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