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Weapons of World War I

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British improvised weapons in Fort Reuenthal

World War I weapons consisted of various types of weapons standardised and improved over the preceding period together with some newly developed types using innovative technology and a number of improvised weapons used in trench warfare. Military technology of the time included important innovations in weaponry, grenades, poison gas, and artillery, along with essentially new weapons such as the submarine, warplane and tank.[1]


Infantry weapons used by major powers were mainly bolt action rifles, capable of firing ten or more rounds per minute. German soldiers carried 7.92mm Gewehr 98 Mauser rifles. which were good for accuracy and speed. The British carried the famous Lee–Enfield rifle.[2] Rifles with telescopic sights were used by snipers, and were first used by the Germans.[3]

Machine guns were also used by the large powers; a favorite was the Maxim gun, created by Hiram Maxim, a fully automatic weapon, with a high volume of concentrated fire, and its German version, the MG 08.[4] Their use in defense, combined with barbed wire obstacles, converted the expected mobile battlefield to a static one. The machine gun was useful in stationary battle but was not practical for easy movement through battlefields, and was therefore often dragged or disarmed and carried. Near the end of the war more mobile and lightweight automatic firearms had been deployed by both sides, such as the MP 18 submachine gun and Lewis Gun.


Grenades proved to be effective weapons in the trenches but when the forces arrived their numbers and capabilities were inadequate. Hand grenades were used and improved throughout the war. Contact fuzes became less common, replaced by time fuzes.

The British entered the war with the long-handed impact detonating "Grenade, Hand No 1".[5] The No. 15 "Ball Grenade" partially overcame its inadequacies. British forces however mainly used an improvised hand explosive that was at times more difficult to use, yet still useful in battle. This was the Double Cylinder "jam tin" which consisted of a tin filled with dynamite or guncotton, packed round with scrap metal or stones. To ignite, at the top of the tin there was a Bickfords fuse connecting the detonator, which was lit by either a cigar, or a second person.[5] The "Mills bomb" (Grenade, Hand No. 5") was invented during the war and came into use in 1915. Its improved fusing system killed more of the enemy and fewer of its users. The French meanwhile introduced the F1 defensive grenade.

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German discus grenades with multiple impact fuses proved inadequate

The major grenades used in the beginning by the German Army were the impact-detonating "discus" or "oyster shell" bomb and the Mod 1913 black powder kugelhandgranate with a friction-ignited time fuse.[5] During the war Germany developed the much more effective Model 24 grenade or "potato masher" whose variants remained in use for decades.

Hand grenades were not the only attempt at projectile explosives for infantry. A rifle grenade was brought into the trenches to attack the enemy from a greater distance. The Hales rifle grenade got little attention from the British Army before the war began but, during the war, Germany showed great interest in this weapon. The resulting casualties for the Allies caused Britain to search for a new defense.[6]

The Stokes mortar, a lightweight and very portable trench mortar with short tube and capable of indirect fire, was rapidly developed and widely imitated.[7] Mechanical bomb throwers of lesser range were used in a similar fashion to fire upon the enemy from a safe distance within the trench.


The German and British armies had already changed from Prussian blue or red coat (British army) for field uniforms, to less conspicuous field gray or khaki. The French reluctantly followed suit, abandoning their red trousers.

The principal armies entered the war with mainly cloth caps or leather helmets. They hastened to develop new steel helmets, in designs that became icons of their respective countries.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons were first used systematically in this war. Chemical weapons in World War I included phosgene, tear gas, chlorarsines and mustard gas. A secret report by Lt Colonel C. G. Douglas, on the physiological effects of chemical weapons, stated that "the particular value of the poison [mustard gas] is to be found in its remarkable casualty producing power as opposed to its killing power". The report said that 1% of British troops died due to chemical weapons, while an estimated 181,000 soldiers were victims of gas casualties.[8]

Chemical weapons were easily attained, and cheap. Gas was especially effective against troops in trenches and bunkers that protected them from other weapons. Studies show[citation needed] that over 1,300,000 people were exposed and intoxicated by gas during the First World War, and 90,000 were killed due to gasses.

Chemical weapons attacked an individual’s respiratory system. The concept of choking easily caused fear in soldiers and the resulting terror affected them psychologically. There was such a great phobia against chemical weapons amongst the soldiers, that it wasn’t uncommon that a soldier would panic and misinterpret symptoms of the common cold as being affected by a poisonous gas.


Aviation in World War I started with primitive aircraft, primitively used. Technological progress was swift, leading to ground attack, tactical bombing, and highly publicized, deadly dogfights among aircraft equipped with machine guns. However, these uses made a lesser impact on the war than more mundane roles in intelligence, sea patrol and especially artillery spotting. Antiaircraft warfare also had its beginnings in this war.

