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"While we were at grips with this great army and their dreadful maquahuitl, many of the most powerful among the enemy seem to have decided to capture a horse. They began with a furious attack, and laid hands on a good mare well trained both for sport and battle. Her rider, Pedro de Moron, was a fine horseman; and as he charged with three other horsemen into the enemy ranks — they had been instructed to charge together for mutual support — some of them seized his lance so he could not use it, and others slashed at him with their maquahuitl, wounding him severely. Then they slashed at his mare, cutting her head at the neck so that it only hung by the skin. The mare fell dead, and if his mounted comrades had not come to Moron's rescue, he would probably have been killed also. "
Bernal Diaz del Castillo - Conquest of New Spain 1623

Basic Information

Sometimes known as the "Aztec sword", the macuahuitl (translates to "Hungry Wood") was a flat wooden club, roughly sword-shaped with blades of obsidian set into the edges to improve its cutting power. It was a common weapon amongst the forces fighting against the Spanish invasion of South America (and, indeed, amongst their allies) and was attested as being capable of severing a horse's neck in a single blow and inflicting severe wounds on the rider.

Whilst reasonably effective against unarmoured targets the weapon loses out to a steel sword on almost all counts. It requires more time and space to swing a heavy club than to stab with the point of a sword. It suffers from a lack of density and blades themselves are fragile. It appears that they fared very badly indeed against the steel armour of the conquistadors.

One little thing it had going for it was the relative ease of switching between the cutting surface and a bludgeoning strike by just turning your grip on the weapon. This is was useful given that for cultural reasons, the aztecs wanted to take many prisoners as possible in the Flower War. This versatility combined with the fearsome nature of the cutting surface was no doubt helpful in subduing potential victims. (Just how important this is in your game system of choice depends a lot on your rules for damage type, subdual or stunning attacks, and psychology rules.)

Historical sources note a typical macuahuitl as being 3-4' long … and a two handed version 'as tall as a man'. For reference, the same weapon without the obsidian blades is best known as a macana.
The Aztecs also seem to have deployed a spear like weapon with a head bladed like that of a macuahuitl known as a tepoztopilli - despite the resemblance to a spear, the slashing head would seem to indicate some kind of polearm.

These weapons seem to have expired completely, with the last known authentic models being lost in a fire in 1884 although a variety of replicas are in existance.

The Leiomano and similar Pacific Islander weapons bladed with shark's teeth are a very close equivalent as a weapon.



Game and Story Use

  • An obvious choice of weapon for non-metal using societies (or characters) in your campaign.
    • Or even just those where it's too hot for armor.
    • Horror characters without access to proper weapons might be able to improvise with bit of wood, broken glass and superglue (say, a cricket bat and expedient window glass fragments).
  • Good if knocking off the Aztecs as a fantasy counterpart culture.
  • A futuristic variation might be the chainsaw-sword, possibly with synthetic diamond replacing the obsidian.
  • Potentially the design could be used with green-rocks in place of obsidian (or whatever kind of non-metallic phlebotinum is to hand) to bypass specific resistances, and the same could be done copying the shark-tooth designs with the sharp edged fangs of an appropriate creature.
  • This weapon opens some tactical options and subplots that might not be possible with a normal sword.
    • You might have the Macuahuitl get a penalty to damage rolls against heavy metal armor. This could be a way to give the PCs some plot armor as well as physical armor.
    • If the PCs get in too deep and are outnumbered, you might have the attackers switch to using the flat wooden side of the weapon and just try to knock them out. In this way, the GM has an "escape hatch" built into their scenario. If the PCs are losing the battle, the opposition starts pulling their punches and you get to jump ahead to "you wake up in a cage, being transported to the human sacrifice site. How do you plan to escape?"
    • Historically this may have been one of the reasons that the Conquistadors were so successful against the Aztecs: one culture was trying to take opponents alive for sacrifice, the other was concerned primarily with killing their opponents in the most efficient manner possible. That said "incapacitating for capture" could also include deep, immobilising cuts to limbs as well as knocking people unconscious.
    • Whether or not the versatility of the weapon matters at all depends a lot on your rules for damage type, subdual or stunning attacks, battlefield psychology and morale, item damage or critical hits. A detailed system with lots of nuance in damage systems and hit locations will be able to capture the distinction between this and a metal sword, and lead to meaningful decisions in tactics and equipment choice. A looser or simpler system will just make this "the native's sword" with no noticeable difference between this and steel that isn't just color or flavor text. Whether that's better or worse is mostly a matter of subjective taste for you and your group.
  • There was also a version "bladed" with feathers intended to "arm" the victim in sacrificial combat … against opponents armed with "live" weapons.
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