Roman spear, standard equipment for foot soldiers in the legions. It existed in two forms: one long, heavy, often with a hand guard midway down the shaft, and used mainly for thrusting; the other short, light, without a hand guard, basically a javelin with a small head designed to break off upon impact.


PistolsA short-barreled handgun, invented in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, frequently in military use as an officer’s sidearm. Its one-handed operation made it suitable for cavalrymen. In automatic or semiautomatic pistols, the magazine can be conveniently contained in the handle.

Plastic explosive.

Plastic explosivesExplosives;plasticA stable, moldable, high-explosive mixture created by combining a plasticizing agent such as oil or wax with a high-explosive compound such as RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine) or TNT (trinitrotoluene). First developed in the 1890’s, research into plastic explosives expanded dramatically during and after World War II (1939-1945), resulting in such products as composition C.


PlatoonA subunit of an army company; in the case of the British army, there are three platoons in a company. At full strength, it consists of between 30 to 40 soldiers, and it is commanded by a subaltern. It is further divided into sections.

Polaris missile.

Polaris missileThis missile, first developed in 1960 in the United States, was an early submarine-launched missile used by the U.S. Navy and the (British) Royal Navy.

Pole arm.

Pole arms;definedAny long, multipurpose spear. Pole arms have been developed at every time and in every culture, but especially in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The typical pole arm was used extensively by foot soldiers and palace guards until the nineteenth century and consisted of a large, finely crafted metal head rigidly affixed to a wooden staff. Varieties include the bill, guisarme, glaive, halberd, jeddart ax, langue-de-bœuf, Lochaber ax, Lucerne hammer, partisan, pike, poleax, spetum, and voulge.


PoleaxesA type of pole arm whose head includes a broad-bladed ax on one side. There may be a spear point at the tip of the head and either a spike, pick, or hook on the other side, so that the weapon would resemble a halberd. It was developed in Europe in the late Middle Ages and used throughout the Renaissance and early modern era.


Pom-pom[Pom pom]So named from the sound of its report, a small-caliber automatic cannon whose reloading mechanism is powered by the firing of each previous round. Developed in the 1880’s and 1890’s by Hiram Stevens Maxim and originally intended as a mounted naval gun, its first use was as a field piece by both the British and the Boers in the Boer Wars (1880-1902)Second Boer War (1899-1902). In subsequent naval and antiaircraft use, it was typically mounted in pairs. The British used a 37-millimeter version as a field piece in World War I (1914-1918).


PoniardA Renaissance French dagger with a long, slender, triangular or square blade, somewhat resembling a stiletto. In combat it was often wielded in conjunction with the rapier as a parrying weapon. The name derives from poing, the French word for fist.

Powder B.

Powder BThe first successful smokeless powder, invented in 1885 by Paul Vieille (1854-1934) and soon adopted by the French army. It consists of nitrocelluose gelatinized with ether and alcohol, evaporated, rolled, and flaked.

Pursuit plane.

Pursuit planesFrom 1920 to 1948, American fighter aircraft were officially designated “Pursuit” and were numbered with the prefix “P.” Among the outstanding planes in this series were the Curtiss P-1 Hawk, the Boeing P-26 Peashooter, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning or Fork-Tailed Devil, and the Curtiss P-40 Flying Tiger.


QuarterstaffA particularly stout medieval English stave of oak or ash, about 8 feet long and 1.5 inches thick, occasionally banded with iron at both ends and commonly wielded with one hand in the middle and the other near one end. A surprisingly versatile weapon in the quick hands of an expert, it can stun, stab, crush, unhorse, fracture, or even kill. The legendary meeting of Robin Hood and Little John involved their famous quarterstaff duel on a narrow bridge.


RapiersA long thrusting sword developed in Europe in the sixteenth century and popular until the eighteenth. With a rigid, slender, straight blade of fine steel and usually an elaborate hilt and hand guard, it served the privileged classes, both civilian and military, as a Dueling;weaponsdueling weapon, an instrument of stealth and assassination, and a symbol of rank and authority.

RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine).

