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Imagine you have the stereotypical mysterious nation across the ocean. Their mercenaries are sometimes contracted into your army. They dress weird, talk with an accent, and have really odd weapons. While you, a simple soldier, prefer a sword and shield combo, the foreigners use a weapon unlike anything you have ever seen.

Naturally, the blacksmiths in your region attempt to recreate the weapon, and succeed. But the carbon copies cannot be used to the same effect as the foreigners. Every time you go to war with the foreigners, they always end up dominating the battlefield.

In an ancient time period (sometime around 500 AD technologically), would it be possible for a culture to have unique and unstoppable weapons? Or would the locals eventually learn how to wield both the weapon and the fighting style, and how long would that take?

Clarifications:

  • The actual design of the weapon does not matter, and it can be used anywhere on the battlefield
  • Unique and unstoppable means that an enemy soldier would have difficulty countering the foreign moves
  • If necessary, the weapon can be used off of a traditional open-area battlefield and somewhere else, maybe as an assassin's tool, as long as the answer has some way of keeping secrecy
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  • $\begingroup$ If you can make a weapon using it is simple, especially if you have seen the enemy use it. The harder you make it to use the more niche it becomes. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 14 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ Butcher's chopper ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 14 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ Does the other guy's technology have to be a weapon? Suppose they had armor that is (nearly) impenetrable to your weapons. Or a preserved food that kept their soldiers healthier on campaign than yours. Or they just learned to put their latrines downstream from their cook-tents before you did. $\endgroup$
    – The Photon
    Jan 14 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ You see those warriors from Hammerfell? They've got curved swords. Curved. Swords. $\endgroup$
    – PausePause
    Jan 15 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious: what type of weapon in the real world would you feel works this way? $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jan 16 at 15:44

11 Answers 11

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Historical example: horse and bow

The steppe nomads from Asia have been quite proficient horse archers. It's their signature fighting style to move quickly and shoot.

Individually, neither of these is hard to duplicate. And mostly anybody can learn to shoot from atop a horse. What makes the steppe people fearsome is how well they do both at the same time. It's part of their culture and upbringing to be riding an horse since they are children. They'd have games and competitions where horse riders would perform feats not unlike what you'd see at Cirque du Soleil, only such performances weren't considered abnormal or special.

Combining the athleticism and acrobatics with horse riding allowed nomads to be extremely flexible - hanging down the side of the saddle for a better angle and shooting or shooting and ducking on the other side of the horse for protection.

Constant training and practice is what made the steppe nomads extremely proficient at horse archery. When they clashed with other nations, the nomads were quite successful due to the mobility and hard to counter fighting style. Especially if the enemy is not used to fighting the nomads. The nomads dominated the steppes for literal centuries using broadly the same fighting style, from antiquity through the 13th century when Gengis Khan and the Mongols swept through Europe and Asia creating the largest land empire to ever exist.

The East Roman Empire (known in modern times as Byzantine Empire) had clashes with mounted archers and even trained some themselves. However, the Roman horse archers weren't nearly as effective for multiple reasons:

  • The Roman army was composed of many troops, not just horse archers. Among others, they had normal mounted troops who would train to charge into enemy formations and these were more valuable in other confrontations.
  • Mounted troops in general were more expensive to acquire and maintain.
  • The Roman horse archers only learned mounted archery as part of army training and quite late in life. Some were normal mounted troops who knew how to use a lance and were tasked with learning to shoot. By contrast, nomadic people would start learning from a young age and they'd train horse riding, acrobatics, archery while riding, as well as group tactics. The Roman horse archers were effective but limited - this wasn't their way of life or primary occupation.

