In our modern society we can assemble a working missile with materials available in most supermarkets: check out nitrogen triiodide. My question is about medieval people: could they manage to build a missile? (assuming they have the necessary technical knowledge)

Note: It should be long ranged at least 100m and must be able to incapacitate at least ten people standing shoulder to shoulder in one go. Kite is not allowed!

Conditions: No live pilot allowed! No person, no messenger pigeon and no Chihuahua either.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think they have nitrogen triiodide at the supermarket. How would you build a guided missle using stuff from a supermarket? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 9, 2015 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ That's a terrible thing to use as a propellant. You want a controlled WOOSH. not something that goes bang if you sneeze $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2015 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ In the US, in modern speech, for weapons of modern war; missile is the accepted term to mean a self-propelled guided weapon while rocket means a self-propelled unguided weapon. However, missile can also refer to unguided projectiles from bows, crossbow, sling, spear, etc. Also rocket can mean a self-propelled guided vehicle with people inside. So the terminology (in English at least) hasn't been entirely sorted on this. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ You'd meet your requirements with no seeker by using a catapult with an exploding (gun powder or Greek fire) shell loaded onto it. You could easily make that range. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 9, 2015 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ If they had the requisite technical knowledge to build a missile, they would probably stop being a medieval society. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Jul 9, 2015 at 17:04

10 Answers 10


An unguided rocket was definitely possible in that time period -- the Chinese clearly had some type of rocket technology by the end of the 13th century, using a black powder propellant and charge. The main issue would be getting the firing train to work reliably, considering that contact fuzing didn't exist then.

Guidance, on the other hand, requires a level of controls and aerodynamics knowhow that didn't develop until the mid-20th century.

  • $\begingroup$ as you are aware of the difference btw missile and rocket, can the people by the 15th century use clever mechanism for homing? such as detecting the direction of magnetic north and winds direction. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jul 9, 2015 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ Too much vibration for compasses. Wind direction is always along the axis of the rocket. Gyroscope was invented in 1852. And if your culture doesn't already have controlled flight, it's unlikely to know how to build control surfaces to actually do the steering. Oh and liquid fuelled rockets definitely would require modern chemistry and turbomachinery knowledge. (I like to tell people about the book "Ignition!" by John D Clarke, a history of rocket fuel) $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ @pjc50 -- seconded for the most part -- I'm not sure if you need turbomachinery for hypergol fueled, pressure fed liquid rocket engines... $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jul 9, 2015 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ @pjc50 ahh but do they have access to Pigeons? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pigeon $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Oct 6, 2015 at 2:23
  • $\begingroup$ They would use solid fuel of course. The problem is guidance. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Oct 17, 2015 at 3:34

Yes, they were called arrows. Prior to that stone shot and throwing spears were popular. At a similar time some basic rockets and cannon were produced.

It should be long range and must be able to incapacitate at least ten people standing shoulder to shoulder.

For this I would suggest something like a ballista with 10 people standing side on to the system :-) These were in wide use from pre-roman times.

For a longer time of effect the people could be inside a fortress and a trebuchet used to drop a selection of rotting corpses near them, often cows or pigs. If you want to take out a lot of the thatched building to, cover the pigs in tar and set fire to them before launching. Another way to hit a large unit of troops would be to fire a basket full of rubble rather than one large missile.

Missile normally implies it has no way of propelling itself. Something with propellant is normally referred to as a rocket. I think the habit of calling things guided missiles came from having guided bombs first that were dropped and had no propulsion systems.

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    $\begingroup$ For that matter, they were also called missiles, a word that's been in English since the early-modern period and derived from the classical Latin word, missile. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Hanna
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ Defining a thing using its name is always iffy though. Even if you really mean the same word from another language. You are technically correct however, which as we have been taught, is the best form of correct. $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, but the flaw is with the question. It doesn't define missiles enough to exclude, well, missiles. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Hanna
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ Since we're nit picking, you don't even need to attack from the side. If you attack an army in the field not only is there little need for fancy guidance.but everyone you hit is standing shoulder to shoulder, even if it's not with each other. $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2015 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ I had not thought of them all being in ranks and we could just hit 10 people stood in multiple ranks as long as they are at least 10 deep. That would be an easier target to hit. $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 10, 2015 at 7:48

Well, you said "if they had the technical knowledge to do so". So I assume what you're really asking is "would a medieval people have enough resources to build a missile?".

Answering that is a bit tough, especially given that you haven't specified how much time they would have to do so - is it fine if it takes them a hundred years to build a single missile? In that case, sure, they could.

If not, though... it's been said that even if Leonardo da Vinci had all the necessary knowledge to build a Ferrari, he still wouldn't be able to, because the resources simply weren't available at the time. Steel was extremely expensive. Rubber wasn't known at the time. Oil wasn't well known accross most of Europe, though Greeks and Arabs of the time would know about it. But even building a refinery would be beyond the capabilities of the time, so the best you could do was to burn crude, or use petroleum. You can forget about anything like aluminium or titanium, of course.