RDX (explosive)CycloniteHexogenExplosives;RDXAlso called cyclonite or hexogen, one of the most common military explosives of the twentieth century, especially in World War II (1939-1945). Invented in 1899 by the Germans and named by the British, its name is an acronym for “Research Department Explosive.” More powerful than TNT (trinitrotoluene) and comparatively stable, RDX is often mixed with TNT (trinitrotoluene), as in torpex, the standard torpedo load, or in aerial bombs and artillery shell fillings.

Recoilless rifle.

Recoilless rifleRifles;recoillessInvented by the Americans during World War II (1939-1945), a hollow tube, open at both ends, allowing a single soldier to fire an artillery shell from the shoulder. The American M20 superseded the M9A1 after World War II (1939-1945). The Swedish Miniman and the German Armbrust are late twentieth century disposable recoilless antitank guns firing just one load of shaped charge, that is, a shell that explodes on the outer surface of the armor and bores a hole through it.


RegimentIn the British army, a permanently established unit within the infantry, and also the Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Signals, or Army Air Corps, being commanded by a lieutenant colonel. It could consist of a number of battalions, and most regiments had county or regional names showing where they were raised or had connections. Within the German army in World War I (1914-1918), regiments were assigned names of a king, prince, or other military identity.

Repeating rifle.

Repeating riflesRifles;repeatingA breech-loading personal firearm, using manual action to feed the next round from a magazine into the firing chamber. Developed independently and gradually by many inventors in the mid-nineteenth century, its eventual perfection early in the twentieth century was made possible by two innovations: the metal-case cartridge and smokeless powder. The repeating action can be a lever, as in the Winchester 1873; slide, as in the Colt Lightning; or bolt, as in most World War I (1914-1918) repeaters.


RevolversA type of breech-loading pistol, invented in the mid-nineteenth century, classified in four basic kinds according to how the multichambered cylinder is exposed for reloading: side-gate, where a flap opens on one side of the weapon; break-open, where the barrel swings down on a hinge; swing-out, where the cylinder swings to one side on its hinge; and removable cylinder. A revolver is either single-action, if it needs to be cocked manually, or double-action, if the trigger cocks the hammer. Famous manufacturers include Tranter, Webley, Colt, and Smith and Wesson.


RiflesAny long-barreled personal firearm, either muzzle-loading or breech-loading, that has spiral grooves machined inside the barrel to spin the bullet, thus increasing its accuracy, range, and power. Invented in the fifteenth century and first popularized by the American colonists in the mid-eighteenth century, it superseded smoothbore weapons in the 1860’s. Outstanding examples are the Winchester, M-1, Springfield, and Enfield.

Robot bomb.

Robot bombBombs;robotAn early type of guided missile developed by both sides in the European theater late in World War II (1939-1945), a small drone, or pilotless airplane, loaded with high explosives and sent on a descending course toward its target. The best known is the jet-powered Nazi V-1 (Vergeltungswaffe Eins), used against England in 1944.


RocketsA self-propelled airborne missile, powered by the rearward thrust of gases from burning either solid or liquid fuel, invented by the Chinese about 1000, developed in Europe in the sixteenth century, and made practical for warfare by Sir William Congreve (1772-1828). It was developed into a major element of modern warfare by Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945), and Wernher von Braun (1912-1977). The first important military rocket was the German V-2 of World War II (1939-1945).

Rocket launcher.

Rocket launchersDeveloped by all sides during World War I (1914-1918), any device designed to make small rockets more portable, versatile, and mobile as artillery ammunition. In the form of a mortar or recoilless rifle, a rocket launcher and its ammunition can be mounted on a tank, jeep, or gun carriage, or carried by one or two infantrymen, who fire it either handheld or from a bipod or tripod mount.

Rubber bullet.

Rubber bulletsBullets;rubberAlso called a baton round, a large-caliber antimob projectile, typically 37-millimeter, developed by the British in the 1960’s and designed to stun and intimidate rather than kill, although it can kill if fired at close range. The same specialized weapons that fire it can also fire canisters of tear gas, smoke screen, and other antiriot ammunition.


