The Egyptian military became one of the ancient world’s greatest fighting forces during the New Kingdom period (1550 B.C. - 1070 B.C.), but it did so using borrowed weapons technology. For much of its early history, Egypt relied on simple stone maces, wooden-tipped spears, axes and bows and arrows to fight off neighboring Nubian and Libyan tribesmen. Then came the Hyksos, an invading army from Syria that conquered Egypt around 1650 B.C. with vastly superior weapons like speedy chariots and powerful composite bows.
During the century of foreign humiliation known as the Second Intermediate Period, the Egyptians studied their enemy closely and built up an arsenal of deadly new weapons based on the Syrian designs. When Ahmose I liberated and reunited Egypt, he became the first pharaoh of the New Kingdom, a golden age in which Egypt used its upgraded weaponry and efficient bureaucracy to expand the empire and grow rich from foreign tributes.
These are the nine key weapons that powered the Egyptian army at the height of its power.
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1. Bronze-Tipped Spear and Shield
The core of the Egyptian army, like most ancient armies, was its spearmen. Armed with a wooden shield (ikem) in their left hand and a bronze-tipped spear (dja) in their right, the Egyptian spearmen would advance on the enemy in tightly packed formations. The length of the spear allowed Egyptian fighters to joust at their enemy behind the relative safety of their shields, and the bronze tip was hard and sharp enough to pierce through an enemy infantry’s leather armor.
Even better, spears were cheap to make.
“At a time when metal was so precious, all you needed was a small bit of bronze at the tip,” says Paul Elliott, a historian and reenactor who wrote Warfare in New Kingdom Egypt. “You could outfit hundreds of recruits with them, perfect for the warfare of the period.”
Before the Hyksos invasion, Egyptian speartips were wooden and prone to splintering on contact. The Syrians showed them how to forge simple bronze speartips with a hollow socket that fit tightly over a wooden shaft. The Egyptians’ shields were utilitarian—three wooden planks bound with glue and animal hides—but they transformed into a formidable defense when the infantry closed ranks in a phalanx formation.
The Egyptian javelin was more than a hand-launched missile. It also functioned in close combat as a short spear about a meter long (3.3 feet). New Kingdom soldiers would carry a quiver of javelins over their shoulder like arrows. At close range, they would use the javelin to thrust at the enemy behind their shields, but they could also launch the armor-piercing javelin at attacking chariots or lines of infantry. Eliott says that Egyptians didn’t treat the javelin as a disposable ordinance like an arrow. They fitted their javelins with diamond-shaped metal blades and made them easier to aim and throw with a well-balanced and reinforced wooden grip.
3. Battle Axe
The Egyptian battle axe was a secondary weapon tucked into a warrior’s waistband or hung from his shoulder. In close combat, it could hack at an enemy’s shield or dispatch an injured foe with a crushing blow. In earlier periods of Egyptian history, when the enemy didn’t wear armor, the blades of battle axes were semi-circular or crescent-shaped, designed to deliver deep, slashing cuts to unprotected flesh.
During the New Kingdom, however, in which Egypt faced Hittite and Syrian armies wearing protective leather jerkins across their chests, the axe blades grew increasingly narrow and straight-edged, “ideally suited to punch through armor,” says Elliot.
The battle axe also doubled as a multi-faceted tool suitable for all manner of wartime demands. During a siege of a Canaanite city, half the army of Ramses III used their axes to dig beneath the city’s mud walls while the rest leveled the trees in the surrounding countryside.
Archeologists have recovered evidence of a distinctive Egyptian weapon referred to as a mace ax. The standard war mace is a bludgeoning club that’s one of the oldest weapons on earth. Starting as early as 6,000 B.C., Egyptians armed themselves with simple maces made of a wooden handle topped with a heavy stone head. But during the New Kingdom, they improved on the deadly design with the addition of a curved blade embedded into a solid wooden head.
“This is a weapon that’s purely Egyptian,” says Elliott. “It’s essentially an ax with extra power behind it.”
The mace ax would have been wielded with two hands to break enemy swords and bash through even the strongest bronze armor.
5. Short Swords
Swords and daggers wouldn’t have been a common Egyptian weapon before the Hyksos introduced advances in bronze casting technology. Only then was it possible to make short swords strong enough to withstand the rigors of battle. Since bronze isn’t the toughest metal, some swords were cast in one solid piece, both blade and hilt, to provide extra strength.
