Leonardo Da Vinci’s Machineries of War

Leonardo da Vinci is now best known as an artist and painter, but like the true Renaissance man he was his interests were wide ranging.  He was indeed a true polymath.  His famous sketch books were filled with drawings of human anatomy, other life sciences and architecture, to name just some of his interests.

Da Vinci lived in a time of endemic warfare, where the Northern Italian city-states like Florence were always in conflict with each other and with outside powers like France or the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed it would have been strange if at least part of da Vinci’s fertile genius had not thought about warfare.

Over the course of his life,  da Vinci designed many machines of war; some fanciful, some practicable:

Perhaps the best known of his weapons designs in da Vinci’s “tank”.  This round armored vehicle featured cannon all around its perimeter so that it would have been able to fire in all directions. It also had “four wheel drive” so it could turn in all directions and go over rough terrain. Modern attempts to recreate the da Vinci armored fighting vehicle have been abandoned, because the design was incomplete and impractical even with modern engineering techniques.

Another one of the genius’ weapons design was multi-barrel machine guns. He actually drew two designs for machine guns. One was mounted on a wheeled frame for ease of movement and featured eight barrels mounted in an arch to have a wide field of fire. This design also had a crank that could rise or lower the elevation of the guns.  The other design had 42 barrels mounted 14 to a side on a triangular shaped box, so that as it advanced or retreated 14 tubes would rotate into a fire position.

Da Vinci also drew Scythed chariots, horse driven machines with a series of blades that rotated horizontally, vertically and on the wheels, also in front of and behind the horse itself. While a beautifully rendered drawing, it would have been a horrifying weapon had it ever been built.

Called a Barrage cannon, this design was actually a rotating turret with 16 cannon housed in an armor envelope.  It featured a gear design that once in place would turn the cannons in any direction as needed.

He also developed a cluster bomb design, 300 years before General  Shrapnel.  Da Vinci’s design was a series of shells fitted into a soft case that would spray out as the casing was ruptured.  This design hand much more destructive power than any single cannon-ball.

He also designed an iron clad naval vessel that had a iron brow for ramming and a hinged carapace that would swing open to allow the hidden cannon to fire.

He drew a giant cross bow with a span of over 40 feet and an advanced screw mechanism to cock the beast, but it was never built.

This list is by no means exhaustive and leaves off Da Vinci’s famous helicopter, ornithopter and airplane designs. Nor his recently discovered killer knight robot.




Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Mark Rosheim, Leonardo’s Lost Robots (Springer Press, 2006).


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