Story: Mau rākau – Māori use of weaponry

Page 2. Using traditional weapons

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Types of weapons

Māori weapons were made of wood, stone and bone. They can be divided into two general categories – long two-handed weapons and short single-handed weapons.

Long two-handed weapons

The best-known two-handed weapons are the taiaha, tewhatewha and pouwhenua. These staffs were usually 1–2 metres in length and were commonly made of hard wood such as maire, rātā or kānuka.

A taiaha was elaborately carved, often ornamented with red kākā feathers and waero (dog hair). It was as much a status symbol and treasure as a weapon, and not used by ordinary members of a war party.

The tewhatewha resembled an axe in shape. From a small hole in the blade hung a bunch of feathers used to distract the enemy. It was also a highly prized weapon that could be used to signal warriors to move into formation, to advance, regroup and retreat.

Fighting techniques

Each of the long two-handed weapons had a long, flat blade for striking, and a sharp pointed end which was thrust forward in a spearing motion. They were usually held vertically or diagonally, with the stabbing point downwards. Warriors sometimes feinted a jab with the point of the weapon, then reversed it and struck their enemy’s head or shoulders with the blade.

One authority states, ‘By watching the advanced foot of his opponent, the fighter would be warned of the delivery of an approaching blow by the downward clinching of the big toe, a fraction of a second before it arrived, giving him warning and that much time to prepare his parry. By the same token, the slightest twitch of the shoulder muscles also signalled the approach of a blow.’1

Cross-cultural duel

Bellamy’s restaurant in Parliament Buildings was the scene of a taiaha demonstration in the late 19th century. An officer of the Horse Artillery, an expert swordsman, was confident that he could defeat any opponent. He was challenged by a tattooed taiaha expert reputed to be 80 years old. ‘With a shout and a bound he made a sweeping blow at the legs of the soldier,’ which was neatly parried.2 The taiaha champion instantly reversed his weapon and struck a sharp upward blow with the spear-pointed end, lifting the officer clear off the floor. The duel lasted exactly 30 seconds.

Spear-like weapons

In battle the principal weapons used were simple spear-like weapons such as the pouwhenua, koikoi, tokotoko, tao, timata, tete, tararua, reti and tārerarera. The term ‘tete’ denotes any spear with a detachable point made from wood, bone or even the tail of a stingray. It was both thrust and thrown.

Tao were most often used in duels and, although fierce encounters took place, only flesh wounds resulted and not fatalities. Frederick Maning, an early-19th-century ‘Pākehā–Māori’ (a European who lived as part of a Māori tribe), described such combat: ‘The attack and defence are in the highest degree scientific; the spear shafts keep up a continuous rattle; the thrust, and parry, and stroke with the spear shaft follow each other with almost incredible rapidity, and are too rapid to be followed by an unpractised eye. At last the brother-in-law is slightly touched; blood also drops from our chief's thigh. The fight instantly ceases.’3

Short one-handed weapons

The short single-handed weapons of the Māori were collectively termed patu. These were held in one hand while the free arm was wrapped in a thick woven mat used as a shield to ward off blows.

Mere fighting techniques

According to a 19th-century authority, ‘In using the mere-pounamu [greenstone club] the warrior tries to seize his adversary by the hair with the left hand, and, having his weapon firmly grasped with the right, and secured by a thong or strap wound tightly round the wrist, he thrusts or drives its sharp end against the temple of his victim. Another mode was to grasp the body of his antagonist and drive the weapon under the ribs with an upward thrust.’4

Other battle weapons

Additional weapons used in battle included the toki (adze), kōpere (darts), oka (wood or bone dagger), pātuki (club) and matauhitangata (human hook). Warriors selected from this array of weaponry based on their personal preference, body type, available resources, environment and training.

  1. Hemi Bennett, ‘Weapons and warfare.’ Te Ao Hou 17 (December 1956), pp. 50–51. Back
  2. Daily Post, 3 April 1965, p. 15. Back
  3. Frederick Edward Maning, Old New Zealand: being incidents of native customs and character in the old times by a Pakeha Maori. London: Smith, Elder, 1863, p. 101. Back
  4. T. H. Smith, ‘On Maori implements and weapons.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 26 (1893), pp. 447–448, (last accessed 19 November 2012). Back
How to cite this page:

Rangi Matamua, 'Mau rākau – Māori use of weaponry - Using traditional weapons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Rangi Matamua, published 5 Sep 2013