Clubs, Maces, and Slings Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Clubs, maces, and slings, originally appearing in primitive times, are alike in their antiquity and concussive effect.

Nature and Use

Clubs, maces, and slings, originally appearing in primitive times, are alike in their antiquity and concussive effect. Clubs are stout sticks, weighted at the striking end and usually made of hardwood, although bone, horn, and stone were also used. Clubs, the oldest weapons, have taken many forms throughout history. As small personal weapons, less than 2 feet in length, they could be thrust into belts and carried anywhere. Larger war clubs from 2 to 3 feet in length–were wielded with one hand, and very large clubs, from 3 to 6 feet in length, were used with both hands. Shafts could be straight or curved, with cylindrical, ball-shaped, or broad, flat heads. Shaft edges could be sharpened, knobbed, spiked, or fitted with naturally sharp items, such as shark’s teeth, rays’ tails, or obsidian blades.Clubs;ancientClubs;medievalSlings;ancientSlings;medievalMaces;ancientMaces;medievalHand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat]Shock weaponsClubs;ancientClubs;medievalSlings;ancientSlings;medievalMaces;ancientMaces;medievalHand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat]Shock weapons

Greek slingers, circa 400 b.c.e.

(Library of Congress)

Although hand weapons could be used with more accuracy and force than thrown ones, clubs meant for throwing were also used. These Throwing sticks“throwing sticks” were usually 2 to 3 feet long and could be curved, such as the Australian Boomerangsboomerang, or could have a ball and handle, such as the African Knobkerriesknobkerrie. Users of these weapons hoped either to kill an enemy outright by crushing its skull or to incapacitate it by breaking its bones or stunning it. The club has seen worldwide use among primitive tribal peoples and early civilizations, and simple forms were wielded by early hominids.

Developed from the club, the mace is a heavy weight attached to the end of a handle. Stone maces appeared during the seventh millennium b.c.e. in the Stone Age;Near EastNeolithic Near East, and their use spread into Europe, Egypt, and India, where they were employed into the early Bronze Bronze AgeAge. A mace was made by inserting 2- to 3-foot-long handles into holes bored through stones that had been worked into spherical, or at least symmetrical, shapes. Maces with bronze or iron heads became popular during the medieval era (approximately 500-1500 c.e.), and their use spread from Central Asia and the Near East into Europe, the Far East, and North Africa. Although intended to injure people, maces were also designed to damage Armor;weapons againstarmor: smashing it with blunt heads, penetrating it with spiked or knobbed heads, or cutting it with flanged or winged heads. Maces could also be thrown, although this was an unusual usage. The military Flailsflail, which had mace heads or clubs attached by chains to the handle, also appeared during the medieval period but may have been more of a demolition device for siege warfare than a combat weapon, at least in Western Europe.

The sling was most likely a product of the Neolithic Near East (ninth millennium b.c.e.) but may have had earlier origins. It was probably derived from throwing stones whirled about by attached lashes; the South American Bolas (sling)bolas is an example. The most common sling, the hand Hand slings sling, consisted of a 3-foot-long strap with a pouch in the center in which a missile, usually a stone, was placed. The user would take both ends of the sling in one hand, whirl the stone around quickly, and then let go of one end of the sling. The released stone would then fly toward its target. Hand slings–made of leather, wool, woven grasses, sinew, or human hair–have been used by many primitive peoples worldwide for hunting, warfare, and protection from predators. They were popular among civilized peoples in the Indus Valley, the Near East, Greece, Sicily, Spain and the Baleares, Celtic Europe, Mesoamerica, and the Andes.

Skilled slingers could hurl heavy stones to damage armor out to 15 yards, strike small targets with stones out to 30 yards, shatter skulls out to 50 yards, hit man-sized targets out to 180 yards, and throw light lead shot over 360 yards. In battle, slingers were employed to harass enemy formations before hand-to-hand combat began, to pursue routed foes, to ward off enemy cavalry and elephants, and to protect one’s own troops from missile attacks. During sieges slingers provided covering fire, harassed working parties, and hurled incendiaries into buildings or siegeworks.

Another type of sling was the staff Staff slingssling, apparently invented in the Roman Empire and used at sieges in medieval Europe. It was essentially a hand sling attached to a 4-foot staff. The user held the staff horizontally in both hands, then swung it upright, flinging the missile from the sling attached to the end of the staff.