German strategic bombing during World War I struck Warsaw, Paris, London and other cities. With the small loads carried by Zeppelins and the first, primitive bombers developed specifically for the purpose, direct damage was slight. Large efforts, however, were diverted from more fruitful military activities to the defense of cities. The Allies made much smaller efforts in bombing the Central Powers.


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French Canon de 75 modèle 1897 gave quick, accurate fire in a small, agile unit, but the Western Front often needed longer range

In the 19th century, Britain and France exploited the rapid technical developments in artillery to serve a War of Movement. Such weapons served well in the colonial wars of that century, and served Germany very well in the Franco-Prussian War, but trench warfare was more like a siege, and called for siege guns. The German army had already anticipated that a European war might require heavier artillery, hence had a more appropriate mix of sizes. Foundries responded to the actual situation with more heavy products and fewer highly mobile pieces. Germany developed the Paris guns of stupendous size and range. However, the necessarily stupendous muzzle velocity wore out a gun barrel after a few shots requiring a return to the factory for relining, so these weapons served more to frighten and anger urban people than to kill them or devastate their cities.

Field artillery entered the war with the idea that each gun should be accompanied by hundreds of shells, and armories ought to have about a thousand on hand for resupply. This proved utterly inadequate when it became commonplace for a gun to sit in one place and fire a hundred shells or more per day for weeks or months on end. Factories were hastily converted from other purposes to make more ammunition. Railways to the front were expanded or built, and in many places the newly invented trench railways proved more efficient for the last mile of transport of these and other supplies than horse and wagon, or the new motor trucks, which as yet lacked pneumatic tires, versatile suspension, and other later improvements.


The British Royal Navy invented tanks in World War I in parallel with French studies. After initial small-scale use they brought success in the opening assault of the Battle of Cambrai (1917) until German artillerymen learned to resist them. Their numbers remained too small to make more than a modest impact on the progress of the war in 1918. Germany used a few captured enemy tanks, and made a few. Plan 1919 outlined the future use of massive tank formations in great offensives combined with ground attack aircraft.

At sea

Pre-war decades had seen great technical improvements in warships, as exemplified by the Dreadnought. German ambitions brought an Anglo-German naval arms race in which the Imperial German Navy was built up from a small force to the world's most modern and second most powerful. The 1916 Battle of Jutland demonstrated the excellence of German ships and crews, but also showed that the High Seas Fleet was not big enough to challenge openly the British blockade of Germany.

Submarines and their armament had similarly improved, but few were in service. Germany had already increased production, and quickly built up its U-boat fleet, both for action against British warships and for a counterblockade of the British Isles. 360 were eventually built. The resulting U-boat Campaign (World War I) destroyed more enemy warships than the High Seas Fleet had, and hampered British war supplies as the more expensive surface fleet had not. However, the submarines soon came under persecution by submarine chasers and other small warships using hastily devised anti-submarine weapons. They could not impose an effective blockade while acting under the restrictions of the prize rules and international law of the sea. They resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which cost Germany public sympathy in neutral countries and was a factor contributing to the American entry into World War I.

Naval mines were deployed in hundreds of thousands, or far greater numbers than in previous wars. Submarines proved surprisingly effective for this purpose. Influence mines were a new development but moored contact mines were the most numerous. They resembled those of the late 19th century, improved so they less often exploded while being laid. The Allies produced enough mines to build the North Sea Mine Barrage to help bottle the Germans into the North Sea, but it was too late to make much difference.

See also


  1. ^ Tucker, Spencer C. (1998) The Great War: 1914-18. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; p. 11
  2. ^ Bull, Stephen (2002) World War 1 Trench Warfare; (1): 1914-16. Oxford: Osprey Publishing; pp. 9-10
  3. ^ Ellis, John (1989) Eye Deep in Hell: trench warfare in World War 1. London: Pantheon Books, Random House; p. 69
  4. ^ Bull, Stephen (2002) World War 1 Trench Warfare; (1): 1914-16. Oxford: Osprey Publishing; pp. 11-12
  5. ^ a b c Bull, Stephen (2002) World War 1 Trench Warfare; (1): 1914-16. Oxford: Osprey Publishing; p. 27
  6. ^ Bull, Stephen (2002) World War 1 Trench Warfare; (1): 1914-16. Oxford: Osprey Publishing; p. 29
  7. ^ Duffy, Michael (2000-07) "Safe Surf".
  8. ^ Psychological effects of chemical weapons: a follow-up study of First World War veterans Psychological Medicine (2008)

E. Jones, B. Everitt, S. Ironside, I. Palmer and S. Wessely (2008). Psychological effects of chemical weapons: a follow-up study of First World War veterans. Psychological Medicine, 38, pp 1419–1426. doi:10.1017/S003329170800278X.

Evison, Demetrius, David Hinsley, and Paul Rice. "Regular Review: Chemical Weapons." British Medical Journal, 09 Feb. 2012. Web. Aug.-Sept. 2014. <>.