Ancient Egyptian Weapons: The Evolution of Warfare
Anyone interested in the history of warfare or weaponry should make sure to look at ancient Egyptian weapons and how the Egyptian armies utilized their technological superiority. Whilst most famous for its architectural wonders, ancient Egypt once wielded the most terrifying fighting force the world had ever seen. The history of the rise and eventual fall of Egypt’s military is ultimately all about ancient Egyptian weapons!
Humble Beginnings: Early Ancient Egyptian Weapons
The Egyptian weapons of the Early Dynastic Period (3150 BC-2613 BC) were as simple as one might expect. Military weapons consisted of basic daggers, spears, and maces for melee combat along with primitive bows for long-range combat.
The spears were rudimentary and very similar to those used by predynastic Egyptian hunters . The only real advancement was the introduction of copper spearheads, which offered better penetration than the traditional flint tip. However, metallurgy in this early period was expensive and it is unclear how widespread the use of copper spear tips was among the average foot soldiers.
Troops carried a dagger as a secondary weapon. The dagger normally had a copper blade and was used at either very close range or to finish off wounded enemies. The blades were too brittle to be reliable in one-to-one combat. The second they hit bone or another blade they were likely to chip or even snap, which was less than ideal.
The mace was another secondary weapon issued to some foot soldiers. The heads were either made of hardwood or pear-shaped stone. The mace could be used to smash through enemy shields or dispatch wounded enemies with one quick blow to the skull.
For longer ranges, the Egyptians began to use archers during this period. However, these rudimentary single-arched bows weren’t much use. They were difficult to draw, had an embarrassingly short range, and were inaccurate to boot. These problems were compounded by the fact that archers were drawn from low-class peasantry who mostly had no experience in bow hunting.
The early foot soldiers of Egypt, in the Middle Kingdom, had simple ancient Egyptian weapons: a shield, a spear and probably a dagger but not much more! Wooden figures of the Egyptian army of the 11th Dynasty found in the tomb of Mesehti. (Udimu / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The United Middle Kingdom: Investing in a National Military
Things begin to change for the Egyptian army with the rise of Mentuhotep II of Thebes. In early Egypt, the empire was made up of different regions all led by individual nomarchs (regional leaders with their own armies) who answered to the central government. If the central government called, you and your army came running.
These small armies mostly consisted of poorly trained and poorly equipped peasant conscripts. The thinking of the time was why waste expensive equipment and training on peasant cannon fodder?
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Mentuhotep was not a fan of this system though. In 2050 BC he defeated the central government's ruling party at Herakleopolis and in doing so united the country. Egypt was now solely under the control of the Thebans.
With one united army the Egyptians could focus on military development. Previously the smaller militias had been made up of disposable peasants. As such the approach to weapons had been cheap and not very cheerful. But a proper military needed proper soldiers wielding proper weaponry.
Soldiers were now commonly armed with a dagger, sword, spear, and shield. The dagger and sword hadn’t evolved much. They were both crude copper blades riveted to a handle. These rivets were a major structural weak point. The longer-bladed swords were especially prone to snapping when attempting to block an incoming blow.
Archers still carried the same single arched bows as before. These came with all the same weaknesses. However, the Egyptian army became much better at utilizing these less-than-ideal weapons. Archers were now better trained and organized.
If troops were lucky they were equipped with the all-new slicing ax. This was a long wooden shaft with a crescent copper blade attached at the end via a notch. The slicing ax was a two-handed weapon with excellent range. As the name implies the ax was swung in a slicing motion (much like a scythe).
The weapon was brutally effective. Its heavyweight and momentum meant that it was next to impossible to guard against an incoming swing. A sword simply wasn’t strong enough and would snap while the ax could also brute force its way through the rudimentary wooden shields of the time.
Finally, as foot soldiers were now an investment and less disposable, protective gear became more popular and troops were given simple leather armor. The protection offered was minimal but offered some protection from glancing blows or an errant long-range arrow. When it comes to armor, something is better than nothing.
Egyptian duckbill-shaped axe blade using the Syro-Palestinian style, axe head technology probably introduced by the Hyksos (1981–1550 BC). (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
The Western Hyksos Come, Conquer and Change Everything!
Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, the central government became increasingly complacent and weak. They took their eyes off the ball and allowed the Hyksos, a dangerous military culture who spoke a Western Semitic language and were likely Canaanites, to infiltrate their lands.
