Thursday, January 22, 2015

Four Surprisingly Effective Low Tech Weapons

The United States is the grandmaster of high tech weaponry. We have killer robot planes flown by nerds thousands of miles away from the actual fighting, computerized grenade launchers that can shoot round corners, and a new jet (the F-35) whose development cost exceeds the gross national product of Columbia.

But cheap works too if it is matched with ingenuity.

Sharpened Sticks
The Vietnam War was a lesson the American military refused to learn that flashy, bombastic, and expensive doesn't always beat smart and dedicated. The Viet Cong couldn't stand toe-to-toe with the US Marines in a firefight, a fact that Gen. William Westmoreland was all to quick to point out. But they were smart. While a Marine patrol searched the jungle for something to shoot one of them might step on a tiger trap, fall in, and be impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes.

The patrol would have to call in a helicopter evac, revealing their position so the Viet Cong could either organize an ambush or just melt into the jungle. There were no metal parts for detection equipment to find, no explosives for sniffer dogs to spot, and they maimed which is more disruptive to an American military unit than killing. They were the perfect booby trap.

Stray Cats
This is an oldie, 525 BCE old. The Persian Empire was attacking the Egypt city of Pelusium. Knowing that Egyptians considered cats sacred, the Persian king gathered up all the stray cats he could find (as well as other sacred animals).  Every soldier carried a cat into the battle. The Egyptians, not wanting to risk injuring any cats, refused to fire arrows at the approaching army and surrendered the battlefield and eventually their entire kingdom to the Persians.

This invention did not win the war for Japan but it did allow them to do the impossible and bomb the American mainland. This was a highly sophisticated plan. Due to pioneering work by Wasaburo Oishi, the Japanese in the 1940's had a better understanding of the jet stream than anyone else. They calculated the speed of the jet stream using smoke plumes from eruptions of Mount Fuji. Weights would be automatically released from time to time to keep the balloons at the correct altitude. Over 9000 balloons were released. However, the calculations weren't perfect and only 300 balloons reached the United States, setting a few fires and killing six people.

Tree Cannon
You've got gun powder but you don't have enough precious iron to forge cannons. What to do? In several places around the world as late as 1903 in Macedonia, the solution was to make cannons out of hard wood logs. Bulgarians used cherry wood cannons in their revolt against Ottoman rule; they mostly blew up. Samurai built wooden cannons in their rebellion against Western influence on the Japanese emperor. They would fire three or four times before blowing up. The Vietnamese built wooden cannons in their defense against French colonial invasion in the 19th century.

Probably the most effective use of wooden cannon were the Quaker Guns. During the American Revolution, a company of 125 Loyalists were barricaded in a home. Americans tasked with rooting out the Loyalists built a fake log cannon and threatened to bombard the house unless those inside surrendered. Faced with what looked like real artillery, the Loyalists surrendered without a fight.

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