The club’s developmental Clubs;development ofhistory is largely lost, because of the perishability of wood. By approximately 50,000 b.c.e., humans had developed the creativity and skill to produce any of the many club designs found among modern tribal peoples. In combat, prehistoric hunter-gatherers and small groups of farmers and herders probably preferred, whenever possible, to Ambushes;prehistoricambush or Raidsraid their enemies, thereby avoiding the hazards of close combat made more dangerous by their lack of armor, numbers, and strong leadership. Clubs would have been used mainly to finish off wounded or trapped foes. In direct confrontations hunter-gatherers would have hurled missiles, including throwing sticks or slingstones, at one another from a safe distance, contenting themselves with low casualties.

As populations expanded in Stone Age;EuropeNeolithic Europe and in the Near East, more complex societies arose in which powerful chiefs led their warriors into close combat. This explains the appearance of the stone-headed mace and of new sling Projectiles;for slings[slings]projectiles that were added to the usual water-worn stone. Worked spherical Stones as weaponsstone projectiles appeared by about 6000 b.c.e., kiln- or sun-hardened clay balls by about 5000 b.c.e., and biconical-shaped missiles by about 4000 b.c.e. Such aerodynamic shapes and regularized sizes allowed slingers to shoot farther and with more accuracy.

From left to right, an Iroquois club from eastern North America; an aboriginal throwing stick from northwestern Australia; a spiked Swiss “morning star” mace; and a braided sling from the Pacific Islands.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

In open combat, warriors probably exchanged fire with slings and bows for some time before advancing to fight with spears, maces, and clubs, hurling throwing sticks as they neared their opponents. Piles of slingstones found in the destruction horizons of Stone Age;slingstonesNeolithic and Chalcolithic ageChalcolithic settlements also indicate sling use in early siege Siege warfare;slingswarfare. Incendiary projectiles, in the form of heated clay shot or grasses plaited around stones, probably also made their initial appearances during Stone Age;siegesNeolithic sieges.

As early civilizations developed in both hemispheres, so did Armies;ancientarmies. Units of like-armed men organized either as light infantry outfitted with missile weapons or as heavy infantry equipped with close combat weapons. Light infantry began battles by showering enemy formations with missiles, hoping to disrupt them. The heavy infantry then charged, fought the enemy infantrymen, and put them to flight, whereupon the light troops pursued. Slingers served as light troops in Bronze Bronze AgeAge Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Greece.

Throwing Throwing stickssticks were used in Mesopotamia until about 2000 b.c.e. and for another millennium in Egypt. Stone-headed maces played an important role in infantry combat in Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 3100 to 1674 b.c.e.), in Canaan during the same era, and in the Indus Valley’s Harappan civilization (c. 2500 to 1750 b.c.e.). In the Americas, the IncasIncas (c. 1200 to 1572 c.e.) used a combination of slingers, spearmen, and macemen, the maces having circular bronze heads with six points. The Aztecs;clubsAztecs of that era employed slingers and club bearers, some of whom utilized the Maquahuitl (sword-club)maquahuitl, a powerful two-handed, obsidian-edged sword-club.

The stone-headed mace had virtually disappeared in Mesopotamia;macesMesopotamia by approximately 2500 b.c.e., probably because the area’s fierce military competition spurred the development of metal arms and armor. Bronze could be turned into sickle swords, socket axes, and other new weapons, while copper helmets backed with leather spread the impact of a club or stone macehead blow enough to prevent their wearers from being stunned or killed. By the time of the New Kingdom (c. 1570 to 1085 b.c.e.), Egypt had adopted armor as well. As armor and metal weapons became common, clubs and stone-headed maces disappeared. Maces with metal heads were used in the Incan Empire, and mace-like bronze weapons continued in use in Egypt. Bronze maceheads similar to medieval weapons have been discovered in Armenian tombs of the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. Maces had long been associated with authority: NarmerNarmer (Egyptian Pharaoh)Narmer, one of the first Egyptian Pharaohs (c. 3100 b.c.e.), is depicted wielding a mace. Other evidence suggests that mace use was restricted to officers, such as those of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 to 612 b.c.e.), and kings, such as the Scythian monarchs (seventh to fourth centuries b.c.e.) for some two millennia.