In summary: You can have the same tools or weapons as another nation but application can vary greatly. If one culture devotes a considerable part of its energy into mastering and using the tools, they'd be better than just someone who picked it up.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering several answers involve bows for the reasons you describe, do you think hand-held weapons would be just as difficult to learn? If I were to create a fictional spear-like weapon, would it have to have a counterpart (horse and bow) to be difficult to learn? If so could it be some other kind of weapon, or does it have to be mentally exhausting? (bows are a challenge to aim with, horse riding is also a mental challenge to stay balanced) $\endgroup$
    – Mandelbrot
    Jan 14 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Mandelbrot well, maybe an ok level is attainable to learn, but the people over the sea had CENTURIES of fighting with this weapon, they have writen books about it, art, a science around this weapon. Lets just look at martial arts: you already have the "weapon", but by merely watching it there is absolutely no chance you will ever become proficient. You need TEACHERS. And since those overseas mercenaries refuse to teach anyone not from their tribe, there are no teachers available. The few imitations from watching fall flat every time $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 14 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Mandelbrot I suppose you can create a melee weapon. It doesn't even need to be fancy but if the culture using it has basically turned it into a hobby, they'd be much better than anybody else who picked up the weapon. I was going to add a section on English longbows but decided against it as my answer was quite long. T. Sar's answer does a very good job of explaining them. The same idea holds - anybody can learn to shoot a bow but it takes exceptional dedication to be an effective at it. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 14 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ Another important aspect of this answer is that horses are not all alike. Charger, coursers, draft horses, all have different strengths and weaknesses. If you try to replicate the tactics with the wrong horses you will have a bad time. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jan 14 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Mandelbrot the big problem with a melee weapon is that they more or less all follow the pattern of "stick 'em with the pointy end", which isn't hard to master. There are some alternative slashing-style weapons, but those are also not hard to learn to use when compared with a bow (aiming, patience, strength, etc.) $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 23:05
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You got the English Longbow.

Archery is hard.

Like, really hard.

Fantasy almost never makes justice on how skilled and how strong an archer has to be to be effective in combat. While we often see archers as those lithe, quick, nimble elf-like beings with noodly arms that use bows because they lack upper body strength, that is the absolutely worst physical build possible if you want a good archer. You need those arms strong if you want to use a bow of old to any good skill level. It is you that is powering that arrow, not some magical fairy energy or something of the sort.

This happens because an ancient bow is, in essence, a very fancy spring. It takes the power from your upper body and shoves it into the arrow, sending it flying towards a target of your choice. Modern builds and techniques can help a quite a bit in decreasing the muscle mass you need to use those fancy springs effectively and for a long periods of time, but those aren't things you have in the Ye Old Times. Different bows have different needs, and old ones need muscles.

When you have a longbow, you have a very large, very fancy spring. A very large and very fancy spring that also needs very large muscles. Not hulk-large, mind you, but well-trained and well developed muscles. When you add the skill needed to fire a bow properly, you end up with a very exigent weapon that demands a lot of training, a lot of physical exercise, and a lot of patience to master. It is not a pick-up-and-use weapon like the sword or the spear. It isn't a weapon that you can hand out to your farmers and hope they will be useful in battle. Even if you give those bows to your best warriors, the chance of them having the skill and the correct muscle groups developed properly to use the weapon properly right away is slim to none. I'll elaborate on a few of the reasons of why that happens.

First, Longbows must fit their user. A large difference in height between two soldiers also means a difference in bow size. Give the bow of a very tall person to a very short person, and the very short person will struggle to make the weapon work properly.

Then, they need years of training. A sword or a spear is easy - you just wave the thing and it hurts people. You can train a lot to make yourself more effective at hurting people, but they are still simple weapons. A bow, on the other hand, needs specialized training. A longbow even more so. Those weapons are almost useless in the hands of newbies - they might even be able to fire a couple arrows, but those arrows will be inaccurate and weak. Heck, the newbie archer might even end up hurting themselves badly if they don't take proper care before letting the arrow go.

Finally, you need to know how to take proper care of the thing. Bows are finicky. Don't care of it properly, and you might end up with a broken bowstaff or a snapped bowstring on your hands. A dull sword is still a long, heavy stick that can be used to bonk people in the head. A snapped bow is no better than a walking cane.

Add all of that up, and you have a very hard-to-use and hard-to-master weapon that can be surprisingly effective in battle, but almost impossible to copy if you don't have years to spend training your people on how to use it.

So, make your Mystery Nation be a land full of mercenaries equipped with longbows and they will be a difficult force to deal with equipped with a weapon that, while isn't that hard to build, it is very frustrating to use.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 15 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Begs the question of how quickly other nations adopted the longbow. Apparently the hard part was money (having a professional army) - Why did only the English adopt, evolve and use the longbow en masse in war? "French monarchy had less access to tax, had to rely more on feudal levies for troops. England could afford semi-prof." - "Charles VII was first French king to centralize his finances, and soon after began recruiting archers incl. longbowmen." $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jan 16 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ +1. There was a common saying back in the day, a joking remark on just how much work went into learning to use the longbow: "How do you train a longbowman? Start with his grandfather." $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 13:20
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It's not the form, it's the material

Actually this "super weapon" is simply a sword/spear. Maybe it does look fancy, but that's because the godess of those island-weirdos demands it. But compared to mainlander-swords the material is more durable, probably a bit lighter and needs a lot of disuse to lose it's edge. And you know how those island-weirdos guard and care for their weapons. I heard they even take them to bed every night.


