Military technological development is one of the most “fruitful” methods of innovation in human history. Rather tragically, war can and has helped humanity push the boundaries of our technology beyond all previous imagination.
From humble beginnings, it has helped drive our species to headier heights of technological innovation.
While many machines of war are now icons in their own right, many other, lesser-known and forgotten examples seem so strange that they might have been the imaginations of a mad man.
Here we’ve scoured the historical records of war tech to find the oddest examples we could find. We have tried to include a nice mix of military machines but be warned this list is a little “tank heavy”.
1. Have you seen the WW2 German ball tank?
Called the Kugelpanzer or Rollzeug, this incredible war machine was, believe it or not, actually a real piece of military hardware — once upon a time. Its name means roughly, “spherical” or “ball” tank, and it was designed as a one-person armored vehicle by the Germans sometime during or before the Second World War.
Little is known about this enigmatic war machine, but one surviving example can be found in Russia. What is known is that the tank was built by the German Krupp company, and was apparently designed as a scouting vehicle armed with a single 7.62 mm machine gun.
Its armor is pretty thin, around 0.1 inches (5mm) thick, so it was unlikely to have been intended as an offensive armored fighting vehicle (AFV). Propulsion was provided by the tank’s rotating hemispheres, on either side of the ball, and was powered by a single-cylinder two-stroke engine.
The remaining known example is in an incomplete condition and no known design records exist from the war. The Russian example was captured by the Soviets, most likely in Manchuria, and can be found on display at the Kubinka Tank Museum in Moscow.
This model has apparently been modified since it was captured and was repainted sometime around the Millenium.
2. This is what happens when you cross a submarine with a cruiser
Called the Surcouf, this submarine-come-cruiser was actually a real war machine. Designed to exploit a loophole in the post-WW1 Washington Naval Treaty, the Surcouf is one of the strangest machines of war you’ve likely ever seen.
The Washington Naval Treaty set explicit limits on the displacement and gun caliber of new warships, in an attempt to prevent the kind of arms race that led up to one of the most deadly wars in human history. However, it only really applied to surface ships like battleships and cruisers.
To circumvent this, the French designed a submersible vessel with the firepower of a cruiser. She was commissioned in 1934 and was equipped with ten torpedo tubes, six anti-aircraft guns, and enormous twin eight-inch (203mm) guns in a pressure-tight turret forward of the conning tower.
Believe it or not, she also came equipped with a small hanger that housed a Besson MB.411 observation floatplane. The Surcouf managed to escape capture during the capitulation of France in 1940, but she is recorded as sinking after colliding with an unknown ship in the Caribbean Sea in February of 1942.
3. Meet the Vespa 150 TAP
Another of the most bizarre war machines of all time is the Vespa 150 TAP. A modified Vespa bike, this military tech was intended for use as an anti-tank gun platform for use by French paratroopers.
The vehicle was first introduced in the mid-1950s and was built by Ateliers de Construction de Motocycles et Automobiles under license from the Vespa company. Each vehicle came equipped with a single U.S. M20 75mm recoilless rifle that was able to fire rounds that could penetrate 3 and 15/16ths of an inch (100mm) of armor.
The idea behind the scooter was for it to be dropped in with paratroopers during operations to provide heavy support. Obviously, the scooter platform is not the most practical of solutions for the gun so it would be dismounted and remounted on a browning machine gun tripod when actually fired.
Allegedly, however, in an emergency, the gun could conceivably be fired while still mounted to the Vespa. This is because the main gun’s recoil was attenuated through the strategic routing of propellant gases through the rear of the gun during firing.
4. The Germans actually developed exploding mini RC tanks
Did you know that the German’s actually developed remote-controlled explosive mini-tanks during the Second World War? Called Leichter Ladungsträger Goliath (Goliath Light Charge Carrier), these diminutive tracked explosive devices could be controlled using a joystick and thousands of feet of cable.
Each unit was powered by either twin-electrical motors or small petrol engines and could carry a payload of somewhere in the region of between 130 pounds (60kg) and 220 pounds (100 kg) of high explosive.
The idea behind the mini-tanks was to sneak them underneath Allied tanks during combat and then detonate them once in position. They could also be employed to disrupt enemy infantry formations or demolish buildings and bridges. A great idea on paper, the early models tended to suffer from cord-cutting during the actual conflict.
