The macuahuitl (maquahuitl) was arguably the most fearsome Aztec weapon. This one- or two-handed Aztec sword used obsidian blades to devastating effect on the battlefield
The exact nature of the Aztec macuahuitl (also written as maquahuitl) remains elusive to this day. No original examples exist of this Mesoamerican weapon of war, generally referred to as an Aztec sword. Firsthand accounts, however, leave little doubt that the macuahuitl was a fearsome weapon. Obsidian blades, bonded to a wooden body, gave a cutting edge sharper than steel, a fact certainly not lost on the Spanish Conquistadors.
Macuahuitl – Weapon of Elite Aztec Warriors & the Aztec Upper Classes
The macuahuitl (maquahuitl) was the weapon of choice for many of the members of the Aztec upper classes and elite warrior societies. Clubs, maces and battleaxes were standard hand-to-hand Aztec weapons amongst the core of the Aztec military. The macuahuitl, a more precise and deadly weapon, was favored by those who had proven themselves in battle and who had risen to the ranks of the Eagle Warriors or beyond.
While a commoner could construct the weapon, he would not generally have the opportunity to enter the higher levels of Aztec warrior training available to the elite warrior societies. The effectiveness of the macuahuitl was nominal if not properly trained in its use.
Construction & Usage of the Macuahuitl Aztec Sword & Obsidian Blades
Historian Ian Heath, using evidence gained from the Aztec codices and accounts written by the Spanish Conquistadors, describes the macuahuitl as such: “It comprised a flat hardwood blade 2-4 ins (5-10cm) wide and about 3½ (1 m) long, often decoratively painted, with sharp flakes of obsidian or flint set in grooves along its narrower two edges”. The standard macuahuitl was a one-handed sword but two-handed varieties existed. According to Aztec historian Ross Hassig, this two-handed version was “about four inches wide and as tall as a man”.
The body of the macuahuitl was generally made of oak. The blades were attached to the body of the sword at intervals or, perhaps reflecting a higher quality weapon, side-by-side in order to create a continuous cutting edge. While flint blades could provide an adequate edge, it was the obsidian blades that gave the macuahuitl such devastating slashing abilities.
Blades made from this volcanic glass, often used to make tools in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (and used today for certain varieties of surgical scalpels), can reach near-molecular thinness. The Spanish Conquistadors, blessed with some of the finest steel swords available, soon noticed that Aztec swords possessed a cutting edge better than their own.
The Macuahuitl Sword – Aztec Codices, Spanish Conquistador Accounts & a Lost Treasure
Three principal sources have contributed to scholarly understanding of the macuahuitl:
Numerous Aztec codices show warriors wielding the macuahuitl; this has helped to both define which warriors (Eagle, Jaguar and Elite Warriors) commonly used the weapon as well as provide evidence as to the construction of the Aztec sword.
Previously surviving examples of the macuahuitl which have now unfortunately been lost. The most notable example was destroyed in 1884 when a fire broke out in the Armería Real in Madrid (where the macuahuitl was being held). This was the last authentic macuahuitl known to exist and a fine example of the continuously bladed variety.
Contemporaneous accounts, particularly those of the Spanish Conquistadors. Bernal Díaz (The Conquest of New Spain), who rode with Hernan Cortes, often pays heed to the “dreadful broadswords” wielded by the Aztecs and their neighboring Mesoamerican tribes.
The Effectiveness of the Macuahuitl
The accounts written by Díaz have served to highlight the vicious effectiveness of the macuahuitl. An often referenced incident took place during what Díaz refers to as a battle with a band of Tlascalans (who were more likely to have been Otomis).
Pedro de Moron, one of Cortes’ Conquistadors, charged a group of native warriors who were wielding macuahuitl “broadswords”. His charge was ineffective and the enemy seized hold of his lance, at which point they began slashing at both horse and rider. As Díaz relates, “Then they slashed at his mare, cutting her head at the neck so that it hung only by the skin”. The cutting edge of the macuahuitl was fearsome indeed, and Aztec warriors certainly knew how to wield it.
While the effectiveness of the macuahuitl may have been lost on more heavily armored Conquistador soldiers, the inherent capabilities of this Aztec sword are clear. More so, it would seem that the design of the macuahuitl would also allow it to be used, to a fair degree, as a bludgeoning weapon. The flat wooden sides of the weapon could well have been employed for blunt attacks; considering the nature of Aztec warfare (the taking of live captives for ritual sacrifice), a versatile weapon such as this would have been highly appropriate.
- Ian Heath – Armies of the 16th Century (Vol 2), Foundry Books, 1999, ISBN 190154303X
- Ross Hassig – Aztec Warfare, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, ISBN 0806127732
- Bernal Diaz – The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin Classics, 1963, ISBN 9780140441239