When did military weapons start to become orders of magnitude better than civilian weapons?

Back in the American Revolution, the Redcoats had essentially the same kind of long gun as the militiamen who brought their hunting weapons out to dance with Brown Bess, correct? Training and discipline were vastly different, to the Redcoats’ advantage, but it wasn’t the case that the Redcoats had something on their shoulders that was orders of magnitude better than what the colonists were using to kill deer, right?

These days, the military has F-22s. I can’t have an F-22. I could have a landing field and everything all lined up, but the most I could land on it is a civil aviation aircraft. That isn’t the same as an F-22. A civil aviation aircraft is barely even the same kind of thing as an F-22. There are orders of magnitude difference involved on multiple scales.

By WWI, at least a few of the various armies had machine guns. Were those legal for private citizens anywhere that had functional laws to possess at the time? I know private citizens could own biplanes; how did those compare military-versus-civilian back then? Also, by WWI, navies could have battleships, whereas in the late 18th Century I wonder if the best ships the various navies could have acquired would have been better than the best ships private individuals would have been legally allowed to own.

Absolutely. I’d say that the change came when they started putting large amounts of cannons on ships back in the 16th Century. Up until then, a rich private shipowner could give a government ship a run for its money (and not long before that, there was no such thing as a government ship); once the ships of the line came into play - and ships of the line were *never *owned by private individuals - it was game over, man.

I can’t answer the main question, but machine guns were basically unregulated on a national level in the US until the National Firearms Act of 1934. So yes, private citizens had access to them. Through the mail, even!

Was there anything other than cost stopping a very rich individual building a private ship of the line?

Sure - the governments did.

Besides, there were only a handful of shipyards in the world capable of building ships of the line, and all of them were strategic assets controlled by the state.

I think it was a bit later than that. East Indiamen were pretty heavily armed; though the various East India Companies of course blurred the lines between “government” and “civilian” pretty heavily. In that same era you also had plenty privateers and pirates–the Queen Anne’s Revenge (Blackbeard’s ship) had 40 guns; not a ship of the line, but on paper at least equal to a good-sized frigate. By contrast, modern Somali pirates really don’t have anything that can go up against government warships.

I would put the divergence in the 19th century for seapower, and the transition to steel-hulled warships with heavy steel armor, armed with heavy guns in turrets firing explosive shells, as well as the rise of self-propelled torpedoes, making warships far too specialized for it to be possible to simply stick some cannons on a merchant ship and have it expect to go up against a government cruiser. (As late as 1941 you had Kormoran versus Sydney, but that was likely kind of a fluke.)

For land forces, really trained and disciplined professional career soldiers have been able to (usually) overcome citizen (or tribal) militias since the days of the Roman legions, but again in the 19th century you start to see a radical shift towards mass mobilization armies, culminating in World War I, that would tend to simply overwhelm minuteman-style armies of citizens grabbing up their trusty rifles. Couple that with the radical technological advances of the 20th century–including the rise of airpower as well as advances in both personal infantry weapons and in artillery and the development of armor and mechanized forces–and a straight-up fight between a professional career army and civilians with personal weapons will be very short. Of course, as we’ve seen from Vietnam to Afghanistan (against the Soviets) to Afghanistan again (against the U.S.) and Iraq (2003, not 1991), governments can’t always count on their opponents getting into stand-up fights where everyone lines up out in the desert and fights it out army-to-army.

Queen Anne’s Revenge was a captured warship. Could a private civilian at the time legally build an equivalent size and armed ship?

I’d agree that up to the frigate level, private individuals could own ships as powerful as as contemporary navies; however, frigates don’t win wars. They’re good for support and for raiding, but even the Constitution - the finest wooden frigate ever launched - refused to engage ships of the line. A fleet armed only with frigates could not defeat a true war fleet. At best, they could evade it, just like modern insurgents can evade armies armed with tanks and planes.

In 18th and early 19th century warfare, hunting rifles were no match for muskets in conventional warfare. Yes, they were good for sniping (as during the British retreat from Lexington and Concord), but had a much slower rate of fire. Battles were decided by well-trained regular soldiers marching in tight formation and firing devastating volleys of musket balls, not by individual militiamen hiding behind trees with hunting rifles.

Advances in metallurgy during the 19th century transformed warfare by making it possible to manufacture firearms with much greater range and accuracy. (For a detailed account of this, read William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp.) Improved mass production and metalworking techniques also contributed greatly to the evolution of weaponry.

