Looking at Battle of Tsushima, 1905, something that struck me was

And finally, by 27 May 1905, Admiral Tōgō and his men had two battleship fleet actions under their belts, which amounted to over four hours of combat experience in battleship-to-battleship combat at Port Arthur and the Yellow Sea.

which kinda implied that, in 1905, they were pretty much veterans in terms of having commanded new-style battleships (armored, steel, steam powered, using mostly large guns) in combat.

Battleships, through the Dreadnoughts, then became the backbone of Western navies.

Yet, by 1944/45, battleships were pretty much obsolete, besides being used for shore bombardment. From Tsushima/Dreadnoughts, that was a major weapon system that went from dominance to obsolescence in less than 40 years.

What other weapon systems have come and gone very quickly?

  • has to be a major/dominant/war-winning weapon. Zeppelins were never that important, for example, so the fact they only lasted for a few years doesn't count.

  • Technology turnover is much quicker nowadays, so a similar development in ancient times or the Middle Ages could count on a longer lifespan.

  • "Weapons systems" is loosely defined. The Phalanx was fairly dominant for some time, but eventually opponents learned to flank it. That would count, except that it lasted for a while. And, no, pikemen in the Middle Ages wouldn't count as a continuation of the Phalanx - phalanxes were a specialized infantry-on-infantry formation, while pikemen were meant to stop cavalry.

Other candidates - except that their lifetimes, while limited to a small slice of the historical record, was not in fact all that short - might be crossbows or war chariots. After a while, they pretty much disappeared from large scale use in any given theater.

  • it has to be recognizably distinct from its predessor

Japanese, Chinese or other non-Western weapons for which there was both large scale use and a clear historical record are fine.

Edit: in response to lack of clarity in my question so far:

  • I really meant a weapon that disappeared on its own because it didn't work anymore, but it had, at some point. Essentially a counter-weapon/tactic had been found to it and, except for militaries too incompetent to realize it, it won't be used anymore. Polish cavalry charging the Nazis in 39 is already behind on that clock, except for the bravery factor which is sadly timeless.

  • It is particularly distinct from what related weapon/systems recently preceded/succeeded it. Sure, V1s were very much a flash in the pan in 44/45, but cruise missiles are now very much staple technology - V1s are essentially unsuccessful recent predecessors to modern cruise missiles.

  • 2
    So "very quickly" = 100 years (or so)?
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:05
  • 4
    eh... I dunno. I'd count "only 200 years" in Antiquity as pretty darn short. Let's say maybe relative to its contemporaries. Nov 22, 2019 at 3:06
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    Dive bombing came and went over a couple of decades. Fortifications are a bit obsolete now, but have been around for a while. This question is pretty unclear, methinks.
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:08
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    how would you even consider fortifications in the context of this question? first walled city is probably around 4-5000 BC, lasting all the way to the arrival of gunpowder. I'd say dive bombers would count. They're a bit niche but certainly a good example of a short lifetime. Nov 22, 2019 at 3:10
  • 2
    The pike might be a better example than the crossbow.
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 3:45

7 Answers 7


Is the halftrack AFV generic enough? A brief upsurge before and during the second World War, but improvements in fully wheeled and fully tracked vehicles rendered it obsolete.

The dive bomber also had a brief period of prominence before WWII and early in it, but improvements in air defenses and tactics rendered them suicidal.

The armored train was pretty prominent during the Russian Civil War and the subsequent troubles in China. (If you count it with other AFVs, it was a significant part of both the Red and White armored forces.) Not much of it before WWI, and by the start of WWII it was only used in secondary roles.

For that matter, the railway gun was really prominent during WWI and little used in WWII.

  • 2
    I like the dive bomber and armoured train examples. The railway gun was always just a siege weapon, and was used in the Sevastopol siege - one of perhaps only three that lasted long enough to make bringing it up worthwhile. My guess is that Leningrad gets too cold for it, and the railway lines never got extended to Staiingrad in time. Your half-track example seems weak as it was never dominant in any way. Nov 22, 2019 at 5:55
  • @PieterGeerkens, railway guns like the 24cm or 9.2" served as heavy field artillery in the trench warfare of WWI. Artillery tractors were not good enough and the terrain was too cratered for big towed artillery.
    – o.m.
    Nov 22, 2019 at 6:50
  • I like the dive bomber too, so +1. But you didn't note its fairly extensive use in the Pacific sea battles - it was not obsolete during WW2. The rail guns and armored trains are way too niche and they really weren't very significant at any point in time. Yes, they were use but they weren't really winning big battles or campaigns. Zeppelin-like, to me. Halftrack is a precursor to APCs, so I'd say it evolved. Nov 22, 2019 at 8:09
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    Trench warfare might be another one that's worth adding to the list. Dominant in WW1, useless by WW2. Nov 22, 2019 at 9:45
  • 1
    @DenisdeBernardy Trenches are still useful today; it is always better to have good cover if you are under attack. It is just that they no longer are able to define warfare and there are ways around it, but they are still an advantage.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 24, 2019 at 14:56