To combat this, later models were developed that were actually radio-controlled. Somewhere in the region of 7,550 of them were eventually built.
5. Meet Crysler’s nuclear-powered tank
On the subject of strange tanks, this bizarre war machine really is something else. Designed to be powered by an actual nuclear reactor, it also incorporated CCTV to provide the crew with all-around visibility.
While an interesting concept, the tank was never actually realized. Yes, we are very disappointed too.
The odd-looking oversized turret would house the tank’s entire crew, as well as, its ammunition stores, power systems, etc. It also doubled a sort of floatation device to enable the tank to be amphibious.
If ever built, the TV-8 would have been equipped with one 90mm T209 smoothbore main gun, two manual .30-caliber machine guns as well as a remote-controlled .50-cal mounted on top of the pod. If it had ever gone into production, it would have weighed in at around 25 tons.
6. Have you heard about the “Rods from God”?
“Project Thor”, also known as the”Rods from God”, is another of military history’s strangest, and more than slightly disconcerting, weapons of war. The idea was to place several large, pure tungsten rods inside a satellite platform that could literally rain down destruction onto Earth at will.
The rods would each be roughly the size of a telephone pole, and were an example of a theoretical mass destruction technique called “orbital kinetic bombardment”. Such projectiles would be nye-on impossible to defend against, given their speed, angle of attack, and small radar signature.
By taking advantage of the enormous momentum built up by the falling masses of tungsten, the devastation planet-side would be equivalent to a nuclear bomb going off — except without all that pesky radioactive fallout.
Conceived at the height of the Cold War, the weapon is typically depicted as a cylindrical magazine containing the rods with some form of a directional thruster to maneuver the platform.
As far as anyone knows, the concept never left the drawing board.
7. The ribauldequin was actually built and used in anger
Also known as the rabauld, ribault, infernal gun, or organ gun, the ribauldequin is another of the strangest weapons of war ever conceived. Developed during the later medieval period, this multi-barreled volley gun was actually used in combat during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Primarily used as an anti-personal weapon, these weapons were undoubtedly excellent shock weapons but would have suffered from needing a long time to reload.
According to historical records, the first one was used in anger by the King Edward III of England in 1339 during the Hundred Years’ War against the French. The weapon had around twelve barrels which, funnily enough, was able to fire volleys of twelve small-caliber rounds in a single firing.
Later examples were used by Milan during the Italian Wars, and they also appeared during the English War of the Roses.
8. The “Tsar Tank” looks more like a fancy tricycle than a weapon of war
Conceived at the beginning of the First World War, the “Tsar Tank” is probably one of the most unusual “tanks” you’ve ever seen. Designed by engineer Nikolai Lebedenko, it was named in honor of the Russian Tsar Nikolaj, who helped finance the project.
The machine weighed around 40 tons, and its most distinctive features being its pair of 30-foot (9-meter) diameter front wheels and smaller rear support wheel. This very peculiar three-wheel configuration was developed to help the tank pass any obstacle — especially trenches.
Held aloft by the two main wheels was a 39 foot wide (12m) main hull, with two side-mounted sponsons, each housing a cannon.
A prototype was actually built, but during its trials, the smaller rear wheel got stuck in a ditch. The propulsion system for the larger wheels was not strong enough to free the tank so it was left to rust until the mid-1920s when it was dismantled for scrap.
9. Pigeon-guided missiles were once a thing
Another very unusual machine of war was the highly unusual pigeon-guided bombs of “Project Pigeon“. Specially designed missiles nose cones were developed that would house three pigeons at a time.
The pigeons in question were trained using a process called “B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning,” to hone in on a target projected on a screen and peck at it.
Each pigeon was placed in a tiny cockpit-like structure with a small electronic screen in front of them. Onto these screens, an image of the ground in front of the rocket was projected, and the pigeons would help guide the missile to its target using their conditioning training.
Once all three pecked at the screen, the weapon would release.
The program was eventually scrapped in 1944 but briefly returned in 1948 under the code name “Project Orcon“. With the advent of electronic guidance systems, the concept was finally put to bed for good.