There were two common types of Egyptian short swords. The first was dagger-shaped and came to a sharp point. Its job was to stab the enemy at very close range. The second was longer with flat sides coming to a rounded, “butter-knife” point. This sword was for slashing at the enemy from a safer distance and was strong enough not to bend when brought down hard on a shield or bone.
Perhaps the most iconic and feared Egyptian weapon of the New Kingdom was a curved sword called a khopesh. The distinctive blade of the khopesh looks like a question mark with the cutting edge on the outside of the curve like a scimitar, not the inside like a sickle. In Ancient Egyptian, khopesh means “foreleg of an animal,” similar to the English word “dogleg.”
The Egyptians owed the Hyksos once again for this vicious-looking weapon, which is frequently depicted in relief paintings being wielded by a pharaoh to smite enemy armies. The boy king Tutankhamun, for example, was buried with two khopeshes. In ancient warfare, the khopesh would have served as a secondary weapon like an axe or short sword to put the finishing blows on an enemy in close combat.
7. Composite Bow
Before the Hyksos invasion, the Egyptians relied on the “self” bow, a simple bow and arrow weapon made from a single piece of wood. But the Syrians introduced them to the compact power and accuracy of the composite bow, an intricate and expensive weapon made from layers of wood, animal horn and sinew that was “recurved” to generate incredible force.
“The composite bow became the Egyptian superweapon,” says Elliott. “They didn’t just have a few archers. They had platoons of 50 archers apiece who acted as shock troops all shooting at the enemy at once.”
Egyptian composite bows were long, about 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet), and carefully constructed from birch wood, goat horns, bull tendons and sinews, all cemented together by animal glues. The layered construction, plus the recurved design, allowed the bow to snap back with far more action than the simple self bow, launching an arrow as far as 250 to 300 meters (820 to 984 feet) by ancient accounts.
The strings of composite bows were made from tightly woven animal gut and the arrows were fashioned from bronze-tipped woody reeds, which were plentiful in the Nile Valley. To improve accuracy, the arrows were fletched with three feathers. The composite bows were so expensive and difficult to make that conquering Egyptian armies often asked for bows instead of gold as tribute. Ramses III is cited as bringing back 603 composite bows from his defeat of the Libyans.
Before horses were big enough to be ridden into battle as cavalry, the chariot was the speediest and most terrifying war machine. Again, the Hyksos were the ones who introduced the Egyptians to lightweight wooden chariots with flexible leather floors as shock absorbers, but it was the Egyptian New Kingdom, with its vast wealth, that deployed swarms of heavily armed chariots on the battlefield to deadly effect.
Eliott says that the Egyptians treated the chariot like a fast-moving “weapons platform” manned by a chariot driver and a warrior.
“The chariots raced around the battlefield with the warrior peppering the enemy with arrow after arrow from his composite bow like an ancient machine gunner,” says Elliott. “Hanging from the chariot would be double quivers of arrows and also javelins, and the Egyptians could afford hundreds and hundreds of these mobile machine gun nests.”
Ancient battle records tell of large chariot formations of more than 100 teams bearing down on an enemy and viciously attacking its flanks and rear positions. The speed and maneuverability of the Egyptian chariot was only matched by its weaponry, which not only included arrows and javelins, but several khopeshes and battle axes for hand-to-hand combat.
9. Scale Armor
The average Egyptian foot soldier in a New Kingdom army wouldn’t have worn much protection on the battlefield. From relief paintings and archeological evidence, they may have worn simple textile wraps stiffened by animal glue, but aside from deflecting a long-range arrow, they wouldn’t have been very effective as armor.
The most elaborate and protective armor was reserved for the charioteers, both the driver and warrior, who were singled out as prized targets for enemy archers, especially those with long-range composite bows. The Egyptian charioteers rode into battle wearing long coats of bronze scales, giving them the appearance of large, upright lizards. Each bronze scale, like this one from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, was pierced with small holes through which the scale was tied to a linen or leather backing. A large coat of armor might contain more than 600 individual scales, both small and large.
The horses, too, wore armor, at least according to funeral objects and relief paintings. Both Ramses II and Tutankhamun are show driving chariots with regal horses wearing coats of brightly painted bronze scales.