Whenever we mention Da Vinci, there’s no question that the first thing that comes into our minds is this brilliant painter, sculptor, and humanist and, of course, his famous works like Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. I mean, they’re classic. They’re truly amazing and forever cemented in the history of humanity for the next generations to admire. Or perhaps it was his long and gorgeous beard and mustache? Whichever it was, no one would really picture Leonardo the Saboteur, who used his talents in designing weapons of war. But he did.

Called to War

Da Vinci’s parents knew from the very beginning that he was a gifted child, so they nurtured his talents from an early age with artistic training that he got from Florence. When the Italian Wars of 1499 to 1504 broke out, he was 47 and already established in the sense that he was a famous painter. Although, he had not painted Mona Lisa at that time yet. Once the French invaded Milan, he moved to Venice to try and avoid the conflict. He was, however, still called to serve in the military not as a soldier but as a weapon and military equipment designer. Da Vinci detested violence, and he would rather spend his time and effort on creating his artworks and human understanding, but he could not say no to those who helped him pursue his career, so he accepted. The patronage of the ruling class paid his bills after all. Thus, began his interesting career as a designer of futuristic weapons.

Triple-Barreled Cannon

During his time, cannons were in stationary positions rather than mobile weapons that could be wheeled into positions on the battlefield. This was because they were really heavy and took a lot of time to reload. To solve these issues, he came up with the triple barrel cannon that was not just fast and light but could also inflict significant damage to the enemies.

Da Vinci’s Cannons. (editions.covecollective.org)

The weapon was composed of three thin cannons that would be front-loaded and height-adjustable. The three barrels meant the soldiers could load three shots at once, enabling them to fire more frequently, while the wheels would allow the cannon to be moved from one area to another during battles. One of his triple-barrel cannons was discovered in an old Croatian fort in the 1970s, and in 2011, it was confirmed to be of Da Vinci’s design.

Thirty-Three Barreled Organ Gun

Leonardo also designed what seemed to be the ancestor of modern machine guns when he made his 33-barreled organ. Going back to the slow reload problem at that time, he figured incorporating 33 smaller guns connected to the three sets of 11 guns on a rotating platform. How it worked was that when a set of small cannons were fired, the platform could be rotated to the next set of 11s and then the other. In that sense, while one set of small cannons was firing on the enemies, the other set that just fired was already cooling down while the other was already being reloaded, ready to be fired once the current one ran out. The result was a relentless hail shower of bullets to the enemies.

33-Barreled Organ. (editions.covecollective.org)

It was referred to as an “organ” because the triangular spread design was meant to increase the hit area of the artillery fire and make it look like the pipes of an organ.

Armored Car

Inspired by a turtle’s shell, Da Vinci also created what was sometimes referred to as the prototype of modern tanks. It had a conical cover made of wood and reinforced with metal plates to add to its thickness. The idea was that the slanting angles of the cover would deflect enemy fire. To power the machine, eight strong men had to operate the two large cranks located inside. The car was also equipped with light cannons placed around its perimeter.

Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a fighting vehicle. (Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The problem with Da Vinci’s armored vehicle was that its gears were located in a reversed order, so it was unworkable. There were theories that said he intentionally did it so that it could not be used irresponsibly if it was stolen. Others say it could be because he just really hated designing weapons of war. Whichever it was, the vehicle was deemed too heavy to move anyway, thus lacking the mobility factor, which was essential on the battlefield.

Flying Machines

da Vinci was long fascinated with the flight of birds and insects and drew up sketches of a helicopter-like machine that could use its rotating corkscrew wing to lift itself into the air and a human-powered glider based on the skeletal structure of a bat.

Leonardo made more than 200 drawings of his flying machines though none were ever known to have been built. It would have been difficult to find anyone brave enough to try them out.  In the late 1800s, plenty of people were killed or maimed experimenting with new flying machines, some of which seem to have been derived from da Vinci’s earlier concepts.

One of the problems he encountered was that his weapon designs were so new and unusual that nobody wanted to risk money on building something that might not even work.  Cannons, in particular, were fearsomely expensive to make, as a result, they tended to be improved in small increments rather than replaced by revolutionary leaps into a new design.  da Vinci seemed to be expressing this in an unfinished sentence found on the drawing of a light cannon he designed to fire grapeshot at horse cavalry writing, “If the men of Milan would for once do something out of the ordinary …”

While we can find only scant evidence that any of da Vinci’s designs ever made it into actual production, it’s possible he was kept around for a purely strategic reason.  Paying him to design weapons for an Italian Duke who could not afford to make them kept da Vinci out of the employ of a rival Duke in France or Germany who could afford them.