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The Weapons of War

In light of our exhibition at Hall's Croft, read about the evolution of weapons from Shakespeare's times to the days of the first World War.

Jamie Weisz

A look at weapons from Shakespeare's era compared to those of World War I: firearms, artillery, and new innovations...

This series of blogs supports an exhibition at Hall's Croft: 'Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war' - The First World War, Shakespeare and Stratford. The exhibition and blog project are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. 

Two muskets from the Museum Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


In Elizabeth I’s reign, longbows were abandoned in favour of firearms. Harquebuses, pioneered by the Spanish, weighed about 5kg and fired bullets of 15-20g. Muskets succeeded harquebuses in the early sixteenth century – they typically had a barrel 115-40cm long, weighed 7-9kg, and fired bullets weighing 50-70g. Utilising gunpowder was an important advancement over arrows, but not without problems. Muskets were powerful but heavy to carry and, being single-fire weapons, cumbersome to load and reload. They were only reliable at close range due to poor accuracy (both from limitations of the weapon and the person using it).[1]

Muskets later evolved into rifles and were used from the early Nineteenth Century through to the Twentieth. Rifles had an improved rate of fire and were much lighter and more portable. The Lee-Enfield Magazine rifle was the most commonly used by British infantry in WWI – they could fire fifteen repeated rounds a minute. Bayonets could be attached to rifles for hand-to-hand combat, although their effectiveness in WWI is questionable given the defensive nature of trench warfare.

Most battalions had access to only a couple of machine guns but their rate of fire was far superior to any of the available rifles - the Vickers machine guns and Lewis guns could fire 450-600 rounds per minute. Machine guns were, however, prone to overheating after five or six barrel uses. Surprisingly, a lot of manpower was required to operate the Lewis gun – only one person actually fired the gun, five others carried spare parts and ammunition.


Henry VIII’s reign saw the establishment of numerous gun foundries to address the lack of artillery in national military campaigns. The development of the ‘reaming’ technique enabled cannon barrels to be produced in one more robust piece. Artillery pieces included the Falcon (6ft long, weighing 800lb, and with an effective range of 400 yards), the Saker (8.5ft long, weighed 1,600 lbs, and with an effective range of 500 yards), and the Culverin (16ft long, weighed 7,000lb, and had an effective range of 2,000 yards). Artillery was mostly used in fortresses or on ships, but mortars were also becoming popular in sieges, since they were more capable of lobbing balls and explosive shells over defensive walls.

There was a strategic similarity between trench warfare in WWI and siege warfare of the early modern period in terms of artillery use. In both cases, artillery was used to wear down the enemy through frequent bombardment. British commanders of WWI understood that the war could be won or lost depending on how well supplied the artillery was. Guns could fire between 15 and 20 rounds per minute, and a battery of four guns could fire its stock within a couple of hours.[2]

Artillery was meant to accompany infantry advancement in what was known as a ‘creeping barrage’. Shells would be aimed in front of advancing infantry to act as a shield, using calculations based on the estimated rate of infantry movement.  What wasn’t taken into consideration, however, was how well German trenches were able to withstand bombardment. Artillery became more effective once reconnaissance and communication between infantry and artillery had been improved.

New Innovations

Of course military technology advanced considerably between Shakespeare’s era and 1914.

Armoured vehicles, especially tanks, create some of the most iconic images of WWI. Armoured cars were popular in the early stages of the war, but they were essentially regular road cars carrying weight in excess of their capabilities and incapable of negotiating off-road terrain. The tank, as a vehicle capable of transporting personnel and light munitions, was developed in secret by the Landships Committee in 1915 (the name “tank” was used as a code word by factory workers who were told that they were building “mobile water tanks” for desert warfare). Tanks were sent into battle for the first time in September 1916 to attack a German stronghold in Delville Wood during the Battle of Flers–Courcelette. Tanks could easily repel rifle and machine gun fire, but they were more susceptible to shelling. Early models, such as the Mark I, were difficult to operate and carried few soldiers. After 1917, tank design improved considerably and they facilitated quicker advancements towards enemy positions, helping to break the stalemate of trench warfare. It has been (controversially) argued that, without tanks, the war may have continued long after 1918.[3]

Poisonous gas revolutionised the theatre of combat. The French and German armies utilised tear gas in the early stages of the war, leaving victims in fits of sneezing and coughing. The German Army used poisonous gas for the first time on April 22nd 1915 against the French at Ypres, Belgium. 160 tons of chlorine gas poured out of 6,000 steel cylinders and engulfed the French trenches. Over 1,000 French and Algerian soldiers died in that attack, with 4,000 further casualties.[4] Throughout the war, both sides developed poisonous gases such as Mustard gasPhosgene, and Lewsitite that would irritate the skin and damage the lungs. What set gas apart from other weapons in WWI was the psychological impact it had - the constant threat of exposure in the trenches and the shell-shock suffered by many soldiers.

[1] Hall, B.S. Weapons and warfare in renaissance Europe : gunpowder, technology, and tactics. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 177.

[2] Strachan, H., WWI: a new illustrated history (New York, 2006), p. 163.

[3] Fletcher, D., Landships: British tanks in WWI (London, 1984), p. 47.

[4] Fitzgerald, G.J., ‘Chemical Warfare and Medical Response During World War I’, American Journal of Public Health, 98:4 (2008), pp. 611-25, p. 611.