Projectile Type Weapons of Ancient Egypt

Projectile Type Weapons of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

Using the Throw stick for hunting

Projectile weapons were used by the ancient Egyptian army, as well as other period military, as standoff weapons, usually used in order to soften up the enemy prior to an infantry assault. At various times during Egypt's history, different weapons were used, including throw sticks, spears or javelins, bows and arrows and slingshots. Of these, certainly the bow and arrow became the primary projectile weapon for most of Egypt's history, and yet, all of these weapons continued in some use almost throughout the Dynastic period.

The Throw Stick

The throw stick does appear to have been used to some extent during Egypt's predynastic period as a weapon, but it seems to have not been very effective for this purpose. Yet, because of their simplicity, skilled infantry continued to use this weapon at least with some regularity through the end of the New Kingdom. It was used extensively for hunting fowl through much of Egypt's dynastic period.

The spear

The spear does not fit comfortably into either the close combat class or the projectile type of weapons. It could be either. During the Old and Middle Kingdom of Egypt's Dynastic period, it typically consisted of a pointed blade made of copper or flint that was attached to a long wooden shaft by a tang. However, in the New Kingdom, bronze blades became more common, attached to the shaft by means of a socket. These conventional spears were made for throwing or thrusting, but there was also a form of spear (halberd) which was fitted with an axe blade and thus used for cutting and slashing.

A late period iron spear head from ancient Egypt

The spear was used in Egypt since the earliest times for hunting larger animals, such as lions. In its form of javelin (throwing spears) it was displaced early on by the bow and arrow. Because of its greater weight, the spear was better at penetration than the arrow, but in a region where armor consisted mostly of shields, this was only a slight advantage. On the other hand, arrows were much easier to mass produce.

A forked, spear but made of bronze

In war it never gained the importance among Egyptians which it was to have in classical Greece, where phalanxes of spear carrying citizens fought each other. During the New Kingdom it was often an auxiliary weapon of the charioteers, who were thus not left unarmed after spending all their arrows. It was also most useful in their hands when they chased down fleeing enemies stabbing them in their backs. Amenhotep II's victory at Shemesh-Edom in Canaan is described at Karnak:

" ...... Behold His Majesty was armed with his weapons, and His Majesty fought like Set in his hour. They gave way when His Majesty looked at one of them, and they fled. His majesty took all their goods himself, with his spear..... "

Karnak Stela of Amenhotep II W.M. Flinders Petrie A History of Egypt, Part Two, p.155

A Bronze Spearhead from Ancient Egypt

A Bronze Spearhead from Ancient Egypt

The spear was appreciated enough to be depicted in the hands of Ramesses III killing a Libyan. It remained short and javelin like, just about the height of a man, unlike the Macedonian lance of later times which was three to four times as long.

Bow and arrow

From left to right: Flint bifacial concave base arrowhead from the Fayoum; Bronze three sided triangular solid type arrowhead fount at Kafr Ammar dated to the Third Intermediate Period and Iron arrow head in a leaf shape with single long barbed tang found at Ibrim

From left to right: Flint bifacial concave base arrowhead from the Fayoum;
Bronze three sided triangular solid type arrowhead fount at Kafr Ammar
dated to the Third Intermediate Period and Iron arrow head in a leaf shape
with single long barbed tang found at Ibrim

The bow and arrow as one of ancient Egypt's most crucial weapons, used from Predynastic times through the end of the Pharaonic period, and of course, much later into the Christian and archaic Islamic periods. Some of the first bows that we know of were the "horn bows", made by joining a pair of antelope horns by a central piece of wood, which were common.

Ramesses II fires an arrow from his chariot

By the beginning of the Dynastic Period, we find bows that had a single curvature and were made of wood and strung with sinews or strings made of plant fiber. In the pre-dynastic period bows frequently had a double curvature, but during the Old Kingdom a single-arched bow, known as a self (or simple) bow, was adopted. These were used to fire reed arrows fletched with three feathers and tipped with flint or hardwood, and later, bronze points. The bow itself was usually between one and two meters in length and made up of a wooden rod, narrowing at either end. Some of the longer self bows were strengthened at certain points by binding the wooden rod with cord. Drawing a single-arched bow was harder and one lost the advantage of draw-length double curvature provided.

