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The 10 Deadliest Weapons of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec civilization dominated Mesoamerica from the 14th to 16th centuries, conquering a vast empire through a combination of superior military might and ruthless efficiency. At the heart of their military success was an arsenal of fearsome weapons, from wooden swords embedded with razor-sharp obsidian blades to spears and arrows that could pierce enemy armor.

While the Aztecs lacked the advanced metallurgy of their European foes, they were master craftsmen, fashioning deadly weapons out of wood, volcanic glass, copper, and stone. Here we‘ll explore 10 of the most lethal weapons wielded by Aztec warriors as they built an empire that rivaled any in the ancient world.

1. Macuahuitl

The macuahuitl (alternately spelled maquahuitl) was the most iconic weapon of the Aztec military. Described by the Spanish as a "sword," in reality it was a wooden club, typically 3-4 feet long, with grooves along the sides into which sharp obsidian blades were inserted. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, was brittle but could be honed to an incredibly sharp edge – the Spanish noted that a blow from a macuahuitl could decapitate a horse.

The macuahuitl came in one-handed and two-handed varieties. Specially trained Aztec warriors known as cuāuhocēlōtl ("eagle-jaguar") formed the elite shock troops of the Aztec army, equipped with the deadliest macuahuitl swords. In battle, macuahuitl-wielding soldiers sought to shatter enemy weapons and inflict devastating wounds, severing limbs or piercing organs with the razor-sharp obsidian blades.

2. Tepoztopilli

The tepoztopilli was a type of spear unique to Mesoamerica. Featuring a broad wooden head, often edged with obsidian blades like a macuahuitl, it was a versatile polearm used for thrusting and slashing at enemies. Some tepoztopilli had copper tips or flint and obsidian embedded in the head as an alternative to the obsidian blades.

Typically 6 to 8 feet long, the tepoztopilli had superior reach to most hand-to-hand weapons. In formation, a wall of spear-wielding Aztecs presented a daunting defense. The tepoztopilli was also effective against cavalry, used to topple riders from their horses. Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote of the Aztec spears: "They wounded many of our horses, and even killed two of them."

3. Atlatl

The atlatl or spear-thrower was an ancient ranged weapon used throughout the Americas. A short, typically wooden shaft with a cupped end to hold a dart or spear, it served as a lever to launch projectiles with more power and accuracy than the human arm alone. Essentially an extension of the thrower‘s arm, skilled atlatl users could hit targets 100 meters away or more.

Atlatl designs varied by region, with the Aztec version often ornately carved and decorated with precious stones and metals. Darts or spears launched from the atlatl could be tipped with copper, obsidian, flint, or animal bone for armor-piercing penetration. Aztec atlatls were a powerful weapon against even the most well-armored foe.

4. Tlahhuitolli

The Aztec bow, or tlahhuitolli, was a formidable weapon in skilled hands. Made of hardwoods and strung with animal sinew or plant fibers, a tlahhuitolli in the hands of an experienced archer could pierce Spanish armor, even at long range. Aztec arrows were fletched with feathers for stability and accuracy and tipped with obsidian, flint, or bone.

Bows played a key supporting role in Aztec warfare. While a line of macuahuitl-armed shock troops engaged the enemy, archers could rain down arrows from the rear ranks or flanks. Bows were also used in sieges to harass defenders on city walls and fortifications. Over 30 specialized words for bows, arrows, and archery techniques have been identified in the Nahuatl language, underscoring their importance to the Aztecs.

5. Tlacalhuazcuahuitl

The tlacalhuazcuahuitl was the Aztec version of the blowgun, a hollow tube used to fire small darts or clay pellets. Common throughout the Americas, blowguns were primarily used for hunting small game. However, there is some evidence that the Aztecs adapted them for warfare as well.

Blowgun darts were typically tipped with poison extracted from tree frogs and other sources. Spanish accounts describe the Aztec poison as causing a slow, agonizing death over 2-3 days. Even a small scratch could be fatal. With a skilled user able to fire multiple darts quickly, a squad of blowgunners could silently sow chaos in enemy ranks.

