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Native American Indian Weapons

Welcome to Native Languages of the Americas! Here is a list with information and pictures of some of the Native American weapon styles different tribes developed over the years.



Native American Weapons

Native American Bows and Arrows

When people think of American Indian weapons, the bow and arrow is usually the first thing that springs to mind-- and for good reason. Nearly every Native American tribe used some form of bow and arrow as a weapon for hunting, war, or both. Some tribes, particularly in South America, even used bows and arrows for fishing. Bows and arrows have been used in the Americas since the Stone Age, so different tribes had plenty of time to perfect this weapon technology. Scientists have learned that the oldest Paleo-Indian arrowheads discovered in North America are more than 13,000 years old! Some arrowheads made by Native American ancestors were even found together with the bones of extinct prehistoric animals like woolly mammoths and giant bison.

Here are pictures of different Native American bows and arrows:

Sioux Indian bow
and arrows

Blackfoot WWII veteran
demonstrating a war bow

Actor Wes Studi firing a
shortbow from horseback

Brazilian Indian man
bow-fishing

Inuit hunter with
bow and arrow

Most Native American bows were made of wood. The most powerful wooden bows were backed with sinew (animal tendons) to make them springier. Some tribes in the Rocky Mountain area used composite bows made from animal horn and layers of sinew. These were the most powerful American Indian bows of all, able to shoot an arrow completely through the body of a buffalo. Some tribes originally preferred longbows, while others preferred short bows. Once horses were introduced to the Americas, most Native Americans began to favor short bows, since they could be fired from horseback. Most Native American bowstrings were made from sinew, although some tribes wove bowstrings from yucca or other plant fibers. Most Native American arrows were wooden with arrowheads made of flint or another hard stone, although some tribes used copper or bone arrowheads, and hunting arrows intended for small game like birds often had no arrowhead at all and were simply sharpened shafts of wood. American Indian arrows were nearly always fletched with feathers to make them fly straighter, whereas the arrows of the Inuit and other polar cultures did not use feather fletching.

Native American Spears

Spears are another kind of Native American weapon that dates back to ancient times. Like bows and arrows, spears were used for both hunting and warfare. Native American spears were particularly powerful weapons due to the special atlatls (also known as spear-throwers, throwing-sticks, or throwing boards) the Indians used to launch their spears. An atlatl is a thin wooden shaft with a hollowed-out cup at the end. By balancing the butt of the spear in the cup and then swinging the atlatl, Native American hunters and warriors could increase their leverage to hurl spears much faster and further than they could using their arms alone. Conquistadors and other early Europeans who fought with Native American tribes reported that spears propelled from atlatls were capable of penetrating chain mail armor. The word "atlatl" comes from the Aztec language, but this tool was used by most tribes throughout North America, Central America, and much of South America.

Here are pictures of Native American spear styles:

American Indian spear
and spear-thrower

Eskimo hunter with harpoon
and throwing-stick

Actor Rodney Grant wielding
a Plains Indian lance

Most Native American spears were intended as missile weapons. They were made of lightweight wood and stone or bone spearheads, often fletched with feathers as arrows were. But in some North American tribes, particularly Plains Indian tribes, some warriors used a type of melee spear, frequently referred to as a lance. Originally used as a thrusting weapon in hand-to-hand combat, after the introduction of horses, war lances became a prestigious weapon of mounted warriors, and took on symbolic and ceremonial importance in some tribes as well. The Inuit and some Northwest Coast cultures used harpoons to hunt whales, walruses, and other large marine animals. Harpoons were heavy wooden spears attached to cords made of a strong material like sealskin, so that a successfully speared animal could be reeled in.

Native American War Clubs

Clubs are the simplest form of American Indian weapon. Clubs have been used in every human society known to history and can be as simple as a heavy stick of wood. When people talk about "Native American clubs," however, they are usually referring specifically to war clubs, a stylized type of wooden or stone club with a heavy rounded head (sometimes also with a single spike.) These mace-like weapons were not used for hunting; they were used for warfare, duels, and executions, or for ceremonial purposes.

Here are pictures of some different types of Native American clubs:

Chippewa ball-headed
war club

Plains Indian
stone club

Northwest Coast
carved club

Great Lakes
spiked club

The Ball-Headed War Clubs, used by the Iroquois and Algonquian tribes of the eastern woodlands, were assymetrical, often curved wooden clubs with the handle and heavy round head both carved from a single piece of wood. Plains War Clubs tended to have wooden shafts with symmetrical stone heads bound to them with rawhide. Northwest Coast War Clubs were wooden clubs shaped like baseball bats, but like European scepters, they often held great ceremonial and societal importance, so they were often so ornately carved and inlaid that they were functionally unusable in combat.