SaA subunit of the ancient Egyptian army that consisted of between 200 and 250 soldiers. Each fought under a different standard in New Kingdom Egypt (sixteenth-fourteenth dynasties, 1570-1070 b.c.e.).


SabersA long slashing sword invented in Europe in the eighth century. Used in most wars since then, it achieved its greatest prominence as a cavalry weapon in the nineteenth century. Usually curved with a blade-length single edge on the convex side, it could also be edged a few inches down from the point on the concave side for back-slashing.


Sai (dagger)A Japanese three-pronged weapon, a long dagger. Often it was attached to a long pole, which in some ways made it similar to the European trident. It was effective against cavalry.

Samurai sword.

Samurai;swordsSwords;samuraiA traditional weapon of the feudal Japanese warrior class who followed the military religion of bushidō. This high-quality, gently curved, single-edged, two-handed, long sword features a small guard, long handle, and elaborate workmanship. Known in Japan as a daisho, nodachi, tachi, or katana, depending on length and style, its standard design was established in the early ninth century by the great swordsmith Yasutsuna.


Sax (dagger)Scramasax (sword)Also called a scramasax, a long dagger or short, straight, iron sword of the Northern European tribes in the Dark Ages.


ScimitarsA traditional saber of Islamic nations, developed prior to the Crusades, characterized by a long, thin, single-edged, crescent-shaped blade. It was made from Damascus steel, which was prepared at a very low temperature. Varieties include the Persian shamshir, the Turkish kilij, and the Arab saif.

Scud missile.

Scud missilesA Soviet tactical nuclear or high-explosive missile, liquid-fueled, relatively short-ranged, and equipped with an inertial guidance system. Scuds with nonnuclear warheads were used ineffectively against Israel by Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.


SectionA subunit of a platoon in the British army. At full strength, it consists of between 7 and 10 men, serving under the command of a noncommissioned officer. There are generally three sections in a platoon.

Semiautomatic firearm.

Semiautomatic weaponsAny firearm that loads automatically but fires only one shot for each squeeze of the trigger. Mechanically, it is midway between a repeating rifle and a fully automatic weapon. The earliest was the 1893 Borchardt pistol.


ShellsAny cannon-fired projectile filled with explosive, typically designed to explode at a given point in its flight or upon impact. The earliest artillery shells, in the fifteenth century, were hollow iron spheres filled with gunpowder and fitted with fuses. Besides varieties of gunpowder or black powder, common explosive shell fillings include picric acid, ammonium picrate, TNT (trinitrotoluene), amatol, RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine), and PETN (pentaerythitol tetranitrate).

Ship of the line.

Ships of the lineA large three-masted, square-rigged, sailing warship with at least two and usually three fully armed gun decks, carrying between 64 and 140 guns, so called either because it was powerful enough to hold the line of battle or because, with sister ships fore and aft, they formed an impregnable line. Developed by the British in the seventeenth century, it was the mainstay of naval power in general and the British navy in particular for the next two hundred years, superseded only by ironclad and motorized vessels.


ShrapnelAn antipersonnel explosive shell invented in the 1790’s by British artillery officer Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), consisting of a case of small shot with a fuse designed to detonate over the heads of enemy soldiers. The term also loosely refers to any small airborne metal fragments or debris from an explosion.

Siege artillery.

Siege artilleryClass of large weapons, originally only mechanical instruments such as catapults and trebuchets, but later also explosion-powered weapons such as mortars and other large firearms, employed during sieges to breach walls, destroy defensive works, and keep besieged garrisons confined.

Siege tower.

Siege towersA tall, shielded platform that could be wheeled up to a besieged wall for archers inside the platform to shoot down on defenders. Because they were so vulnerable to fire, siege towers were covered with water-soaked hides or metal plates. In a famous incident during the Siege of Acre (1191) by King Richard I of England (1157-1199) in the Crusades;Third (1187 192)Third Crusade, the Muslim defenders first saturated a huge copper-plated Christian siege tower with a flammable liquid, then set it afire with a burning log hurled from within the fortress by a trebuchet.


