Forces TV

From the Gatling Gun to Knight Rider - The History of 'Secret' Weapons

What's the inspiration behind the secret weapons seen across the Forces TV lineup?

Forces TV loves secret weapons. With Knight Rider, Street Hawk & UFO exploring the fantastical side, we've also got Secret Superpower Aircraft and Weapons Races exploring the real secret weaponry deployed throughout the ages.

The Mitrailleuse

The 37 Barrel Mitrailleuse, developed in 1863

The Mitrailleuse, arguably the first ever “secret weapon” was invented in 1851 by the Belgian Army Captain Fafschamps, 10 years before the Gatling Gun would be deployed in the American Civil War.

It saw some developments and in 1866, the Reffye Mitrailleuss was rolled out in great secrecy in the French army and then deployed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

However, the fact the gun had been kept so secret, very few of the batteries had proper instruction as most of the commanders had no idea what the guns were, let alone how to use them in conflict.

Perhaps it's because the French lost the war, but the Mitrailleuse is hardly the first thing one thinks of at the phrase "secret weapon". Unlike its successor.

The Tank

Far more famously the tank’s development in WWI as a British Secret Weapon. While designs for the infamous land ships, armoured cars and the early gun tractors all floated around and saw some development, the tank famously remained a closely guarded secret.

Despite initially being developed by the Landships Committee. Factory workers at William Foster Factory started to refer to the prototypes as “tanks”, due to their resemblance to water tanks. The name was swiftly adapted.

This façade was built upon to further confuse the Germans. Some tanks were inscribed with 'With Care to Petrograd' on their way to the training centre at Thetford.

While the first deployment at the Somme met mixed success, it was not til' 1917 at Cambrai that over 400 tanks went 5 miles behind the German trenches.

The Type XXI

The U3008, one of the Type XXI that served in the US Navy

However it was the Germans who truly pioneered the idea of a 'secret' weapon as we know today. The Wunderwaffe (“Miracle Weapon”) was used extensively in German propaganda. As the war went on and German fortunes looked increasingly dire, more and more claims were made about the incoming super weapons which would turn the tide of the war.

While the V-weapons are the most famous of German secret weapons, the Type XXI submarine is one of the more striking. It was the first submarine designed to operate primarily submerged, before that most ‘submarines’ were technically submersible boats due to spending most of their time on the surface.

While the Type XXI was a failure in WWII, only 4 were completed, a mere 2 deployed on combat patrol and none saw any conflict. It did lead to developments in UK, US and USSR submarines and was even used in other country’s navies in the following navies.

If the Nazis pioneered the secret weapon as a PR project, it was The Cold War that perfected it. The dawn of the jet led to both the Americans and Russians engaging in subterfuge and technological bluffing to try and out manoeuvre the other.

The M-4 Bison Bomber

Weapons Races - Saturday at 8 on Forces TV

The Russians came up with plenty of designs, but one of the sneakiest Cold War tactics was the deployment of the Myasishchev M-4. The Soviet’s first jet bomber was a surprise to the Americans who had only just finished development on their Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Especially after the American’s observed 28 of the M-4s fly past at a Soviet air show, leading to fears that the US was behind technologically. The CIA thought the Soviets would have 800 by 1960.

In reality, the Soviets had very few of the M-4s, but were able to fly them in circles and convince the Americans they were further ahead than they were. In reality the M-4 ended up being rolled into the 3M, which was more powerful but not the flying fortress sold to the West.

The SR-71 Blackbird

Finally, no secret weapon article is complete without mention to the American Skunk Works. Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs had all sorts of crazy ideas. One of the most famous is the SR-71 Blackbird.

A Mach 3+ strategic recon aircraft, it was able to outrun missiles, avoid all but the most advanced radar systems and looked incredibly cool while doing so. It was in use from 1966 in the US Air Force and was retired in 1998 as newer variants came in.

Do you think we've missed a secret project? Maybe it's too secret, even for Forces TV? 

Make sure you watch Knight Rider, 10pm Tuesdays & Wednesdays on Forces TV. Available on Sky 264, Virgin 277, Freesat 165 & Freeview 96.