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Could muscle-powered weapons be made to take advantage of superhuman strength, or Would material limitations get in the way?

Assuming:

  • a Viking Age (say 800-1000AD) level of technology
  • materials available in RL medieval Europe
  • strength about 6x the upper end of the practical human range. This is maybe a bit harder to define, but basically I am talking about overall upper body strength, not just one measure e.g. the bench press... What I have in mind are near-humans who are larger and more robust than RL humans, so both greater muscle mass and proportions that increase upper body strength at the expense of e.g. running endurance.

How much of this additional strength would the materials and technology allow taking advantage of? Could real-world wood make, say, 500-pound-draw-weight bows (without complex compound-bow mechanisms beyond this tech level)? Could Viking Age metallurgy and swordsmithing make swords that could stand the full impact of being swung by someone with this level of strength? If not, would axes or maces be better?

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, there existed the Roman ballista and scorpion torsion artillery, so there is precedent for bow-like weapons with large draw weights. $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ Humans are remarkably weak when compared with say chimpanzees or gorillas. I'm sure materials would easily cope. Just make the bow longer and thicker. Also, hand-drawn crossbows would be possible. $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ Pretty sure that there has been a previous question about bows for super-strength people... $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ I thought of gorillas in terms of the general more-robust skeletal/muscular design of these near-humans (they are however full bipeds), but gorillas don't use bows and swords, so I am not sure how well those weapons would cope with gorilla strength either. $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ How about just a large and strong club. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Feb 14 at 17:35
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For ranged weapons

The quality of steel in the 800-1000AD range was generally not good enough to make an arbalest, and designing a longbow able to take much more than a 100lb draw is not easy (see comments for more details). Multi-arm or slat laminated arm crossbows have also been suggested, but are grossly unreliable and not invented until after 1000AD.

That said, even if you could use an arbalest or or multi-arm crossbow, there was one weapon that already existed by 800AD which could outperform either weapon by a large margin: the manuballista. Manuballistas were small enough to be hand-portable but were very front heavy and weighed about 100lb making them impractical to be hand-fired by a person of normal strength. But, with super strength a person could use a manuballista as though it were a hand drawn crossbow. Manuballista used torsion coils instead of tension arms to accelerate their missiles, and as a result had ranges and speeds much greater than any historical bow or crossbow design. Their projectile speeds were more similar to modern fiberglass compound crossbows, and they had massive stopping power from the weight of its missiles. So, while the arbalest and longbow beat out the manuballista in our own history thanks to their portability, the manuballista is a much more powerful weapon than either and the technology can be scaled up to much greater damage potential using the same quality of materials.

For melee weapons

The limitations of steel apply here too, but not nearly as much. When you look at sword fighting manuscripts prior to the introduction of the finery forge, most defensive sword maneuvers were deflective or hilt guards and most strikes were draw cuts. These techniques are designed to limit how much strain you are putting on your blade which suggests that 1x human strength was enough to bend or break these swords if not used wisely. The introduction of better steels in the 1200s came with the introduction of many new block guards and more acute weapon tips for thrusting when steel weapons started to become stronger than humans could reasonably break. We also have plenty of literary records from civilizations all across Europe of wooden handles and spear shafts snapping in combat.

This is all to say the 1x human strength was already pushing the available materials to their limits.

So, a super strong human would not benefit a whole lot from using actual viking weapons, but unlike wooden bows, metal technology could be expanded to make bigger heavier weapons for your super strong humans. So, instead of a typical viking sword which would be about 2-3lb with a blade profile of ~ 3 x 50 x 750 mm, you could give them a much chunkier 1-handed sword with a blade profile more like ~ 7.3 x 120 x 750 mm weighing in at 12-18lb, and still maneuver it with almost the same dexterity.

More strength though does still have its limits here. One limit is that your sword may be 6 times as heavy, but it won't be 6 times as lethal. the thicker you make the blade, the more cut resistance it will have. The edge will also still deform at the same acuity as a normal sword, so you will need to make it duller to survive an impact at full force. Lastly, you may be 6x as strong but your body still has the same inertia; so, fast complex maneuvers with overweight weapons may still throw off your balance.

So yes... a bladed weapon with 6x the cross-section would be more lethal than a normal one, but not by as much as you would think. Instead, I would probably suggest a solid steel mace or war pick instead since they would be less affected by edge limitations and benefit more from greater strength. Basically, picture what a 12-18 lb sledge hammer can do to solid concrete, then imagine what it would do if it could be wielded 1-handed with the dexterity of a ballpein hammer and you are looking at a very devastating weapon.

