Even before man had discovered fire, he utilized tools in his everyday life. Most certainly in his array of tools were weapons that he used to kill game for food and to defend himself from other tribes intent on taking what was his.
The first weapons were of very simple design, made from stone or wood. Very likely man first realized the value of weapons when he threw a rock at a bird or rabbit to provide food for himself and his tribe or family.
As man realized the usefulness and importance of weapons he tried to create more effective weapons. So through trial and error over the centuries stone was eventually replaced with steel.
Throwing Stones, the Most Basic Primitive Weapons
By simply throwing a stone man could extend his reach far beyond his grasp. Small animals like birds, rabbits, squirrels, or even lizards and snakes can be taken with a rock. However, sometime in the distant past man determined that he could throw a stone much farther and harder by using a sling.
The oldest known surviving example of a sling is from about 2,500 years ago from South America, although it’s almost certain it has existed much longer.
A sling is a length of cord made from plant fibers like hemp or flax, or materials from animals like wool or leather. It consisted of a finger loop on one end to insert the thumb or middle finger with a small flat pouch in the middle, it then had a small grip on the end made from a knot or a flat patch.
By placing the stone in the center patch, grasping the free end and spinning the sling over head then releasing the free end at just the right time, (this takes quite a bit of practice) a stone can be hurled much farther and harder than throwing by hand. Larger game could be taken with a sling by hitting it in the head with the projectile.
A man could be easily brought down using a sling as well. As technology advanced, lead sling bullets that could travel twice the distance of stone and hit the target with much greater effect replaced the stone projectiles. Slings were actually used quite frequently and with great effect as a weapon of war in ancient times.
Here is an excellent video showing how to make and use a sling from plant fiber:
A modern day version of the sling is the slingshot. This consists of a “Y” shaped device with rubber bands or tubes attached to the ends of the verticals with a pouch in the center.
By placing a rock or lead or steel projectile in the pouch, pinching the pouch closed around the projectile, drawing it back and releasing, the projectile flies through the verticals on to the target.
This can be made using wood or steel to create the handle, a cloth, canvas, or leather patch for the pouch, and any type of sturdy elastic bands. Modern day slingshots are designed so that the handle extends and wraps around the forearm in order to brace it for greater control and accuracy.
The Humble Stick
Another of the earliest weapons was simply a long, pointed stick. A spear made from sharpening the end of a long straight pole into a tapering point and then hardening the point with fire probably came into use about the same time man was simply throwing rocks by hand.
This hardening was achieved by repeatedly heating the tip by plunging it into the coals of a fire then rubbing it with stone. This process done correctly could create a tip harder than copper:
A spear could be carried, used as a walking stick, used and reused, and was much more effective in close quarters than a rock as well as more effective bringing down larger game. Used as a defensive weapon against attack by dangerous animals or rival tribes, a spear would kill by poking a hole and letting blood.
It wasn’t much of a stretch from thrusting with the spear to throwing it.
When hunting with a spear the spear would be thrown into the animal in the area of the lungs and heart, when the animal ran the spear would twist around inside doing further damage until it became dislodged.
The hunter would then track the animal by the blood trails until he came to the dead animal. Often the hunter would carry several spears in case of misses and to remain armed after throwing.
Further development of the spear included a lever consisting of a stick about half the length of the spear with a hook on the end designed to fit in an indention on the end of the spear shaft, or an indention for the butt of the spear shaft to fit into.
This device was designed for throwing the spear greater distances and was known as an atlatl (the spear for an atlatl is called a dart). See one being made here:
Advances in technology for the spear took it from a simple pointed stick to having a sharpened tip attached made from flint.
This type of spear tip could punch a hole deeper into the animal, and bigger than the spear shaft thereby letting blood flow around the spear shaft for greater effectiveness.
Later with the advent of metallurgy spear heads were made from copper, bronze, iron, and then steel. Spears were another ancient weapon used prolifically in war.
