Weeaponry of American Indians in 1800s - were bows and spears ever used then?

Nov 2018
I was watching photos of Dakota War of 1862, and many indians on horseback seem to wield some sort of spears there. On the other hand, I heard that old weapons, like bows and spears, became pretty much obsolete even before te French and Indian war.
So the question is - how common was it to find Indian warriors with traditional weapons in 1800s, particularly right before and during the civil war? Maybe some ribes continued to use them, or it was jsut liek ceremonial and for photo, while in real life they used same weaponry as whites?

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
This is the best reference on the subject. I bought my copy when I visited Little Bighorn.



Forum Staff
Aug 2016
You're right to believe that different tribes transitioned from traditional weapons to firearms at different times. The major variables were access to European technology and motivation. Tribes with more enemies were eager to upgrade to new weapons technology. More peaceful tribes would be slower to upgrade. In the 1750s many western tribes had little if any contact with Europeans. Only the eastern tribes had easy access to firearms.

You should also consider generational differences. In the 1860s, there would still be middle aged and elderly Indian men who had learned traditional weapons as children and who resisted new technology. At the same time there were younger Indian men who embraced firearms as easier to learn than archery. Archery requires many years of practice to master. An Indian battle in the 1860s would see at least some of the Indians with firearms, possibly all, but it was not impossible to find some Indians still using traditional weapons. One advantage of traditional weapons was that Indians were self-sufficient. Rifles and muskets became useless if Indians lost access to gunpowder and ammunition, as might happen during a prolonged war with the US.

"Archeological evidence of incised (cut) wounds was present in about 21 percent of the remains from the Custer battlefield and in only one case from the Reno-Benteen defense site. Knife- or arrow-related wounds were seen in 11 percent of the Custer samples and hatchet-related injuries were noted in 10 percent. One must remember that not all injuries affected the bone, and that the samples only reflect those that did. Nevertheless, it appears that a significant percentage of the soldiers killed were shot with arrows, cut with knives or struck with hatchets about the time of death."

From an interview with Chief Gall ten years after Little Big Horn:
"Did the red men shoot guns or arrows?"
"Both. We soon shot all our cartridges, and then shot arrows and used our war clubs."

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Dec 2013
I thought older, more traditional weapons were mainly preferred in fighting other Indians where it was considered a point of honor to touch your enemy during combat.
May 2017
In early western fights bows and arrows might have been a better weapon than a muzzle loading firearm . From horseback a Comanch might get off 15 or 20 arrows while you were trying to load your second shot in your muzzle loader . Repeater rifle and pistols made bows and arrows obsolete . Texas Rangers never had much luck until Mr. Sam Colt came along !
Aug 2018
Southern Indiana
Tribes used guns when they had them, often younger inexperienced warriors started with “home made” weapons and acquired guns through trade or conquest if successful.
Aug 2018
Southern Indiana
I thought older, more traditional weapons were mainly preferred in fighting other Indians where it was considered a point of honor to touch your enemy during combat.
Counting coup on an enemy existed only with some plains tribes and I think was an exceptional thing to do, as in not common.
Sep 2012
Tarkington, Texas
At Little Big Horn, some of the troops were able to make barricades of their horses on a hill and this was good protection. The warriors with Bows and came up and started shooting up in the air to strike behind the horses. One famous woman warrior (Cheyenne?) jumped on a horse and rode in armed with a club.

Once the warriors overrode Custer's Battalion they were able get new Carbines and a LOT of ammunition. Benteen and Reno were lucky to be left alive.