Twelve Native American Weapons
Updated: May 4
As in all aspects of their lives, Native Americans used materials from Nature in ingenious ways to make weapons for hunting, protection, butchering and other daily tasks of living, and war. Various weapons were designed for various tasks: striking, cutting, piercing, and, sometimes, even poisoning. These weapons, as with the clothing, housing, and other artifacts they created, also had rich symbolism and, some were elaborately decorated. Native Americans also created defensive armor in the forms of shields and breastplates that were considered part of their war attire and were often spectacularly decorated.
Following are twelve of the most common weapons used by Native American tribes.
1. Bows & Arrows
Bows and arrows have been used by indigenous people of North American for at least 8,000 years. They are highly effective weapons with long reach. The arrow has a small, sharp tip attached to a wooden shaft with a slit at the end. The bow is an arced piece of material, usually wood (bone has low tensile strength and tends to snap when torqued at the ends) with a cord attaching the two ends. Cord is usually made of animal sinew, intestines, or bundled horsehair. The split in the arrow is fitted over the cord, pulled back, and released in order to shoot the arrow toward its target.
Short bows were generally used from horseback because they were more compact. Long bows were used while on foot for hunting and fighting at distances, for their accuracy and velocity were greater.
Arrows had projectile points at the end called “arrowheads,” that were generally triangularly pointed points made of stone, shell, metal, bone, or glass. Forming arrowheads was a highly developed craft and infinite types and forms of arrowheads were created for different purposes.
Knives were an important cutting tool for Native Americans. The oldest of these were made of a wooden handle and a stone or bone blade. The blades were always short. After the arrival of Europeans, the blades were made of steel or iron. Knives could be
used for killing animals or preparing food, for many daily tasks, and for war.
Knife sheaths were made to hold the knives and wear on the body. Sheaths were usually made of animal hide but could be highly decorating with dyes, fringe, beading, and other techniques.
3. Stone & Wood Clubs
Stone clubs were often carved from a solid piece of rock. Other times, they were created by attaching a round stone to a wooden handle. These were used for striking enemies, although some evidence suggests they were used for ceremonial purposes rather than fighting.
Wooden clubs were also used as striking weapons. These were either made from a solid piece of carved, hardwood. Typically, they were carved into a handle shape with a rounded, blunt end. Later, they were carved to include a sharpened end. Forest dwelling tribes often used these tools. Some clubs were also created from jawbones of large animals that made effective and fearsome-looking weapons.
4. Spears & Lances
Spears are fashioned from a long shaft or pole-shaped material, usually wood. One end was either sharpened into a point or attached to a sharp, stone tip. Native Americans could throw the spears to reach long distances or thrust them into animals or enemies.
Lances are very similar to spears but much longer. The tip of the lance is also bigger than that found on the spear. The size allowed Native Americans to use them while riding horses and were used in hunting large animals and also for war.
5. War Hatchet
A war hatchet is a small axe-like weapon. A wooden handle held a sharpened iron or stone blade. Hatchets varied from clubs in that they had sharp blades used for cutting, whereas clubs were used for blunt force. Ceremonials hatchets were also made and often highly decorated.
The tomahawk was like a hatchet or stone club type weapon Indians could use for hand-to-hand combat or as throwing weapons. A unique weapon called a pipe tomahawk became popular, especially among Plains tribes. This weapon had a hollow handle with an axe-like blade on one side of the handle and tobacco holding chamber on the other end. Tobacco was put in the bowl and could be smoked through the handle. Over time, the pipe tomahawk became a ceremonial instrument used principally for smoking.
The atlatl, another piercing weapon, is a tool used to throw spears with accuracy. It is a hollowed-out tube with a container at one end. This cup holds the spear. The length of the shaft gives the thrower more speed.
8. Blow Gun
Blowguns were ancient, primitive weapons used by Natives Americans that required minimal resources or technology to construct. Aiming different types of projectiles using blowguns demanded little equipment and not much practice to be effective. The Cherokee and other tribes used blowguns but, because they were often made of perishable materials like wood, few ancient blowguns have survived and are rarely depicted in the paintings of the period.
The bola is a type of throwing weapon made of weights on the ends of interconnected cords, used usually to capture animals by entangling their legs. The weights were made of stone, clay or leather pouches filled with rocks, gravel or sand. Each weight needed to be equal to the others in shape, size and weight for the bola to work properly. Some tribes used bolas to hunt birds, such as ducks and geese, by throwing the bolas up in the air and entangling a bird so it fell from the sky.
10. Gunstock War Club
The gunstock war club was created after the arrival of European settlers. It was designed after the shape of an 18th century musket. Researchers suggest that Native Americans imitated the weapon after watching Europeans use their guns for striking enemies. Once the tribes learned how powerful guns were, the gunstock war club became popular due to its similar appearance. Enemies often believed these weapons were actually firearms. They consisted of a wooden club with a metal blade attached to the end.
11. War Shield
War shields were used for defense and were often relatively small, roughly 20-24 inches in diameter, since they were meant to be used on horseback without limiting the warrior's range of movement. They were made of dried and processed bison skin, hardened with glue made from the bison's hooves. The more layers of skin and glue a shield had, the stronger it was and the greater its protective power in deflecting War shields were often decorated with dyes and paints and narrative symbols, often of the warrior’s exploits in battle, as well as adorned with feathers or furs, and war trophies like pieces of human scalp or fingers of the enemy.
12. Breast Plate
Breastplates were worn by Plains Indians warriors as armor, ornamentation, to display wealth, or for ceremonial purposes. Native American breastplates were handcrafted from bone, wood, leather, porcupine quills, beads, and other natural materials. The could be highly decorative.
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