Really, think about the difference between iron and bronze. Or bronze and stone. Or vibranium and steel. It's not the form, but the material (and the fighting skills), which make the difference.

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    $\begingroup$ The difference between iron and bronze is that iron is cheap and bronze is expensive. Tribes using iron weapons defeated peoples using bronze weapons because, despite their iron weapons were inferior, not superior, to those of bronze, everyone had one, while only the richest noblemen of their enemies had bronze weapons. The rest used wood and stone. Same for horses: mongols and tartars stormed the world not because they were better horsemen, but because everyone was mounted, while their enemies were mostly on foot. That's why they didn't fare well on arid terrains without enough grass. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jan 14 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ My personal favorite is Damascus steel, then the folded steel of Samurai swords. The metal is the same, but it's functionally a whole different thing, with a technique to making it that is hard to replicate. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 15 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ It's also not the material alone, as in "iron is better than brone", but how you make it. Before someone learned to harden steel, it broke easily. Then someone learned to harden it even more, so you could make it sharper (but also more brittle). Someone added folding; it made it even better. In today's world you can make steel that doesn't rust and can handle acid (if you're into those green dragons). It's not just having a weapon in your hands and making a copy - that will just result in an inferior copy. Don't worry about losing the weapons, worry about the smiths getting captured... $\endgroup$
    – DocWeird
    Jan 15 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus for all the ingenuity of the Samurai sword construction, they are still inferior to European swords of the same period, because Japanese didn't know tempering to make spring steel which is a bit softer but much more durable. But yes, shows how complex matter making a good steel weapon is. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 17 at 15:05
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If a weapon is actually a significant upgrade it will be copied by everyone within a short period of time unless the people that know how it functions are rare.

Where you would end up with a weapon that was unique to a group for an extended period of time would be when a weapon isn't actually better under normal circumstances but that when combined with a culture that focuses on things that favor it the weapon becomes better/competitive.

Economics are a significant factor in war. If weapon A requires 1,000 hours of practice to be proficient and weapon B requires 50 hours to be proficient most nations are going to choose weapon B because training is expensive. If a nation happens to treat weapon A as it's national hobby and people naturally have 2,000 hours of practice with it then, the cost difference is effectively wiped out and the nation with weapon A may end up being superior because of all of their practice even if the weapon they are using might actually be inferior.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WBSE! I reviewed your answer, and I think it was a good summary of the issue. You seemed to be subtly implying the English longbow as an example? $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Jan 15 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Johnny Yeah, I didn't do it directly because the English Longbow does potentially miss in some areas. Some people have suggested that the English Longbow comes from Wales and that the English hired up archers from Wales and copied their tactics. The English Longbow also appears to be getting less credit for effectiveness in some of the newer analysis of battles and the weapon. For example, in the 1930's an attempt was made to discover why the English Longbow cross section was superior to other bows. The conclusion was that it was not and lead to the American Flatbow. $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, the ELB did get too much credit. Various composite bows were more efficient for their weight. The ELB was basically a cheap trick to get a pretty good bow for fairly little work (as a good composite bow takes literal years of curing). It seems it was originally adopted from the Welsh, who developed it to fight off the Normans. $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Jan 15 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ "If a weapon is actually a significant upgrade it will be copied by everyone within a short period" Very true. Just look at nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most closely-guarded secrets on Earth and they were copied within about 4 years. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jan 15 at 21:39
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A sword made from something like Damascus steel

Damascus steel is perhaps a few centuries away from your targeted tech level, but some similar early steel making tech (e.g., iron + fire + pumped air containing co2, e.g., coal fire smoke = steel) would make steel blades far superior to iron ones.

Existing blacksmiths can melt anything metal down and recast it freely. Copper, bronze, iron, tin, lead. All of these can be melted and cast in moulds in simple furnaces with no thought to the carbon content. The concept of some air trapped within the sword to make it stronger will be beyond any blacksmith.

When the blacksmiths experiment with captured swords, they are unable to duplicate the forging technique, when melted and recast you end up with a much weaker iron sword. A perfect mould of a captured sword with melted captured parts will not recreate a sword as good as the original.

