When the Spanish conquistadors invaded the New World, they brought with them steel, horses, disease and the element of surprise. All these factors combined to make them successful, but the belief that it was just their superior weaponry responsible for their victory is misplaced.
History throws up many great stories of war and conquest, and perhaps none of the stories match up to those of the legendary Spanish conquistadors. With their superior weapons and firepower, the conquistadors invaded many countries in present day North America and South America, and truly set the ball of imperialism and colonialism rolling in the world. The term conquistador literally means ‘conqueror’ in Spanish and Portuguese and it is a term that is loosely used today to refer to the soldiers and militia of these countries who set out on an American conquest.
Many sources claim that it is a myth that the famous Spanish conquistadors conquered the lands of the Aztecs and the Incas due to their superior weaponry. They say that the majority of deaths of the indigenous population occurred because the Europeans got fatal diseases like smallpox with them. While this is true to a certain extent, it is also a fact that they did possess advanced weapon technology at the time, while the indigenous population had to make do with simple bows and swords to defend themselves. It is for this reason that small forces of a few hundred or thousand defeated massive native armies that went as high as 50,000 in some cases.
Spanish Conquistador Weapons
You must remember that in most cases, the conquistadors were not soldiers from the national armies of these countries. They were simply a collection of mercenaries who set out on these conquests to build their fortunes with the spoils of war. However, in some cases the national military of a country would descend upon a native country and wage war with them and then claim the land as theirs. The most famous example of this is Hernan Cortes and his army, which was funded by the nation of Spain in their quest to bring the Aztecs down. Due to this, most of the weapons that are mentioned here were provided for by the conquistadors themselves.
Weapons for the Cavalry
The cavalry was the class of soldiers that fought while riding horses, and they were the ones who led battles and indeed, won them. The aim of common soldiers was to earn enough to get themselves a horse so that they too, could be a part of the cavalry. These horsemen primarily used twelve foot lances and single-handed or double-handed swords when they were atop their steeds, and the swords that were created in Spain at that time were famous for their strength and brutality. What made the cavalry even more effective was the nature of armor that they donned to protect themselves from attacks and injuries. This armor was commonly created in the Spanish town of Toledo, and it was the strongest armor created at the time, so it literally made them invulnerable.
Weapons for the Foot Soldiers
While the cavalry made up the elite fighters, the foot soldiers provided the numbers that every battling force needs. Since it is hard for a horse rider to shoot a weapon from a moving horse they primarily stuck to lances and swords, but the foot soldiers used weapons that could shoot bullets and arrows. The natives feared these weapons since they had never seen anything like them before and they became very superstitious about weapons that could apparently shoot thunder from them. But all of these weapons needed to be reloaded from time to time, and this is what made them unpractical for many soldiers. So many foot soldiers also stuck to short swords that were highly effective.
Famous Conquistador Weapons
- The short swords that the conquistadors used were forged in Toledo, and these swords were narrow and about three feet long. This made them very effective killing machines that could withstand large amounts of pressure. Longer swords which were double-handed ones were around four and a half feet long.
- Foot soldiers commonly used a ‘Harquebus’, which was a large musket of sorts. This is the weapon that natives feared since it created the sound of thunder, but its use was limited because it needed to be reloaded slowly and its wick also needed to be kept lit.
- The crossbow was another weapon that was used sparingly. It was heavy, slow to reload and could face many problems, so many soldiers did not prefer this weapon. When these soldiers faced European armies the crossbows were very popular because they could pierce armor easily, but since the American natives did not have such armor, the use of these crossbows was not very popular.
- Some soldiers preferred a weapon known as a ‘Halberd’. This was a highly versatile weapon that was around six feet long, and combined the blade of an ax with a stabbing point. Soldiers who used this weapon typically used it to defend soldiers with crossbows while they were reloading their arrows.
- When it came to siege weapons, the conquistadors preferred a ‘Falconet’. This was a light canon that could shoot accurately over a range of 2,000 yards. Transporting them was relatively easier, and the devastating effect they had owed a lot to the fear it provoked.
- The armor was a full-bodied one that weighed around 60 pounds. But it was so strong that even the lack of movement it caused was not a problem at all. The three different types of helmets were the ‘Morion’, the ‘Salade’ and the ‘Cabasset’ and each of them were preferred for different reasons. The part of the armor which covered the neck and the throat was called the ‘Gorget’, and the other components of the armor were the breastplates, the greaves for the arms and legs and a metallic skirt as well. Eventually, some conquistadors started using light chainmail armor and ‘Escuapil’ armor too, which was made of cloth or leather. A shield was also used by some soldiers, and these were called ‘Bucklers’ and were oval-shaped and were embedded with leather.
These were some of the popular weapons that were used by these European invaders. Each of them had their own disadvantages too, so the best armies had an equal collection of all these weapon types. The history of these battles is a rather interesting one, but you must remember that the conquistadors had more than just superior weapons on their side.