10. The corkscrew support vehicle is particularly odd
Another of the strangest war machines ever conceived is the concept of the corkscrew support vehicle. Such vehicles, like the American “Snow Devil”, were designed to be able to operate in areas with thick snow and ice cover or thick mud and swampland.
Its unique corkscrew “tracks” also enabled the tank to be able to move sideways. However, the tank was reportedly very difficult to control and lacked suspension of any kind.
Another interesting example is the Russian ZIL-2906 and ZIL-29061. These were screw-driven amphibious craft that was developed to recover re-entered Soyuz space capsules in difficult terrain.
Propulsion was provided thanks to a pair of auger-like cylinders with helical flanges running down their entire lengths. This setup would enable the vehicle to move by engaging a particular medium (be it snow, mud, etc), to pull itself through it.
Such vehicles have a fairly long history, with some early agricultural concepts devised in the mid-1800s. Later examples in the 1920 Armstead Snow Motor resembled an old tractor mounted to a pair of corkscrew augers.
During the Second World War, some experiments were made using the concept including the precursor to what would become the M29 Weasel.
11. This tank has a jet engine for a cannon
The mighty Gasdynamic trawler “Progvev-T” is another of the strangest war machines ever developed. Built just after the end of the Second World War, this war machine has a Mig-15 jet engine incorporated into its turret to enable the tank to effectively, and efficiently, clear mines.
This monster weighed in at 37 tons and used a modified T-55 base and tracks.
The idea was to use the heat and jet wash from the engines to prematurely detonate mines, thereby safely clearing minefields at a distance. However, it turned out that the use of a jet wash to detonate mines wasn’t a very effective strategy.
It also happened to be a pretty loud machine when in operation, so was less than inconspicuous in a combat zone. It also consumed a ton of fuel in short order.
Eventually, the tank found use as a sophisticated snowblower of sorts.
12. The “Praying Mantis” mobile machine gun platform was a technological dead end
Another of the world’s oddest-looking war machines was the British “Praying Mantis” mobile machine gun platform. Designed to meet the need for a low-profile tank that could shoot over obstacles, this solution turned out to be something of a dead end.
A private venture of one Ernest James Tapp of County Commercial Cars, the design was patented in the late-1930s.
The first variant, a one-person machine, was first introduced in 1943 and was based on the universal carrier. Later, a second two-person variant was built and tested by the British Army.
To produce the vehicle, the main hull of the carrier was replaced with an enclosed metal-box structure with just enough room for the driver and a gunner.
The box could pivot from the rear to become elevated to reveal a pair of Bren guns in a turret. The idea for the machine was to drive the “Praying Mantis” up to a wall, or another obstacle, elevate the gun, and spray the area from relative safety.
After a series of prototype trials in 1944, the idea was rejected as the controls were too difficult to use — especially under combat conditions. The prototype can be seen a the British Bovington Tank Museum.
13. The Boirault machine was an interesting proto-tank
Nicknamed the Diplodocus militaris, the Fortin Automobile ‘la Machine Boirault écrase barbelé’ (The Barbed Wire Crushing Boirault Machine) is another of history’s weirdest pieces of military hardware. An early experimental “landship”, it was designed in 1914 with a prototype first appearing in 1915.
The vehicle had a unique, almost-skeletal appearance, lacked armor, and was designed to run on a continuous six-piece “track”. Much like the first true tanks that would follow it, this machine was developed in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare.
The vehicle moved by rotating its large single track over, around, and under the central body — like a continuous train track. During trials, however, the machine proved impractical, was far too slow, lacking armor, and was deemed too vulnerable a machine to be of any real use.
This interesting proto-tank predated the famous British Little Willie by around 6 months but was ultimately deemed a dead-end in tank design.
A second lighter, more compact, and armored variant was also developed that followed essentially the same design — albeit much improved. However, the advent of true tanks shortly after its development rendered the project obsolete.
14. The Russian Object 279 tank was designed to withstand nuclear blasts
The Soviet-era Object 279 “Kotin” tank is another of the most bizarre war machines ever built. Weighing 60 tons apiece, these massive war machines were specifically designed to withstand a nuclear shockwave.