SlingsInvented in the Stone Age and existing in myriad forms ever since, a simple flexible or elastic device for extending the range and velocity of hurled objects. The basic weapon is just a small pouch in the middle of a thong. The warrior places a stone in the pouch, grabs both ends of the thong, whirls the sling, and releases one end at the optimal moment, as David did in his famous encounter with Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Slings are sometimes attached to certain kinds of catapults, such as the trebuchet.

Sloop of war.

Sloops;of warA single-masted, sailing, wooden warship, rigged fore and aft with a lone jib, carrying between ten and twenty-eight guns on a single deck. Sometimes called a corvette, a ship of this class could also have a small foremast, and if so, it could be square-rigged. Developed by the British in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was a staple of naval warfare until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Smokeless powder.

Smokeless powderSeveral attempts were made in the mid-nineteenth century to find an explosive that would burn more completely, produce less smoke, and thus be a more effective propellant for firearms than gunpowder. Prussian major Johann Schultze offered a prototype in 1864, but it burned too quickly, violently, and uncontrollably. The first successful smokeless powder was powder B, developed in France in 1884. The French produced the first smokeless powder cartridge in 1886. Other successful smokeless powders include ballistite and cordite. Such powders are either single-base, consisting of mostly nitrocellulose or guncotton, or double-base, consisting of nitrocellulose or guncotton and nitroglycerin. Conventional munitions typically use double-base powder.


SnaphanceInvented in Europe, perhaps by the Dutch, sometime between 1550 and 1570, a major technological advance in muzzle-loading firearm ignition mechanisms. When the trigger is pulled, the powder-pan cover swings up and the hammer swings down so that, when the two collide, sparks are produced which, as the hammer continues down into the pan, ignite the priming powder and fire the weapon. The snaphance achieved great popularity in the seventeenth century and made the flintlock possible.


SnickersneeFrom two Dutch words meaning “thrust” and “cut,” a large knife or short, saberlike sword used in Europe in the eighteenth century for both thrusting and cutting. The term has also become generic for any swordplay.


Spatha (sword)An ancient Roman sword with a broad blade for slashing. Longer than the gladius, it was used by both infantry and cavalry in the last centuries of the Roman Empire.


SpearsAny long, pointed shaft for either thrusting or throwing. In prehistoric times it was first just a sharp stick, but later in the Stone Age hunters and warriors added sharp heads of stone, bone, teeth, or ivory. As knowledge of metallurgy grew, so did the sophistication and keenness of spearheads. By the Renaissance, European spears were highly specialized, some involving the functions of the ax or sword as well as the spear. By the twentieth century, most spears were only ceremonial.


Spetum (pole arm)Type of pole arm evolved from the trident. In the middle of the warhead was a langdebeve (French langue-de-bœuf) spear point and at the sides were a symmetrical pair of shorter pointed blades, each with one or more bill hooks on the outer edge. A very versatile weapon for both thrusting and slashing, it combined the best features of the partisan, the guisarme, and the bill.


SquadronA unit from the (British) Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Engineers, the Royal Corps of Signals, or the Army Air Corps. At full strength, it consisted of between 50 and 100 men, often further divided into troops, sections, or flights. After 1882, in the United States, cavalry were divided into squadrons; before then there were cavalry battalions.

Star shell.

Star shellsShells;starA nineteenth century artillery projectile that explodes in midair, optimally at the high point of its arc, releasing a bright display of sparks, either to illuminate a target or to signal friendly forces. Used during the British night attack on Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814, these shells were immortalized by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) in “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “the bombs bursting in air.”


StavesA peasant weapon of the Middle Ages, especially in England, where it evolved from the walking stick into a long club and became the standard defense for pedestrian travelers as well as a popular infantry weapon. The toughest kind of stave is the quarterstaff.

Stealth bomber.

Stealth bombersThe American B-2 Spirit bomber, developed in the 1980’s as part of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), characterized by its unique bat-wing appearance and its ability to avoid detection by enemy radar. Even though it first flew in 1988, it was not flown in the 1991 Persian Gulf War because it was not capable until 1996 of delivering nonnuclear bombs. It flew against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis of 1999.

Sten gun.

