America first became inhabited thousands of years ago, when prehistoric people crossed the Bering Strait and settled. Which weapons did Native Americans use?
Native American Indians used the bow and arrow for both hunting and warfare, with the type of bow varying from tribe to tribe. Stone axes were used as tools but the introduction of metalworking by European explorers led to the rise of the iron and steel ax, known as the tomahawk.
For more on the weaponry wielded by Native American Indians and how they became influenced by explorers, read on.
Perhaps the most widespread and significant of all American Indian weapons, bows and arrows were found in almost every Native American tribe. Skill with a bow was important for both warfare and, crucially, hunting for food.
The bow was not always present in American Indian tribes and was first used in approximately 500 CE. When people migrated and traded across North and South America, the bow spread with them and was eventually found in every corner of the two continents.
Some tribes also used bows for fishing, but this was more common in South America. Some ancient arrowheads have been discovered with woolly mammoth remains; a sign of just how long some Native Americans have been using the weapon.
Bows were made using wood, which was plentiful, but some tribes took this technology further by using animal sinew to add extra tension.
There were also more advanced composite bows, which used animal horns as a material. With the introduction of the horse by European explorers, many American Indian tribes began using smaller bows as they could be used from horseback.
Spears were wielded by Native American tribes and were generally used as ranged weapons. To allow for greater range and accuracy, spears were made using lightweight wood and had feather fletching, much like arrows.
The earliest North American settlers likely brought early forms of their melee weapons with them when they made the crossing from Asia. These would have included clubs, which were likely the first weapon wielded by humans.
American Indians often used clubs, which usually had a narrow handle and a relatively large wooden or stone head. The head was round and sometimes featured a spike to inflict extra damage. Unlike ranged weapons, clubs were exclusively for use against other humans in war and executions.
Stone axes were always used by Native American Indians but they were not used as weapons. They were used instead as a tool and sometimes in rituals. When European explorers arrived and began trading with native tribes, they brought iron and steel with them.
Metal axes quickly became widespread across America. The tomahawk, a name that originally referred to a type of club, became perhaps the most iconic American Indian weapon. Its versatility meant it could perform several important tasks for natives. It was useful as a tool, a melee weapon, and could also be thrown by a skilled wielder.
The knife was another weapon that was heavily influenced by the arrival of Europeans. Early Native American knives were made using sharpened stone but the introduction of metalworking led to metal knives becoming increasingly popular.
Though spears were mostly used as throwing weapons, some Plains Indian tribes used a larger spear in melee combat. This was usually referred to as a lance or wahúkeza to differentiate it from the more lightweight versions.
A respected tradition in many American Indian tribes was striking or touching an enemy in combat without killing them. European explorers referred to the tradition as “counting coup”, with each “coup” being notched onto the individual’s weapon after the battle.
A coup did not necessarily need to include physical contact, it could also refer to feats such as taking an enemy’s horse and escaping unscathed.
In time, some tribes developed the coup stick, a type of nonlethal wooden weapon, often with a curved end. Coup sticks were sometimes used in battle but also became symbolic of an individual’s bravery, with their personal feats notched onto the shaft of the stick.
Native American battle equipment was not purely offensive. American Indians also used wooden shields, which were usually circular and covered in layers of animal hide. As they rarely wore armor in battle and favored speed and mobility, the shield was vital for protecting a warrior from arrows. This was the primary purpose of shields, as they were rarely used in melee combat.