Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian weapons: Projectiles - javelin, bow and arrow, slingshot
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Projectiles

The throw stick

Throw stick

A throw stick with one end splintered off
Late Middle Kingdom ?
Source: Petrie Museum website [9]

    This somewhat boomerang shaped weapon had little military value, but was, according to the tomb depictions of hunting scenes, extensively used for hunting fowl in the thickets of the Delta reed marshes. They were cheap to make (unlike the much more sophisticated arrows) and their loss was of little importance.
    Decorative throw sticks were found in Tutankhamen's tomb.

The javelin

Bronze spear head     Not a weapon of major importance, the javelin had better penetrating powers than the arrow, because of its greater weight. But straight thin arrows were easier to mass-produce than the thicker spears, and in a region where armour consisted mostly only of rawhide shields, about as effective.

Bow and arrow

Archers, Source: Weapons of the ancient world by R.Gonen     The oldest bows had a single curvature, were made of wood and strung with sinews or strings made of plant fibre. In the pre-dynastic period bows frequently had a double curvature, but during the Old Kingdom a single-arched bow was often adopted. Drawing this kind of self 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. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II went on using it. A difficult weapon to use successfully, it demanded strength, dexterity and years of practice and the experienced soldier chose his weapon with care. 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.
    After choosing 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
Cross and longitudinal section of a composite bow     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. By using a bow which was curving forwards when unstrung, one was putting it under an initial tension, to which the force exercised by the hand pulling the string was added. 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. In order to prevent this horn was added 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. Composite bows needed more care than simple bows, being more vulnerable to moisture. They, like all bows, had to be unstrung when not in use [10]. Re-stringing them for action was a feat which required not a little force and generally the help of a second person. [2]

Arrowheads
    The arrows had heads made of flint, which were replaced by bronze heads in the 2nd millennium and iron ones in the first. They were mostly made for piercing having a sharp point. During the pre-dynastic period this point was for a while replaced by a wider blade in the hope to inflict cutting wounds on the enemy. [1]
Archer's wrist and thum guard     Archers used a few accessories. Arrows were kept gathered together in quivers made of light, tough materials like tapestry which were occasionally decorated.

Sandstone thumb-, and leather wrist-guard
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC43962 and UC38866

    Some ancient Egyptians also seem to have protected the arm holding the bow from the bow-string with a cloth adding and the thumb with a guard made of some hard material like stone..
 

The sling

Slingshots, 20th century BCE, Source: Weapons of the ancient world by R.Gonen     Hurling stones with the help of a slingshot demanded little equipment and not much practice to be effective [11]. Secondary to bow and arrow, the slingshot was rarely depicted. The first drawings date to the 20th century BCE. Made of perishable materials, few ancient slingshots have survived [3].
    It relied on the impact the missile made and like most impact weapons was generally 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 advantages was the easy availability of ammunition, small stones, in many locations. On the other hand, one provided enemy slingers with ammunition, which just needed picking up.

[Sling. Source: Petrie Museum web site] Sling
Most of the left strap has disappeared
The right strap ends in a noose which fits over a finger.
Source: Petrie Museum web site, UC6921 [3]

    In the absence of machinery capable of hurling large projectiles over ramparts slingers could be very useful in siege situations:
He (Piye) set up for himself the camp on the southwest of Hermopolis, and besieged it daily. An embankment was made, to inclose the wall; a tower was raised to elevate the archers while shooting, and the slingers while slinging stones, and slaying people among them daily.
The Piankhi stela
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 842
[Lead sling bullet. Source: Petrie Museum website]
Lead sling bullet
Late Period
Source: Petrie Museum website [4]

    When lead became more widely available during the Late Period, uniform sling bullets, often bearing a mark, were cast. These were preferred to pebbles because of their form in the shape of an almond which greatly improved their reach, for light shot (ca. 40 grammes) a distance of up to 150 metres, an improvement of about 50%. Even heavier shot of up to 100 grammes could be hurled farther than 100 metres [12].
 
[10] I am indebted to Lafayette C. Curtis for pointing out that my wording here was ambiguous, implying that only composite bows were unstrung. The unstringing of self bows to preserve their integrity is a necessity as well.
[11] Mr. Curtis has also drawn my attention to the fact that while precision shooting with a sling is quite difficult to learn, this was not, in fact, the way slingers were deployed. In his words:
It is easier to study the use of a sling than that of a bow and arrow, at least if what you aim to do is to be able to deliver massed firepower in a unit--that is, if you do not need to aim for specific objects or people. That is the only level of proficiency that actual soldiers would have needed.

 


Bibliography for this and related pages

- -Weapons in ancient Egypt
-Impact weapons: The club and the mace
-Edged weapons: The axe, the sword, the spear
-Protective equipment: Shields, helmets and body armour
 
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
 
Links(opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or the content of these sites.
 
-[1] Ballistic properties in ancient Egyptian arrows by P.H. Blyth, Ph. D.
-[2] Ancient Composite Bows by C.N. Hickman
-[3] Woven sling (Petrie Museum)
-[4] Late period lead sling bullet (Petrie Museum)
-[9] Throw stick (Petrie Museum)
-[12] The Ballistics of The Sling - Thom Richardson
 
 

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Updates: December, July, January 2004

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