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Get Your History Book: 5 Most Powerful Weapons of World War II

5 Best Weapons of World War II
Image: Creative Commons.

Not that every U.S. weapon was great. The ubiquitous M-4 Sherman tank was plentiful but mediocre. Early U.S. fighters like the P-40 and P-39 were nothing to brag about (except in the hands of the Flying Tigers), while U.S. submarine torpedoes had a bad habit of not exploding until late 1943.

But utilizing its massive industrial and technological base, America was able to produce some excellent weapons, including:

Proximity Fuzes:

Shell fuzes aren’t usually thought of as weapons. But Japanese pilots and German infantrymen learned otherwise.

The issue was that in an era when most anti-aircraft guns lacked radar or sophisticated fire control computers, their chances of hitting a target were not great. So complex were the calculations required to compute where to intersect the path of shell and airplane two to five miles high that tens of thousands of rounds had to be fired on average to score a hit.

The problem became really acute when American warships encountered Japanese kamikazes; destroying an aircraft hell-bent on crashing into your ship meant the suicide planes had to be shot down quickly.

Then someone had the bright idea of putting a tiny radar in the nose of each anti-aircraft shell. Instead of having to strike the aircraft to be effective, the shell could be set to explode once the onboard radar sensed the target was close enough, spraying a cloud of fragments that covered a wider area. The VT (variable time) fuze helped the U.S. Navy survive the kamikaze threat.

It also helped the hard-pressed U.S. Army at the Battle of the Bulge. Artillery shells are more effective if they detonate as airbursts above the ground, rather than bury themselves in the earth. Instead of spraying airplanes, clouds of shrapnel sprayed German infantry.

M-1 Rifle:

At the start of World War II, armies used bolt-action rifles that in some cases dated back to the nineteenth century.

Enter the M-1 Garand, a semi-automatic rifle that could pump out bullets with a far-higher rate of fire. The M-1 enabled U.S. infantry to generate remarkable rates of fire by the standards of the early 1940s.

That was fortunate because American infantry was otherwise weakly armed, with no squad-level machine gun to match the deadly German MG-42. Meanwhile, the Germans and Soviets, who had far more practical experience at ground warfare, ultimately opted to arm their troops with submachine guns that lacked range but could spew lots of bullets. But the M-1 was a solid, reliable weapon that gave American riflemen a fighting chance against their enemies.

Essex-class carrier:

The Pacific War was ultimately a war of carriers—those floating, mobile airfields that banished battleships from preying on vulnerable troops and supply convoys. The backbone of the late-war U.S. carrier fleet was the Essex-class flattop. Carrying about a hundred fighter, dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers, and equipped with sophisticated radar and fighter direction facilities, these carriers devastated the Imperial Japanese Navy in battles such as the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.

The ultimate compliment to the Essex carriers was how long they lasted after the war. Ships such as USS Essex, Ticonderoga and Hancock continued to launch combat missions over Korea and Vietnam.

Gato-class subs:

U.S. Navy carriers and battleships got the glory for defeating Japan, but 55 percent of Japanese naval tonnage sunk was by U.S. submarines. By 1945, American subs had largely cut Japan’s maritime lifeline to raw materials and food imports.

The efficient engine of this destruction was the Gato-class sub, the backbone of the U.S. underwater fleet. There is much discussion about how it stacked against World War II’s other underwater killer, the German U-boat. The comparison is somewhat academic; Japanese anti-submarine capabilities were so primitive that American subs never faced anything like the sophistication and intensity of those Allied defenses that killed more than 60 percent of U-boat crews. Nonetheless, the Gato-class has to rank as one of the most deadly naval weapons of all time.

The Atomic Bomb:

Including the A-bomb on a list that otherwise features conventional weapons seems out of place. That the atomic bomb was a weapon, there is no doubt. But it was a weapon of a different magnitude, a device that could pulverize an entire city more thoroughly than a raid by a thousand regular bombers. It also epitomized the ability of the United States to harness scientific and industrial resources on a single project, to a degree that no other nation could match.

As a weapon of war in World War II, the A-bomb was of greater shock than practical value. They were too complex to mass-produce in the late 1940s, and by 1945, American and British bombers had pretty much devastated every German and Japanese city worth bombing.

There is still much debate over whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced Japan to surrender, or whether the Soviet declaration of war was the final catalyst.

Nonetheless, in an era when radar and jet aircraft were considered the zenith of military technology, along came a weapon that could kill 60,000 people in a split-second. What more need be said?

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at The National Interest.

Written By

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.



  1. Bill Jones

    October 24, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    I read once of a destroyer captain was docking in Peal harbor the first of june or july, 1943 when a fleet carrier was also pulling into pearl and he was able to study this new brute he had never seen before!!! It was a brand new Essex carrier, the Essex and he new right then the war in the Pacific was going to be determined because of this ship and the massive arsenal it carried was overwhelming to the IJN!! THE WAR WAS SOON TO BE WON!!!

  2. mike Goldberg

    October 25, 2021 at 9:54 am

    You left out the most important weapon of WWII, OIL and lots of it!
    You also left out the 2.5T truck.
    You also left out the liberty ship.
    You also left out the LST.
    You also left out the Higgins boat and amtrak
    You also left out TEL, tetraethyl lead! More power from smaller engines

  3. Bob

    October 25, 2021 at 2:26 pm

    Mike, those are also war-winning devices, resources, and gadgets. However, I would classify those as ‘support’ as opposed to a ‘weapon’. They made the weapons more efficient, and/or enabled us to get more weapons there, but were not weapons in their own right.

  4. Old Galoot

    October 25, 2021 at 5:48 pm

    Nice article! The click bait I clicked on didnt specify USA. So my list was fleet AC (USA), T-34 tank (USSR), 88 mm multi-purpose gun (Germany), P51 Mustang (USA; maybe P38 Lightening is a better choice? Tac Air > Strategic Air in the ETO), and German MG-42.

  5. John McCall

    October 25, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    Long range strategic bombers. The B-17 and B-24 were the forerunners and brought about the destruction of industrial production and transportation centers in Germany. They led to the B-29 Superfortress a tremendous advance in airpower.
    The B-29 carried out the systematic elimination of the Japanese War machine.
    The Boeing B-29 was an unparalleled weapon delivery system more advanced than any other strategic bomber. It had greater range, larger payload and greater cruising speed than other bomber operating in World War II.

  6. John Patrick

    October 25, 2021 at 9:16 pm

    The Sherman was not a Mediocre tank. Actually it was a fairly effective tank, especially Firefly and 76mm variants. Not only that it was very easy to escape and easy to repair. Light enough to be transported across the Atlantic and it was able to be mass produced. It was also a very reliable tank.

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