Chicken guns and other bizarre stories of the science of war

Science Friday
A history enthusiast, dressed as a soldier, fights during the re-enactment of Napoleon's famous battle of Austerlitz.

There are weapons we’ve all heard of: assault rifles, bombs, grenades and rocket launchers. But there are many tools of warfare that are less famous: chicken guns, stink bombs and maggots, for instance. 

Author Mary Roach has long been interested in the strange science of the human condition and in her new book, “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War," she goes behind the front lines to investigate the sometimes bizarre science of humans at war. 

“All the things that we ordinary individuals deal with at a certain level like just ordinary heat and ordinary sleep deprivation, people in the military are dealing with an intense load of it whether it's sleep deprivation, or heat, or what you're carrying, or flies in the desert, or you name it,” Roach says. “It becomes enough of a burden that there's science dedicated to trying to mitigate the effects of it and there's all kinds of interesting labs and places to investigate.”

One of the phenomena Roach investigates is the little-known weapon called the chicken gun. 

“It’s kind of what it sounds like,” Roach says. “It's a piece of heavy artillery that fires supermarket chickens at jets or airplanes.” It's strange but true: The gun launches a thawed out chicken carcass toward aircraft, aiming to smash into the windshield or get sucked into a plane engine. 

“It's just an example of how unexpected military science can be — just these these little bursts of heroics that nobody hears about,” Roach says. 

Among other unexpected heroes of military science? Maggots. Roach says they are an FDA-approved medical device that can be used to debride a wound, clearing away dead flesh to make room for healthy new growth. Maggots are now used in both military and civilian populations.

“It's very effective and it's used a lot in specifically in diabetic populations,” Roach says. “There are foot ulcers that it's very difficult to get them to heal sometimes. The maggot therapy has been very effective with with them … when you put the maggots into the wound [patients] kind of get involved … [they] refer to them, they get involved with the little guys and gals and … there's a fondness for the maggots.”

Another military marvel Roach’s book details is the military grade stink bomb. 

“A lot of thought went into this little tube of stench and the nickname for the substance was 'Who Me?' because originally it had kind of a fecal smell and it has morphed over the years to become various other scents,” Roach says. 

The “mother of all stinks,” as Roach calls it, was actually not a bomb. It was a paste or spray — a stench liquid that the precursor to the CIA in WWII wanted to use as a secret weapon. It was meant to be subtly sprayed on the uniforms of enemy soldiers when out in public. 

“You'd sidle up and sort of spray this thing and and it was a foul smell and it also had this compound that would delay the onset of the odor which would enable the operator to escape before the smell hit and so they wouldn't get caught,” Roach says.

Now stink weapons are often used as a non-lethal weapon, sort of like tear gas, and are sometimes employed in situations to clear a room or a crowd. It starts out with a floral-fruity top note that encourages victims to inhale deeply. As soon as they take a second sniff they’re hit with a terrifying unidentifiable stench. 

“[It’s] something that smells so vile that you can't be in the room with it, and believe me, that's not an exaggeration,” Roach says. “The floral-fruity creates an element of mystery, which is also effective because when a smell isn't identifiable, it's more frightening because it's not only repugnant, it’s also scary. Like, ‘I don't know what that is. It might be dangerous.’ So people tend to want to get away from it.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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