During the New Kingdom the composite bow came into use, having been introduced by the Asiatic Hyksos. Often the bows were not made in Egypt itself but imported from the Middle East, as was the case with other 'modern' weapons. The older, single-curved bow was not completely abandoned, however. For example, it would appear that Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II continued to use the earlier style bows. A difficult weapon to use successfully, it demanded strength, dexterity and years of practice and the experienced soldier chose his weapon with care. For example, we are told that:

Amenhotep II ... drew three hundred of the bows hardest to bend in order to examine the workmanship, to distinguish between a worker who doesn't know his profession and the expert.

We are then told that he chose a bow without flaw which only he could draw.

... he came to the northern shooting range and found they had prepared for him four targets made of Asiatic copper thick as a man's palm. Twenty cubits divided between the poles. When His Majesty appeared in his Chariot like Montu with all his power, he reached for his bow and grabbed four arrows with one hand. He speeded his chariot shooting at the targets, like Montu the god. His arrow penetrated the target, cleaving it. He drew his bow again at the second target. None had ever hit a target like this, none had ever heard that a man shot an arrow a target made of copper and that it should cleave the target and fall to the ground, none but the king, strong and powerful, as Amen made him a conqueror.

Stela of Amenhotep II

An ornamental golden bow from ancient Egypt

The composite bow was adopted because of the inherent limitations of the simple bow. Achieving greatest possible range with a bow as small and light as possible was of utmost importance. The maximal draw length possible was the length of the archer's arm. A bow which, while unstrung curved forwards, was under an initial tension. The draw weight was thus dramatically increased. This could not be done with a simple wooden bow. The wood had to be supported, otherwise it would break. This was achieved by adding horn to the belly of the bow (the part of the bow facing the archer) which would be compressed during the draw and sinew to the back which could, thanks to its elasticity, withstand the tension. All these layers were glued together and covered with birch bark to protect them.

However, the composite bows needed more care than simple bows, and were much more difficult and expensive to produce. They were more vulnerable to moisture, requiring them to be covered. They had to be unstrung when not in use and re-strung for action, a feat which required not a little force and generally the help of a second person.

Hence, they were not used as much as one might expect. The simple, stave bow never therefore disappeared from the battlefield even during the New Kingdom. The simpler bows were used by the built of the archers, while the available composite bows went first to the chariotry, where their penetrative power was necessary to pierce scale armor.

The arrows had heads made of flint, which were replaced by bronze heads in the 2nd millennium. They were mostly made for piercing, having a sharp point. However, the arrow heads could vary considerably, and some were even blunt (probably used more for hunting small game).

The sling

Sling, finely woven with a thick plaited cord. Found at Lahun

Hurling stones with the help of a slingshot demanded little equipment but considerable practice in order to be effective. Secondary to the bow and arrow in battle, the slingshot was rarely depicted. The first drawings date to the 20th century BC. Made of perishable materials, few ancient slingshots have survived. It relied on the impact the missile made and like most impact weapons was relegated to play a subsidiary role. In the hands of lightly armed skirmishers it was used to distract the attention of the enemy. One of its main advantages was the easy availability of ammunition in many locations. When lead became more widely available during the Late Period, sling bullets were cast. These were preferred to pebbles because of their greater weight which made them more effective. They often bore a mark.

lead sling bullet with star emblem on one side and thunderbolt emblem on other side. almond shaped. beige/grey color - Found at Memphis and dating to the Late period

Lead sling bullet with star emblem on one side
and thunderbolt emblem on other side


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Armies of the Pharaohs Healy, Mark 1992 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 85532 939 5
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Egyptian Warfare and Weapons Shaw, Ian 1991 Shire Publications LTD ISBN 0 7478 0142 8
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Warrior Pharaoh, The: Rameses II and the Battle of Qadesh Healy, Mark 1993 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 84176 039 0

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