One can argue that battlecruisers... lightly armored fast capital ships that carried battleship grade main guns... had a short lifespan. They were popular in theory in the naval arms race prior to WW1, but the substantial number of battlecruisers lost at Jutland showed the deficiencies... they weren't fast enough to avoid being hit. The loss of battlecruiser HMS Hood to a single hit from Bismark finished them off for good, although big gun ships in general were on the decline by then, due to vulnerability to air attack... as was shown with Bismark, shortly after the loss of Hood.

The dirigible as a bombing platform had about a two year lifespan, from the first use of them in 1916, to being discontinued as bombing platforms by Germany late in 1917 due to extensive losses. The British had figured out how to set them on fire.

Poison gas also had about a two to three year lifespan, in WW1. It's decline wasn't due to countermeasures, but general revulsion of the concept by most nations after WW1. While poison gas attacks were considered in WW2, and stocks of gas shells and bombs were on hand, they were never used.

  • 3
    I don't think that battlecruisers were ever dominant the way that dreadnoughts were. Popular, yes, effective, no.
    – Mark
    Nov 26, 2019 at 0:43
  • I'd disagree about battlecruisers. Battlecruiser armor at Jutland was sufficient, unsafe ammunition handling was the problem. While Hood was done in by thin deck armor, it was a lucky shot. She never received modernization; Hood was a WWI battlecruiser against a brand new WW2 battleship. Finally, the original battlecruiser role as cruiser killer lived on for quite some time into at least the Alaska class.
    – Schwern
    Mar 9, 2020 at 20:25
  • Poison gas was used extensively by Italy in it's African campaign and to lesser extent by the Nazis against the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. postwar there were major uses of poison gas by Iraq against Iran local uprisings.
    – mart
    Sep 30, 2020 at 12:08
  • How is it with the conflicts between USSR and Communist China ? Could chemical weapons have been used in that ? Sep 30, 2020 at 17:13
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    @mart: I don't want to defend the German side in the Warsaw Uprising, but this is the first time I heard someone claim the use of poison gas by the Germans. That is a pretty... let's say "bold" claim. Do you have any sources for that?
    – DevSolar
    Nov 4, 2020 at 7:59

Another example is the torpedo bomber: an aircraft used to launch anti-ship torpedoes. These were used between 1914 and 1945, but were made obsolete by anti-ship guided missiles.

Missiles could be launched from much greater range, greatly reducing the risk to the aircraft and its crew from the target ship's defences. Since homing torpedoes did not exist until late in WWII, and were still new and unreliable at the end of that war, torpedo bombers needed to get close and to fly straight while dropping their torpedoes, making them very vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns.

  • But it wasn't really a distinct type of aircraft. And apparently they still exist, for ASW.
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 12:56
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    @TomasBy, torpedo bombers were at first distinct designs, they had to carry one rather heavy weapon instead of several smaller ones and they had fly low and straight to do it. Later aircraft like the AD Skyraider could carry several large bombs or torpedoes, with the general rise in payloads. And anti-submarine aircraft are completely different from anti-surface torpedo planes. They are not expected to fly into the AA fire of a battleship ...
    – o.m.
    Nov 22, 2019 at 16:19
  • @o.m. maybe there were some like that at the beginning, but many torpedo bombers were just adaptions of float planes, reconnaissance planes, level bombers...
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 16:38

Air power keeps turning to high speed, high flying aircraft, the idea being to simply fly so high or fast interceptors and/or ground based defenses can't reach or catch them. This doesn't mean they had to fly faster and higher than contemporary interceptors, rather they had to fly fast enough and high enough to get in and out before they could be intercepted; the reaction time of the defenders was a factor, plus the climb rate and range of the interceptors. It's an idea which waxes and wanes as fighter and bomber technology chase each other, detection technology got better, and reaction times got faster.

In early WW1 fighters could not attain the altitude of a bomber or Zeppelin rendering them nigh invulnerable. This lasted a few years before but rapid improvements in fighters rendered them obsolete.

The interwar period saw the Schnellbomber (German for "fast bomber") concept. It was thought a fast, sleek, twin engine medium bomber stripped of defensive armaments would simply outrun fighters, or be in and out before the enemy had time to react. At the time fighters were slow, single-engine biplanes, and air defense was uncoordinated. But rapid improvements would quickly render the Schnellbomber concept obsolete by 1940. Many of the Luftwaffe's early bombers were designed as Schnellbombers and later pressed into service as conventional medium bombers; in particular the Ju 88, their most numerous. The only really successful Schnellbomber was the de Havilland Mosquito able to maintain a speed advantage over contemporary interceptors until jet and rocket aircraft appeared.