While the central Egyptian government was distracted by petty infighting, the Hyksos managed to take over lower Egypt around the city of Avaris. The Hyksos quickly established themselves and began inflicting their will on the area both politically and militarily.
The Hyksos originated from western Asia , and they were way more technologically advanced than the Egyptians. They had horse-drawn war chariots , composite bows, and more advanced weapon designs. And their melee weapons weren’t so prone to snapping. For every weapon the Egyptians could field, the Hyksos already had a better version.
The Hyksos became the bogeyman of the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (1782-1570 BC). This period is often described as the “Hyksos Invasion.” Propaganda from The New Kingdom Of Egypt and Manetho’s Josephus makes the Hyksos sound like blood-thirsty monsters who swept across Egypt, destroying everything in their path. However, there is no archaeological evidence for this level of destruction.
During the Intermediate Period, the Hyksos held Egypt’s lower (north) ports and the Nubians had much of upper (south) Egypt. Only Thebes was still ruled by Egyptians at this point. It was time to fight back.
Under Ahmose I of Thebes the Egyptians took what they learned from the Hyksos and used it against them. Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos and ejected them from lower Egypt. He then went south and did the same to the Nubians. Once again Egypt was unified, and the age of the New Kingdom had begun.
The Fierce Egyptian Weapons of the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom was an age of unparalleled military expansion for Egypt. Never again would they be the victims of foreign invasion. As Egypt's borders expanded and it met new enemies the Egyptians continued the rapid technological advancement of their forces.
Their armies would soon become virtually unbeatable.
The “New” Egyptian Spear
The spear remained largely unchanged. It was still essentially a long stick with a sharp point at the end, but the sharp point was now made from bronze which was much better at holding an edge. The spear was still inexpensive but effective and remained the primary weapon of most Egyptian troops.
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The key change was the introduction of spear and shield tactics. Spearmen were equipped with shields made of wooden boards bound with animal glue and hides. The shields were basic but effective. Spearmen could hold up behind their shields and block enemy attacks before striking back with devastating medium-range spear blows.
The javelin was an evolution of the simple spear. Soldiers would carry a quiver full of javelins. These weapons were dual purpose. They could either be used as short-range spears or launched at enemy chariots and troops. Importantly javelins were equipped with diamond-shaped metal blades that were armor-piercing.
The javelin was light, well-balanced, and easy to throw accurately. Unlike arrows, it was also reusable. As Egyptian troops advanced they could reclaim thrown javelins.
The Egyptian Battle Ax of Baki from circa 1504-1447 BC in the New Kingdom period. Bronze or copper alloy, wood (with modern restoration), and modern rawhide. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)
The New Kingdom Battle Ax
Up until this period, Egypt had been using the aforementioned slicing ax. Against unarmored foes, this was still the go-to weapon, and hard to improve upon. But what if your enemy was armored?
The Egyptians soon encountered the Hittite and Syrian armies. These army's troops wore reinforced leather jerkins which were adept at repelling slicing weapons. The Egyptians once again adapted, and the new battle-ax was born. It had a narrow, straight-edged blade designed to punch through armor with minimal resistance.
Around this time the Egyptians also discovered that utility in a weapon could be invaluable. During one pitched battle against a Canaanite city half the Egyptian army used their axes to dig beneath the city's defenses whilst the other half used their axes to level the city’s surrounding forests.
In the new and improved battle ax, the Egyptians had invented an early form of entrenching tool that is still widely used by armies today.
Before the Hyksos invasion, Egyptian swords had been brittle and easy to break. The Hyksos introduced critical advances in bronze casting technology. Now the Egyptians could cast swords as one solid piece: blade and hilt all in one. With no rivets serving as weak points the swords had greatly increased durability.
This increased durability meant that swords became much more widely used. There were two common designs: a short, dagger-shaped blade for close-range stabbing, and a longer blade designed for slashing at slightly longer ranges.
The famous Khopesh that combines the advantages of an ax with a short sword. (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )
What happens when you combine an ax with a short sword? You get the brutal-looking Khopesh. A moon-curved blade with the sharp edge on the outside, the Khopesh was simply terrifying to behold.
The Khopesh is another design that the Egyptians pilfered from the Hyksos. It was predominantly used as a secondary weapon used to dispatch wounded enemy soldiers with one gruesome strike. Due to its vicious-looking curve, the Khopesh became a weapon of terror. Pharaohs were often depicted in paintings wielding the Khopesh to put down entire enemy armies.