Once man started using tools and weapons it didn’t take long for him to develop a hand held weapon designed for stabbing and slicing, the knife. The origins of the knife began by wrapping one end of a pointed bone or antler with leather to create a slip resistant grip handle.
Rubbed on a rock until nearly needle shard, this earliest weapon didn’t cut but it could stab. Used for close quarters combat when your opponent is right up on you, stabbing created holes to let blood in order to bring down your opponent. See a bone knife made here:
When man discovered he could chip flint (this is called flint knapping) and create very sharp edges he began to create knives and other cutting tools such as skinning tools from this sharpened flint stone to skin and butcher animals.
Again, with the advent of metallurgy he began to make knives and then swords from copper, bronze, iron, and finally steel.
Another weapon used for up close and personal combat came about in the form of the axe.
The first axes were simple hand axes made from stone and used to crack bones to access the marrow and to cut wood to build fires.
Eventually, man realized by adding a handle he could get more leverage and make the axe more effective.
As with the other weapons, axes went from being made from stone to being made from copper, bronze, iron, and then steel.
Here is a video showing how to create a stone axe, (this guy really knows his stuff):
Axes, knives, and swords were also used prolifically in war in ancient times, and are still used widely today all over the world. Although firearms are used in modern warfare, modern military rifles are still designed so that they can be fitted with a bayonet.
A bayonet is a long, sharp blade that is designed to be fixed to the muzzle end of the rifle for use in close quarter hand to hand combat.
These bladed weapons can be made to be just a simple basic tool or a beautiful work of art adorned with the precious metals gold and silver, and inlaid with gemstones.
Bows and Arrows
The epitome of primitive weapons without a doubt has to be the bow and arrow. Still widely in use today in competition sports and hunting, (there are archery competitions in the Olympics) evidence of the bow and arrow spans back an estimated 70,000 years based on finds of ancient artwork from the southern coast of Africa.
The bow can be made two ways, one way it is made from a single piece of wood cut from the edge of a branch so that hard wood and sap wood existed along the shaft, this gave the bow shaft flexibility.
Another way, which makes a stronger bow, is made with elastic material, usually sap wood from certain trees, for the opposing limbs and a solid material such as hard wood for the riser (the center grip).
This was achieved in ancient times by using different types of wood laminated together using animal glue, (animal glues is made by boiling connective tissue, ligament or tendon) and wrapping the joints with sinew, (sinew is a tough, fibrous material also made from connective tissue, ligament or tendon) or leather for added strength and durability.
Leather strips would be applied wet and then when it dried it would shrink and draw up very tightly.
The bow is strung from end to end with a cord (called a bowstring), also made from sinew or plant fibers such as hemp or flax and often waxed with bees wax or treated with animal fat to help water proof and preserve it.
The bowstring was tied to the ends of the limbs into notches called nocks. The nocks were often strengthened by laminating bone over the wood to prevent the bowstring from wearing into the wood.
The riser of the bow usually had a notch cut into the side in order to provide a small ledge for the arrow to rest on. Aiming is done by bringing the arrow up as close to the eye as possible and looking down the shaft of the arrow to the target.
It takes some considerable practice to become proficient at estimating distances and learning the trajectory of the arrow in order to accurately hit your target.
Here is an excellent video of a one piece bow being made and used:
The arrows are made from thin straight branches, saplings, reeds, or bamboo, depending on materials available in the area where they are being made.
An arrow straightener was often used to straighten the shaft. The end of the arrow towards the bowstring is cut with a notch called a nock, (just like the nock on the limbs) to fit around the bowstring.
Fletching, used to stabilize flight, is affixed to this end as well. It was usually made by splitting large feathers and sticking them on with pitch or sap and wrapping them with a fine string made from plant fiber or sinew. Modern arrows typically have three.
The business end of the arrow was fitted with a knapped stone originally, progressing through the stages of metallurgy with copper, bronze, iron, and then steel heads. The arrow heads are shaped various ways depending on their intended purpose.