Native American Tomahawks and Axes

Although stone axes had been used as tools and ritual objects by Native Americans for millenia, the axe did not become popular as a weapon until after Europeans had introduced iron and steel to native tribes. In fact, the word "tomahawk"-- which is now synonymous with Indian-style fighting hatchets-- originally referred to a war club in the Powhatan language. Once steel became available, however, axes with metal heads eclipsed the more old-fashioned war clubs as the Native American melee weapon of choice, and the word "tomahawk" began to be widely used to refer to this style of weapon.

Here are pictures of some different types of Native American tomahawk:

Mississippian monolithic
stone axe

19th-century
Lakota tomahawk

Iroquois spiked
tomahawk head

Carved catlinite head
of a pipe tomahawk

Fox Indian chief with
Missouri war axe

Tomahawks were prized by Native American warriors for their versatility. They could be used in hand-to-hand combat, thrown short distances, or used as a tool. The length of the shaft varied from as short as one foot for the throwing tomahawks of some tribes, to nearly three feet for the two-handed war axes of others. Pipe tomahawks were more ceremonial in nature (using the same shaft of wood as both the handle of a tomahawk, symbolic of war, and the body of a pipe, symbolic of peace.) Many were very ornate, made with unwieldy carved stone heads, and never actually used in battle. Others were more simply built and were completely functional as both a military weapon and a pipe. Spiked tomahawks retained the single spike found on the war clubs of some tribes, so that the tomahawk could still be used as a piercing weapon as well as a hatchet. Missouri war axes had the unusual trait of having hearts, crescents, and geometric patterns cut out of the axe blade (weakening, though lightening, the blade.)

Native American Knives

Most early Native American knives were made of sharpened stone, particularly flint, chert, and obsidian. Copper knives were also popular Native American weapons, particularly in the Northwest Coast tribes. After iron was introduced to North America by the Europeans, the Northwest Coast metalworkers became adept at producing ornate iron and steel knives, similar in design to their traditional copper knives but harder and stronger. The Inuit and other Eskimo peoples made distinctively shaped knives called ulu from ivory, bone, or copper, but an ulu was used as a weapon only as a last resort, more often serving as a versatile tool for preparing food and hides, making crafts, and building igloos.

Here are some photos showing different types of Native American knives:

Old-style stone knife
made by a Navajo craftsman

Copper Tlingit
Indian dagger

Athabaskan Indian
split-handled knife

Inupiaq woman
using an ulu knife

Native American Swords

Swords were not traditional weapons of Native Americans in most tribes, and never became very popular after European contact either. An exception is the native tribes of Alaska, where longer iron versions of the traditional double-sided daggers were made by the Tlingit and Haida people in the 1800's. In Mexico, a unique style of sword called the macuahuitl was used by Aztec warriors. Though the sword itself was made of wood, it was inlaid with strips of razor-sharp obsidian and used as a slashing weapon. According to Spanish accounts, macuahuitl swords, though unwieldy, were powerful enough to decapitate a horse.

Here are some images of Native American swords:

19th-century Tlingit
iron sword

Aztec warrior with
maquahuitl sword

Athabaskan long knife
or short sword

Native American Coup Sticks

In many North American tribes, it is considered the traditional pinnacle of bravery to touch or strike an enemy in face-to-face combat without killing him (a tradition which Europeans gave the name counting coups. "Coup" means "a blow" in French.) This belief is still an important one in many Native American cultures. Some Plains Indian tribes had ritualized this tradition so much that they developed special non-lethal weapons known as coup sticks. Coup sticks were generally either a wooden rod with a curved end-- often decorated with quillwork, beads, and feathers-- or a flexible whip-like branch. Because of the cultural significance of counting coup, Native American coup sticks took on a more ceremonial role as a symbol of leadership and honor. Eagle feather staffs, which are still carried by some chiefs, elders, and veterans as a sort of standard or flag, are considered by some tribes to be a form of coup stick.

Here are some pictures of Native American coup sticks:

Reproduction of a
beaded coup stick

Blackfoot chief with
an eagle-feather staff

Native American Bolas

Bolas are Indian hunting weapons made from ropes with weighted ends, which are swung around in a circle and then launched at a prey animal, entangling it. These Native Indian weapons were primarily used in South America to hunt guanaco and flightless birds like rheas; some gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) still use them today to rope cattle. A lighter form of bolas called qilumitautit was used to catch birds by the Inuit and Aleut tribes of the Arctic north, but bolas were otherwise not used by North American tribes. (Excavation of archaeological sites in California has shown that bolas were among the weapons used by Native Americans in prehistoric times, but they disappeared long before Europeans arrived in the Americas-- presumably they went out of favor in most tribes as Native American bow-making became more advanced.)

