Edged, Close Combat Weapons
of the Ancient Egyptians
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox
The battle axe
Ramesses II smiting his enemies with a battle axe rather than a mace
Axes were probably used very early in Egyptian warfare, though at first they were perhaps no different than the tool used for peaceful purposes, such as cutting would. As a practical weapon, it was the battle axe that eventually replaced the mace as one of the Egyptian military's primary close combat weapons.
Infantry armed with battle axes were typically deployed after the enemy had been weakened by archers. The axe was more effective in cutting wounded or fleeing enemies to pieces than it was in breaching an intact battle line. The Hyksos, Asiatics themselves, are credited with having introduced scale body armor into Egypt and brought about changes in the form of the battle axe there by the middle of the 2nd millennium.
Openwork ceremonial axe head dating to the New Kingdom (Belonging to Ahmose I)
Hence, one distinguishes between two kinds of battle axe: the cutting and the piercing axe. Both were used by Egyptian soldiers, but under different circumstances.
The cutting axe is a blade fastened to a sizable handle, the idea being to keep as far as possible from harm's way. As relatively little power was exerted the affixing of the blade to the handle was not very critical. The head was generally inserted into a hole or groove in the wooden handle and tied fast. The cutting axe is effective against enemies who do not wear body armor and helmets, as was the custom in Africa, Egypt included. It disappeared as armor became more prevalent, which happened later in Egypt than in Asia, where as early as the 3rd millennium BC Sumerians are depicted wearing helmets.
The piercing axe was designed to penetrate armor, above all helmets. In Asiatic cultures this brought about a change in the way the blade was connected to the handle. The blade was cast with an eye through which the handle could be inserted. In Egypt on the other hand they continued to use the old method of fixing the blade to the handle in a mortise and tenon fashion.
In reality, the cutting blade was used throughout Egyptian Dynastic history, while the piercing blade did not appear until the Middle Kingdom. Overall, we can distinguish between about five different subtypes of battle axes.
In the Old and Middle Kingdom, we find a relatively small, semicircular axe head affixed to a long shaft, while the first, long piercing axe head shows up only in the Middle Kingdom. Also in the Middle Kingdom, we also begin to see the scalloped, or tanged axe head. Then in the New Kingdom, we find a very long, narrow axe head used for piercing, as well as an openwork axe head, introduced at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty which appears to have been purely for ceremonial or funerary purposes. Essentially, the New Kingdom battle axe blades were refined into a much longer, narrower and straighter form designed to achieve deeper penetration. Hence, throughout the dynastic period, the battle axe was one of the most commonly used weapons, first eclipsing the mace, and then gradually being replaced itself.
Even the adaptation of the axe to piercing armor could not prevent its falling into disuse. By the end of the New Kingdom it had been replaced by the sword as a practical close combat weapon, though it continued in some use. However, the Egyptians had a great respect for their own antiquity. For example they continued to use flint knives even up to the Roman period for ritual butchering, and, like the mace, we continue to find examples of ornamental or ceremonial battle axes long after their abandonment as a practical weapon.
Daggers were used as a weapon from the very earliest periods of Egyptian history, though like the battle axe, initially they were one and the same as knives used for non-military work. Initially made of flint, at no time would the standard dagger have been a very effective weapon against battle axes or even maces, with their long reach. However, almost from the very beginning of Egyptian history, they were adorned as ceremonial objects, first made of flint, but with golden hilts at times, and later even more ornate and varied construction.
However, it was the dagger that would eventually lead to a more useful close combat weapon: the sword.
Unlike the other arms used by the ancient Egyptians, including knives and daggers, swords were a direct consequence of the introduction of metal. There are no stone predecessors of this kind of weapon. Axes, arrows and spears have a long wooden handle or shaft and a small cutting or piercing head which was fashioned of flint during the Neolithic period. Swords, on the other hand, often have short wooden or ivory handles and long cutting edges, which could only be achieved with a metal harder than copper. Bronze, easier to cast than copper and significantly harder, was first used for making swords. Its natural temper could be further augmented by repeated heating and cooling and hammering.
Initially, what we may think of as a sword was simply an elongated dagger. This weapon first seems to have appeared at the beginning of the New Kingdom and gradually developed into a weapon resembling a short sword. The most specialized form of these early daggers was the khepesh, modeled on an Asiatic form that first appeared in the Second Intermediate Period, though it did not see widespread use in Egypt until the late New Kingdom. We find, for example, khepesh, which were named for their similarity to the foreleg of an animal and were very scimitar-like weapons, being employed to decapitate Sea People prisoners in reliefs from the time of Ramsesses III.
The Sea Peoples had learned metallurgical techniques from the more advanced peoples in eastern Europe. After their defeat, many were incorporated into the Egyptian army, and under their influence longer swords of up to 75 centimeters began to be forged. They moreover favored a straight, two-edged blade with a sharp point, which replaced the curved Egyptian swords. But it was with improvements in the production and working of iron that the sword became the main weapon of the ancient infantry all around the Mediterranean. Less brittle than bronze, iron weapons could be made thinner and lighter and still retain their strength. Maces and axes were effective because of the weight of their heads and the force of the fighter, iron swords favored the swordsman with the better technique. Precision of movement and the timing of the strike could give even physically less than overwhelming soldiers an edge over much stronger opponents.
Swords can be used for both cutting and stabbing. The blades of cutting swords were often bent and wide. Those used mainly for stabbing were straight ending in a sharp point and light-weight with the center of gravity as close to the handle as possible. Troop contingents were issued with either of these kinds of sword and deployed accordingly.
In the army of Ramesses III for instance, Sherden and Philistine mercenaries armed with pointed piercing swords preceded native Egyptian soldiers with curved cutting swords. The Sea People shock troops breached the ranks of their Libyan opponents who were then cut to pieces by the Egyptians.
Scabbards were known, though seemingly rarely used. They had little metal eyes with which they could be fastened to a belt (see magnification).
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