Historical Weapons That Prove that Hindsight is 20/20

historical weapons 

by Amanda Mae Downey

Throughout history, we’ve seen the invention of aeroplanes, smartphones, and the underrated bendy straw. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of really bad ideas too. And gosh, what better place to exercise your potentially harmful and messy ideas than in warfare? Historical weapons that slice, dice, shoot, and roll are made to be hazardous. That’s uh, well that’s kind of the point. These five historical weapons backfired from the moment they were simply a twinkle in the eye of revenge. Whether they were attacking sunbathers, failing in combat, or impossible to maneuver without an Olympic medal, they were a hot pile of no all the across the board.


Great Panjandrum (1943, England)

Great Panjandrum
The Great Panjandrum awaiting its first test. || {{PD-1996}}

In 1943, the Great Panjandrum arrived to destroy sandcastles and generally make beach days more exciting. World War II was truly the war of zany weapons that could’ve used more thought. The Allies were wearing down and in dire need of a super weapon. One of these weapons could be Britain’s Great Panjandrum, which was designed to bring down enough of the Atlantic Wall (the Nazi empire’s westernmost fortification) so that the Allies could storm through.

The prototype was a round wheel propelled by rockets. It was essentially a delivery system for explosives. Delivery, as in once it hit the wall, the Great Panjandrum was meant to explode, destroying the wall and launching anyone nearby into the water.

Where it Went Wrong

The prototype was secretly transported to Westward Ho! Beach, near Devon under the cover of night. Unfortunately, the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development did not consider that their testing ground was also a tourist hotspot, so they were already off to a good start.

After several tests, it was soon realized that the Great Panjandrum’s rockets were too powerful. They were the only ones that would get the wheel all the way to the Atlantic wall, in theory. In testing, the wheel was launched up into the sky falling like a flaming, bomb-strapped comet towards beach goers, then veering off course and exploding underwater.

If it wasn’t already apparent, the Great Panjandrum was merely a thrilling diversion for Westward Ho! beach goers, but it never did make it anywhere near the front lines. Not a bad show, though.


The Cutlass Pistol (1840, United States)

Muskets and bayonets were clunky and cumbersome. But what if there was a more compact version–something deadly at a distance, and still practical if you wanted to get nice and cuddly with the enemy? That would be ideal.

The Elgin Cutlass Pistol was created by the United States Navy for use during the Wilkes-South Seas Expedition. It was used by boarding parties primarily. Boarding parties were sent to board enemy ships and teach them a lesson or two. In the cramped quarters of a vessel, it was preferable to have a small weapon that could do a lot of damage which was why muskets weren’t  always the best option. Similar versions of the cutlass pistol appeared in Poland and India. I mean, who could say no to a weapon that you can use to keep the baddies away and then prep your dinner with at night?

Cutlass Pistol
The Elgin Cutlass Pistol is preserved in the incredible Newport News Mariner’s Museum. || {{PD-US-unpublished}}

Where it Went Wrong

First off, the Elgin Cutlass Pistol was incredibly expensive. After the Wilkes-South Seas Expedition, it made an appearance in the Civil War. As war costs skyrocketed for the Union, it was impossible to justify the need for a weapon with as many disadvantages and as hefty of a price tag as the Elgin Cutlass Pistol.

By combining two perfectly good weapons together, a mega-weapon was not created. Instead, it provided a heavy pistol that was difficult to manipulate and aim and a similarly heavy sword with little balance. It was a disaster in reality, but gosh darn it, if it’s not one of the coolest historical weapons around.

The Flying Guillotine (c. 1725, China)

Yongzheng emperor
The Yongzheng Emperor, reigned from 1723-1735, during which the flying guillotine was allegedly designed. || {{PD-1923}}

Way back when, before all the fun of the French revolution, somebody living under the Qing Dynasty of China got a neat idea–what if I could decapitate someone without getting my hands dirty? A fair question.

