Story: Traditional Māori warfare – Riri

Page 3. Rākau Māori – Māori weapons and their uses

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Rākau Māori (Māori weaponry) was designed for hand-to-hand combat. In battle it was common for toa (warriors) to take a long handled weapon such as a taiaha (long-handled fighting staff) and a short weapon such as a patu (club) tucked into a belt. Māori wore little into battle apart from a maro (kilt) or a tātua (belt). In some cases a tapahu (dogskin war cloak) or a pauku (cloak to shield spear thrusts), was worn. Māori did not use bows and arrows, so fighting was almost entirely hand-to-hand. Famous weapons were given names and handed down from generation to generation.

Long-handled weapons

Taiaha (fighting staff)

One of the most well-known Māori weapons is the taiaha. It is usually made from wood, though sometimes it is made from whale bone. Due to its shape, it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a spear. The staff has a pointed end, and is usually between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long. The pointed end (the arero or tongue) comes out of the upoko (head) which then becomes the ate (liver) or tinana (body). It is used for stabbing, parrying (warding off blows) and striking.

Pouwhenua (pointed fighting staff)

This is similar to a taiaha, but the end is more pointed and sometimes the blade or body is wider than that of a taiaha. It is also used to stab, parry and strike.

Tewhatewha (axe-like fighting staff)

A tewhatewha is a long-handled staff. Its shape is similar to an axe with a long handle, though it is shaped from a single piece of wood or sometimes bone. The end of the handle is pointed and blows from the axe-like part were made with the handle rather than the blade.


The hoeroa is a rare weapon made from the jaw of the sperm whale. It is not certain how it was used, but one explanation is that a rope was tied to one end and it was thrown. After hitting a person, it could then be reeled in by the rope.

Tao (short spear) and huata (long spear)

The tao (short spear) was between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long. It was made from mānuka or akeake. It could be used for stabbing, parrying and striking. The huata was a longer spear, which could range from about 3.5 to more than 4 metres long. It was held by more than one warrior and was thrust into oncoming enemy from within the safety of a palisaded .

Short-handled weapons

Patu (club)

Patu were made from wood, stone or whale bone. Both the tip and the blade could be used. It was used for striking, stabbing or parrying.

Patu onewa

A patu onewa was any patu made from stone.

Mere pounamu

Patu fashioned from pounamu (greenstone or jade) were highly prized weapons, and were known as mere pounamu. This was also a symbol of authority.

Patu paraoa

The patu paraoa was fashioned from whale bone.


The kotiate is a patu named for its shape, which resembled a split human liver (‘koti’ is cut and ‘ate’ is liver). It could be made from wood or whale bone.


This is shaped like a normal patu except that it has a small human-like figure just above the handle and the oval shape at the top of the patu is interrupted. The name means mouth (waha) of the fish (ika), which may refer to the hook-like shape of the patu.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori warfare – Riri - Rākau Māori – Māori weapons and their uses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012