Sten gunA British 9-millimeter light, simple, inexpensive submachine gun invented in 1940 by Major Reginald Vernon Sheppard and Harold John Turpin. The name comes from the “S” in Sheppard, the “T” in Turpin, and the “En” in either Enfield Small Arms Company or England. Versatile, effective, and often having a collapsible stock, nearly four million Sten guns were manufactured during World War II (1939-1945). American soldiers in the European theater, equipped with more sophisticated weapons, called it the Stench gun.


StilettoA thin, symmetrical, Renaissance Italian dagger with a round, square, or triangular blade and no edge, used only for stabbing. Also called a stylet, some round-hilted varieties were used by infantrymen as plug bayonets. A highly specialized stiletto, the fusetto, had a slender, graduated, cone-shaped or isosceles-shaped blade for early artillerymen to gauge the bore, clean the vent, and puncture the powder bags of muzzle-loading cannons.


Stones as weaponsAlways available, and with deadly power obvious even to the most prehistoric of our hominid ancestors, small, jagged rocks picked off the ground and hurled are the most ancient of all weapons. Still in prehistoric times, early humans learned to chip stones into sharper hand weapons, rudimentary knives, and later arrowheads, spearheads, and ax-heads. Naturally smooth or artificially smoothed stones became ammunition for slings.

Submachine gun.

Submachine gunsA fully automatic personal firearm, small and light enough to be fired by a single individual without support, developed between the world wars, in particular by John Taliaferro Thompson (1860-1940), inventor of the most famous submachine gun, the “tommy gun.” The “sub-” prefix refers only to size and weight, not to either the mechanism or the degree of automatic operation.


SubmarinesAn undersea naval craft. David Bushnell (1742-1824) used a one-man submarine, the Turtle, in the American Revolution (1775-1783). A Confederate nine-man, hand-cranked submarine, the CSS Hunley, sank the USS Housatonic, and itself, in 1864. The first practical motorized submarines were developed in the United States by John Philip Holland (1840-1914). During World War I (1914-1918), the deadliness of the German U-Boat wolf packs proved submarines an indispensable aspect of effective naval warfare. The first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched in 1954. Torpedoes are the standard armament of submarines, but since the Cold War (1945-1991) many have also carried missiles.

Surface-to-air missile (SAM).

Surface-to-air missiles[surface to air]Missiles;surface-to-air[surface to air]A small, defensive, guided missile launched from a usually mobile ground station toward an airborne target. As either an antimissile missile or an antiaircraft weapon, it can be equipped with a small nuclear warhead. The smallest have a range of about 6 miles (10 kilometers) and can be fired by one soldier from a shoulder-held recoilless launcher. The largest have a range of about 40 miles (65 kilometers) and are launched from a semipermanent launch vehicle.


Swords;definedAny edged weapon with a long blade and usually a sharp point. Invented in the Near East about 6000 b.c.e., it may have been one of the earliest things that humans learned to make out of metal, though its technology did not become practical until the Iron Age, about 1000 b.c.e. Some varieties of sword, such as the rapier, are mainly for thrusting; others, such as the saber, mainly for slashing; and a few, such as the cutlass, are dual-purpose. A basic weapon in nearly every war until the end of the nineteenth century, the sword since then has been used for mainly ceremonial purposes.

Tae kwon do

See Karate.

Tagma (pl. tagamata).

Tagmata (Byzantine regiments)A tactical unit in the Byzantine army consisting of about 300 soldiers. Ten tagmata formed a meros.


TanksA motorized, fully armored attack vehicle running on self-contained tracks, usually with guns mounted in a revolving turret, invented by the British in 1915 and first used in battle at Flers-Courcelette on September 15, 1916. The Allies used nearly five hundred tanks at Cambrai in November, 1916. The Germans were slower to recognize the value of this new technology, and the first tank-versus-tank battle occurred at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918. Early in World War II (1939-1945), German Panzers dominated, and it was the Allies’ turn to play catch-up, which the Americans did very well with the Sherman tank. Tanks were a mainstay of ground warfare throughout the twentieth century.

Tear gas.