This would return post WW2 in aircraft such as the B-36, B-47, B-52, and B-58. Again, the new bombers were to fly faster and higher than conventional interceptors and anti-aircraft artillery. Jet interceptors and the introduction of surface-to-air missiles pressed them ever higher and faster culminating in the in the Mach 3 B-70 and B-1. When a high flying U-2 spy plane was shot down by SAMs in 1960, that heralded the end of extreme altitude as one's sole defense. The B-70 would be cancelled and the US would switch to low altitude, subsonic bombers relying on electronic warfare and ground clutter. Though some tried to keep the idea alive with the B-1 for decades.

The idea of strategic bombing would be largely supplanted by ICBMs, submarine launched nuclear missiles, and cruise missiles.

The "high and fast" penetration tactic lasted about 15 years from roughly 1946 to 1961, but two very successful remnants hung on.

SR-71 Blackbird, while not a bomber, carried the idea of high and fast to an extreme by cruising at Mach 3 and 20km high. It remained able to fulfill its role reconnaissance aircraft well into the 90s. While never again quite as immune as the U-2 was, with careful mission planning it could gather intelligence deep in hostile territory.

While the high flying bomber only lasted 15 years, the B-52 originally designed as one has lasted 65 years with no end in sight. Originally designed in 1946 it has been in continuous service and adapting to new trends since 1955. Originally designed as a high flying strategic bomber, it adapted better than all of its contemporary US heavy bombers into the new low flying, subsonic role, later from nuclear to conventional bomber, and then from high to post-Cold War low intensity conflicts.

  • I have a bit of a problem with the U-2 and the SR-71 being in here as examples for high-and-fast bombers. Neither of the two carried any armament; they were reconnaisance planes. I also look askance at labelling the German WWII era bombers "failed Schnellbomber", indeed I consider the whole WP article to be severely misled. German Luftwaffe was geared toward tactical ground support, not strategic bombing in the first place. (That is why German bombers were required to be dive bombers, to increase precision as horizontal bombing was not deemed precise enough for close ground support.)
    – DevSolar
    Sep 29, 2020 at 14:33
  • @DevSolar True, they were not bombers, but they used the same schnellbomber concept of "2 Fast 2 <strike>Furious</strike> High" to reach their target, and they did this into the 90s long after it was obsolete for other applications. The Luftwaffe entered the war with the Do 17 (Schnellbomber), Ju 88 (Schnellbomber, retrofitted to do everything), Ju 87 (dedicated dive bomber), Ju 86 (conventional bomber/transport), and He 111 (conventional bomber). The Ju88, a retrofitted schnellbomber, was their most numerous bomber by far.
    – Schwern
    Sep 29, 2020 at 19:43
  • The term "Schnellbomber" was a propaganda term, to begin with. None of those bombers would have been able to outrun even those fighters flying at design time. Don't put the German tactical bombers in the same bag as the US / UK strategic bombers and label them "failures" because they were not successful in a role they weren't designed for but pressed into during the BoB (strategic bombing). The Ju-88 was built for the same purposes as the B-26 Marauder or the de Havilland Mosquito, only four to five years earlier. In that, it (and its brethren on both sides) were very capable crafts.
    – DevSolar
    Sep 30, 2020 at 6:58
  • @DevSolar You're reading things which aren't in the answer. It's a quick summary of the "high and fast" tactic through aviation history with schnellbombers, post-war strategic bombers, and recon aircraft as examples. The concept was a failure, with the noted exceptions, but the aircraft often went on to be great like the Ju-88 and B-52. If you'd like to discuss the schnellbomber in more detail, ask a question, link it in a comment, and I'll have a look. I think there's also a misconception: they don't have to outrun interceptors, they just need to get in and out before interception.
    – Schwern
    Sep 30, 2020 at 7:23
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    @DevSolar True, the Schenllbomber was just the fast part. But the Do 17, Ju 86, and He 111 certainly were not dive bombers. It was after the success of the Ju 87 in the Spanish Civil War that dive brakes were added to the Ju 88 prototypes, and later removed because it over-stressed the airframe. Otherwise it's not a narrative about strategic bombing, WW2 heavy bombers never come up (though the US did examine removing all armaments from B-17s to increase their speed and altitude). I'm not sure where you're getting that, the answer is about a tactic to penetrate air defenses.
    – Schwern
    Sep 30, 2020 at 7:48

Here is a chronology of infantry weapons that became dominant, and then were superseded, over the modern time period in fairly short order.

