There seems to be a repeating topos in history, where powers on the loosing side of a war try to turn its tide by inventing new, secret and/or super weapons. The misguided hope seems to be that these new wonder weapons will be enough to totally surprise their enemies, dominate the battlefield and/or shock the enemy into submission – and thus bring by victory in short order.

The examples I know of, however, all failed rather miserably. To my (unscholarly) eye a plausible reason for this appears to be because wars seem to be, more often than not, won through logistics and economics – and powers on the loosing end of a conflict seem to be operating on already stretched resource/logistics budgets, and will therefore be doubly taxed by the R&D efforts for new "super weapons", even given that those weapons would actually prove effective in the field.

Some examples that were (quite) unsuccessful:

There seem to be examples where the side already winning the war was able to expedite its course by bringing new weapons to the table: a prominent example being the Manhattan Project which culminated in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus essentially ending the war with Japan. But I would disregard this: since the US were already in a clearly favourable position to win the war the atomic bomb was hardly a complete game changer.

Are there examples of wonder weapons which were actually able to turn the tide of a war for the loosing side?

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    Greek fire seems to have been quite important for the Eastern Romans on several occasions.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 14:50
  • The Korean Turtle ship and wins against Japan while very outnumbered. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtle_ship But you could argue that the Turtle ships were a resurrected idea, not fully new, and that the wins were due to better tactics, not just the weapons themselves. There is a movie called "Admiral" imdb.com/title/tt3541262 about the most famous and against the odds victory .
    – Luiz
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 16:08
  • Chinese and Vietnamese commies used psyops such as propaganda campaigns, fake news and heroic legend creation such as the Long March, intimidation and assassinations to encourage compliance, "pourrissement", moles, compiling people friendly to the enemy in a kill-on-first-day-of-occupation-list, information welfare, gullible journalists and pacifist movements on enemy lands to gain hearts and minds and undermine the enemy's will and ability to fight. These may not look like weapons to you, but surely were seen as weapons by them, and they were militarily the underdog for a long time.
    – Luiz
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 16:38
  • In Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb a general says to scientists pitching the bomb idea that wars are won due to morale and new weapons don't make that much difference or something to that effect. Worth reading this book and that discussion.
    – releseabe
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 0:45
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    Phalanx, Trireme, Chariot, Longbow, Trebuchet, Musket / Firearms / Artillery, shaped charges, paratroopers, mobile tank units / Blitzkrieg, radar, proximity fuses, Turing bomb, A-bomb, ... -- if a weapon is so effective, it turns into the new standard afterwards. The "wonder" is only attached to the "failed attempts", because they remain a curiosity sidenote of history.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 8:00

6 Answers 6


I think radar made a huge difference to the valiant English who were fighting the nazis single handedly. With radar they could scramble planes; without it, the only way would have been to keep planes always in the air in multiple locations and of course they lacked men, machines and fuel for this. So this was a practical "weapon" (actually originally intended to be an offensive death ray) that made a huge difference.

The computing machinery designed at Bletchley Park could be considered a wonder weapon and it had a bigger effect perhaps than anything else besides radar.

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    Radar was well known to all the powers in WW2. What could be argued to be a wonder weapon is its miniaturization and improved accuracy which to allowed it to be put on small warships, aircraft, and even shells. This was a large advantage to US night fighting and air defense in the Pacific, and in the Battle of the Atlantic hunting U-Boats, and greatly improved the effect of Allied artillery. During the Battle of Britain I would argue the Dowding system was more decisive than their radar.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 19:07
  • @Schwern: interesting. i think this shows how important brains were to ww2, so many stories of clever ideas, which included weapons but also as u point out, systems that had nothing to do with hardware.
    – releseabe
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 19:45
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    The conclusion I came to when writing up my answer regarding the Gulf War is that "wonder weapons" on their own don't win wars, and if used that way they are ineffective. Instead, they must be used as force multipliers for conventional forces. Radar was a force multiplier for an excellent air defense system, but without the Dowding system radar would have been ineffective. The Germans squandered all sorts of wonder weapons because they were used alone as war winning wonder weapons, not integrated force-multipliers.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 22:22
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    @Schwern hmmm, the Germans failed to even seriously target the radars during the Battle of Britain. The tech might have been known, its use potential and doctrine wasn't clear. IIRC they did at some point knock one radar out (the masts were huge) took out a chunk of the English grid and then didn't follow up or anything. I like this answer, except that SeaLion would have been very hard to pull off even if the Battle of Britain had been lost in the air. Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 0:02
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Military Aviation History has an analysis of "Just Destroy The Radar" and concludes the Germans were well aware of Chain Home, but the technical information was not turned into operational information. They were not aware of the Dowding System. Knocking out radar stations would have required a large effort, a conventional bomb blast won't affect a wire and cable tower without a difficult direct hit, drawing resources away from other efforts.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 0:22

