An Overview of Egyptian Weapons

The patterns of ancient Egyptian weaponry were set in the late Predynastic, and only the war against the Hyksos at the end of the Second Intermediate Period brought any significant change to the Egyptian arsenal. Naturally, the conquest of the north by foreigners shook the complacency of the Egyptians, and so they were more receptive to adopting the weapons of their occupiers. Otherwise, the Egyptians were content to use traditional weapons with only gradual and incremental improvements.

MACES. A mace is principally a club fitted with a head made of stone or metal for extra weight and striking power. As such, it is both effective and simple, and for these reasons it became a highly favored weapon from the Predynastic until the New Kingdom. The earliest maces were made from surprisingly thin stone rings fitted onto correspondingly slender hafts, but by the time of early kings like Scorpion, these little maceheads had been replaced by larger, more bulbous maceheads that clearly delivered a much heavier blow. Despite its simplicity, the mace became the definitive weapon of royalty by the time of unification, as demonstrated by the “smiting” image on the Narmer Palette. Even after the mace ceased to be an important weapon of war in the New Kingdom, it remained a symbol of royal victory and the subjugation of the king’s enemies.

SPEARS. The spear enjoyed an even longer period of service, having come to the Nile Valley with the Saharan migrants who settled there, and remaining in use through the Roman period. The earliest spears had flint heads, and in many cases this continued to be used even after copper spearheads began to be fashioned in the Early Dynastic period. Weaponsmiths began to use bronze during the Middle Kingdom, but the design changed little apart from the shift from the use of a tang to a socket in order to fix the head to the shaft. All evidence, including models as well as drawings, show spears as man-sized or slightly smaller in length, suggesting that they were used on the battlefield in the same fashion as hunting spears; the Egyptians did not use exceptionally long spears for superior reach in the way that the Greek phalanx would later do. One interesting variant seen in the Middle and New Kingdoms involves the placement of a short axe-blade to a spear shaft for use in the manner of a Renaissance halberd.

AXES. Axes, like spears, were early tool-weapons that gained favor in the military context and remained in use throughout Egyptian history. Early axes took a half-moon shape, solid in the Old Kingdom, and with cut-outs near the handle in the Middle Kingdom. Later axeheads were longer from handle to blade, and narrower from top to bottom. Interestingly, the Egyptians continued to fix the axeheads to their handles with tangs even after their neighbors began to use sockets.

BOWS AND ARROWS. Another traditional hunting-weapon adapted to the battlefield, the bow always had a significant place on the Egyptian battlefield. Traditionally, the Egyptians used a simple self-bow with a single curve, in contrast to Nubian bows which had two curves. One of the changes that would come during the war against the Hyksos was the introduction of the composite bow. This greatly enhanced the range of the arrow, but also made the bow more difficult and expensive to make, as well as being more susceptible to the elements. Composite bows, therefore, were given primarily to the new chariot arm, and most archers continued to use simple bows.

THROWSTICKS. Throwing sticks of varying shapes, many resembling the typical boomerang of today, are well-attested in Egyptian art and in the equipment found in tombs. They are best known in depictions of bird-hunting in the Delta, but they have been shown in military contexts as well. It is not clear to what degree they were actually used in battle, or how effective they were.

DAGGERS. Traditionally, the dagger was a backup weapon rather than a weapon of first resort, and this was likely true for the Egyptian soldier as well. At the same time, it has also been a useful tool on the battlefield and in camp, and this is certainly true for the Egyptian. It is known that Egyptian soldiers would take trophies from slain opponents, such as their hands, and the dagger was useful in this context. Daggers followed the general progression that has already been seen in the cases of spears, beginning with flint knives, to which copper and then bronze daggers were added without ever fully replacing their stone equivalents.

KHOPESH. The curved Khopesh swords were among the new elements adopted by the Egyptians during their fight with the Hyksos. The earliest forms of the khopesh were really curved daggers, and these grew in time to serve as a kind of short sword or scimitar. Ironically, this weapon of foreign origin has become the quintessential Egyptian weapon in the modern imagination.

CHARIOT. The most important weapon taken from the Hyksos must be the chariot, which revolutionized Egyptian warfare and enabled the newly resurgent Egyptian state to embark upon the path of Empire. As the Egyptians used it, the chariot was essentially a mobile archery platform, enabling the rapid deployment and withdrawal of skilled archers. What made the Egyptian chariotry distinctive was its minimalist approach to the chariot itself. It consisted of a small basket, suitable only for the archer and his driver, resting on a light axle fixed to the rear of the basket; after some experimentation, the Egyptians settled on a very light, six-spoked wheel at each side of the axle. The result was a fast and maneuverable vehicle that helped to keep the Egyptian military dominant in the Near East until the 12th century BC.

These are the basic weapons of the Egyptian state. Other weapons entered Egyptian service through the use of mercenaries, such as Nubians, Libyans and the Sherden of what is now Sardinia, but those are the weapons of the mercenaries’ own culture. It is clear that the Egyptians did not cultivate a great deal of innovation in their weaponry, but other forces served to give the military its strength, such as a stable population base, a strong economy, and superior organizational skills. As long as the Egyptian state remained strong, so too did its military.


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