World War I is often considered the first true ‘modern war’, a conflict fought between industrialised countries equipped with modern weapons. It saw the rise of powerful weapons such as heavy artillery, machine guns and aeroplanes – and the decline of 19th century weapons like sabres and bayonets. This page contains brief summaries of the most significant weapons of World War I:
Jonathan Bastable, historian
The bayonet was a comparatively simple weapon: a bracketed dagger attached to the end of a rifle barrel. Its primary function was to turn the rifle into a thrusting weapon, allowing its owner to attack the enemy without drawing too close. Bayonets are believed to have originated in medieval China but by the late 17th century they were widely used in Europe. The shape, size and design of bayonets evolved alongside changes in firearms. The ‘bayonet charge’ became an important tactic in modern warfare. Bayonet charges were designed for psychological impact: men were trained to advance in rows, with faces contorted, lungs blaring and bayonets thrusting. Though effective in the 19th century, these charges were thwarted by rapid-firing small arms and machine-guns. Lengthy bayonets attached to even longer rifles also made close-quarters fighting difficult and ungainly. As a consequence, bayonets quickly lost their effectiveness as weapons during World War I. When not employed in battle, bayonets were often detached from rifles and used as all-purpose tools, for anything from digging to opening canned food rations.
Allan Converse, historian
The rifle was standard issue for infantrymen from each country. Rifles were relatively cheap to produce, reasonably accurate and easy to carry. Almost all British and British imperial soldiers were issued with the Lee-Enfield 303, German troops received a 7.92mm Mauser and French soldiers the 8mm Lebel and Berthier. All were bolt-action repeating rifles, meaning that each round was fed into the chamber manually before firing (unlike modern automatic and semi-automatic weapons). These rifles were known for their durability, long range and reliability in difficult conditions. All could fire accurately over a distance of around 500 metres, while the Enfield could potentially kill a man two kilometres away. This long range was largely wasted on the Western Front, however, where distances between trenches could be as low as 40 metres. Rifle cleaning, maintenance and drilling occupied a good deal of an infantry soldier’s daily routine. More than 40 million rifles were used on the battlefields of World War I.
Stephen Bull, historian
In World War I, hand-held pistols or revolvers were issued mainly to officers. Enlisted soldiers only received pistols if they were required for specialist duties, such as military police work or in tank crews where rifles would be too unwieldy. The most famous pistol of the war was the German-made Luger P08, with its distinctive shape, narrow barrel and seven-shot magazine. British officers were issued with the Webley Mark V or Mark VI, which fired a .455 bullet from a six-round magazine. The Webleys were reliable if somewhat ‘clunky’ weapons. Many accounts suggest the Webleys could fire even when caked with mud or dust – but they were also heavy and difficult to fire accurately. One officer wrote of his Webley that “after assiduous practice, I am at last able to hit the side of a fairly large house at a distance of five paces – with luck”. Many British officers resorted to using much lighter Lugers captured from German officers. Pistols were not usually a significant weapon during World War I, though they were sometimes important as concealed weapons or for close combat in the trenches.
Peter Squires, writer
The image of infantrymen charging pointlessly into machine-gun fire is a common motif of the Great War. World War I machine-guns were not as common, portable or manageable as modern weapons – but their impact was deadly nevertheless. At the outbreak of war, Germany had the upper hand in both the quality and quantity of machine-guns. The Maschinengewehr 08 or MG08 was capable of firing hundreds of 7.92mm rounds a minute at ranges in excess of two kilometres. More than 130,000 MG08s were manufactured during the war and deployed on the battlefield or mounted on German aircraft. British forces used the older Hotchkiss Mk I and the heavy and unwieldy Vickers Mk I, before adopting the more efficient Lewis gun in 1915. These guns were capable of firing up to 500 rounds per minute – but they were cumbersome, very heavy (often more than 50 kilograms) and required at least three well-trained men to set up and operate effectively. This rapid rate of fire caused machine-guns to quickly overheat, requiring elaborate water and air-based cooling systems to prevent them from jamming or exploding. Combatant nations quickly recognised the value of machine-guns on the battlefield, installing placements that allowed them to repel charges with sweeping and interlocking fire.
Roger Lee, historian
Grenades are small bombs thrown by hand or launched from a rifle attachment. They are either detonated by a percussion cap on impact with the ground or after the expiration of a timer. World War I grenades varied significantly in size, shape and weight. Germany led the way in grenade development. Developed in 1913, the Kugelhandgranate was a light, ball-shaped grenade; it was armed by pulling a friction wire and detonated after a delay of five to seven seconds. More common was the heavier Stielhandgranate or ‘stick grenade’, sometimes dubbed the ‘potato masher’. Early British models like the Mark I had a similar design but were awkward to use and prone to accidental detonation. These were superseded by the pineapple-shaped Mills bomb, the design of which continues today. Mills bombs had a safety pin and firing lever and were designed to fragment on detonation, causing shrapnel injuries to the enemy. They were produced with four and seven-second fuses. The weight of these grenades (in excess of 750 grams or one-and-a-half pounds) made lengthy throws difficult; they were designed to be hurled from behind cover to protect the thrower from shrapnel.