It's hard to appreciate this when we live in a world where electronics are so cheap we just throw the ones that stop working in garbage, but modern electronics are incredibly complicated to make. Not on a piece-by-piece basis, but in the amounts of infrastructure necessary to even start. Baking your own chips is out of the question, so you'll have to, again, resort to cruder systems. Excluding animals, this pretty much leaves you with passive targeting systems - most likely, predetermined launch trajectories. It might be possible to create even somewhat complicated flight paths using just mechanical instruments, but it's going to be really expensive and require high quality craftsmanship. Don't forget that the electronics in modern missiles are extremely expensive - now imagine how that would scale to the middle ages, with just gears and clockwork (and making clockwork reliable on a missile flight path, or even making a large number of gears... that's going to be tricky).

In the end, it boils down to what you'd consider a missile. Koreans had the Hwacha since about the 14th century, basically a MRLS - something quite similar to Russian Katyusha, for example (though of course they used black powder). That would certainly be well within the capabilities of a medieval european society. It's even something you could build yourself, provided you had the knowledge required. You can significantly improve the precision of such a system by adding gyroscopes (though manufacturing those precisely enough will require skilled craftmanship - certainly not something you could afford for hundreds of rockets), but that isn't really important for a MRLS. They're more about saturated bombing rather than precise targeting - extremely effective against tight formations. The maximum range of the Hwacha was somewhere between 100-450 meters, depending on positioning and weather conditions. Compared to all the other possibilities I've mentioned, building one of these is absolutely trivial - you can make it from tons of different materials, and they should all be very easy to obtain if you know how.

All in all, sure, it's possible. But apart from the low-tech solutions like the Hwacha, it's going to be expensive, it's going to take a long time, and is going to be inferior to the siege engines available at the time, which were quite capable of "destroying 10 people standing shoulder to shoulder at 100 meter distance", while also being vastly cheaper and reusable.

Missiles are an amazing feat of technology. But more than that, they're an amazing show of how incredibly cheap raw and advanced materials have become, as well as the production itself - we can build such massive and complex things just to let them explode. Before the industrial age, projectiles were as simple as possible - you took the cheapest possible thing that did the job. Arrows. Stones. Bullets. Paper rockets. Even cannon shells were originally made from cut stone - using iron or bronze only started being common well within the modern era. What do you choose - a single, single-use missile, or a hundred experienced soldiers in high quality armour? Both can easily kill your ten guys at a hundred meters - but the latter can be reused pretty well.


No. They could not.

Look at the Nazi V2 program. Tens of thousands of workers and the best machining technology in the world still took the entire war to stop exploding. The level of precision, the shear number and complexity of a liquid-fueled missile is astounding. The United States was still struggling to match their success well into the 50's. Even in a time of tremendous technical achievement, this is still REALLY HARD. We STILL LOSE ROCKETS ALL THE TIME.

If you only require a solid fueled rocket, sure, they had medieval uses. Think arrow with an Estes rocket. But this is far short of what you describe. The solid rocket fuel available was gunpowder! Larger rockets would just explode.

As for mechanical guidance systems, watch the historical docudrama Longitude (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0192263/). 1700's machining technology was worlds part from medieval, and it took a LIFETIME to create a clock that could work in a ship. Size was a huge issue - before this time it was challenging to even fit the clock in the ship, let alone keep time once you got it there.

More than size, the motion of the ship across the ocean, both from the waves and the rotation of the ship to turn, caused huge timing difficulties. Imagine the problems in a missile! Which way is up or down in a spinning, arcing missile? A pendulum will LIE!

The metallurgy to deal with the heat and pressure, the chemistry to create and manage the propellant, the precision to make the parts fit and work together, understanding of aerodynamics, availability of materials etc DID NOT EXIST.

For a medieval kingdom to be "gifted" the knowledge to do this would involve dozens of graduate degree programs to be introduced, taught and understood, and a century or more of "bootstrapping" infrastructure to be able to use the technical know how.

If you want to make a steam punk medieval story, knock yourself out. But no, it wouldn't be realistic, and for fiction that's ok!

Note on potential simple rockets

The rockets of the day COULD NOT SCALE, as they used gunpowder as a propellant. Bigger rockets would simply be pipe bombs. However, a very simple, unguided, solid-fueled rocket might be able to be built from a diagram and a hundred page instruction manual(Contrast that to dozens or hundreds of career specialties to conjure from thin air for the liquid fueled rocket). Think tube with burn paste. Not a missile, but rocket. All modern formulas use aluminum(an absolute no-go for medieval construction. This material was the "carbon nanotubes" of the 1800's, costing about 50 times as much as gold), although I think that could be worked-around out by a clever modern chemist using an available substitute.

There is also alternative old school formulas, like the gun cotton civil war rocket, which was not really a success at the time, but could serve as a definite alternative to a more modern approach. Featured on mythbusters.

A steam rocket might be something to look at to, the mythbusters created a "rocket" using a water heater that went over three hundred feet in the air.

You would probably need something more powerful than black powder for the warhead, but I think dynamite would be really pushing what alchemists of the time could create using tools available, even with detailed instructions.

Better rockets with extensive instructions from modern chemists working closely with historians to make the instructions accessible to the medieval audience is plausible. Large, liquid fueled, guided, or tremendously powerful would absolutely not be.