What exactly is a miracle weapon? My definition would be: something that all of a sudden changes the outcome of a conflict and decides a war.

Hannibal used clay pots filled with snakes to be thrown on the decks of enemy vessels. That's not a miracle weapon because it decided the outcome of a battle, but not the war.

I see artillery not as a miracle weapon per se, because the technology was well known at the time.

Today a 155 mm howitzer is pretty much standard. Imagine an army coming up with 400 mm howitzers with triple the range and four times faster to reload. That could be a miracle weapon. Could, if it decided the outcome of a war, not a battle.

The artillery used in my example was such a miracle weapon. It was several times bigger than any existing piece of artillery and with a much longer range. It required new casting techniques that were unknown before. And it did decide the outcome of the war: the fall of Constantinopel and with it the Byzantine Empire. (Though it lingered on in a remote corner of Greece for a while.)

1- Greek Fire The Byzantines were not doing well against muslim invaders. Greek fire changed that almost overnight.

2- Artillery Exactly the reverse happened to the Byzantine Empire when Ottoman besiegers used the - then - biggest guns in the world to batter the walls.

I did read that in both cases the inventors offered their invention first to the opposition, who declined to buy it. Then they went to the other party, who were more than happy to shell out the money and won the war. However, I can't find it back. :-(

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    MLRS "Grid Square Removal System" is, arguably, the "400 mm howitzers with triple the range and four times faster to reload". Technological advances mean modern 155mm artillery also fits the bill vs vintage artillery.
    – Schwern
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 20:37

The Roman boarding device known as the Corvus, for Punic War #1.

Going into this war, Rome was a land power, Carthage a sea power. Despite that, Rome won several big naval battles by being better at boarding enemy ships. So, really what you have is that Rome should have lost, but then won.

In the 3rd century BCE, Rome was not a naval power, and had little experience in sea combat. Before the First Punic War began in 264 BCE, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic's military strength was in land-based warfare, and its main assets were the discipline and courage of the Roman soldiers. The boarding bridge allowed the Romans to use their infantry advantage at sea, therefore helping to overcome the Carthaginians' superior naval experience and skills. The Romans' application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.

Apparently the corvus fell into disuse soon afterwards, possibly because it destabilized Roman ships. But at first use it transformed what should have been easy Carthaginian naval wins into a series of losses and laid the ground for Rome's win of the 1st Punic War.

  • I'd say they had heavy expectations of getting their butt kicked on the sea. They were a land power going up against the Med's primary naval power. Look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cape_Ecnomus it's not like they were outnumbering a navally more savvy but less numerous Carthage. Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 23:48
  • because it was a naval war from the beginning and the corvus won it for them from the beginning. minus some kinda naval wonder weapon, they'd have lost. but hey, no worries, you dont need to agree. Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 23:54
  • The Romans didn't use the corvus until after they had lost the Battle of the Lipari Islands. True, losing a single battle does not necessarily mean you are losing the war, but I think this is an interesting example (if not wholly following what the OP stipulated). Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 1:16

...these new wonder weapons will be enough to totally surprise their enemies, dominate the battlefield and/or shock the enemy into submission – and thus bring by victory in short order.