Spencer Tucker, historian
No weaponry had a greater impact on the battlefields of World War I than artillery. These large and powerful guns fired explosive shells against enemy positions, causing enormous damage to men, equipment and the landscape. Artillery had been a feature of warfare since the days of heavy cannon. Technical improvements brought about improvements in size, range, accuracy, rates of fire and mobility. Light artillery or field artillery referred to small to medium calibre guns that could be transported by men, horses or vehicles. Heavy artillery fired much larger shells, often over a distance of several miles, but was much less portable and was moved by specialised trucks or trains. There was no denying the deadly impact of artillery. More than one billion artillery shells were fired during World War I and more soldiers were killed by exploding shells and shrapnel than any other weapon. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, almost 1.8 million shells were fired on German lines in the space of just one week. The largest single artillery piece was the German-built ‘Paris gun’, used to shell the French capital from 120 kilometres away.
Hew Strachan, historian
A mortar is essentially a miniature artillery piece, capable of launching small-calibre explosives over short distances. Mortars were either transported on their own wheels or installed on special mounts and operated by one or two men. They launched grenades, small bombs or shells of calibres from 75 to 250 millimetres. These explosives were launched with high trajectories so that they fell on enemy positions from above. This made mortars an important weapon on the Western Front, where they could lob shells into enemy trenches, machine-gun nests or sniper positions. Mortars made a distinctive ‘whoomp’ sound when launched and a whistling sound when falling to earth; these noses were often a signal to take cover. The German army deployed several types and sizes of mortar while the British relied chiefly on the Stokes mortar, developed in 1915. The Stokes mortar launched improvised grenades and could fire one every few seconds at distances in excess of one kilometre.
Hew Strachan, historian
Tanks were another of World War I’s legacies to modern warfare. The idea of large armoured carriers, impervious to rifle and machine-gun fire, was developed by a British military committee in 1915. Their official name was “landships” but the British government’s cover story – that it was developing mobile water tanks – led to their more accepted name. Britain became the first nation to deploy tanks in battle at Flers-Courclette in September 1916, with mixed results. The first British tank, the Mark I, moved only at walking pace and was susceptible to breakdown and immobility. Designers and operators quickly learned from these problems, leading to the development of the Mark IV in 1917. More than 1,200 of these tanks were built and played an important part in some of the war’s final battles. The French also designed and constructed their own tanks, first using them in battle in April 1917. The Germans, in contrast, focused mainly on anti-tank weapons and built only a handful of their own tanks.
Martin Gilbert, historian
Mines are large bombs or explosive charges, planted underground and detonated remotely or when triggered by passing soldiers or vehicles. The use of underground mines was embraced by combatants during the stalemate on the Western Front. Specialist units would dig tunnels under ‘no man’s land’ to plant huge mines under enemy trenches and positions. These mines would be remotely detonated, usually in coordination with an attack on the surface. Tunnelling and mine-laying were used extensively on the Somme, Messines Ridge and at Verdun. One notable use of mines occurred at Hill 60 during the Battle of Messines (June 1917), when Australian tunnelling specialists detonated 450,000 kilograms of underground explosives and killed thousands of German troops. Laying underground mines was dangerous work: tunnellers sometimes veered off-course and ended up emerging in enemy trenches, while both sides installed special equipment and sentries to listen out for underground digging. Sea mines, or floating bombs that exploded on contact with ships, were also deployed by naval forces.
British trench song
Barbed wire is fencing wire containing sharp edges or spikes at various intervals. It was developed in the United States in the 1870s for the purpose of containing cattle. It was adopted for military purposes in the Boer War (1899-1902) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and used by all combatant nations in World War I. Barbed wire and caltrops (single iron spikes scattered on the ground) were used extensively on the Western Front, mainly to halt or slow enemy charges against one’s own trench. Barbed wire was installed as screens, ‘aprons’ or entanglements, installed by wiring parties who usually worked at night. Advancing infantry often found large these defences impossible to penetrate; many died slow lingering deaths entangled in the wire. The positioning of wire entanglements was done strategically: it could keep the enemy out of grenade range or funnel them toward machine-gun positions. More than one million kilometres of barbed wire was used on the Western Front.
Leo van Bergen, historian
Flamethrowers are devices for spreading fire over significant distances. Usually wielded by one or two soldiers carrying a backpack or tank, flamethrowers used pressurised gas to spurt burning oil or gasoline up to 40 metres. The military function of flamethrowers was trench-clearing: the burning fuel filled trenches, landing on equipment and soldiers and forcing them to withdraw. The first Flammenwerfer was developed by the German military and used in battle in late 1914. They were used more extensively in Flanders in 1915, causing terror among British soldiers and claims of wartime atrocities in the British press. Flamethrowers were so feared and despised that soldiers using them became targets for rifle and sniper fire. The French developed their own small one-man flamethrower and used it in the final months of the war. The British experimented with a larger fixed-position flamethrower at the Somme, using it to hurl fire at German positions 60 metres away.
Jason Richie, historian
Torpedoes are self-propelled missiles capable of being launched from submarines and ships or dropped into the sea from the undercarriage of planes. The first torpedoes, produced in the 1870s, ran on compressed air and were slow and inaccurate. The German navy pioneered the diesel-powered motorised torpedo. By 1914 German torpedoes could travel at up to 75 kilometres per hour over ranges up to 10 kilometres. They were not particularly accurate, though this mattered little when delivered by U-boats (submarines) at close quarters. Each torpedo contained several hundred pounds of explosive, usually TNT, that detonated on contact with the hull of its target. As the war progressed, the British made rapid advances in underwater torpedoes and managed to sink at least 18 German U-boats with them.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Weapons of World War I” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/weapons/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].