Tear gasAny solid, liquid, or gaseous substance that irritates the mucous membranes when dispersed. Although used primarily in riot control rather than in military operations, it is also useful as a nonlethal system of disabling enemy combatants. As a result it is often used in hostage situations.

Thermonuclear device.

Thermonuclear devicesAny bomb that relies upon the principle of the fusion of atoms of low atomic weight. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, they were the most powerful bombs yet produced. To fuse the nucleus of one atom with another requires tremendous heat as a trigger and produces tremendous heat when accomplished. Since the early 1950’s, these bombs have been extensively tested, manufactured, deployed, and stockpiled, although never used in warfare.

Time bomb.

Time bombsBombs;timeAny explosive device with a time-delay fuse set to detonate at an exact, predetermined time and usually hidden in or near its target. Invented in the nineteenth century, it comes in three types, classified according to their means of detonation: burning-fuse, the most primitive, first made practical in 1831 by the British; clockwork-fuse, developed in the twentieth century and used extensively in World War II (1939-1945); and chemical-reaction-fuse, the most sophisticated, invented by an Anglo-American team in World War II and common among demolition engineers, terrorists, and saboteurs ever since.

TNT (trinitrotoluene).

TNT (trinitrotoluene)A high explosive first synthesized in the 1860’s but not used as a military explosive until the German armed forces adopted it in 1902 and not extensively used in warfare until World War I (1914-1918). Ideal military explosives are powerful, are nonreactive, are safe to handle, have a long storage life in any climate, and can detonate only under specific conditions. TNT meets all these criteria. The power of nuclear bombs is measured by kiloton, a unit equal to 1,000 tons of TNT, or by megaton, equal to 1 million tons of TNT.


Toledo (sword)A finely tempered, very sharp, elegant steel sword produced in Toledo, Spain. Swords manufactured in this Spanish city have had the reputation for high quality since perhaps as early as the first century b.c.e. They have been commonly called Toledos since the sixteenth century.


TomahawksA small, light ax or hatchet invented in pre-Columbian times, probably by the Algonquins, but carried by most Eastern North American native tribes. Its head was originally stone, but metal after the seventeenth century. It could be either wielded as a hand weapon or thrown. Its name was adopted for one of the best-known cruise missiles.


TorpedoesA naval waterborne antiship missile, either guided or not, launched from a ship, submarine, patrol-torpedo boat, or aircraft, and driven by a propeller. The first practical torpedo, developed by British engineer Robert Whitehead (1823-1905), was invented in Britain in 1866. Earlier, for example in the American Civil War (1861-1865), the word referred to antiship mines. The first extensive use of true torpedoes in war was by the German submarines, U-boats, in World War I (1914-1918). Among the explosives commonly used in torpedo warheads is torpex, a mixture of 42 percent RDX (cyclo-1,3,5-trimethylene-2,4,6-trinitramine), 40 percent TNT (trinitrotoluene), 18 percent aluminum powder, and a tiny bit of wax, developed by the British during World War II (1939-1945).

Tracer bullet.

Tracer bulletsBullets;tracerUsed in the nineteenth century but developed comprehensively in the twentieth, any projectile, usually from a machine gun and often for antiaircraft fire, either containing or coated with chemicals to produce a visible trail of luminous smoke, especially useful at night to verify the gunner’s aim. A variant is the spotter bullet, which contains chemicals to provide a visible flash upon impact. Tracers or spotters can also be armor-piercing or incendiary.


Trebuchet (catapult)The largest, most efficient, and most effective of medieval catapults, developed in the thirteenth century and used exclusively as a siege engine. Essentially a first-class lever whose effort was about 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms) of rocks in a bucket on the short arm, whose load was a boulder of about 300 pounds (140 kilograms) at the end of the long arm, and whose fulcrum was a massive wooden frame, it had a range of several hundred yards at a medium to high trajectory. Often the throwing arm incorporated a sling to increase the range and velocity of the projectile. As the short arm was very short and the long arm could be up to 50 feet (15 meters), the machine had to be cocked with a complex system of pulleys.