"Wonder weapons" turned the First Gulf War from a meat-grinder into a walk-over. It was the culmination of decades of technological advancement in warfare which had yet to be tested in combat. Strategic use of stealth aircraft, smart weapons, cruise missiles, and night attack allowed the Allies to decapitate the Iraqi command and control system. And GPS allowed the Allies armies to bypass the heaviest ground defenses.

Though the initial claims were overstated, the result was still impressive. I would argue the real value of a "wonder weapon" is not to win a war, but as an unexpected force multiplier for conventional forces.

Given the historical outcome of the First Gulf War, it's easy to forget it was expected to be a meat-grinder. While Iraq had no hope of winning militarily, they could politically sustain great casualties while the Allies could not. It was possible Iraq could bog the Allies down and inflict a politically untenable number of casualties and force a negotiated peace.

The Allies faced a modern, centralized air defense system, and a large, dug-in, battle-hardened army using modern Soviet equipment. Allied equipment and organization was largely untested. Yet the land-battle took just four days with scant Allied casualties.

The F-117 stealth attack aircraft, helped by strategic destruction of key radar facilities and jamming of others, allowed the Allies to penetrate into the heart of Iraq's centralized command system unscathed. The F-117 was not the sleek, high performance stealth aircraft we know today; it sacrificed everything to make its stealth work. Precision guided munitions allowed these few small, low performance aircraft to decapitate Iraq's command and control system in the heart of Baghdad on the first night; a feat otherwise not impossible, but would have taken unacceptable casualties.

The role and effectiveness of the F-117 during the Gulf War has been overstated. "Smart bombs" were not as accurate as intended. It could be detected on radar, but was difficult to target, thus requiring supplemental SEAD and electronic warfare escort. Conventional night attack aircraft did operate over Baghdad. Simultaneous strikes by air and sea launched cruise missiles added to the destruction and confusion. All this culminated into the early destruction or suppression of targets vital to running an army: government buildings, TV stations, airfields, presidential palaces, military installations, communication lines, supply bases, oil refineries, electric powerplants and factories.

The Allies did in a night what should have taken weeks of conventional rolling back of Iraq's air defenses, and wonder weapons were a key part of the plan. The Iraqis were prepared for a conventional battle and were unprepared for this, though they could have been better prepared for something like it. Their highly centralized military was left uncoordinated, overwhelmed, and sluggish to react. This left Iraq open to a month of air strikes with near impunity.

Even after a month of sitting in the desert being bombed, the Iraqi army still had to be dealt with. They had six months to dig in, and air power can only do so much. While the quality of the units on the front line was questionable, dug in they could potentially do a lot of damage, and they were backed up by mobile, experienced armored reserves.

Iraqi defenses along the Kuwait/Saudi border stretched from the sea to what the Iraqis considered impassible desert. With no roads or navigation aids, a conventional army could not operate in this area, so the Iraqis did not bother to defend it strongly. The Allies used their next wonder weapon: GPS. For the first time an army could know for sure where it was. This seems like a small thing, but a great many battles could have been won had their units not gotten lost.

While the Allies feigned an amphibious landing on the right to outflank the Iraqi defenses, they sent two corps sweeping left into the formerly impassible desert, now navigable thanks to GPS. Additional large raiding parties were sent in by helicopter to harass the retreating enemy, again aided by GPS. On the first night they had cut vital supply lines and surprised enemy units. The Iraqi Republican Guard contained the units of most concern to the Allies, and this "left-hook" allowed them to surprise them with a flank attack the Iraqis thought secure.

As with the air war, more conventional attacks also proved successful; more successful than was planned for. This became a problem for the Allies. The "left-hook" was supposed to surround and cut off the Iraqi army, but the conventional attacks from the south by the (not amphibious) US Marines and Joint forces were driving the Iraqi army north faster than anticipated allowing more to escape than they would have liked.

At the time, stealth, smart bombs, cruise missiles, and GPS were considered wonder weapons that won the Gulf War. Later analysis showed while they were very effective, they were not as effective as believed, and conventional attacks were more effective than anticipated. While wonder weapons did not win the Gulf War, they allowed the Allies to implement an unconventional plan which resulted in scant Allied casualties and a very decisive, quick victory.

