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Assume that you've conquered the issue of flotation, probably using some very-much-lighter-than-air gas bladder, allowing your ships to take to the skies.

Assume also that you've invented a way to maneuver effectively in the air using only the wind and sails. The sail (or hull) design isn't necessarily identical to ships of the age of sail, but is limited to that level of technology/materials.

Most importantly, assume that traditional age of sail canons are not possible due to the sheer weight of the metal shot & barrels (and powder too, I guess). The ship can indeed float, but we do have to be relatively weight conscious. I would allow a bit of flexibility here in terms of what was known/possible in the age of sail.

What are some other possible forms of weaponry that these air ships could use to do battle in the skies? And what would you use to defend against that suggested weapon?

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    $\begingroup$ Harpoons to puncture the air bladder, possibly including tar soaked flaming ones? $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 27 '16 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ You know, a cannonball to the gunpowder store on a normal boat is just as, if not more, effective... It's also easier to stop a harpoon... $\endgroup$ – Tezra Oct 27 '16 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ Since sails require resistance (a keel) against a heavier medium (the ocean) to function, a purely sail-equipped airship will be incapable of moving any direction besides downwind- are you allowing for offboard power sources to get another form of propulsion? $\endgroup$ – Catgut Oct 28 '16 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Catgut: I'm aware of the limitations of "sailing" in the air thanks to other great posts, but as stated above that's beyond the scope of this question. $\endgroup$ – barney Oct 28 '16 at 17:20
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Besides the obvious like Bow and arrow, harpoon etc. you could use parabolic mirrors as weapons.

The Mythbusters once checked a myth that said it was possible to get a ship to burn with mirrors and, while they declared it busted that was only because it took too long. If this works on wood it should work on the air bladder/sails much faster. And by attacking from the right side you make sure that the enemy can't use his own mirrors (should he have any).

As the mirrors need to be focused they'd mainly work on one fixed range, give or take some, and most likely it would be a range lower than that of a longbow but it might give such a world some special flair, where not only the direction of the wind is relevant (as it was for sailing ships) but the direction of the sun, too.

You could make this more probable by having the stuff that makes airbladders air-tight be black or at least dark so it heats up quicker.

That would give you a means of protection, too in covering the bladder with white or even reflective stuff. That would lead to the glorious white ships of kingdom X being next to immune to the weapon of choice, while the dirty looking other airships are easy prey.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is really clever but I think the practical application would be so specific and limited that it would be hard to base your entire zeppelin war manual on it :) $\endgroup$ – Jason K Oct 27 '16 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ I really like the ingenuity in this! Two follow-up questions: 1) I'm still reading about parabolic mirrors, but do you think you could have an effective one that was large enough to be powerful but wasn't extremely heavy, or cumbersome on a ship? 2) Might this work better as a great ground defense against airships? $\endgroup$ – barney Oct 27 '16 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ @barney I would not use a single large mirror but a broadside of several pointed at the same point. That's lighter and gives more redundancy in case one is damaged or destroyed. $\endgroup$ – Umbranus Oct 27 '16 at 17:36
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Pneumatically fired harpoons.

The weakest point on the air ship is the gas bladder, so that would be the obvious target.

A hand pump should be technologically possible, and considering the propulsion method is by wind and sail, a trained crew should have time to pressurize the harpoon barrels before engaging.

The barrels will be far smaller and lighter than cannons, with a weightless propellant. The ammunition is also reusable.

The harpoons themselves should be barbed and bladed, fastened to the firing ship by rope:

  1. If it misses it can be retrieved (Conservation of ammunition is essential considering the weight limits)
  2. If it hits the target's bladder, the crew can tug the rope to tear at it.
  3. If it hits the ship itself, boarders can zip-line over to the target, capturing or sabotaging it.