We don’t know much about the flying guillotine. It probably didn’t pass the beta testing phase, but there are a few crude drawings cataloged. Fortunately, the weapon was not widely used, so there are no  accessible images. What we do know is that the weapon is a hat with blades attached; a decapitation hat, if you will. Many historians believe the weapon to have consisted of four parts: A mandarin-style hat at the top, a cloth or net attached around the rim of the hat, and then a bladed ring attached to the netting. A chain would be held by the user and once pulled, the blades would come out, decapitating the victim and depositing the head neatly into the hat. The weapon wasn’t created for warfare, but rather as a way to kill a singular target.

Where it Went Wrong

Frisbees are lightweight and aerodynamic. You throw one and it’ll soar through the air like a dream. If you throw a knife through the air (please don’t), it’ll drop quicker than a dead fly. Now imagine throwing the flying guillotine. You’re certainly not decapitating anyone tonight.

It can’t be that hard, you say, but it is. The Mythbusters actually tested it out and they found difficulty in even decapitating a stationary dummy. In real life your target is moving, and no matter how skilled you are, it’s not easy to throw a hat on anyone’s head. Weird, right?


The Gun Shield (1544, England)

gun shield
Gun Shield from the Higgins Armory Museum. || {{PD-US-unpublished}}

So there’s this pesky thing about being in a gunfight: While you get to do a lot of shooting, you also open yourself up to a stray bullet here and there until you’re not feeling so hot. Well, the gunsmith Giovanni Battista had a plan: what if you could just shoot people without repercussions? So he took a gun, attached it to a shield and called it a day.

Now when Henry VIII wasn’t looking for a brand new wife and making up his own church to get out of a sticky situation, he was on the cutting edge of technology. So when Battista approached him with his brand new art project, Henry VIII ordered exactly one hundred of them for his bodyguards.

Where it Went Wrong

Surprisingly, putting a gun in the middle of a shield was a really bad idea. Aim wasn’t that easy, you kind of just had to point and well, hope. Now even though the movies make it look effortless, shields were heavy to carry. In fact, shields could weigh anywhere from 10-30 pounds. Now attach a gun to it and that’s more than I’m willing to lift in the course of year.

One last problem: guns in the 1500’s were front-loaded. That’s an easy fix, though. Just ask the people you’re fighting to give you a second to reload your awkward gun. I’m sure they’ll be understanding. I mean, we’ve all been there.

Suffice to say, the Gun Shield didn’t work out much to the chagrin of England’s horniest king. Props for trying, though.


Krummlauf (c. 1940, Germany)

German rifles, including a 90 degree Krummlauf. || {{PD-US-unpublished}}

While the British were sending flaming wheels through the skies over the heads of tourists, the Nazis were feeling the same pressure to create a super weapon. Enter the Krummlauf, Nazi Germany’s own weapon that looks like it came out of the cartoons.

The Krummlauf was a barrel attachment for the Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle. It provided a curved barrel, so that guns could easily shoot around corners, thusly protecting you from the enemy around the bend and demonstrating your enviable understanding of the laws of physics.

Why didn’t anyone else think of this?

Where it Went Wrong

Do I need to write this? Well it’s pretty obvious that Nazi Germany’s gun didn’t work at all. Although their attempts to redirect a bullet were brave, I’m left wondering why they even tried. As soon as the Krummlauf attachment was used, it was subsequently destroyed as the bullet broke through the barrel and fired straight off.

The Krummlauf was also made shorter for tanks and some guns, in which the short barrel actually broke the bullet, which could potentially make for friendly fire situations.


History is full of all sorts of fun, from ring toss decapitations to Henry VIII’s favorite mistake (the Gun Shield, not himself).  So here’s to everyone that tried, even if they missed. Without failure, we wouldn’t have the historical weapons that have made room for countless victories. At least we can rest easy knowing that the Krummlauf isn’t one of them.


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Which historical weapons do you think were the most ridiculous? Tell me about some I missed!


2 Replies to “Historical Weapons That Prove that Hindsight is 20/20”

    • Thank you for reading and leaving a comment! I’m glad you enjoyed this post, it was one of my favorites to write and do the research for!
      -Amanda Mae

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