And I think this is the story with wonder weapons through history. They rarely live up to their promises. They're often boondoggles which waste more resources. They require years and years of development to mature, and more to be understood how best to use them. Every wonder weapon of the Gulf War had been available for years: stealth in 1977, GPS in 1978 with precision munitions in WW2 and effective cruise missiles just after (no, don't count the wildly inaccurate V-1). Yet it took until 1991 for it to all come together, not as a war-winning weapon, but as a force-multiplier.

"Wonder weapons" can't win wars on their own. Paradoxically, if wonder weapons are used as wonder weapons they are ineffective, unreliable, expensive boondoggles. Instead, they need time to mature and be integrated with conventional forces as force multipliers. Using releseabe's radar during the Battle of Britain as an example, it was a force multiplier for an excellent air defense system, but without the Dowding system radar would have been ineffective. The Germans squandered all sorts of wonder weapons, jets, rockets, heavy tanks, guided bombs... because they were used piecemeal and shoved into battle as prototypes, not integrated, operational force-multipliers.

The Allies use of wonder weapons in the Gulf War was the culmination of a decade or more of development and integration with their conventional forces. The long development time ensured they were reliable enough for operational use. Their integration ensured users at all levels understood their strengths and weaknesses; the strengths could be exploited, and their weaknesses mitigated.

Once the initial shock has worn off, wonder weapons can be countered. While they have definitely changed the battlefield, the battlefield has changed with them. Everyone has some form of GPS now. Detection technology has improved. Command and control has been decentralized. Air defenses have improved to be able to shoot down cruise missiles. This is the paradox of wonder weapons: once used successfully and publicly they're no longer a wonder weapon, they're just a weapon which can be obtained and countered.

  1. Greased buttocks at Salamis.

You laugh - but shouldn't. Many historians have long believed that the Greeks greased their buttocks as trireme rowers, allowing them much of the advantage of a modern rowing seat albeit at the expense of painful hemorrhoids later. This allowed the Greeks vessels to attain both a significantly faster ramming speed, and to faster battlefield deployment, ensuring victory.

  1. The Roman Legion

The organization, training, and weaponry of the Roman legion was widely imitated, but never with significant success. From the First Punic War to the early years of the Empire, the Roman ability to field legions that could defeat every other nation around the Mediterranean, even when outnumbered, was the rock upon which the SPQR was founded.

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    A Roman legion is not a wonder weapon. You of all people should know that.
    – Jos
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 0:18
  • @Jos: A "wonder weapon" is still the invention of human ingenuity - and if in the hands of an idiot the trigger gets pulled while a face is peering down the barrel there's one idiot less in the world. Yet the Romans turned the Mediterranean Sea into Mare Nostrum for near 400 years with it. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 0:29
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    A weapon that developed over 1000 years is hardly a wonder weapon.
    – Jos
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 0:32
  • @Jos:And for centuries, despite numerous attempts, no-one was able to duplicate it. That's the most amazing "wonder weapon" ever devised. The A-bomb was unique to the U.S. for less than 50 months. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 0:43
  • Apart from missing srcs: Why should anyone grease their buttocks directly and still suffer great chafing, when there should be simple mechanics similar to modern ones available, or, more primitive but just like your proposed 'style': short but thick protective greased leather briefs? Wasn't the greasing more to 'just protect' rather than 'enable to slide'? Commented Sep 27, 2020 at 11:45

If we are talking low-tech "wonder" weapons, I have hear stirrups made a huge difference. I could easily see a general being given a presentation and discarding the idea but it is nothing obvious like an explosive, etc.

The story that I think is probably false is Fulton suggesting that steam ships could allow his fleet to sail against the wind, etc. and he said something like, bonfires powering ships? enough of your visions!

But I doubt Napoleon would have said this. He believed in science and steam was hardly unknown in those days. Perhaps he did know how cumbersome steam engines of that time were, however.

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