Long before modern warfare, there was a time of knights in shining armor atop equally armored horses fighting for the hand of a maiden or in pitched battle. However, the weapons that these knights wielded expanded far past that of an ordinary sword and shield. Listed here are ten strange and deadly weapons used in the medieval period spanning across hundreds of years and reaching across the globe. While these weapons were not used regularly, they do provide an interesting window into medieval warfare and the advances in technology that were being made at that time.
The Gun Shield
The gun shield was exactly what its name would suggest, it was a shield with a breech loading match lock pistol at its center with a small square window about the barrel as an observation port. The shield is believed to have been used by the personal body guard of Henry VIII around 1544-1547.
Gun shield. (c. 1545-1550) (Public Domain)
Although many examples of gun shields have been found in England, they are thought to be of Italian origin and were offered to King Henry VIII in a letter from the Italian painter Giovanbattista. In this letter, they are described as, “several round shields and arm pieces with guns inside them that fire upon the enemy and pierce any armour.” The Italian version of the gun shield was more delicate and light - to be used in hand to hand combat, compared to the English version - which was typically used on a ship. This technology soon died out.
The Spring Loaded Triple Dagger appeared to be a normal dagger at first glance, but when the wielder pressed a release the two spring-loaded side daggers emerged - making the single dagger into a sort of trident. At the time, daggers were used as a side weapon in case the combatant had lost their primary. As such, daggers had extremely sharp points as opposed to sharpened sides, making it more effective as a stabbing weapon that could pierce armor. The usefulness of the triple dagger came in its versatility, one could use it as a simple dagger to stab, or as the triple pronged version to inflict more damage. It was effective at capturing the weapons of other opponents and parrying in exhibition combat. This weapon was used by fencers in Europe in the middle ages as it was far too expensive to ever see actual battle.
Left hand dagger with spring blades that can be opened by pressing a button, c. 1620. (Public Domain)
The Urumi was a very flexible long sword made from either steel or brass, and was often treated as a metal whip. It was often made up of multiple fine metal blades attached to a single handle, in some cases there could be as many as 30 blades in one sword. The weapon originated in the southern states of India, being known as far back as the Mauryan Empire. While being deadly to the opponent, it was also very dangerous to the wielder. In Medieval India, only the most well-trained Rajput warriors could practice with the Urumi as it required perfect coordination, concentration, and agility. The wielders would be taught to follow and control the momentum of the weapon and the techniques included spins and other agile moves. These spins made the weapon well suited to fight against multiple opponents at once.
Fighters using urumi. (CC BY SA)
Greek Fire was an incendiary material which could be shot from a ship and would burn on the top of water. It was said that in the 7th century a Byzantine architect by the name of Kallinikos invented Greek Fire and used it to defend Constantinople against an Arab fleet. In the west, the term “Greek Fire” was applied to incendiary weapons also used by the Mongols, Chinese, and Arabs. However, what set the Byzantine Greek Fire apart was their use of pressurized nozzles to project the liquid onto the enemy. While the composition is unknown, it has been suggested that the ingredients could be a mixture of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium, phosphide, sulfur, or niter.
Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing Greek fire in use against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav. (Public Domain)
The Man-Catcher was a long-shafted pole arm with a two-headed prong on the end that looked like a collar. It was typically used to pull a rider from his horse and was often used to capture royals for ransom since it did not wound the captee. It was expected that the armor of the captee would protect them against being injured by the metal prongs of the man-catcher. However, if the rider was not wearing any armor they may suffer some wounds from the spikes on the inner ring of the prongs. A similar weapon, the sasumata, was found in Japan. It was more of a speared fork but could have padding on it, and it was used in extreme circumstances such as riots as a form of crowd control.
Man Catcher, Germany, 1601-1800 (Wellcome Images CC by 4.0)
The Claw of Archimedes
The Claw of Archimedes was much like the man-catcher but much, much larger. In the 3rd century it was designed by Archimedes to protect the city of Syracuse against the Roman navy. As a response to the catapults built by Archimedes, the Romans began to lash their ships together and outfitted them with giant ladders which they used to climb the seawalls. The Claw was a ship-capturing mechanism with crane-like wooden arms that had hooks at the end of them. The hooks were positioned to lift and capsize the ships that were immediately below the seawall. The people of Syracuse were able to fight off invasions for three years due to this invention.
Detail of a wall painting of the Claw of Archimedes sinking a ship, taking the name "iron hand" in ancient sources. (Public Domain)
The Nest of Bees
The Nest of Bees consisted of hexagonal tubes filled with dozens of rocket-tipped arrows. The tubes would broaden at the top to aid in the dispersal of the arrows once the nest opened. This weapon could fire off more than two dozen arrows at a time in the same direction. The arrows were often tipped with poison or flammable material. The Nest of Bees was probably invented around the 11th century, during that time that the Chinese were experimenting with gun powder and rocket technology. They were more widely used in the Ming Dynasty. Thousands of these weapons would be deployed simultaneously, raining down death upon the enemy. Not only was this weapon deadly, it acted as a psychological weapon as well due to the noise and smoke that it would emit.
An example (reallycoolweapons) and drawing of ‘the nest of bees.’ (Public Domain)
The Zhua, meaning “claw,” was an Ancient Chinese weapon that consisted of a clawed iron hand on the end of a 6-foot (1.83-meter) pole. Much like the Triple Dagger, it was used to disarm an enemy as well as move shields out of the way. However, the Zhua could also be used for ripping and tearing at the enemy, or, out of sheer weight, it could be used to bludgeon an opponent to death.
Zhua. ( reallycoolweapons)
The Lantern Shield
The Lantern Shield has been called the “swiss army knife of weapons” as it housed many items on one shield. It was a small shield in the shape of a buckler and its defining feature was a hook on which one could hang a lantern. This feature was intended to blind the opponent in battles fought in the dark. More elaborate examples of the lantern shield could include gauntlets, spikes, sword blades, as well as a dimmer for the lantern. Fencing manuals from the 16th and 17th centuries integrated a lantern into the lessons of the swordsman, using it to parry and blind. In general, it is believed that the lantern shield was never actually used in combat, but rather for patrolling Italian city streets at night.
A Lantern Shield. ( Youtube Screenshot )
The Kpinga was a throwing knife used by warriors of the Azande tribe of Nubia in Africa. Also nicknamed the “Hunga Munga,” the knife had three blades that protruded from the center and varied in shape and size. This weapon was often carried into battle on the back of the warrior attached to their oblong Zande shield. The blade would only be thrown after a few spears were loosened and the wielder called to alert their companions. A Kpinga was only given to professional warriors and was considered a symbol of power. Upon marriage, the Kpinga was presented from the groom to the family of the bride.
Kpinga. (Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures /CC BY SA 3.0 ) The Kpinga
Top Image: Strange Medieval weapons (L-R) Man catcher, Germany, 1601-1800 (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 ), Left hand dagger with spring blades that can be opened by pressing a button, c. 1620 ( Public Domain ), Gun shield, c. 1540. Exhibit in the Higgins Armory Museum ( Public Domain ), Zhua ( reallycoolweapons), and The Lantern Shield. ( Youtube Screenshot )
By Veronica Parkes