6. Itztopilli

The itztopilli was the Aztec battle axe. With a sharp wedge-shaped head of stone, copper, or bronze and a sturdy wooden handle, it was a fearsome weapon in the thick of battle. While similar in function to the macuahuitl, the itztopilli‘s chopping power was better suited for breaking through wooden shields and anti-cavalry stakes.

As metallurgical technology improved in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs began to produce more axe heads from copper and bronze rather than stone. However, metal was still a rare resource, so only the most elite warriors had metal weapons. The itztopilli remained the preserve of high-ranking officers and the most accomplished fighters.

7. Quauhololli

The quauhololli was an Aztec mace – a stout wooden club, typically with a spherical stone, obsidian, or copper head. Where the macuahuitl sliced, the mace was a blunt-force weapon, used to bludgeon foes senseless or shatter bones even through thick padding or quilted cotton armor.

Some quauhololli had rows of protruding obsidian blades or spikes to inflict greater damage. Like most Aztec weapons, the quauhololli often featured intricate carvings and adornments to reflect the status and accomplishments of the wielder. In the hands of a elite warrior, the mace was a symbol of military prowess and authority.

8. Tecpatl

Tecpatl was the Nahuatl term for a stone or obsidian knife. More of a tool than a true weapon of war, the tecpatl nevertheless played an important role in Aztec warfare, especially in ritual sacrifice. Captives taken in battle were often sacrificed to the gods, their still-beating hearts cut out with a tecpatl.

Some warriors did carry tecpatl into battle, however, using them for close-quarters combat or to dispatch wounded enemies. Certain elite military orders like the cuachicqueh ("shorn ones") were known to carry tecpatl in place of macuahuitl, either as backup weapons or to show their bravery in fighting with shorter-ranged weapons.

9. Chimalli

While not a weapon per se, the chimalli shield was a crucial piece of equipment for Aztec warriors. Made from wicker or wood and covered with animal hide or cotton, it provided vital protection against enemy missiles and melee attacks. Chimalli came in a range of sizes and designs, often brightly painted and adorned with feathers.

More than a mere defensive tool, the chimalli was used actively in combat – to push and batter opponents, deflect blows, and create openings for counter-attacks. In formation, a wall of chimalli-equipped soldiers was a daunting obstacle. A special tower shield variant called a quetzalchimalli was used in sieges as a mobile cover for sappers and engineers to approach enemy walls.

10. Tematlatl

The tematlatl was a sling used to hurl stones or clay balls at the enemy. Easy to make and arm, slings allowed soldiers to rain down projectiles on enemy formations from a distance. While not as powerful as a bow or atlatl, a volley of hundreds of sling stones could nonetheless cause significant damage and disorder.

Some tematlatl projectiles have been discovered with holes drilled in them, which archaeologists believe were intended to make noise as the stones flew through the air, creating a demoralizing whistling or shrieking sound. Slings were especially useful in sieges, harassing enemy soldiers on walls too high for more direct weapons to reach.

Aztec Weaponry vs. Spanish Steel

Despite the fearsome reputation of Aztec arms, the macuahuitl, tepoztopilli, and other traditional weapons proved inferior to Spanish steel swords, lances, crossbows and arquebuses in the battles of the conquest. The Aztecs and other Mesoamericans never developed iron-working to the same level as European civilizations.

Nevertheless, Aztec warriors‘ skill with their native weapons, honed over centuries of warfare, still made them a deadly threat even to armored conquistadors. And the psychological impact of facing indigenous arms should not be underestimated – the Spanish certainly held a healthy respect for the macuahuitl and its ability to slice a man in two.

The Legacy of Aztec Arms

The weapons of the Aztecs, from the iconic macuahuitl to the humble sling, paint a vivid picture of a militaristic civilization forged in the crucible of endemic warfare. Driven by the need to secure sacrificial captives to appease their gods, the Aztecs raised warfare and weapons-making to a high art, equipping their armies with some of the most unique and deadly arms ever seen in the ancient world.

While Aztec weapons were ultimately no match for gunpowder and steel, they were still the product of remarkable ingenuity and skill, especially given the lack of draft animals and iron in pre-Columbian America. Today, these weapons endure in museums and cultural memory as symbols of the martial spirit of one of history‘s great warrior cultures.