All you need to know about iklwas

Weapon specifications

Most African tribes use a form of assegai, a light throwing-spear used in both hunting and war, typically around 6-feet long with a 6-inch steel head. Some of the most aggressive Bantu tribes of southern Africa have developed a shorter version of the throwing-spear, and one group – the Zulus – have developed a version specifically designed for stabbing at close-quarters. This is the iklwa, which has a 2-foot wooden shaft and a broad 1-foot steel blade.

Zulus fighting with assegais. Some are using throwing-spears, but the figure in the centre foreground has an iklwa.

Assegai tactics

Though Zulus still use throwing-spears, all warriors are required to carry the iklwa. Their standard tactic is to close to hand-to-hand killing range and then use a combination of punching with cow-hide shield, clubbing with wooden knobkerrie, and stabbing with iklwa to overpower the enemy. Zulu formations are highly mobile and trained to manoeuvre. They usually aim to fix the enemy with a frontal demonstration by the ‘chest’ of their army, while their left and right ‘horns’ envelop the flanks, and their ‘loins’ stand behind the chest as a general reserve. The aim is always to get in close as quickly as possible.

Iklwa fighting

The iklwa is designed to be used in an upward, underarm thrust. In close-quarters combat, the Zulu warrior crouches somewhat, using his long shield to cover head and upper body against blows from both above and in front, while he seeks an opening in his opponent’s defences. This is readily found: he needs only a narrow gap through which to lunge at his opponent’s loins and lower torso, gouging at his vitals to inflict a crippling and probably fatal wound.

The best defence against the iklwa is to keep Zulu impis (regiments) at a distance with concentrated fire. If this fails, and the impi closes to contact, the longer reach of the rifle with fixed bayonet is the best hope.

The greatest danger arises if a formation loses cohesion, either because taken in flank or rear, or because penetrated in frontal attack. Once iklwa-armed warriors are able to fight it out, man to man, against a broken line, a massacre is probable; if the line breaks and runs, a massacre is certain.