Hunting tips, known as broad heads, had a broad, triangular shape to cut a large bloodletting wound. Tips for fishing are long, thin, barbed tips, or multi-pronged.
Arrow heads designed to pierce armor in wartime were usually sharply pointed caps or small broad heads with sharp edges designed to puncture steel armor.
Modern versions of these include spring loaded tips for fishing that pop out to make it impossible for the fish to come off and broad head hunting tips have evolved to three or four razor sharp blades with a sharp, hardened steel point.
Another projectile weapon that can be used to take small game is a blow gun. In ancient times these were made from hollow reeds or bamboo.
Today you can make one from any kind of tubing lying around, copper or pvc pipe is readily available in areas of civilization, but in the woods you have to find some natural tubing.
Darts are made from cactus needles or carved wood and fletched with feathers or plant material. Loading the dart in the rear of the tube then blowing a sharp puff of air will send the dart flying.
Natives of certain South American tribes would poison the tips of their darts in order to take large game. When several tribe members blew darts into an animal at once it would run, only to spread the poison through its system faster and bringing it down.
These people are very skilled and knowledgeable about the use of plants and animals to make poisons that, although would kill their prey left no harmful remnants that could hurt them. So it’s best to leave the poison to them.
Here’s a video of the real deal being made:
All of the above mentioned weapons require some level of skill to create. We have to keep in mind that some people just do not have the ability to create handmade objects.
For those people it might be best if they just rely on a simple, yet effective, weapon. A club; a club is likely as old a weapon as the rock.
It’s pretty simple, find a stick two to three feet in length with one end suitable for holding and widening to a hefty, weighted end. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Of course you have to get really close to use it for hunting, but in a self defense situation it’s expected that an assailant will be trying to get close to you to do you harm. So a hefty stick to the head should do the trick.
Clubs were actually used by many Native American tribes prior to and alongside the tomahawk that we commonly see depicted in books or in movies. Here is a great example of how to make an authentic Indian war club, although you’ll have to use a sharp rock instead of an angle grinder:
In a survival situation with immediate need simple is better. A pocket full of good throwing stones can help you get small game while you learn to use the sling. You can make a sling with a bootlace or paracord strands and a patch of cloth or a piece cut off the tongue of your boot.
A good, long, strong shaft of wood with a hardened point can be a quick way to make a defensive weapon to protect against wild animals while you make a better weapon.
If you have a knife with you it can be lashed to the shaft to make a more effective spear point while keeping some distance between you and an attacking animal. It could also be used to throw at an animal to injure it to be tracked.
If your stay in the wild is going to be longer then you may want to consider coming up with a more permanent solution by making a bow and arrows with whatever materials you have on hand.
You only need about 20 pounds of draw weight to take small to medium game with a bow, although if you can get in the 40-50 pound range, you’ll have no problem going deer hunting.
If you have a good fixed blade knife or a hatchet you may stand a good chance of creating a usable bow, although the guy in that video did it with a rock so necessity dictates.
One of the most important things about survival is to understand your surroundings and to think creatively. Take note of what materials you have on hand and then determine the best use for them.
But just like training for anything else, practice is the best way of becoming successful. In other words, why wait until you are in a survival situation? The next time you are sitting in front of the television why not try to make some of these weapons at home?
If you have already gone through the process and determined what works and what doesn’t then if you are ever in a real survival situation you will not have to try to make a weapon, you will make another weapon like you have done before.
Eric Eichenberger is an avid outdoorsman, skilled marksman, and former certified range officer and instructor with nearly 40 years experience handling and repairing firearms.
A skilled craftsman with a strong love for working with his hands, Eric spent 20 years as a carpenter and custom woodworker in high end homes. As a gold and silversmith he has created hundreds of pieces of jewelry over the years using the lost wax casting method.
The grandson of humble country folk, he was raised with the “do it yourself” mentality and so is accustomed to coming up with unique solutions to problems utilizing materials at hand.