  • The Pike is revived in Europe about 1300 and hits its heyday about the Thirty Years War, exemplified in Cromwell's New Model Army of about the same time period. Dominance is a bit over 400 years (1300 - 1710)

  • The smoothbore musket completes its replacement of the pike on the battlefield with the widespread adoption of a spring-loaded slot bayonet that prevented it from falling off invented about 1703. Dominance is about 150 years (1710 - 1860).

  • The single- and double-shot breech-loading rifle with self-contained powder, primer and bullet attains dominance over breechloading firearms in the 1860's in both Europe and America. Dominance is about 25 years (1850-1875).

  • Repeating rifles starting with the Winchester Repeater of 1873 provide the infantryman with semi-automatic fire capability. Dominance is about 75 years (1875-1950).

  • The automatic Rifle is rare - essentially an artillery weapon fielded by privileged infantrymen or teams - until about 1950 when it becomes ubiquitous on the battlefield. The obstacle to more rapid wide deployment earlier is likely logistics - the difficulty in supplying sufficient ammo to the field for an infantryman who in most circumstances prefers automatic fire to anything slower. Fully automatic rifles with capability for semi-automatic and single-shot fire remain the ubiquitous infantry weapon on the battlefield today.

The lance was revived across European cavalry through and in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, becoming ubiquitous as a light-cavalry weapon in preference to the saber by the Crimean War. The summer campaign of 1914 with the widespread adoption of entrenchments in the wake of the Battle of the Marne made non-dragoon cavalry obsolete in a season. Dominance about 100 years (1815-1915) as a light-cavalry weapon.

One can well argue that the rapid development of fighter aircraft in World War One encompasses at least three distinct generations of weapon system, each one of which made the previous completely obsolete (ie a death trap). Even in WW2 one would not want to be flying in 1944-5 with a 1939-40 fighter, even when the plane name (ie Spitfire Mk 1 vs Spitfire Mk V or VI) ostensibly remains unchanged.

  • @TomasBy: No! Dragoon cavalry (cavalry that travels mounted and dismounts to fight as riflemen) was used extensively on the Eastern Front in WW2 by both sides. It probably retains value even today in certain circumstances, such as terrain where tanks have no mobility. The ubiquitousness of lance cavalry and the lack of dragoon cavalry probably exacerbated what we think of as Western Front trench warfare in WW1. Nov 22, 2019 at 5:29
  • @TomasBy: No, Cavalry was used during the first weeks of the war by both sides, both during the German advance to the Marne and in the subsequent "race to the sea" to the Belgium coast. It was the fixed and hidden fields of fire for machine guns created by the trench systems that were untraversable by horse. The machine gun still existed in WW2 yet dragoon cavalry was valuable on both the Eastern Front and the Balkans. Nov 22, 2019 at 5:40
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    Okay, barbed wire and MGs then.
    – Tomas By
    Nov 22, 2019 at 5:54
  • @TomasBy: have you ever closely inspected the obstacles that steeplechase mounts take at a full gallop? google.com/…: Nov 22, 2019 at 5:58
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    @PieterGeerkens if you say so. and since we throwing compliments at each, lemme say that I can only wonder at how you managed to fit any notion whatsoever of cavalry into your answer, that's only been used for, oh, 4-5000 years, depending on how you count. Nov 22, 2019 at 22:28

The turreted fighter aircraft.

Various turreted fighter aircraft were introduced at the start of WW2. By the end of WW2 all were obsolete and no new designs had been built.

  • Turreted fighters were introduced during World War 1, and were obsolete pretty much from the start -- it turns out it's much more effective for the pilot to aim the entire airplane.
    – Mark
    Mar 10, 2020 at 19:52
  • There were no real turrets in WW1, but I take your point. Mar 10, 2020 at 19:57

The atomic bomb was used twice, four days apart, with major effect.

It has never been used in-theater since.

Despite not being used for the last 75 years, it continues to cast a large geopolitical shadow.

  • 8
    but it is not obsolete and deployment of it has not been suspended. in fact its non-use is precisely what has made it useful. ditto, to a lesser extent, gas and biological agents. Nov 30, 2019 at 2:20
  • "After a while, they pretty much disappeared from large scale use in any given theater." Just giving the OP what was requested.
    – Roger
    Dec 1, 2019 at 2:29
  • the OP is me. apologies for me lacking clarity. I really meant a weapon that disappeared on its own because it didn't work anymore. essentially a counter-weapon had been found to it and, except for militaries too tradition-bound to realize it, it won't be used anymore. Dec 1, 2019 at 5:24
  • Okay -- thanks for the clarification!
    – Roger
    Dec 1, 2019 at 23:39

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