Top Ten U.S. Military Weapons of All Time

Putting together the Top 10 U.S. Military Weapons of All Time was no easy task.  Admittedly, this is going to be quite subjective but we will examine each weapon and how it affected history and war.  The range of weaponry prevents a classic one through ten so we are going to list them in alphabetical order.

# 10 Atomic Bomb

In 1939, a group of American and refugee scientists from fascist states combined forces prompted by concerns that Germany was in the midst of nuclear weapons research.  Led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a large team worked secretly and diligently on what is known as the Manhattan Project.  From this was the birth of the atomic bomb.  When Japan refused to surrender at the end of World War II, vowing to fight to the bitter end, President Truman’s advisors recommended a call to action to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.  They suggested this would end the war quickly thus saving millions of American solider lives.  On August 6, 1945, ‘Little Boy’ was delivered to Hiroshima by the crew of the Enola Gay.  With no sign of surrender the crew of Bockscar delivered the larger ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.  Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.  The atomic bomb may be considered the greatest weapon that we never want to use again.

# 9 ‘Bazooka’ – M1 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher

In the late 1930s, the U.S. stockpiled anti-tank warheads acquired from the Swiss – but they had no viable means to deploy them.  The basic idea of a portable rocket launcher was developed in 1918 by Dr. Robert Goddard, an inventor and avid fan of rocketry.  He built the prototype and tested it at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, but production and implementation of the device wasn’t fully realized until 1939.  The effectiveness, ease of use, and portability of the rocket launcher made it a must-have for tank-killing, front line infantrymen.  At the time, Bob Burns was a popular American comedian who used a long, cylindrical musical prop that was like an oboe/kazoo in his act.  Apparently both Mr. Burns and the M1 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher were quite endearing to the troops – thus their new weapon was and continues to be dubbed the ‘Bazooka’.

# 8 Colt revolver

Samuel Colt received the patent for his design of a revolver mechanism that allowed a gun to be fired several times without being reloaded.  It wasn’t until the Mexican War in 1846 that the U.S. government ordered 1,000 of these revolvers.  With the onset of the Civil War, Colt was the largest private armament factory and he had developed interchangeable parts.  Consider:  a single-shot pistol took about 20 seconds to prime, reload and shoot.  In comparison, the Colt revolver could shoot off six rounds before stopping to reload.  That is a significant advantage and why it was the first choice for soldiers and frontiersmen.  The craftsmanship and reliability of the weapon makes the Colt highly regarded and the older models are very collectible.

# 7 Flamethrower

Nothing strikes fear among enemies more than fire.  From ancient to modern warfare the use of incendiary devices has been effective against deeply entrenched offensives.  The U.S. used the flamethrower primarily in Pacific Theatre during WWII against the Japanese.  There are some accounts where a flamethrower mounted vehicle would prompt mass German surrenders when a bunker was blasted with flame.  Though ineffective in larger combat zones, we have included the flamethrower in the Top Ten because incendiary technology had to start somewhere.  The flamethrower has since evolved into incendiary weapons that used napalm or white phosphorous.

# 6 Gatling Gun

Invented during the Civil War in 1862, the Gatling Gun is the first “machine” gun.  Inventor Richard J. Gatling was a humanitarian with hopes that such a terrible weapon would reduce the number of men necessary for battle – thus saving lives in the long run.  This weapon has six to ten gun barrels and operated with a crank.  Each barrel had its own breech where the cartridge would enter.  With each having its own firing pin system, this grandfather of the modern-day machine gun gained popularity because it was consistent and reliable.  Even though it went through modifications, the Gatling gun was standard military issue for approximately 30 years until technological improvements retired it into weapons history.

# 5 ‘Kentucky’ Long Rifle

From a historical standpoint, the Long Rifle definitely makes the Top 10 list because it is the weapon that arguably won the Revolutionary War.  Nicknamed the “Kentucky” long rifle, it was actually crafted in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 1730s.  The rifling within the barrel allows the bullet to rotate thus creating a more accurate weapon at a far-superior range of over 200 yards.  The British used a Brown Bessie whose range was 60 meters and not very accurate beyond that.  In the time when riflemen exchanged volley fire (one side fires and then the other side fires), the Brown Bessie against the Kentucky Long Rifle might be compared to spitting in the wind versus shooting a bow and arrow.  The “Kentucky” Long Rifle started the long tradition of military marksmanship with the sniper credo: “One shot.  One kill.” – which is pressed into military training even to this day.