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    $\begingroup$ A resistant sword is still a sword. This doesn't make the combatants themselves better, nor confer any relevant ability on swordplay itself. $\endgroup$
    – T.Sar
    Jan 14 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ There is a balance between user and tool. You can give the best rally car in the world to an inexperienced driver, it won't matter if he crashes in the first ditch and be overtaken by the best driver in a trabant. Damascus steel does not offer enough advantage compared to better training. It would need to be self-swinging sword to offer any advantage. $\endgroup$
    – mishan
    Jan 14 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ I can't find the reference now, but I believe part of success of the Damascus steel (and its characteristic beautiful wavy patterns) was that the iron ore was collected from certain area's bogs which supplemented additional elements into the final metal. Eventually, mining out those bogs was why "the secret of that steel" was lost - different source materials gave different results even with the same process. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Klimov
    Jan 15 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Wootz steel is a bad example—the properties are really in the material and any decent smith could reforge a new weapon from it. Better example is spring steel, because there the properties come from the correct quenching and tempering. The material loses its properties when heated up and must be quenched and tempered again after reforging. But I agree with @mishan the benefit isn't going to be game-changing. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 17 at 15:14
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Gunpowder

... Mercenaries from behind the ocean are mysterious indeed, but not because of their dress or talk. No my lord, their weapons are the most mysterious. They spit fire, smoke and death, no man is safe from them. Wearing armour or carrying shield is no use against these. And the noise they make, like heavens should fall on us! Alas! How can one hope to defeat them? ...

Well, gunpowder is easy to make. One just needs charcoal, sulfur and salnytr (birds excrement). The only hard thing is to know correct mixture ratio, which is secret known by very few.

Weapons themselves are hand cannons, somehow crude (basically barrel on a stick), yet still quite effective guns. They are are relatively easy to make (especially bronze ones - which are cast). Amunition is also quite easy to make - cast lead, wrought iron balls or just fitting stone. The can pierce trought any shield or armour (from a reasonable distance, of course). And as an additional benefit they scare horses and men alike. Loud noise and acrid smoke is nothing pleasant, especially if you never saw, smelled or heard anything like that.

The poor blacksmiths can easily copy these weapons, but without knowlege of gunpowder, they make just useless fancy sticks.

So, to summarize...

Unique? - Yes.

Unstoppable? - Yes (well, you can try to dodge the bullet but don´t try it at home)

Battlefield weapon? - Yes.

Assasin tool? - Yes, but not very stealthy, quite opposite.

In 500 AD, it is possible to make hand cannons and amunition. It is also possible to make gunpowder - all the components were easily accessible, the only trick is the knowledge of making of it.

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    $\begingroup$ While early guns were certainly powerful weapons, I don't think they were as unstoppable as people think. Even after the development of early guns, skilled archers were often far more lethal, mainly due to their comparable effective range and drastically higher rate of fire. $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Jan 15 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ I've read a story once that during WW2 the Japanese army tried, failed and did not bother afterwards to capture an island with assumed low-tech indigneous population. The tribe knew of gunpowder and made essentially bamboo rockets, which split into lots of sharp shindles as they flew. Given that the island was not of much interest in the first place, and after unexpectedly losing too many infantrymen to the bamboo-rocket shrapnel, the modern invaders left it alone. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Klimov
    Jan 15 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @DBS, the general effectiveness of firearms did not surpass that of bow and arrow until the introduction of rifling which allowed an significant increase in range and accuracy of bullets, so late 18th-early 19th centuries, and even then it would be close. Guns took over earlier not because they were better in terms of effectiveness, but because it required a lot less training to get someone to use it competently and the amount of ammunition you could carry was a lot higher: 20 musket balls + powder weighs less than a kilogram. Twenty war arrows could be over 2 kg and take up much more room. $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison Indeed, which is why I was sceptical about them as a suitable answer to a question requesting an "unstoppable or difficult to counter" weapon. I would argue that while ammunition weight and training time are important for a military, they play little part in a specific battle, which seems to be where the original question is looking for a "superior" weapon. $\endgroup$
    – DBS
    Jan 15 at 17:58
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What would cause a culture to keep a distinct weapon for centuries?

Success.

If your enemies have found no way to duplicate/master a similar weapon and no way to counter it, then there is no motivation to replace it. Necessity is the mother of invention, not success.

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The unstoppable weapon of 500 A.D was called "The Horse."

It had dominated battlefields for thousands of years already, and would continue to dominate for 1400 more.

