Historically there have been many methods in which humanity has sought to cheat death. In China, the desire for immortality lead to the practice of alchemy. Needless to say, the Chinese did not find the source of eternal life, but their alchemical pursuits did discover one thing (among many others): gunpowder. Despite the modern name, "gunpowder", guns and firearms were only invented and used later. Rockets came first.
The Physics of Rocketry
The functioning and physics of rockets generally revolves around Newton's Third Law of Motion, commonly simplified as "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." All a rocket boils down to is a tube filled with something either very explosive (like, say, gunpowder) or something under pressure that wants to get out of the tube (like, say, steam or water). When you close one end of that tube, the contents will force their way out of the open end, causing a reaction that pushes the tube into the air. This is of course assuming that the tube is made of a material of sufficient strength to survive the reaction or else what you have is a bomb, not a rocket. It ain't rocket sci— Wait a minute...
The ballistics of rockets work a little bit differently than those of, say, bullets or arrows. In a bullet, the propelling force comes from outside; the bullet is pushed by expanding gasses, but once it's left the gun there is nothing to continue moving it forwards and it will start to decelerate. Rockets, on the other hand, generally produce continuous but much weaker thrust for the first few seconds of their trajectory, leading to slower acceleration but generally longer time in flight.
Rockets and Missiles
Technically, rockets are missiles, as a missile is just a projectile-based weapon (an arrow or javelin can be classified as a missile, in a strict sense).
However, in modern parlance, the term "missile" is generally used to refer to guided projectiles. These weapons can steer themselves mid-flight, either automatically or with guidance from the shooter. This is in contrast to rockets, which are fired and the forces of gravity and inertia does the rest.
A Brief History of Rockets
- 400-100 BCE: A prototypical rocket is developed in Greece. A Roman named Aulus Gellius writes of how the Greeks would entertain the people of the city of Tarentum with a wooden pigeon on a wire propelled by steam. Three hundred years later, Hero of Alexandria describes the Aeolipile: a metal ball on a water kettle. When the kettle is heated, the water turns into steam, goes up the pipes, and spins the ball around by escaping two L-shaped nozzles. While not rockets per se, they operate in the same manner through the usage of hot gas escaping in order to create movement. The Greeks never expanded on this concept beyond mere amusements, so these remain only as interesting footnotes in rocket history.
- 1000s-1200s CE: At this point, the Chinese are believed to have invented the rocket proper, although not until 1232 is solid evidence established with records mentioning the Chinese attacking invading Mongols with "Arrows of flying fire". These "Fire arrows" were regular arrows with rockets attached or rockets with primitive warheads. Rockets also make an appearance in Europe around this time. Arabs wrote about rockets which the Mongols used to help capture Baghdad. The Arabs, in turn, used this rocket technology against the French during the Seventh Crusade.
- 1300s CE: Around this time “Huolongjing,” a tactical black powder weapon primer, is written in China. Included are 10th-century fire arrows, rocket launchers, two-stage rockets, winged rockets, land mines, naval mines, their triggers, and several other weapons of the class. Notably, this book is the first to establish the design of a multi-stage rocket: the "fire-dragon issuing from the water"/Huo Long Chu Shui. The Fire Dragon is a tube set borne by rockets, with more rockets inside of it. When the booster rockets ignite mid-flight, their ignition launches the secondary rockets from the front. The Fire Dragon was used mostly by the Chinese Navy. However, the Koreans invented a type of Fire Arrow cart, known as the "Hwacha,” that could fire 100-200 fire arrows in quick succession (like those Russian Grad rocket trucks). Just a few dozen of these could be rapidly deployed to drive back any massed force, making them decisive defensive weapons.
- 1400 CE: Military Rockets are used by Europe itself rather than Europeans simply getting rocketed by the Ottomans in the Middle East or at Constantinople. Then again, the Ottomans received the burny-end of early flamethrowers, so let’s call it even.
- 1500s CE: The earliest experiments with multistage rockets in Europe are made. The Koreans use massed Hwacha barrages and rocket-firing cannon in their wars against Japan. Moving on.
- 1600s CE: The "Artis Magnae Artilleriae pars prima" (Great Art of Artillery, the First Part, also known as The Complete Art of Artillery) is printed in Amsterdam and used, naturally, as an Artillery manual. It includes instructions on the production and properties of Rockets; including multi-stage rockets, batteries, and rockets with wing stabilizers rather than the big sticks typically used until then.
- 1700s CE: the first all-metal rockets are developed in India in the Kingdom of Mysore. The Mysore rockets were used very successfully against the British East India company (East India Company brief summary: think a cyberpunk mega corporation only more racist) and the British were surprised by what these rockets could do. Their all-metal design allowed more fuel meaning they had a lot more range (2 kilometers) then what the British had seen a rocket do, and so like any good British man, they stole a few and sent them back home so that they could learn how to make more.
