Throw sticks as weapons in the African bush

Kerries are a combination of throw sticks and wooden clubs, used as everyday tools for hunting, defense, and/or digging in Southern Africa. Australian aboriginals used a refined form of throw sticks, which was flattened over its whole length and was called ‘Kylie’ by them. Eventually, boomerangs evolved from this design. And very similar is a ‘Rabbitstick’, as Americans call them.

The Kerrie did not figure significantly in ethnographical literature about African tribes, as it was and is just a piece of bent hardwood, which was utilized and after serving its purpose, was replaced by a new one. It was however a typical tool of !Kung bushmen. Kerries were further refined by various tribes, and are known as ‘Knobkerries’ by Zulus and ‘Rungus’ by Maasais in Eastern Africa.

Brief description of Kerrie, Knobkerrie, and Rungu

Kerries are about 45 – 50 cm long, with a diameter of about 3 – 4 cm and bent on one end. Ideally, they got a digging point at the end of the straight part opposite to the bent section.

Knobkerries are straight sticks with a ‘knob’. Such a knob is a symmetrical and ball-shaped extension on a straight stick. The length of the whole tool can be up to 1 m and the diameter is smaller compared to a normal Kerrie. It is one of the three signature weapons of the Zulu nation, which are Assegai (short lance), Knobkerrie, and Zulu shield, made from Nguni cattle rawhide. There is a wide variety of different shapes and sizes, and the wood is preferably from bush willows (Combretum spp.), like Red bush willow or Russet bush willow.

Rungus are similar to Knobkerries but got an eccentrically positioned knob. And they are often shorter in length compared to Knobkerries. Again, there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes of these throwsticks, as every Rungu is handmade. They are regarded as part of Tanzania’s national identity.

All three types of tools utilize the same principle when thrown, in flight. Besides a straight part of the stick, they have an eccentric part, which causes the thrown club to swirl around its axis. This swirling action is most pronounced at Rungus, less so at Kerries, and least with Knobkerries, whose purpose is more of clubbing the opponent.

Utilization of throw sticks

Kerries – the focus of this article – are, as mentioned before, an everyday tool, they are easily available, can be made very fast, and serve a variety of purposes. They are therefore an ideal survival tool and at the former SAAF (South African Air Force) survival courses, it was the first tool to be made by the participants. Every participant had to carry two fist-sized stones and a throwing stick for defense and hunting throughout the courses.

Usage as a non-returning boomerang

The first purpose of a Kerrie is its use as a throwing stick for hunting ground birds and small mammals from a distance. Typical ground birds to hunt are Guineafowls, Francolins, Spurfowls, and Korhaans and typical mammals are Scrub hares, Spring hares, Damara Dik-Diks, and maybe Steenbuck. They can be carefully approached within throwing distance, which is in practice up to about 30 meters. The swirling flight of the throwstick can’t be easily judged by the animals and there is a good chance of either breaking wings or hitting them sub-conscious. Especially if clubs are thrown by more people at the same time and target.

The Kerrie has to be thrown parallel to the ground and given a certain spin for swirling. This action as well as hitting a target has to be practiced whenever possible. For survival courses, it is a good routine to set up a competition on how often the participants are hitting artificial targets.

Usage as a clubbing tool

A Kerrie is also a clubbing tool, which can be used for offensive or defensive purposes. Examples of offensive utilization are !Kung Bushmen, who in former times were kneeling behind jackal dens and waited for jackals to stick their heads out and club them. For defensive purposes, Kerries could be used in conjunction with long, stout hardwood sticks, which serve as distance holders. If, for example, a hyena bites into the other end of the long stick – acting to keep the distance, the Kerrie can be used to break the upper nose bone of the hyena’s skull, which will discourage her further advances.

Usage as a digging tool

And, as an additional utilization, the straight end of the Kerrie can be sharpened on two sides (in sandy areas) or pointed (in more clayey soils) and used as a digging stick. Although digging sticks carried by female Ju!hoansi are about double as long as Kerries are,  they can be used for a variety of digging and clearing tasks. E.g.: digging for low-laying bulbs and roots or clearing ground of vegetation for temporary settling.

Lessons learned about throw sticks

  • Kerries are the most important first tool and weapon when stranded in the African bush
  • They act as a throw stick for harvesting ground birds and small mammals
  • Kerries can be used as an offensive and defensive club
  • Additionally, they can be used as digging sticks

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