500 A.D was the middle of an arms race to breed bigger, stronger horses for greater tactical advantage.

Expensive, but used properly they were very much worth the price.

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    $\begingroup$ Horses had most certainly not dominated battle fields for thousands of years in the 500s. In the Antiquity, battles were mainly between infantry. In fact, cavalry only dominated in the Middle Ages, and even in the Middle Ages, only in some places and some times; elsewhere infantry continued to dominate. For some fun examples, consider the fate of western European cavalry at the battles of Nicopolis (1396) or Agincourt. But Mongol cavalry, yes, they did dominate (for short time). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 14 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP and that was achieved (the mongols) not because they had the best horses but the best synergy between horse and user. They had good enough horses that they extensively (since very early childhood) trained with. Same with their bows. $\endgroup$
    – mishan
    Jan 14 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: But certainly Carrhae and the empire that won there both belong to antiquity? $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Jan 14 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Jan: Yes, they do. I did not say that cavalry was not used at all. Even the Romans, stauch believers in infantry as they were, had and used cavalry troops. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 14 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ Forest and Trees: Horses are more than cavalry. They are millennia of chariots, too. Egyptian chariot-borne forces were the scourge of the region for a thousand years before the Sea People arrived. A Roman legion under Caesar himself was routed by Briton cavalry. One of the main purposes of an infantry Phalanx (later a Legion, later a Pike Square) was using, in Jominian terms, mass to counter horse-borne enemy mobility as well as enemy infantry mass. There are many examples of infantry overcoming mobile forces...but there are also many examples of the reverse. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 14 at 22:03
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To be kept, a weapon has to be useful. If it's easy to use and significantly better than common weapons, it will become ubiquitous. Therefore, for the weapon to remain in use in one location and relatively unknown elsewhere, it has to be useful but either difficult to learn to use effectively, difficult to produce, or less useful in other environments.

Powerful ranged weapons typically take a long time to learn to master. The Bow, the Sling, and the Atlatl are all exceptionally powerful weapons in skilled hands, but very difficult to learn to use well. In addition, an opponent who has never fought against those weapons would have no idea what they are capable of or how to counter them.

Maybe it was designed to serve a single purpose best. Jitte and Sai are Japanese weapons designed to aid in disarming an opponent. Bolas or nets are used to trip and ensnare opponents, effectively capturing them and making them defenseless against follow up attacks.

Alternatively, it may be most useful in the environment it hails from. Many weapons are adapted from other tools. Perhaps it can serve a dual purpose as a climbing tool, farming implement, or construction or mining tool. Cavalry are great on steppes and plains but unusable in swamps.

Finally, it might rely on a material or knowledge for construction that is not available elsewhere. Perhaps their nation is renowned for its master weaponsmiths and their jealously guarded secret techniques. Perhaps they coat their weapons with a toxin from a creature or vegetation that is native to only their homeland. Perhaps they have discovered a new form of alchemy or optics that has advanced their weaponry far beyond the capabilities of their neighbors and the rest of the world has yet to catch up.

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In an ancient time period (sometime around 500 AD technologically), would it be possible for a culture to have unique and unstoppable weapons?

NO, because your question is fundamentally misunderstands conflict.

The purpose is to win the war, not to win the battle, and, since weapons are designed and wielded by humans, and humans are imperfect, every weapon has some domain where it's not optimum, or even particular effective.

Even nuclear weapons are stoppable by MAD.

Or would the locals eventually learn how to wield both the weapon and the fighting style, and how long would that take?

As mentioned earlier, every weapon and fighting style has a weakness. Your job is to find that weakness and exploit it. (But since they're your friends, your job should be to guard that weakness.)

Since you mention blacksmiths successfully cloning the weapon, but the wielders still dominate, it's obviously a melee weapon. And how do you defeat a melee weapon? With a range weapon.

But, you say, it's actually a range weapon! Then the enemy develops more effective shields or armor. Or longer range weapons. Or they send a flanking force far around to raid the camp and destroy the supplies. Better yet, send an army into their lands while this unstoppable army is on campaign. A sufficiently large number of neighboring kingdoms would like to get rid of them that they can band together and invade. Bonus points if some invade by sea.

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Can it be something basic like the mercenaries' weapons are blessed? It doesn't even have to be a 'real' blessing. Just the fact the wielder believes in the blessing makes it work that much better. This could answer both your title and body of your question which are not exactly the same.

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