# 4 M1 Garand

The first semi-automatic rifle which became standard issue for U.S. troops was developed by John C. Garand.  The classic shape of the rifle was aesthetically pleasing, but the genius of the weapon was its top loading, sheet metal en-bloc clip.  There was no bolt action so taking it off safety in a point and shoot situation was effortless.  It was durable and strong, but more importantly very adaptable and reliable in the field through all weather conditions.  It has been implemented in all theatres of war since World War II until it was replaced in 1957 by the M14 and eventually the M16.  Its only criticism was a tell-tale “ping” when the empty clip was ejected.  In close combat, the enemy would wait for the sound knowing they had a few seconds advantage.

# 3 M16 Rifle

M16 general assault rifle has been issued to just about every soldier in every combat zone since Vietnam.  Used primarily as an infantry weapon, it is manufactured by Colt.  Just under nine pounds, this lightweight rifle is easy to operate and has the option of automatic or semi-automatic firepower.  One magazine can hold 30 rounds and there is a compensator which keeps the aim true because the muzzle remains level upon firing.  The variants of the M16 are based primarily on the scope and handle modifications – and though replacement rifles have been considered, this rifle maintains its standing as the go-to assault rifle.

# 2 M1918 BAR

The M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) can be considered the grandfather of automatic rifles because the operating components were ahead of their time – and a precursor to modern design.  The use of the .30-06 cartridge was smart forward-planning as the ammunition could be shared with soldiers who were issued Springfield rifles.  The BAR was used by our soldiers in WWII through Vietnam.  The main difference between this rifle and others from this generation was the fact that it was air-cooled rather than water-cooled, omitting the weight of a heavy water jacket and the flexibility to get up and go when a fast relocation became necessary.  Because it was ultra-lightweight, the use of a bipod was implemented in order to maintain control of the weapon, especially when set to automatic.

# 1 M2 Browning ‘Ma Deuce .50 Cal 

At the risk of stating the very obvious, the M2 Browning got its nickname ‘Ma Deuce’ from the M2.  It just rolls off the tongue better, don’t you think?  Used by all branches of the U.S. military, this .50 Cal machine gun can be mounted on most vehicles or ground mount.  At nearly 130 pounds with gun and mount, the Ma Deuce is easily transported – and with a range of just over four miles, this weapon is quite effective for anti-aircraft or personnel.  It is capable of single fire, slow, rapid and cyclic fire with up to 550 rounds per minute to devastating effect.  It is used for both offensive and defensive strategies.

Final Thoughts 

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this selection of Top Ten U.S. Weapons of All Time.  Being the new kid on the block, the U.S. was a late bloomer when it came to warfare and preparedness, however, whenever challenged or faced with adversity we never fail to rise to the occasion.  This list is a reflection of our first steps and the advent of modern warfare.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “Top Ten U.S. Military Weapons of All Time”

  1. Let’s make it a Top 11 US Military Weapons of All Time list and add drones now. In my opinion, the value drones have added to our arsenal cannot be matched by any other weapon, past or present. They offer improved intelligence and best of all they remove our pilots from danger by allowing unmanned tactical air assaults. Any weapon that prevents our soldiers and airmen from being directly targeted should make the top ten list.

    One thought though — is a drone really a piece of equipment or is it more of an unmanned vehicle? Just thinking about terminology…

  2. I, for one, think the good ‘ole Colt 1911 .45 ACP should be included in this list. The weapon, much like the M16, has seen YEARS upon YEARS of service and has become a favorite of the Law Enforcement/Civilian markets as well. From it’s WWI origins, WWII successes, and pop. culture references since then, it definitely has left its mark in many ways.

  3. I love a top ten list. This is a good list, but I think it leans a bit too much on infantry weapons, which for most of warfare was where the most of the action happened. I would probably remove Flamethrowers and replace them with precision guided bombs. Nothing has changed warfare in the last 30 years as much as laser and satellite guide bombs. What once took a fleet of fighters and bombers now takes a handful of precision bombs.

    Soon to be on the list: Drones

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