- 1800s CE:* The British invent the Congreve rocket from their study of the Mysore rockets. The Congreve was very effective for its day; while it lacked the same range as cannons it could be fired a great deal faster, was generally more mobile, and could carry variable payloads. Thanks to slower acceleration on launch rockets could carry incendiaries, airbursting warheads, or even solid heads designed to bounce through groups of close infantry. The "rockets red glare" in the star spangled banner is referring to these these, the British used some in the 25 hour bombardment of Fort McHenry. In 1844 William Hale came up with the Hale Rocket, a much more accurate version of the Congreve without the need of a stick to stabilize itself since it was able to spin itself like a rifled bullet.
- 1900-early 1945s CE:* Now things get interesting. Up to now, humans only had experience with solid fuel rocket engines, mostly of gunpowder, but by the early 20th century the first liquid fuel rockets started to be developed and rocketry came back into the public eye with the establishment of numerous scientific and amateur research groups. Military rocketry had largely died off by the beginning of World War 1; everything a rocket could do a howitzer could do better since the design of shells had become much more advanced. Rockets saw some use during the Great War, primarily as an anti-zeppelin weapon; they could deliver a heavy incendiary payload but were light enough to mount on a plane. Over the course of the war, much research was done into rockets on both sides, with important implications in the postwar period. After the diktat of Versailles war though Germany found itself with a problem: their army was forbidden from possessing long-ranged artillery. Like good rules lawyers, they found a loophole and funded rocket research instead. As the Germans had learned in WW1, the best artillery barrage was short, sudden, and overwhelming- the speed with which rockets could be fired made them perfect for this. So they invented the Nebelwerfer, which was basically a bunch of launch tubes strapped together that could fire a volley of rockets all at once. It worked really well, the only major disadvantage being the long reloading time of the weapon. When the Russians saw this, they were impressed and promptly developed their own cheaper, easier version and mass-produced their Katyusha launcher so they could put it everywhere they could think of. Every-fucking-where, from man-pulled sleds to the back of trucks, to atop of trains, to boats, to fixed emplacements; all in order to rain explosive death down on top of anything in front of them. As tanks became increasingly prevalent on the battlefields of the Second World War, rockets saw handheld use as well- a shoulder-launched rocket could carry a warhead big enough to crack a tank but still be light enough for infantry to carry, and this idea reached its conclusion in the American Bazooka and German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons. Both sides developed a variety of anti-ship, anti-air and anti-building rockets, though Germany led the way in their use. The most famous rocket of the war was, of course, the German V2 ballistic missile, the first of its kind- though inaccurate, unreliable and incredibly expensive, it would provide the basis for basically every liquid-fuelled rocket or missile that came afterwards.
- Late 1945s-2000s CE:* As the fragmenting Allied powers snapped up every German rocket scientist they could in the aftermath of the War, missiles came to dominate the weapons and scientific systems of the future. The Germans had laid some groundwork for inertial navigation systems with a basic gyroscopic mechanism that kept their V2 rockets on course; and it took all of ten seconds after the war for everyone to realize such a rocket could be used to get something else than an explosive charge where it was needed without the need of a pilot inside the thing. Meanwhile, anti-tank weapons took notes from the Bazooka and Panzerfaust to create cheaper rocket launchers such as the RPG and LAW or dedicated antiaircraft weapons like the Igla or Stinger launchers. Things like a big camera in space to
spy on your enemiespeacefully observe the weather and what happens on the other side of the world. As technology advanced the Space Race saw newer, larger and improved rockets put scientific probes into orbit and culminated with astronauts landing on the Moon, but also saw the same platforms used for the delivery of nuclear weapons. Missiles also came to dominate the atmosphere, becoming the standard weapon for aircraft the world over. Rockets and missiles are still ubiquitous for ground forces, and the Soviet Rocket-Propelled Grenade launchers are an international symbol of asymmetrical warfare. In addition, new missile guidance systems began to emerge in co-evolution with countermeasure systems; infrared-guided missiles can be defeated by flares and smoke, leading to the development of wire-guided missiles, which can be blocked by reactive armor or active protection systems, leading to more creative warhead designs such as the mortar-like firing arc of the FGM-148 Javelin or the use of tandem warheads to make an opening for the real warhead.
- Looking Ahead: Unlike firearms which have the Railgun of Damocles hanging over their future, Rockets and Missiles always seem to stick around in how we picture future wars thanks to their various advantages over guns, effectiveness in the vacuum of space and general non-military applications. Rockets as vehicles are still being developed, with SpaceX trying to create cheap reusable rockets capable of landing vertically so that they can deliver large payloads of material to distant worlds.
Rockets in fantasy
Rockets are fairly common in fantasy works, but only as a means of launching fireworks rather than as a combat weapon. Even in settings with gunpowder weapons, the somewhat spotty history of rocket weaponry in wide usage means that they seldom get more than a passing mention. Asian-themed settings may tend to feature them more heavily, for obvious reasons, but guns will always be king.
Rockets make an appearance in The Lord of the Rings, albeit as fireworks rather than weapons of war.
|Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
|Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling
|Armor:||Armor - Fantasy Armor - Helmet - Pauldron - Shield|