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I am afraid to ask this question too broadly but I would be very happy to get answers that included conflicts not just in the Americas. For example, India had superior rockets to those of the British but China's weapons and ships were inferior for some reason, even with access to European arms, I think.

Anyway: Cortez famously defeated the Aztecs with a handful of men and horses. He had superior weapons, basically the Aztecs had stone-age weapons when the Spaniards had gunpowder weapons. (Of course, disease played a role too.) My main question is, how long was it before the natives acquired gunpowder weapons? Is it possible that very deliberate policy prevented Spanish traders from selling guns to the native Americans? Or could the Natives have been reluctant to use such weapons?

Or did the equivalent of Aztec scientists (would that have been priests?) make the manufacture of firearms a priority and succeed to some extent in making such weapons and gunpowder? My sense is, no: It seems like even 300 years later, whatever firearms Native Americans had were purchased from whites and natives never made (i guess i am wrong even if in limited amounts) gunpowder. Is that really possible that in centuries no Native American gunsmiths and chemists emerged?

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    Note that Cortez defeated the Aztecs, not with that handful of men and gunpowder weapons, but by organizing the surrounding peoples, whom the Aztecs had been oppressing.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 11, 2021 at 5:04
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    There are two questions in the title. Both are interesting, but I think they deserve to be asked separately.
    – Evargalo
    Oct 11, 2021 at 8:52
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    An additional point in the favor of Cortez, is that they had iron-based armor and weapons. Even without the gunpowder, that was a huge force multiplier. Oct 11, 2021 at 22:48
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    @Michael Richardson: The Aztec macahuitl was anything but primitive. It was deadly effective: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl Again, it wasn't any superiority of weapons that allowed Cortez to conquer, it was the ability to organize the Aztec's subject peoples. Of course the Spaniards' weapons & armor may have helped by convincing people that a revolt would succeed, but that relative handful of soldiers, no matter how well armed, would have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 12, 2021 at 2:53
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    It's a little off-topic for the question but the impact of gunpowder for the conquistadors was more about the shock and terror they created. There's simply no way a handful of people could attack and defeat thousands of people (even unarmed people) with the barrel-loaded weapons of the time. Lances, swords, and other bladed weapons were the primary weapons used by the European invaders.
    – JimmyJames
    Oct 12, 2021 at 17:22

3 Answers 3

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Chichimec war 1550/1600

According to the book American Indian Quarterly published by University of Nebraska Press, gunpowder weapons were first used by native americans during the Chichimec war which lasted from 1550 to 1590.

Gunpowder mostly obtained via trade

It would appear that native americans mostly obtained their gunpowder via trade, though according to the Lipan Apache website, the Lipan Apache's had learned how to make their own gunpowder by 1800.

The Official Website of the LAT

There is also some evidence which indicates that the Lipans had learned how to make gunpowder by 1800, although they obtained most of their gunpowder and ammunition through trade or by force (such as the 1790 attack on Laredo, where an entire warehouse full of gunpowder was looted).

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  • Interesting. In Blood Meridian, the process of making gunpowder from very raw elements: wood made into charcoal, sulfur from a volcano and saltpeter made from bat guano forms an extended section in the book. It is far from trivial -- there is some complexity to extract the saltpeter. In the book, they also urinate on the mixture and leave it to dry which may not have been a necessary step although the size of the grains formed by getting the powder wet has some effect on burning. Water instead of urine may have also worked. I wonder if these Apaches came to also know chemistry thru this.
    – releseabe
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:03
  • @releseabe urine is a traditional source of saltpeter.
    – fectin
    Oct 12, 2021 at 13:31
  • @fectin: yes it is. but firstly, the saltpeter has to be extracted from the urine and secondly, in Blood Meridian, they already had saltpeter. It may be that in the mid 1800s people mistakenly used urine instead of plain water for mixing drying ingredients to avoid fire -- in the book, they also had water. Chemistry was still an infant science in 1850.
    – releseabe
    Oct 12, 2021 at 14:51
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In what became the USA, the Dutch West India Company began trading in what became New York State, building fort and trading post in 1614 at what became Albany. The Dutch traded with the Iroquois for furs, and traded them guns and ammunition.

It is possible that other Indian groups in what later became the USA acquired guns from the Spanish earlier than 1614.

In Mexico, native groups used guns and gunpowder during the Chichimec war of 1550-1600, according to the answer by John Strachan.

In South America, Incas used guns during the Inca Revolt led by the vassal Inca ruler Manco Inca from 1536-1544. Spanish expeditions were ambushed in the mountains and the Incas acquired Spanish guns and made prisoners teach them how to use them. Manco Inca was seen wearing spanish armor and riding a horse in one battle.

The Spanish had been dealing with various native groups since 1492. Columbus founded the first Spanish settlement in the New Wold at La Natividad in Hispaniola in 1492. When Columbus returned in 1493 he found that the settlers had quarreled with the natives and had been massacred. So if the settlers left by Columbus had any canons or personal hand guns, the natives acquired them, but might not have learned how to use them.

Thus it seems certain that the first use of any guns by New World Native Americans or Indians would have been sometime between 1493 and 1536.

The Powder River in Montana has black sand that looks like gunpowder, giving the river its name. I have read that Sioux Indians kept trying to turn the sand into gunpowder.

One thing which the Sioux allegedly did develop was a way to reload used cartridges. Old fashioned muskets used lead balls and cheap gunpowder which was sold in containers. Modern rifles used preloaded cartridges which were expensive. The Sioux learned how to reload used cartridges with bullets and cheap gunpowder sold for muskets, thus producing their own cartridges cheaper than they could buy.

John Strachan's answer has the only example of US Indians who allegedly learned how to make gunpowder that I have ever read.

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  • This "powder river" thing -- reminds me of ghost shirt and other magic that some Indians seriously believed in. This is sadly a huge impediment to science. How did they hope to turn sand into gunpowder? Impressive that one group managed to make powder but why Aztecs did not figure this out by, say, 1600, I do not know.
    – releseabe
    Oct 12, 2021 at 0:39
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    Don't cartridges require also primers which would have been expensive and impossible for Indians to make, I think?
    – releseabe
    Oct 12, 2021 at 11:22
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    @releseabe By 1600 Aztces could learn about gunpowder making. But by 1600 Aztecs were firmly part of the Spanish society in Mexico. They weren't subjects of any separate indipendent nations who could go to war against the Spanish government in Mexico. Do you know how many Cherokees or Navajos might have jobs in the armaments industry today? I don't. But I doubt that any who might work in the armaements industry are plotting to revolt against the USA.
    – MAGolding
    Oct 14, 2021 at 19:12
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I understand that one of the first instances where indigenous peoples used firearms (at least in South America) was in 1558 during the battle of Quiapo, where a Mapuche army of 6,000 warriors had approximately 20 arquebuses and 2 cannons (All the equipment previously captured in Marihueñu) and defended a fort against Spanish forces.
It is clear to say that they aim was not good. Although a few would stand out, such as the Toki (Warchief) Ñamku better known as "Mestizo Alejo".

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    Nov 22, 2023 at 4:17
  • The answer includes a link, but to understand the actual document, familiarity with an archaic version of Spanish is necessary. You can read it at books.google.com.ar/…. Specifically, see page 92, second paragraph, for this answer. The entire document provides detailed information on this topic. Other links in the Wikipedia article mention this only briefly, but the one I provided offers comprehensive details.
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    Nov 23, 2023 at 20:23

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