Defense would be difficult considering the weight constraint won't allow covering the balloon in plate or chain thick enough to prevent a tear. One could:

  1. Have an array of smaller disposable balloons (maybe carrying a wooden plate) that function as a shroud against incoming fire.
  2. Have pocketed/sectioned gas bladders. This prevents a single hit from sinking your ship, as well as making in the fly repairs possible.
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    $\begingroup$ To comment on your argument of saving weight by fastening harpoons to the ship by rope: The many dozen meters of rope you need to be able to retrieve your harpoons as well as being able to use the harpoons effectively will put a greater weight on your ship than simply carrying more harpoons.. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Oct 27 '16 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T You make a valid point, so perhaps some alterations: although depending on flight duration/ number of encounters $\endgroup$ – Lu22 Oct 27 '16 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Apologies for the previous comment coming out wrong, I have no idea how to remove it. I would alter my original statement on attaching rope to every harpoon. Perhaps the crew would have different quality ammunition, retrieving the good harpoons and not worrying about the disposables. Also depending on the duration of a flight, the number of encounters expected etc, a call can be made whether to stock more rope or extra ammunition. $\endgroup$ – Lu22 Oct 27 '16 at 13:50
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I've been conceptualising a story involving just this sort of technology for a while now, and I've had a number of ideas for the weapons that could be used.

One of the simplest ideas is wooden cannon. This might sound insane, but is perfectly plausible - a cannon with a thick, wooden barrel. Functioning in the same manner as a normal naval gun, but many times lighter. The main disadvantage of these guns is that their lifespan is greatly diminished compared with their metal counterparts, and they are more prone to failure after regular use. This won't be a problem if your airships return to a safe port for resupply on a regular basis. There need be no waste either, as the wood from used/expired guns could be repurposed for other means afterwards. Another advantage of wooden guns is that a crew used to naval warfare would already be familiar with their operation.

In terms of the weight of their shot (cannonballs etc.) the Chinese used a projectile called bo-hiya - a large flaming arrow that was fired from a conventional cannon. There are plenty of options that don't require hurling balls of metal at each other.

Ballistic trajectory weapons such as catapults or ballista are another option. Much safer than explosive weapons (fire is bad on a naval ship; on an airship it is many times worse!) and able to fire shells, large bolts, or even just piles of nails, they are extremely adaptable. The disadvantage here though is that their slow trajectory limits their range and accuracy, and mounting them under your gasbag with a clear line-of-sight is difficult.

Rockets were invented by the Chinese centuries ago, and are another viable option. Requiring virtually no heavy firing apparatus (a simple tripod is just about it), these can travel great distances at reasonable accuracy, and inflict massive damage on opponents. However they require competent gunners to calculate the correct fuse lengths.

Gravity bombs are very simply large objects that you can drop on to your enemy. Imagine the damage a tree trunk would do, dropped vertically from a great height - it would punch a hole not just through your enemy's gas bag, but probably straight through their deck as well! Whoever has the greater height will undoubtedly have the advantage in a battle. Explosive shells and grenades could also be dropped onto enemy ships.

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For the age of sail, I assume you are talking about the classic "Man-o-war" with decks of cannon firing heavy shot to smash oak planking and shatter huge masts. These weapons were developed in response to warships becoming larger and heavier, so the evolution of firearms on airships would reflect the evolution of airships themselves.

Since combat between airships would take place at longer ranges, and involve greater relative speeds between the ships, cannon would not be short barrel Carronades, but rather elegant, long barrelled weapons with small calibre rounds optimized for high velocity shot. These cannon might even be rifled, to increase accuracy and provide a predictable trajectory.

At the longest ranges, single roundshot would suffice, providing the longest range and most accuracy. As ranges close, the crew could switch to chainshot in an attempt to strip away the control surfaces or do massive damage to the gas bag, and finally, a shotgun like load would be used at close range to ensure a hit and lots of damage (similar to canister rounds to sweep the deck).

As an alternative, a series of small barrels (perhaps 1") could be mounted on a common frame and fired sequentially by sweeping a match across the breech of all the guns. This provides a spray of shot which would be hard to avoid.

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It seems unlikely, barring some BIG advances in zeppelin technology, that you would have zeppelin vs zeppelin combat, certainly it was absent (or very very rare) in real life. If they have a very limited lifting capability then they have a very limited war making capability. Even if you could fill the skies with them, if all they can carry are a few light bombs their effect would be marginal outside of their traditional role as spotters/recon. Here is a nice history of their use in WW1.