This steel behemoth ran on a set of four tracks and was also designed to be able to operate over cross-country terrain normally inaccessible to conventional tanks of the time. The “Kotin” was developed at the Kirov Plant in Leningrad in the late-1950s, and a pre-production model was completed in 1959.
The tank was powered by a 100 hp 2DG-8M diesel engine that could accelerate it to around 34 mph (55 kph). It has a range of around 186 miles (300km) and also came equipped with auto fire-fighting systems, smoke laying gear, and internal air conditioning.
The tank’s main armament was a 130 mm M-65 rifled gun with a semi-automated loader, and it came equipped with a series of coaxial machine guns dotted around its hull.
Intended as a heavy breakthrough tank, it had near-impenetrable 10.6-inch (269mm) armor plating formed into an elliptical shape to help protect the tank from APDS and shaped-charge anti-tank rounds. The armor plating on its turret was even thicker.
Its body form also helped it resist the extreme forces created by nuclear blasts. The tank was a notable success given its design but was later abandoned after Nikita Khrushchev forbade the development of tanks over 37 metric tons in weight.
15. The Focke Wulf Triebflugel is like no aircraft you’ve ever seen
Yet another of the world’s strangest war machines was the Focke Wulf Triebflugel. Literally meaning “thrust-wing hunter/fighter”, this concept aircraft was designed in 1944 but never made it to production before the end of the war.
The aircraft would have been a vertical take-off and landing, tail sitting, interceptor fighter that was proposed to help provide rapid-response defense against the rising Allied bombing campaigns of the later years of the war.
Designed by the same company that made, arguably, one of the best piston-engined aircraft of all time, the Focke Wulf F190-series, this aircraft was far from conventional in its design. It has no conventional fixed wings, and lift and thrust are provided via a rotating rotor-come-propeller with ramjets at the end of each arm.
During takeoff, the aircraft becomes airborne much like a helicopter, with the rotor acting like a giant, more conventional, rotor blade during horizontal flight.
As its main role would have been as an interceptor, it would have been armed with four cannons integrated into its forward fuselage. To land, the aircraft would need to slow its speed and pitch its fuselage gradually until vertical, before setting down on its tail leg/struts.
By war’s end, the aircraft had only completed its wind tunnel design testing stage, when Allied forces reached and captured its production facility. No working prototype is known to have ever been built.
16.The “Mole” was one of Winston Churchill’s pet projects
Nicknamed the “Mole” British Prime Minister by Winston Churchill, the Cultivator No. 6 is another of the most bizarre war machines ever designed. This enigmatic piece of military hardware was developed by the Royal Navy not for naval operations, but for digging trenches on land.
The first prototype, nicknamed “Nellie”, was lightly armored and completely unarmed. Since the idea was for the machine to creep up on enemy formation below ground level, such precautions were largely deemed unnecessary.
Once it was close enough to the enemy, the machine would double as a ramp to allow troops and small armored vehicles to attack from the trench it has previously excavated.
The machine was huge, weighing in at 130 tons, and was a total of 77 feet and 6 inches (23.62m) long. Initially, the plan was to build more units in large numbers, but the project was massively scaled back to around a handful.
All were scrapped after the war.
17.The Landkruezer P.1000 Ratte would have been enormous
And finally, no list of this kind would be complete without the infamous German Landkruezer P.1000 Ratte (Land cruiser P1000 “Rat”). Designed as a 1,000-ton behemoth of war, this machine would have been an imposing sight on the battlefield.
Thankfully, the German plans for the tank were never realized — although the concept was officially approved by Adolf Hitler. However, the sheer size of the tank and material needed to actually build one was deemed excessive and the project was later canceled by Albert Speer in 1943.
From existing plans of the tank, it would have been 115-feet (35m) long, 36-feet (11m) tall, and 46-feet (14m) wide. Her primary armament would have been a pair of SK C/34 naval guns — the same used on the German pocket-battleship Gneisenau.
It would be near impossible to use the tank on existing bridges or roads and would have been a very obvious target for aerial raids.
Thankfully for the allies, the “Ratte” never saw the light of day.
And that’s your lot for today. We do hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of some of the strangest war machines ever conceived. Thankfully, there are many more out there for you to discover for yourself. We wouldn’t want to spoil all your fun. Happy hunting.