Sword, Musket & Machine Gun: Britain's Armed History

Rapid Fire

Series 1 - Episode 3 Rapid Fire



Could a vest have prevented the First World War? In a fascinating experiment Dr Sam Willis sees whether a silk vest owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand really was bulletproof, as its maker claimed, and could have saved his life if he had been wearing it when he was shot.

But the main thrust is how Britain used technological advances in precision and firepower to defend interests overseas and expand its empire. The private secretary to Prince Albert wrote, “The way to preserve peace is to perfect instruments of human destruction.” Willis is excellent on how that misguided pragmatism fuelled an arms race that led to the horrors of the First World War.


Dr Sam Willis charts the evolution of weaponry in Britain from 1800 to the First World War, looking at the drive to develop ever-more precise weapons, from artillery shells and rifles to the Maxim machine gun. Sam test-fires a Brown Bess musket, the infantry weapon of choice at Waterloo in 1815 and looks at efforts to make artillery more effective on the battlefield with the invention of ‘spherical case shot', a new type of shell that was named after its inventor - Henry Shrapnel. Last in the series.

Cast & Crew

Presenter Sam Willis
Director Linda Sands