Story: Musket wars

The intertribal musket wars of the 19th century saw battles in many parts of New Zealand and an ‘arms race’ involving a number of tribes. As many as 20,000 people may have died in or as a result of the wars.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Haka with muskets and traditional weapons

Story summary

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After Europeans brought muskets (long-barrelled, muzzle-loading guns) to New Zealand, these weapons were used in a series of battles between Māori tribes, mostly between 1818 and 1840. As many as 20,000 people may have died, directly or indirectly. Tribal boundaries were also changed by the musket wars.

Buying and using muskets

Tribes that wanted muskets had to increase production of pigs and potatoes, which were used as currency to pay for the guns. At first tribes had just a few muskets, which were mainly used to scare their opponents. Tribes then bought hundreds of muskets – meaning they had to work hard to produce enough pigs and potatoes. Once they had enough guns, work returned to normal.

Māori learned tactics for using firearms, and designed to provide protection against musket attacks.


In 1807–8, despite having some muskets, Ngāpuhi were defeated in a battle with Ngāti Whātua (who used traditional weapons).

By about 1818 Ngāpuhi had significant numbers of muskets, and in 1821 the chief Hongi Hika returned from overseas with hundreds more. Over the next six years Ngāpuhi attacked and defeated Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Maru, Waikato, Te Arawa and Ngāti Whātua. In 1827 Hongi was shot in a battle. He died the following year from his injuries. After his death Ngāpuhi had less military impact.


In 1821 Waikato tribes expelled Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha from Kāwhia after intertribal fighting. Waikato, led by Te Wherowhero, then attacked Ngāti Toa in Taranaki. In 1824 Waikato and Ngāti Tūwharetoa defeated Ngāti Kahungunu at Napier, and in 1826 Waikato invaded Taranaki, forcing some groups to move south. Waikato attacked Taranaki tribes again in the early 1830s.

Waikato had successfully defended their lands against northern invaders, and expelled other tribes.

Ngāti Toa

After Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa left Waikato, they moved to north Taranaki and then to the Kāpiti Coast. They captured Kāpiti Island and established a base there. In 1824 other tribal groups attacked the island but were defeated.

Te Rauparaha wanted to extend his trading strength by controlling pounamu (greenstone) in the South Island. From 1827 Ngāti Toa and their Te Āti Awa allies attacked southern tribes and captured much of the northern South Island.

Ngāti Toa allies Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama invaded the Chatham Islands in 1835. They conquered the Moriori but also fought each other.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Musket wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 June 2012