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A weapon, arm or armament is any device that can be used with intent to inflict damage or harm. Weapons are used to increase the efficacy and efficiency of activities such as hunting, crime, law enforcement, self-defense, and warfare. In broader context, weapons may be construed to include anything used to gain a tactical, strategic, material or mental advantage over an adversary or enemy target.
While ordinary objects such as sticks, stones, cars, or pencils can be used as weapons, many are expressly designed for the purpose – ranging from simple implements such as clubs, swords and axes, to complicated modern intercontinental ballistic missiles, biological weapons and cyberweapons. Something that has been re-purposed, converted, or enhanced to become a weapon of war is termed weaponized, such as a weaponized virus or weaponized laser.
The use of objects as weapons has been observed among chimpanzees, leading to speculation that early hominids used weapons as early as five million years ago. However, this can not be confirmed using physical evidence because wooden clubs, spears, and unshaped stones would have left an ambiguous record. The earliest unambiguous weapons to be found are the Schöningen spears, eight wooden throwing spears dating back more than 300,000 years. At the site of Nataruk in Turkana, Kenya, numerous human skeletons dating to 10,000 years ago may present evidence of traumatic injuries to the head, neck, ribs, knees and hands, including obsidian projectiles embedded in the bones that might have been caused from arrows and clubs during conflict between two hunter-gatherer groups. But the evidence interpretation of warfare at Nataruk has been challenged.
The earliest ancient weapons were evolutionary improvements of late neolithic implements, but significant improvements in materials and crafting techniques led to a series of revolutions in military technology.
During the Bronze Age, the first defensive structures and fortifications appeared as well, indicating an increased need for security. Weapons designed to breach fortifications followed soon after, such as the battering ram was in use by 2500 BC.
The development of iron-working around 1300 BC in Greece had an important impact on the development of ancient weapons. It was not the introduction of early Iron Age swords, however, as they were not superior to their bronze predecessors, but rather the domestication of the horse and widespread use of spoked wheels by c. 2000 BC. This led to the creation of the light, horse-drawn chariot, whose improved mobility proved important during this era. Spoke-wheeled chariot usage peaked around 1300 BC and then declined, ceasing to be militarily relevant by the 4th century BC.
European warfare during the Post-classical history was dominated by elite groups of knights supported by massed infantry (both in combat and ranged roles). They were involved in mobile combat and sieges which involved various siege weapons and tactics. Knights on horseback developed tactics for charging with lances providing an impact on the enemy formations and then drawing more practical weapons (such as swords) once they entered into the melee. By contrast, infantry, in the age before structured formations, relied on cheap, sturdy weapons such as spears and billhooks in close combat and bows from a distance. As armies became more professional, their equipment was standardized and infantry transitioned to pikes. Pikes are normally seven to eight feet in length, and used in conjunction with smaller side-arms (short sword).
In Eastern and Middle Eastern warfare, similar tactics were developed independent of European influences.
The introduction of gunpowder from the Asia at the end of this period revolutionized warfare. Formations of musketeers, protected by pikemen came to dominate open battles, and the cannon replaced the trebuchet as the dominant siege weapon.
Firearms are qualitatively different from earlier weapons because they release energy from combustible propellants such as gunpowder, rather than from a counter-weight or spring. This energy is released very rapidly and can be replicated without much effort by the user. Therefore even early firearms such as the arquebus were much more powerful than human-powered weapons. Firearms became increasingly important and effective during the 16th century to 19th century, with progressive improvements in ignition mechanisms followed by revolutionary changes in ammunition handling and propellant. During the U.S. Civil War new applications of firearms including the machine gun and ironclad warship emerged that would still be recognizable and useful military weapons today, particularly in limited conflicts. In the 19th century warship propulsion changed from sail power to fossil fuel-powered steam engines.
Since the mid-18th century North American French-Indian war through the beginning of the 20th century, human-powered weapons were reduced from the primary weaponry of the battlefield yielding to gunpowder-based weaponry. Sometimes referred to as the "Age of Rifles", this period was characterized by the development of firearms for infantry and cannons for support, as well as the beginnings of mechanized weapons such as the machine gun. Of particular note, Howitzers were able to destroy masonry fortresses and other fortifications, and this single invention caused a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), establishing tactics and doctrine that are still in use today. See Technology during World War I for a detailed discussion.
An important feature of industrial age warfare was technological escalation – innovations were rapidly matched through replication or countered by another innovation. The technological escalation during World War I (WW I) was profound, including the wide introduction of aircraft into warfare, and naval warfare with the introduction of aircraft carriers.
World War I marked the entry of fully industrialized warfare as well as weapons of mass destruction (e.g., chemical and biological weapons), and new weapons were developed quickly to meet wartime needs. Above all, it promised to the military commanders the independence from the horse and the resurgence in maneuver warfare through extensive use of motor vehicles. The changes that these military technologies underwent before and during the Second World War were evolutionary, but defined the development for the rest of the century.
This period of innovation in weapon design continued in the inter-war period (between WW I and WW II) with continuous evolution of weapon systems by all major industrial powers. Many modern military weapons, particularly ground-based ones, are relatively minor improvements of weapon systems developed during World War II. See military technology during World War II for a detailed discussion.
World War II however, perhaps marked the most frantic period of weapons development in the history of humanity. Massive numbers of new designs and concepts were fielded, and all existing technologies were improved between 1939 and 1945. The most powerful weapon invented during this period was the atomic bomb, however many other weapons influenced the world in ways overshadowed by the importance of nuclear weapons.
Since the realization of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the nuclear option of all-out war is no longer considered a survivable scenario. During the Cold War in the years following World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a nuclear arms race. Each country and their allies continually attempted to out-develop each other in the field of nuclear armaments. Once the joint technological capabilities reached the point of being able to ensure the destruction of the Earth x100 fold, then a new tactic had to be developed. With this realization, armaments development funding shifted back to primarily sponsoring the development of conventional arms technologies for support of limited wars rather than total war.
The arms industry is a global industry that involves the sales and manufacture of weaponry. It consists of a commercial industry involved in the research and development, engineering, production, and servicing of military material, equipment, and facilities.
All countries have laws and policies regulating aspects such as the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification and use of small arms by civilians.
Countries which regulate access to firearms will typically restrict access to certain categories of firearms and then restrict the categories of persons who may be granted a license for access to such firearms. There may be separate licenses for hunting, sport shooting (a.k.a. target shooting), self-defense, collecting, and concealed carry, with different sets of requirements, permissions, and responsibilities.
International treaties and agreements place restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation and usage of weapons from small arms and heavy weapons to weapons of mass destruction. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country.
Arms trafficking is the trafficking of contraband weapons and ammunition. What constitutes legal trade in firearms varies widely, depending on local and national laws.
There are a number of issue around the potential ongoing risks from deployed weapons, the safe storage of weapons, and their eventual disposal when no longer effective or safe.