Story: Musket wars

Page 2. Acquisition and use of muskets

All images & media in this story

Musket costs

At first muskets made little impact on Māori warfare. The ones that were sold to Māori were often old and of poor quality. They were also extremely expensive – for example, in 1820 one musket cost 200 baskets of potatoes or up to 15 pigs (potatoes and pigs were used as currency at the time). However, the price fell over time.

The wars led to an ‘arms race’ among tribes. Tribes needed to focus on economic production in order to pay for muskets.

Acquiring muskets

The acquisition of muskets occurred in different stages.

  • At first, tribes had only a few muskets, generally of poor quality. These weapons had the effect more of creating fear in the enemy than actual military impact.
  • Next, tribes acquired hundreds of muskets. They had to focus on producing goods in order to pay for the weapons. Musket ownership was most significant when a tribe with muskets fought against a tribe without muskets.
  • Eventually a tribe had as many guns as it needed and no longer had to purchase large numbers of them. At this stage economic production could return to normal as no more muskets were needed to fill the tribal armoury.

Military development

Tribes also went through a number of phases in the use of guns.

  • Initially, Māori were inexperienced in the use of guns. They were not good marksmen and did not have enough powder or shot to practise.
  • In the next phase, with enough weapons and ammunition to practise, they became better marksmen.
  • In the final phase they developed tactics particularly suited to the use of muskets – for instance, firing in controlled volleys. These tactics were quite different from those used with traditional hand-to-hand weapons.


During the musket wars Māori found that they had to adapt pā to better protect against firearms. These pā designed for musket fighting were known as gunfighter or musket pā.

The gunfighter pā had only two stockades. The outer one was simply a screen designed to impede the charge of an assault force at close range to the defenders. Behind the inner stockade, through which the defenders fired their own weapons, was a trench and firing parapet. Later innovations included angling slopes to allow flanking fire at attackers who made it to the main stockade, and bundles of green flax to deaden the fall of enemy shot.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Musket wars - Acquisition and use of muskets', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012