Machine guns, throwing stars, blasters and crossbows are some interesting examples of projectile weapons seen in sci fi and fantasy content. The earliest projectile weapon was most likely the rock, followed eventually in prehistoric terms by the invention of the bow and arrow. Arrowheads found in Sibudu Cave in South Africa dating back some 64,000 years. These arrows are among the very first weapons made by humans, fired with the leverage-based atlatl. The bow was invented by at least 20,000 BC, according to radio carbon dating of cave paintings that show our ancestors using them to hunt.
Arrowheads were made from stone until the invention of bronze around 3,500 BC. Advancements in metallurgy made arrows easier to produce, but still ineffective against metal armor and shields. Medieval combatants were at an impasse with metal arrows and swords unable to pierce metal armor, leading to the invention of the lance. Used by horseback, the lance was very efficient at going through plate armor, but only after a charge of some distance. In effect, the long ‘reload’ time between lance charges made it a poor overall weapon on the battlefield.
Less effective at killing than the sword or bow, throwing implements such as knives, spikes and shuriken were used to distract and wound, also serving as melee weapons in close combat. The earliest record of throwing knives comes from Libya around 1,300 BC. Due in part to the secretive nature of the shinobi, or ‘shadow warriors’ who employed them, the origin date of the shuriken or ‘sword thrown from the hand’ is unknown. A common myth is that only ninjas used shuriken, in reality they were employed in combat by both samurai and ninja.
In the 9th century gunpowder was invented in China, followed by the firearm in the 13th century in the form of the ‘fire lance‘, a precursor to the musket. This weapon used gunpowder only as a primitive flame thrower. Firearms were adopted in Europe during the 15th century by the Ottoman Empire as standard issue for infantry, replacing the pike.
The rifle followed three centuries later, featuring a grooved inner barrel (rifling) to impart spin on bullets for deadlier accuracy. The first handheld automatic weapon was invented in Germany by Hugo Schmeisser, called the ‘Kugelspritz’ or ‘bullet squirter’ around 1910. This 9mm full-auto machine gun was the blueprint for modern day projectile weapons such as the Scorpion, Uzi and Mac-10, and it’s compact, short barrel design inspired the AK-47 and M-14.
In the sci fi, lead and steel bullets are replaced by directed energy weapons including lasers, plasma and repulsor beams as used by Iron Man and Dr. Doom. Some other popular sci fi projectile weapons include Chewbacca’s Bowcaster from Star Wars, the over and under double trigger hand cannon wielded by Dekker in Blade Runner, and Captain Harlock’s combination projectile/melee weapon the Gravity Sabre. Also notable are the shurikenlike Glaive from Krull and Yondu’s whistle-controlled Yaka arrow from Guardians of the Galaxy, the latter bringing the projectile weapon around full circle to it’s ancient origin.