Off the Charts: Increasing Lethality of Weapons Over Time

As part of my research into the Civil War fortifications of Raleigh, North Carolina (see my companion website “Raleigh’s Wall and the American Civil War“), I’ve been trying to better understand the rationale behind fortifying a position, whether one on a battlefield or a civilian location like a town or city.

I was reading a 1986 technical paper studying 601 historical battles and engagements between the years 1600 and 1973. I was particularly interested in the Civil War battles included in the study, but in trying to get an overall understanding of the paper (which is very technical), I came across this interesting but chilling chart of the increasing lethality of weapons over human history.

You’ll appreciate how rapid the increase of weapon lethality has been over the last 100 to 200 years if you’ll note that the right-hand axis increases logarithmically rather than linearly. So on the right axis, the killing capacity of weaponry per hour goes from zero to 1,000 in about the first two inches; but in the next two inches it increases from 1,000 to 100,000; and in the following two inches from 100,000 to 10 million. The designer does that to keep the image manageable, so the information can be presented on a single page, but the upshot is that the increase in killing capacity of weaponry has been enormous during modern times. I knew that, but this chart brought it home to me in a way I hadn’t seen before.

Source: Robert L. Helmbold and Aqeel A. Khan, Combat History Analysis Study Effort (CHASE): Progress Report for the Period August 1984-Jun 1985. Bethesda, Md: U.S. Army Concepts Analysis Agency, August 1986. Page 7-6.

ARB — 21 March 2021

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