Here are some pictures of American Indian bolas:

Argentinian Indian
set of bolas

Illustration of Chilean Indians
hunting with bolas

Qilumitautit
(Eskimo bola)

Native American Blowguns and Darts

Blowguns (also known as blow tubes or blowpipes) are primarily a small-game weapon used by South American, Central American, and Mexican Indian hunters. Some Southeastern tribes of North America, such as the Seminole and Cherokee, also used blowguns for bird hunting. American Indian blowguns were almost never used as weapons of war-- the only exceptions were South American tribes who used poisoned darts to weaken or kill opponents (see Poison, below.) Most Native American blowguns are either made from a stiff reed such as rivercane or a thick stick of wood hollowed out to form a tube, and the hunter blows into the tube to propel a dart or clay pellet out the other side.

Here are some pictures of American Indian blowguns:

Yagua Indian with
blowgun and dart

Pucuna (blowgun)
mouthpiece from Peru

Maya man with blowpipe
and clay pellet

Unusual Native American Weapons

Other, less common weapons have been used occasionally by Native American tribes. The pellet bow (also called sling bow or stone bow) was used as a native weapon for bird hunting by a few rainforest tribes of Brazil and Paraguay. These unusual bows had two strings and were asymmetrical. Clay pellets were placed between the two strings to be fired, and the lopsided design kept a pellet from hitting the frame of the bow. Special fishing spears were used by the Inuit and some Native American tribes of eastern Canada. Known as kakivak in the Inuktitut language, these spears were equipped with back-angled side prongs intended to catch and hold a fish speared in deep water, as from a boat in the open ocean or through a hole in the ice. Poisons, especially curare and dart-frog poison, were used extensively by some South American tribes for both hunting and warfare. Most often the poison was used to coat native weapons such as arrowheads or blowdarts, but there are also many stories of poison being used as a secret murder weapon among these tribes.

Here are some pictures of these unusual Native weapon types:

Paraguayan pellet bow

Eskimo fishing spear

Poison dart frog

Native American Shields and Armor

Hide shields were commonly carried by American Indian warriors in many North American tribes. Their size and construction varied from tribe to tribe, but most Native American shields were round in shape, about three feet in diameter, and made of wood covered in layers of hardened rawhide. These shields were primarily designed to deflect arrows and other missile weapons, and were not commonly used in hand-to-hand combat. Native American warriors in most tribes fought lightly armored, wearing only a leather overshirt and perhaps a breastplate, to improve their agility and showcase their individual bravery. Plains Indian breastplates were usually made of bone or wooden tubes laced together to protect the chest without restricting movement. Some tribes, particularly in the Northwest Coast, used heavier rod armor made of interlocking wooden plates and rods, and in same cases even two-piece carved wooden helmets consisting of a top helm and a lower visor.

Here are some photos of Native American armor and shields:

Cheyenne Indian war shield
of hide over a wood frame

Plains Indian breastplate
made by Blackfoot artists

Tlingit man in wood
armor and visor

Tlingit wooden
helmet and visor set

Are Native American weapons like these still used today?

In North America, very rarely. Bow hunting is still popular in some tribes, but Native American people typically use modern bows today, just as their non-Native neighbors do. Sometimes more traditional American Indian weapon styles are used for hunting or competitions during cultural festivals. In Alaska and northern Canada, steel versions of the traditional Inuit ulu are still used as utility tools. Most often, these traditional Native American weapons are used as regalia or ceremonial objects today, not for hunting or fighting. In some parts of Central and South America, however-- particularly in the rainforest-- there are tribes that still rely on traditional native weapons like blowguns or bows and arrows to feed their families.

Recommended Indian Weaponry Books

Native American Weapons:
    Picture book illustrating American Indian weapon types from different tribes.
Ritual and Honour: Warriors of the North American Plains:
    Interesting book about Plains Indian weapons, armor, and war traditions.
Making Native American Hunting, Fighting, and Survival Tools:
    How-to guide for making Native American weapons and tools.
Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans: * American Indian Archery:
    In-depth books about the history and construction of the Native American bow and arrow.
Weapons of the American Indians * Native American Tools and Weapons:
    Illustrated books of Native American weapon information for kids.
Southwest Indian Weapons * Iroquois Confederacy Weapons * Woodland Indian Weapons:
    Pacific Northwest Indian Weapons: * Plains Indian Weapons * Great Lakes Indian Weapons:
     Book series giving detailed information about Native American weapons and warfare in different regions.

Further Reading

Archery Equipment of the Americas:
    Online exhibit of Native American bows and arrows from the Museum of Anthropology.
Weapons of the Inuit:
    Photographs and facts about Inuit (Eskimo) weapons.
Paleo-Indian, Meso-Indian, and Neo-Indian Weapons:
    Archaeological information and photographs about prehistoric spear points, arrow heads, and other ancient Indian weapons.
Crazy Crow War Clubs and Kachina House Knives:
    Traditional style Indian weapons for sale, made by contemporary Native American craftspeople.



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