Rocket Fuel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_propellant#Solid_propellants

For fun, look up: civil war gun-cotton rocket mythbuster episode, robert Goddard, alfred nobel's dynamite, "Nazi Megaweapons":V2(on netflix), "When we left earth"(also netflix),"Longitude" as mentioned, mythbuster hwacha episode, mythbusters water heater rocket episode

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    $\begingroup$ OP asks for a missile with 100m range and a blast radius of about 5m. Medieval rockets beats that range - at 100 m you might even be able to hit what you where aiming at. Not sure about the blast radius. $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Jul 10, 2015 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ I was picturing a longer range rocket, and given the limited range it is maybe not quite as difficult as all that, but my post still stands as correct if referring to liquid fuel rockets with a guidance system, short range or not. Existing black powder could not scale at all either. I'll make a slight update though. $\endgroup$
    – wedstrom
    Jul 10, 2015 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ Civil War? What about the War of 1812? One battle of that war famously inspired a song involving rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air... $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2016 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ My point in mentioning the civil war rocket was that this particular rocket used gun cotton instead of black powder, which may scale better. Black powder rockets have been around since at least the 1400's, the Korean watcha I mentioned dates to around that time. $\endgroup$
    – wedstrom
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:14

Mythbusters tried to build a (U.S.) Civil War rocket. The technologies were on the verge of becoming real, and the myth / alternate-history story includes the idea that Maxwell contributed a gyro based guidance system.

In pre-"scientific revolution" times, there is just no way.

in another myth (using mirrors to set a ship on fire) they concluded by contrasting it with something low tech that worked very well: a flaming arrow shot from a bow.


As for could they build a rocket, the answer is Yes --the Chinese built both rockets and arrow throwers (w/ explosive tips). Mythbusters proved that in theory that both types of systems were plausible and relatively accurate.

Now, as for a guidance system -- perhaps... The biggest 'issue' is whether they could develop the relationship between movable surfaces and controlled flight. If we make that assumption -- then my proposals would be three-fold:

  1. A time/distance device, similar to the arming mechanisms used on WWII bombs -- e.g. a tiny propeller which spins and at the appropriate time would cause a terminal dive

  2. Using something like a music box arrangement -- e.g. a spring wound mechanism to turn cams with a pattern on them. For historical usage, think music boxes or automatons

  3. A hybrid of these, air flow spinning a cam...if you use this, it's origins utilizing wheels, water, or steam traces back to Roman times (Archimedes and some of the temple gods).

  4. I just thought of, assuming sufficient technical skills, clock works.


It would have been difficult to make steel plating without riveting that came with steam engines and water tanks, and they didn't have anything more powerful than gunpowder. the best pressure vessels they had were wooden barrels.

Given the technical knowledge? as in to make a ballistic missile, could they do it? or just knowledge of fuel and steel?

they could have easily made the shell of the missile with refined steel or wood with a metal jet exhaust, and propellant using any simple chemistry, for example oxygen mixed with something like sawdust and hydrogen.

The question is unreasonably vague, because a rocket can go 5000km or 10km, and knowledge explains how to make anything.


I hate to shoot down a nice idea, but no.

In common usage, "missile" refers to a weapon with both guidance and an ability to travel a considerable distance from their release point. I have seen ballistic objects with long engagement ranges referred to as "missiles". (Think of guided metal bars ejected from an orbital vehicle of some kind and used for kinetic strikes. No booster, no lift but they strike hundreds of miles from their release point.)

Now, the Chinese had rockets, the range is possible. The guidance, no. Others have suggested pigeon guidance--yes, a pigeon could be trained to guide a missile in, but there is no way to train the pigeon with medieval tech. To train the pigeon you need an accurate depiction of the target to teach it what to aim for--and how can you possibly get the images? A good enough artist might be able to produce suitable paintings but he's going to have to be on the path of the missile in order to do this. The only technology that permits this is a tethered balloon--they didn't have balloons and even if you built one how do you propose to over over your target without getting killed?

Someone is probably going to propose a kamikaze. First, I don't think they could boost something that big with medieval tech. Second, a human pilot won't need anything like the training a bird would but they'll still need some--and without images they aren't going to get it.

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    $\begingroup$ In common usage it is synonymous with projectile (and has been since the 1600s). It's only technical military usage (since the 1940s) that adds self-propulsion and guidance. $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2015 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ In common usage, a thrown rock is a missile. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Jul 10, 2015 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ Range requirement = 100m. Null guidance should suffice. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Oct 17, 2015 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Joshua That's a rocket, not a missile. $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2015 at 21:42

Looks funny, but could work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pigeon I supose a real medieval genius could make it to work. You see how the antikythera mechanism was sophisticated and you think it was not possible to ancient people to construct such thing. But they did! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism


A rocket could easily be made (without any sort of guidance).

But 100km range is completely impossible. You can't just scale-up a firework and hope for the best - you'll almost certainly just create a very large bomb (which will go off in your launch site). Have a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU1CsHxPSnM (16.30 in) for what happens if you try and combine lots and lots of medieval rockets together to make a really powerful rocket.


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