Exotic Ancient Weapons VIII: African throwing blades

Most rotating throwing weapons (throwing knifes, throwing daggers, throwing axes such as Tomahawk or Francisca) share the same problem: They are fine for a trained user at a specific distance, and little good at a shorter or longer distance. The correct window may be as small as between eight and nine metres distance. It sure was difficult to get that right in a stressful combat situation, and even more so during an infantry charge.

This small window is a consequence of having but one sharp edge (axes) or point (knives) that does much damage. If you throw at full power from the wrong distance the rotation may be 30° too much or 30° too little and the edge or point doesn't hit, resulting in little more effect than with a thrown wooden stick. 

A possible solution was the South Asian Chakram or Chalikar - a ring with a 360° edge. This introduced a different problem, though - a direct, rather blunt hit would do rather little damage because even though the edge was sharp, the ratio of surface are in contact to momentum wasn't all that impressive. It was nothing like a knife's point or an axehead's edge.

A different solution was pursued in Africa, apparently first in Sudan: Throwing knifes with multiple points and sharp edges, making it much less important by how many degrees the missile rotated before impact. It would usually be nasty unless stopped by a shield or armour.

A collection of African throwing weapons (c) geni, see here
The photo shows it; these throwing weapons were mostly suitable for melee as well, not exactly standardised and (in my opinion) rather not optimised. It's almost as if a scary appearance was an important requirement of their design.

There are many names for these African weapons (or munitions), seemingly varying regionally as much as functionally;
Kulbeda, Pinga, Trombash, Shongo, Shango, Kpinga, Sapa ... by now it's likely clear why for once I didn't write the name into the title of the exotic ancient weapons post!

Of course, the widely known Shuriken of Japanese origin with its four or more points and no handle makes it almost entirely irrelevant how much it rotates before impact. The difference is at most between one point penetrating somewhat deep and multiple points doing more shallow penetrations. Shurikens are also more compact, but they have one severe shortcoming: They have no handle unlike throwing axes, those African throwing weapons and so on. The grip can thus be not as firm (limiting power), and there's no substantial lever, since the hand grips the missile very close to its centre of gravity. There's not necessarily a rotaton involved (and thus no rotation energy) in shuriken throws.
In case you don't quite get what I mean here, look at Atlatl and Woomera, two weapons meant to exploit a long lever for more throwing power (see here or here). The Ancient Mediterranean world used small slings attached to javelins for the same purpose.
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Throwing weapons are among the more confusing historical weapons in my opinion, since their range was typically only 9-45 m depending on design (Plumbata possibly more), and the used had to switch to a melee weapon in a few seconds after the throw in order to be ready for melee in time. The throwing motion also fits poorly into the dense formations fo closed order tactics, which makes the great popularity of javelins in the Roman armies even more confusing, and the issue with range sensitivity makes the supposedly well-documented use of Francisca throwing axes by the migration period Franks (during a charge!) almost unbelievable.
The one exception are peltasts in Ancient Greece, especially when facing a relatively rigid phalanx as target. I just don't understand why they used the small slings attached to javelins instead of using a kind of Atlatl that can double as a battle axe with the other business end.

These African throwing weapons required a great smithing effort required and are thus rather confusing as well. Their shapes were also apparently never optimised into one dominant design. Most throwing axes look alike, most throwing knifes look alike, most javelins look alike (save for the possibly overengineed pila), but the Africans never agreed on one dominant design. They're challenging an otherwise widely observable pattern in military (weapons) history.



  1. Throwing weapons were primarily disruptive, they werent meant to kill, but to break the enemy concentration and formation.

    "Professional" soldiers like Roman Legionaries or Viking Carls could break formation, throw their javelins or axes, and reform quickly, far far quicker than levied farmers could duck/dodge/dip/dive/dodge and reform.
    Axes have the advantage of being quite heavy, the blunt edge of a brick still hurts.

    "It's almost as if a scary appearance was an important requirement of their design."
    Well, yeah, if its scary enough you might not even have to throw it.

  2. The leather strap on javelins did not give range, but a rotation that helped to set the missile in an angle into the target, which would not deflect. It coexisted next to levers (the woomera) in northern Australia and Southern Papua, which had trade contacts.
    Throwing weapons were often not pure throwing weapons, but could be utilized for close combat and throwing. The Danish bog finds for example show Germanic throwing spears with cut marks from fencing. The throw could be a short distance "range improvement" for a weapon used in close combat, leading to the importance of a second weapon. With or without a sword/axe, close combat spear-fighters with throwing capability usually carried two spears. Switching to a single spear signaled a heavier and longer design, not suitable for throwing.
    Flight time of an arrow from a sufficient distance for the safety of the archer against close combat weapons is enough to react and have a chance to deflect the missile, even more so with a shield.
    A pilum is heavy and slow travelling if thrown one handed. I express doubts these were utilized in this popular depicted way for salvos from a few meters away.
    A pilum/ango can be accelerated like a staff sling and travel as a larger version of a plumbata. http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Staff-Sling This would impart the energy needed for the reported feats of penetration. As energy and speed increase with a long circlar motion, depth and density of missileers can increase as well, giving the often described salvo effect that was not possible to evade, but possibly catch in flight. The pilum can as well be utilized for individual attacks over short distances. The first rank can throw the weapon at point blank and bash with the shield until the sword is ready, while the second rank can wait for an opportune moment to stab or throw against the opponents in front and one column to each side. This renders each opponent in the frontline with 4 potential attackers and the second enemy rank with 3 potential attackers. The time margin to react is extremely short and if movement was hampered by compression due to shield bashing, defence might not be possible. As for the third rank, these shields can help to keep each other safe if the pilum ready for throwing faces a shield on one side and another upright pilum on the other side, to avoid friendly eye penetrations.
    The Roman weapon combination was part of a worldwide trend among several cultures, so it must have been a system that convinced to adopt, whether or not we understand it now.