The American Civil War gave a taste of what was to come: Napoleonic-era muskets were effective only to about 100 yards. CW-era rifled muskets were deadly at 600 yards. The period 1865 to 1918 saw the development of rotary machineguns and cannons, recoil-powered machineguns, breechloading rifles, repeating rifles, bolt-action rifles, semiautomatics, submachine guns, and vastly improved munitions—not to mention barbed wire, poison gas, motorized transport, instantaneous communications, aerial and armored warfare, steam-powered warships, submarines, and so on.

Ever since there has been a division between civilian and military, the military were the guys with the catapults, ballistae, cannon, etc. Compared to these, civilians were just guys throwing rocks.

Pretty much this. A civilian in the American Revolution may have had a musket, but he didn’t own a cannon. Joe farmer in the Fertile Crescent in 2000 BCE didn’t own a spear, shield and armor unless he was also part of the army.


The advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago provided a surplus that enabled the creation of leader and military classes.

Even today, only laws in certain countries that keep average civilians from having the same type of arms that can be carried by soldiers. Of course, as mentioned above, only a country can afford the biggest weapons (e.g., aircraft carrier).

While East Indiamenof the 1800’s were armed, they were no match for even a frigate (which is something a privateer of the time might be able to afford, unlike a ship of the line). If you look at pictures of commercial ships of the time, you’ll see rows and rows of guns, but they were fakes; often painted on, or false gun hatch covers.

The only thing stopping you from owning virtually any aircraft you want is the cost. Rich people in the U.S. own everything from WWII fighters like the P-51 Mustang to Russian MIGS from the Cold War era. MIGS are actually fairly cheap to buy but horribly expensive to fly and maintain (thousands of dollars an hour). They have to be disarmed which may disqualify them for the purposes of your question but you can own virtually any airplane you want as a private individual as long as you have the money and the ratings to fly it. It would be impossible to get an F-22 because they aren’t for sale but you could develop something similar on your own if were the richest person ever and that is what you wanted to use your money for. Not practical at all but not illegal either.

As noted, one can point to any one of many developments, all of which represented a leap in lethality. At least as far as ground troops were concerned, I’d throw the Gattling Gun into the mix.

Actually, no. Hunting rifles were different from smoothbore muskets like Brown Bess. Rifles were accurate at (relatively) long distances but took forever to load, while muskets were short-range but quick to reload. Much like a modern high-powered rifle with a scope versus an AK-47 (except much shorter ranges and rates of fire). Militamen in the colonies (and then the Colonial Army) did have muskets, though; they just weren’t hunting weapons.

Yes, and they often did, to become privateers. But these weren’t battleships, more like destroyers or very light cruisers. There probably wasn’t anything stopping a civilian from building a big ship of the line except cost (and there being no reason to)

He might have a spear, if he lived somewhere in the boonies were boar-hunting or something was a possibility, but a sword was clearly a military weapon (along with armor and shield).

Of course, in lots of places and times there wasn’t a big difference between national army and individuals. Classic Greek phalanxes and midieval knights bought their arms and armor with their personal money (though the distinction between personal and government money is also vague for knights).

If we are talking strictly infantry, I would say that WWI is when the gulf between military and civilian weaponry really opened up. Machine guns became common place, tanks were introduced and artillery began using hydraulics to help with recoil, making them more accurate. And that’s leaving out the poison gases.

WWII forever sealed the disparity between military and civilian weapons once sub machine guns, automatic rifles, better machine guns and man portable explosive projectiles (mortars, bazookas, grenade launchers, etc.) became commonplace on the battlefield.

Possibly relevant to what the OP is getting at, since the rise of central governments, it’s been a standard policy everywhere to dismantle castles and fortresses built by private citizens, no matter how noble. Private fortifications enabled their owners to defy central government (kings), challenge, and even overthrow it. Similarly, kings monopolized the first mobile artillery (and immediately used it to level any remaining privately-held castle walls in their own territories).

As long as there’s been governments. If you’ve got the the power to tax and press into service you can maintain a well armed military. Civilians don’t have that kind of money without becoming the de facto government. With simple enough weapons, the general populace may have weapons of equivalent quality and utility, but they won’t have as many, won’t be as skilled in using them, won’t have the armor, ammunition, training, command structure, and transport that a real army has, so the weapons alone wouldn’t be the deciding factor anyway.

You could pay (bribe) an F-22 pilot to fly his aircraft to you. (That’s how the USA got a hold of some of the Russian MIGs during the Cold War. But you still have to have control of a airfield where he can land it, and where the government can’t come to take it back.

Also, it would take a lot of money to keep it running. Black market F-22 spare parts are probably real expensive.

Probably nonexistent, in fact, since we haven’t sold the F-22 to other states.