TridentThe ancestor of most pole arms except the pike, evolving from the agricultural pitchfork and at first indistinguishable from it. Intended only for thrusting, its three points created a broad warhead that increased the likelihood of wounding the enemy. It was used in most ancient and medieval wars but is best known as a weapon of Roman gladiators. A later, more sophisticated version is the spetum.


Trireme (oared vessel)A galley with three banks of oars. Developed from the bireme for speed and power around 650 b.c.e. and reaching its height of development during the fifth century b.c.e., it had an overall length between 115 and 130 feet (35-40 meters), a crew of about 170, a draft of only 3 feet (1 meter), and a top oared speed between 9 and 11 knots per hour. Each higher bank of oars was mounted on outrigger fulcrums farther abeam than the next lower bank. Because rowing required precise timing by all crew members, only carefully trained freemen, not slaves, were used, to ensure high morale. By 500 b.c.e., the trireme dominated the Mediterranean.


TroopA subunit of a cavalry squadron or an artillery battery in the British army roughly comparable to a platoon in the infantry. More recently, when used in the plural form, the term has been popularly used, coupled with a number, to refer to individual soldiers (for example, “25,000 troops” means the same number of soldiers).


Tulwar (Indian saber)A traditional saber of India, characterized by a large, disk-shaped pommel, a knobbed crosspiece at the guard, and a broad, deeply curved blade sharpened along the length of the convex edge. Some varieties had knuckle guards, and many had elaborately engraved or inlaid blades.

Tumen (tuman in Arabic).

TumenOriginally a geographical division of the Mongol Empire that was organized in such a manner as to provide the Mongol ruler with 10,000 soldiers. Later, the subunit of a Mongol army that had 10,000 soldiers in it. This unit was further divided into the hazara or minghan. The term is still used in the Turkish army to denote a unit of between 6,000 and 10,000 soldiers.


VanguardThe soldiers who are in a military tactical formation that serves in the front of any army. There is no prescribed number of soldiers that may serve in any vanguard action.


Voulge (pole arm)A type of pole arm whose head consists of a very large, broad single-edged ax blade with small, sharp spikes or hooks at the top and back. One of the earliest pole arms, it evolved from the ancient pruning hook, a farm tool. The Lochaber ax, the jeddart ax, and the Lucerne hammer all evolved from it.

War hammer.

War hammersA medieval, especially late medieval, sophisticated, metal-headed, European club, sometimes called a battle-hammer, either a short-handled hand weapon or a pole arm, designed with both a pick head to break armor and a blunt head to cause concussions, trauma, or fractures inside the armor without breaking it.

Wheel lock.

Wheel locksA complex muzzle-loading firearm ignition mechanism, invented around 1500. When the trigger was pressed, a wheel turned, opening the pan, creating sparks from friction with iron pyrites, and igniting the powder. It was superseded by the snaphance in the mid-sixteenth century.


WhizbangA British trench soldiers’ onomatopoeic name for a German high-velocity, low-trajectory artillery shell in World War I (1914-1918), usually 88-millimeter. The soldiers believed that if they could hear the “whiz,” then the “bang” would not get them.


XiquipilliA unit within the Aztec army that consisted of around 8,000 soldiers.


YataghanA Turkish short saber without a crosspiece or hand guard. The blade is nearly straight, but in the shape of an S-curve with the edge concave near the hilt and convex near the point.


YeomanryDuring the eighteenth century, volunteer cavalry units in the British army, generally made up of yeomen, freeholders of land, or tenant farmers. Subsequently it became a term for some cavalry units in the British army, and later still for units in the Royal Armoured Corps.

Yuz bashi.

Yuz bashiA division in the Mongol army, often also called a yaghun, consisting of about 100 soldiers. Ten yuz bashi constituted a ming bashi.


ZeppelinsA rigid airship or dirigible, a steerable lighter-than-air aircraft, as opposed to the blimp, which is nonrigid, and the balloon, which is rudderless. Invented in 1900 by German Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917), it was originally intended for civilian passenger service and performed that function until the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The Germans bombed England by zeppelin during World War I (1914-1918) but abandoned that practice because airships are difficult to defend.