The macuahuitl was a deadly weapon that was used widely in Mesoamerica during the 16th century. It was made of oak, paddle-shaped and consisted of six to eight sharp blades on each side. A typical macuahuitl weapon measured between 28 to 31 inches long, and three inches wide. The blades were made from naturally formed volcanic glass called obsidian and were firmly fixed against the wood with an adhesive.
There were two types of the weapon: the macuahuitl which was described above and a smaller club called the mācuāhuitzōctli which measured approximately 20 inches and featured only four obsidian blades. Some macuahuitls featured gaps between the blades, while on others, the blades were set close together to create a single edge. Each blade was extremely sharp, so sharp in fact that it could cut through just about anything, making it a very effective weapon for the Aztec warriors.
The macuahuitl dereives its name from the root words maitl (hand) and cuahuitl (wood stick). During the Mesoamerican war in the early 16th century, the Aztec military used the macuahuitl for combat against Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish were both curious and impressed by the Aztec’s weapons and often chronicled their battles with the Aztec warriors. Cortés wrote that the Aztecs were fierce people skilled at the art of war and combat. Christopher Columbus was fascinated by the strength of the macuahuitl that when he encountered it after reaching the Americas. He even gave orders to his people to collect a sample of the weapon to show back in Spain.
Macuahuitls were used mainly to injure the Aztec warriors’ enemies and capture them for ritualistic sacrifice. Certain features of the weapon made it easier for the Aztecs to capture prisoners. The gaps between the sharp blades would limit the wound depth an enemy would suffer from a single blow. However, with multiple strikes, the macuahuitl could be used to decapitate a man and according to some accounts could even decapitate a horse.
One of Cortes’ companions describes the weapon as a “two-handed sword” with grooved edges. Cemented within those grooves were stone knives. He wrote in detail that he had witnessed an Aztec warrior strike his enemy’s horse with the weapon. Upon impact, the horse’s chest cut open and its entrails fell to the floor. The horse died on the spot. Stories like this paint a vivid picture of the destruction and brutality created by a weapon like the macuahuitl.
In addition to its razor-like blades, the flat wooden paddle of the macuahuitl could be used to knock enemies unconscious, long enough to drag them to the sacrificial site. Aztec warriors were trained to disable and weaken their enemies from an early age. It was common for Aztec Tēlpochcalli schools to teach young warriors to spar with un-bladed macuahuitls. It was an easy weapon to carry, maintain and sprint with during battle. Other weapons such as the bow and arrow where limited by supply and demand.
While the macuahuitl was an effective weapon in disarming and weakening an opponent, it also had several drawbacks. Unlike the steel swords that Europeans used, the obsidian blades would chip or break upon impact with swords and plated armor. Furthermore, the blades were easily dulled with repeated use so it was critical for each strike to be precise in order to be effective. It is likely that warriors kept a storage of extra blades in nearby camps to repair their weapons before the next battle. Swinging the paddle also required more room than using a sword, therefore much of the fighting was done one-on-one instead of a unified front.
In Pop Culture
Fascination with this deadly weapon still continues to this day. TV shows on both the History and Discovery channel have featured replicas of the macuahuitl. These shows have demonstrated the effectiveness of the macuahuitl as a combat weapon. On History Channel’s show, “Warriors,” the demonstrator actually cut the back of his leg while fencing with a macuahuitl.
Meanwhile, another replica of the macuahuitl was tested on the television show the “Deadliest Warrior” hosted by actor Danny Trejo. In the episode, the demonstrator was able to decapitate a model of a horse’s head that was built using a horse’s skeleton and ballistic gel. However, it should be noted that the decapitation took three swings to accomplish. The blows were most effective when the macuahuitl was swung firmly and then dragged backwards on impact, which creates a sawing motion that cuts through bone and flesh.
The macuahuitl has also made appearances in video games such as Mortal Kombat X and Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and several Final Fantasy games. In Mortal Kombat X, a character named Kotal Kahn uses the macuahuitl as his main weapon to fight off his enemies. In 2006, director Mel Gibson featured the macuahuitl in his movie Apocalypto, as one of the many weapons used by the Mayans.