It was not until the early Middle Ages that metal-headed maces became popular. Steppe nomads and Muslim warriors–Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Mongols–employed them as an important secondary weapon for their lance- or bow-armed cavalry, an alternative to the sword and ax. The Chinese, Indians, Byzantines, Russians, Eastern Europeans, and, after about 1000 c.e., Western Europeans then followed suit. Infantry only occasionally used maces, because foot soldiers could accomplish more with staff weapons. The mace was more useful to cavalry in easy reach of foot soldiers’ heads. As long as mail or lamellar armor remained the norm, maces could be rather light, with rounded heads, either symmetrical or nonsymmetrical in form, or equipped with knobs or spikes. Flange-headed maces also appeared early and became common in Europe once plate armor came into use. However, lighter maces survived as emblems of authority. The club also survived as an ersatz weapon or police arm: William the William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror (king of England)Conqueror is depicted bearing one at Hastings, where he defeated the English in 1066 c.e. The club probably denoted William’s rank, distinguishing him from lesser men carrying maces.

The sling enjoyed more common usage than the mace. David’s slaying of Goliath is only the most famous use of the sling by the ancient Jews. The Neo-Assyrian Empire considered its slingers so valuable it armored them. Certain peoples were noted as skilled slingers. The BalearesBaleares, inhabiting the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain in the western Mediterranean, used slings from childhood. They carried three slings of different sizes–short, medium, long–for various ranges. They could allegedly hurl stones weighing up to 14 ounces, smashing armor at close range. Assyrian slingstones, by contrast, averaged only 7 to 9.5 ounces in weight. Balearic slingers served with Hannibal (247-182 b.c.e.) and Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) and remained known into the Middle Ages for their skill with slings. Another noted group of slingers were the Greece;slingsGreeks of Rhodes. During the Battle of Cunaxa, Battle of (401 b.c.e.)Cunaxa (401 b.c.e.), slingers from Rhodes used lead shot to outrange Persian bows and slings–the latter with heavy stones–to help the Greek army make its escape.

Lead Lead shotProjectiles;lead shotshot first appears in the late second millennium b.c.e. on Crete and Cyprus. Cast in molds and weighing 0.7 to 4.5 ounces, lead shot was often marked with insults, invocations, or identifications. It outranged clay or stone shot and was more difficult to see, and thus harder to dodge. It could bury itself in the target’s flesh, requiring careful surgery to extract. In the second century b.c.e. the Greeks invented a sling that fired a Kestroskestros: a bolt with a pointed iron head 6 inches long, set in a winged wooden shaft 9 inches long. However, the use of the kestros never spread beyond Greece.

After the Pax Romana, a period of peace within the Roman Rome;slingersEmpire that began in approximately 31b.c.e., specialist corps of slingers largely disappeared. The Imperial Roman army tried to compensate by training all recruits in use of the sling. It is unlikely, however, that men introduced to the weapon late and on a part-time basis became strong, accurate slingers. The staff Staff slingssling, easier to use than a hand sling, is a likely response to this situation. Although the sling never attained the popularity in medieval times that it enjoyed in antiquity, it remained in use in militias and peasant revolts. Monarchs such as King Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany (r. 1152-1190), King Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307), and Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481) also recruited slingers to engage in siege warfare. In Spain;slingsSpain the sling remained especially important: At the Battle of Nájera, Battle of (1367 c.e.)[Najera]Nájera in 1367 c.e., for instance, English longbowmen suffered heavily from Spanish slingers before finally defeating them. Spaniards in turn suffered at the hands of Mesoamerican and Andean slingers. In various regions the weapon is still used by shepherds, sportsmen, hunters, and rioters.Clubs;ancientClubs;medievalSlings;ancientSlings;medievalMaces;ancientMaces;medievalHand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat]Shock weapons

Books and Articles
  • DeVries, Kelly. Medieval Military Technology. Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1992.
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor N. Dupuy. “The Dark Ages: Battle-Ax and Mace, 800-1000.” In Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
  • Gabriel, Richard, and Karen Metz. From Sumer to Rome: The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies. 1991. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 2005.
  • Grant, R. G. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. New York: DK, 2007.
  • Gurstelle, William. The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004.
  • Hogg, Oliver Frederick Gillilan. Clubs to Cannon: Warfare and Weapons Before the Introduction of Gunpowder. London: Duckworth, 1968.
  • Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Nicolle, David. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • O’Connell, Robert L. Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Free Press, 2002.
  • Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Warfare: From Clubs to Catapults. Minneapolis, Minn.: Runestone Press, 2000.
Films and Other Media
  • Arms in Action: Slings and Spears. Documentary. History Channel, 1999.
  • Conquest: Weapons of the Barbarians. Documentary. History Channel, 2003.

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