For Armor

This is actually where super-strength would be the most helpful. Preindustrial soldiers would often carry up to 70lb of armor pushing their bodies to the limits of what they could carry and fight in. But with 6x strength, your warriors could now carry hundreds of pounds of armor and still remain relatively unencumbered. Furthermore, a really heavy suit of armor could add inertia to your warrior allowing him to wield really heavy weapons without loosing his balance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ok. Manuballista is a good thought - esp since they have greater body mass and arm length, which should help with the practicalities of large weapons. But what specifically limits longbows? And what about melee weapons? $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ @cometaryorbit longbows are limited by material strength. The more you increase the draw weight, the thicker and longer you need to make the bow because wood can only survive so much tension before snapping, and the thicker you make a bow, the more tension compounds in the outer layers of the belly and back. Most people can make a 30lb bow with very little experience. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 14 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ 40-70lb bows usually take a novice a craftsmen a few tries. I've seen experienced bowers struggle to get 100lb bows just right and the heavier you get, the more you need just the right piece of wood and precise craftsmanship to not break it. 150-200lb is probably your upper limit depending on what kinds of wood you have access too. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 14 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Tantalus'touch. This is a basic matter of metallurgy. Before the 1200s, Europeans did not know how to make finery forges. So all of their steal was either wrought, pattern welded, or wootz. Pattern welding and wootz steels make for sharp blades, but both have issues with delaminateing under high tension; so, these would break under the tension of a bow arm. Wrought iron is homogenized by hammering a bloom until you work out the impurities, but this includes the carbon that gives steel its rigidity; so, it becomes too soft to make spring steel out of. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 14 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ Finery forges made the arbalest possible because it allows one to make crucible steel without the high sulfur/phosphorous content you see in wootz; so, they could make a homogenized higher carbon steel. Finery forged steel could then be reduced to a medium carbon steel, and then tempered giving you the first type of steel that could be flexed under a heavy load and snap back to its original shape (spring steel). $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 14 at 22:44
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With the weapons of the period I think the most immediate benefit would be removing one the biggest shortcomings of crossbows, putting them on the same level with bows when it comes to cadence of fire:

Later crossbows (sometimes referred to as arbalests), utilizing all-steel prods, were able to achieve power close (and sometime superior) to longbows, but were more expensive to produce and slower to reload because they required the aid of mechanical devices such as the cranequin or windlass to draw back their extremely heavy bows. Usually these could only shoot two bolts per minute versus twelve or more with a skilled archer

With 6x the strenght of a normal human, the superstrenght would be right on spot to level the cadence.

If you pair this with the advantage of crossbow over bows, being that it required a shorter training to be used, you are significantly shifting the power balance between armies, because a killed archer is more expensive to replace than a killed crossbowman.

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    $\begingroup$ Arbalests are a great thought, OTOH, the Wikipedia article you linked to says that "the crossbow superseded hand bows in many European armies during the 12th century" and then "Later crossbows [etc. - the quote you include]" which sounds like it means "later than 12th century" which is a bit beyond the Viking Age I am looking at. OTOH China had crossbows in ancient times - but not I think full-on arbalests? $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 6:52
  • $\begingroup$ Also, do you have any thoughts on melee weapons? $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ But then couldn't they just use bows with higher draw weights instead, making crossbows once again inferior? $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @CyrusDrake the big benefit of crossbows was how easy it was to learn to use them. you could teach a person to use a crossbow well in an afternoon it would take years to get the same accuracy out of a longbow. crossbows are easier to aim and easier to make projectiles for. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 15 at 20:41
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I point out that elephants are a lot stronger than 6 times human strength, and in Asia war elephants have been fitted with blades attached to their tusks.

War elephants have also been trained to use w swords with their trunks.

And some war elephants have been trained to pick up large iron chains and swing them at enemy soldiers.

So if versions of hand weapons strong enough to be used by elephants without breaking could be made, I guess that versions of hand weapons strong enough to be used by people with merely six times human strength without breaking could also be made.

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Your Super-Soldiers would have a powerful advantage in cheap and plentiful and effective, if very unsexy, thrown weapons in the form of rocks.

A typical adult male human can throw a .45 kg rock at 36 m/s. Your super-soldiers can either throw the same rock much faster or heavier rocks just as fast or some combination in between. Throw in the mechanical multiplier of an Atala-like tool such as a sling staff and your super-soldier is a walking siege engine.

I agree that the quality of steel was poor in your selected time frame, but iron was good enough. A long thick iron sword would be very effective in combat since the targets are not wearing steel armor. Weapons like Broad Swords used their mass to inflict damage, and not the cutting edge; the heavier and faster the weapon moves the more damage it causes.

I'd think something like a flail, another very unsexy weapon, would be the best suited to your super-soldiers' strength. It has a long shaft that can be used for defense -- blocking attacks -- and its swivel head flaily part would deliver a tremendous force multiplier.

Similarly, pole arms like a halberd would significantly more dangerous in his hands since they could be longer than normal, with heavier axe-bits, and still be wieldy in their hands. The weapon's shaft would be the limiting factor on the weapon's length and mass, since you can't really make it thick as you want since the super-soldier still needs to grip it with their normal sized hands.

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