Though this is not an ancient Egyptian composite bow it is identical to what King Tutankhamen’s military wielded and a huge improvement in range over the earlier simple hunting bows. The bow depicted here is Turkish, from 1719–20 AD, and made from horn, wood, pigment, sinew, lacquer, gold, silver, ivory, iron, feather, silk. (TheMet / Public domain )
Whilst all the weapons so far had seen major improvements, none of them was as much of a gamer changer as the composite bow. Another gift of the Hyksos invasion, the composite bow completely changed how the Egyptian army approached combat.
The composite bow was long with a recurved shape. The bow was made by combining layers of Birchwood, animal horn, cattle tendons, and sinews that were all glued together. This layered construction method, combined with the shape meant the bow was much more powerful than previous designs.
A skilled archer could easily reach 250-300 meters (820-984 feet) and could fire each arrow in less than two seconds. This gave the composite bow a rate of fire and effective range comparable to some modern firearms. Unsurprisingly, it was devastatingly effective on the battlefield.
A platoon of 50 archers outfitted with these bows could inflict heavy losses on an enemy long before they had a chance to fight back, destroying morale. The only downside? The bows were incredibly expensive to make and maintain. Rather than ask for gold Egyptian armies would often ask for new composite bows as a tribute. It is said that after defeating the Libyans Ramses III demanded over six hundred composite bows in tribute.
Egyptian war chariots were also adapted from Hyksos designs, but the Egyptian improvements were significant. This stone panel was found at the Great Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel, south Egypt. (Warren LeMay / CC0)
The most impressive and deadly new weapon of the New Kingdom was the chariot. The Hyksos had introduced the Egyptians to the idea of a lightweight chariot used in battle, but the Egyptians perfected it.
A war chariot was manned by two warriors. One would drive the horses and focus on short-range defense while an archer in the back focused on long-range attack. The chariot was lightweight but laden with weapons- quivers of arrows and javelins were attached to the sides along with khopeshes and battle axes.
One chariot on its own was terrifying but the Egyptian army would use formations of more than 100 chariots to cut through enemy lines and decimate their flank. The chariot was essentially a mobile weapons platform zipping around the battlefield at crazy speeds.
The war chariot was no glass cannon though. The charioteers and their horses were encased in scale armor. They wore coats of bronze scales which protected them from long-range attacks whilst cranking up the intimidation factor even higher.
The combination of these heavily armored and armed war chariots and the fielding of the composite bow made the Egyptian army one of the most advanced and unbeatable in the world. They also made it one of the most expensive.
If the Egyptian army had become so impressive there’s only one question left. What went wrong?
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Just like every empire that came before and every empire that has come since the New Kingdom eventually entered a decline and began to crumble under its own weight. A grand army needs grand leadership and that became increasingly rare. Egypt soon found itself without the resources or leadership required to wield such an impressive army.
Looking at the ancient Egyptian army and its weapons provides an important lesson in humility. Without effective leadership, a large army is little more than a weight around a country's neck. It doesn’t matter how massive or technologically advanced your army is, no one stays top dog forever.
Top image: The history of Egypt is very much the history of ancient Egyptian weapons and how they evolved. Here Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II charges his war chariot into battle against the Nubians in south Egypt. Source: Ahmed88z / CC BY-SA 4.0
Roos, D. 2002. 9 Ancient Egyptian Weapons and Tools That Powered the Pharaoh’s Army . Available at: https://www.history.com/news/ancient-egyptian-weapons
Mark, J. 2017. Weapons in Ancient Egypt . Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1035/weapons-in-ancient-egypt/
Berger, M. 2008. Military Technology in Ancient Egypt. In: Selin H. (eds) Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4425-0_9421
Shaw, I. 1991. Egyptian Warfare and Weapons . Available at: https://www.academia.edu/5566766/Egyptian_Warfare_Weapons
Robbie Mitchell, correct conclusion, though more expensive, training and arming a profession military is far superior. But, as you point out, leadership is paramount. And you also mentioned, no one stays top dog forever. Egypt is a fascinating place. Ancient and always cosmopolitan. Archeology is still finding new stuff there, and it seems it might prove to be far older than current theories say. We just recently discovered the Sahara was a green belt, that would include Egypt. Just what this means is yet to dug up.