What Indians Fought With

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by Hugh Pendexter

BEFORE the Plains Indian was introduced to breech-loading and repeating firearms the bow was his favorite offensive weapon. The war-club, conspicuous in Catlin’s drawings and most common in his day, passed out years before the repeating rifle reached the Plains. And the tomahawk was carried for chopping wood. The Indian bow was a short-distance weapon according to the white idea. In a flight of nearly two hundred yards it lost considerable of its force in the first few yards.

Some tribes, such as the Comanche, had the blade of the hunting-arrow in the same plane as the notch to accommodate its passage between the ribs of an animal, which, of course, are up and down. From the same motive of efficiency the war-arrow blade was perpendicular to the notch, human ribs being horizontal.

The making of a good bow required great care and much time. A quiver of arrows required much more time and labor than one bow. In the earliest encounters between the Plains Indians and United States troops it was a common practise for Indians, retreating in haste, to cling to their bows and arrows even though they threw aside their guns. That was before the repeating rifles came in.

Contrary to belief, the Indian was not a good shot with a bow at a fixed target if it be somewhat removed.

Army officers have vouched for his ability to knock a coin from a split-stick at fifty yards by causing the arrow to fly sidewise at the end of its flight. The same officers have declared an Indian can shoot all day at a square inch of paper on a tree at fifty yards and barely hit it once.

The lance ranked next to the bow in offensive warfare. The shafts were light and rather pliable and measured from eight to twelve feet, headed by a sliver of stone, or a point of metal. The Apaches and Comanches often used the long stalks of the soap plant. These tribes and others trading with, or raiding into Mexico, secured straight sword blades, which was their favorite point.

The Plains Indians’ one great weapon of defense was the shield. Combats with bows and arrows were at close range. With lances the mêlée became hand to hand. As his life often depended upon the shield it ranked first in all his war-gear. Not only did he spend much time and thought in fashioning it, but he lavished decorations upon it, and to make its “medicine” strong he often hung scalps to it and even his medicine bag. His tribe mark was painted on it. It held the place of honor in his teepee or in front of his teepee.

A volume can be written concerning the different makes of bows among the western tribes and the “releases” characteristic of various tribes. Also much can be written about the different planes of culture in making the shield. Briefly it may be said the hide from the neck of a buffalo or ox furnished the required thickness. The hair was removed and the hide put through a process of soaking and pounding. After being cut into the desired shape, it was dried and was almost impenetrable. Often times a double thickness of hide was used, and such a shield could resist a rifle bullet unless the lead hit it squarely. As it was carried on the left side, and was continually moving back and forth, a bullet was quite sure to glance off. With the advent of firearms, especially the repeating and breech-loading models, the Plains Indian strained every energy in trade and cunning to secure rifle or revolver, or both. In the later campaigns the troops found the red men were as well armed as they, and in some instances better armed.

In the old days an Indian boy commenced his bow-and-arrow practise at the age of nine. Even after firearms were common on the Plains he could not expect to obtain one until able to buy, or take from some victim. As a rule a warrior did not come into possession of rifle or revolver until about twenty-five years of age. Long association with the bow made him fond of it even after he owned the white man’s weapons.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.