But if they DID fight each other, you would probably have sharpshooters picking off opposing crewmen and possibly boarding actions by landing men on the top, who then could rappel down. Assuming in your alt history planes have not yet been invented and long range air defense artillery hasn't caught up, then zeppelin vs zeppelin is really the only option. Even machine guns are relatively ineffective against a military multi-celled zeppelin. Only incendiary bombs or killing the crew/damaging engines would be effective. The former requires a higher altitude (and would be VERY hazardous for defending zeppelins if they are over their OWN territory!) and the latter requires getting close enough for precision rifle fire. Boarding parties could rappel over the side and attempt to use grenades or even hand to hand to disable the engines or kill the crew. The benefit for the defenders is that they could parachute down to friendly ground (the parachute was invented in the late 1700's) at the end of the attack.

Another option would be releasing balloons with incendiary explosives, hoping to have them crash into an approaching zeppelin. But this seems like an extreme last ditch defense (unless they have an altitude sensing detonator like a primitive flak shell).

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  • $\begingroup$ Releasing hot air balloons covered in hooks to catch on enemy airships and designed to start burning when their fuel is almost spent might work. $\endgroup$ – Umbranus Oct 28 '16 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Umbranus that might help, but I doubt anyone is going to authorize releasing incendiary munitions over their OWN city, not matter how safe the military says they are :) $\endgroup$ – Jason K Oct 28 '16 at 13:18
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The OP mentioned a roughly "age of sail" level of technology with some alternate history in there to permit early development of lighter-than-air flight. This is a kind of Steampunk.

Chemical and biological weapons

People have known about noxious substances for a very long time. Perhaps they did not know of their true manner of operation, but they knew that catapulting dead animal carcasses into an enemy fort could cause an outbreak of disease.

Airships could be loaded with chemical and biological substances - maybe vats of acid that could be poured out onto ships below (leading to dogfights in which "getting on top" is key, as opposed to 20th century fighter dogfights in which getting behind is key), or water balloons filled with whatever poison floats one's boat (or sinks one's enemy's). Ships holds' could be filled with trash and decaying waste products to be used as ammo in catapults and slingshots. There's nothing like another trip to the dump to reload. Even the rotting carcasses of enemy soldiers could be used, or possibly even one's own dead soldiers.

Gliders

Ships could be equipped with basic gliders that could be launched in order to land boarding parties on other ships. This would be another case where "getting on top" would help, since the gliders would be unpowered. Once a boarding party has landed, they could use more conventional age of sail weapons like swords, muskets, and bows and arrows.

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Laser technology
Only the energy stores are the weight question, but I believe it is competitive with mountings of any projectile weapon, ammo, and gunner crew. If targeting is done by computer and mirror system, even less crew is necessary. Depending on the volume and mirrors, even broadsides can be freed up, and just a few or single laser battery is needed.
Defense: If this loadout gets popular, or standard, specialized marksman forces can attempt to destroy the battery mirror, or render it unusable. Clouds, humidity, dust, reflections can be used as direct defense against laser beams.

Grapple warfare
Imagine timed bombs with reeling system attached to a grapple, shot on enemy. Defend with EMP or athlete crew.
Dismantle/sabotage pirates disabling enemy ships. Just like shuttle boarding, but can be done without entering the ship. Defend is really per situation. Several ways of application ban be worked out for this. + Ablatives (it did not felt as so separate branch from grapples)
using widebroad selection of corrosive materials.

Shurikens
From size of handweapon, to rifle, ballista. It can cause severe damage to sails, living organizations. Sadly it has high chance on causing further damage on the environment below the skies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Lasers with computer control are definitely too advanced for my world, but +1 for shurikens $\endgroup$ – barney Oct 27 '16 at 17:21
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During the First World War German Zeppelins carried out bombing raids on Britain. Initially they were extremely difficult to shoot down as the aircraft of the time used rifle-caliber machine guns which, although they could easily hit and penetrate the balloon envelopes only made small holes and as the lift gas was at ambient pressure the rate of leakage.

Eventually they were able to exploit the flammability of the hydrogen uses as lift gas by saturating them with a mixture of explosive and incendiary ammunition, shredding the envelope and igniting the escaping gas.

However if they lift gas is non-flammable you have a much more diffcult task, as you need to do quite a lot of damage to the envelope to make it leak enough that it 'sinks' befoer you do. Here chain shot and canister may be the most effective solution.

Although these still need cannon you aren;t relying so much on a huge amount of kinetic energy to penetrate a heavy wooden hull so much lighter cannon may be effective.

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