Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Way of War (part II)

…night attack at Lake Hope


In the previous post we looked at broad aspects of Aboriginal (adaptive) warfare in response to white settlement. In this post we shall begin our discussion of how Aboriginals adapted and developed their own unique style of warfare by taking a look at the weapons they used and how they prepared for battle.


Adaptive Warfare

A look at the tactical methods and weapon use the aboriginals used gets us a little closer to our source point for wargaming the period. To do so with a sense of the battlefield factors at play we need to understand the unique elements of conflict in Australia.  Our look at traditional fighting methods and weapons in the previous post laid the foundation for this discussion as traditional weapons and fighting methods laid the foundation for resistance tactics against the white settlers, however some additional notes of adaptive weapons and techniques are worth noting.



As mentioned in the previous post describing aboriginal weapons, for the most part the use of traditional weapons continued. These weapons however came with limitations when arrayed against an enemy with firearms. Initially, the difference between tribal spear and throwing weapons did not necessarily put the warriors at a significant disadvantage.

Early smoothbore, muzzle loading muskets came with many tactical limitations that were not always suited to the nature of guerrilla warfare. The slow rate of fire, often unpracticed use and relatively limited numbers could also place the white settlers at a tactical disadvantage. Tribal weapons, with warriors much skilled in their use and relatively endless tactical supply, made initial clashes between British soldiers and civilians problematic. This is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon as many warrior peoples confronted with colonist wielding smoothbore muskets often had tactical parity on the battlefield in varying degrees.

In so far as the tribal weapons themselves, not a great deal changed. However the interaction with settlers introduced new materials to better or more efficiently make weapons for use. Weapons would be supplemented/enhanced with metal and glass captured from white settler missions or raids. The glass used in power cable distribution in the latter 19th century being an especially useful and readily available source of ceramics that could be obtained along with other materials such as worn-out cross-cut saw blades.

The use of hatchets or tomahawks also become used in a number of tribes as contact between communities enabled some white man goods to find their way into the arsenal of warring tribes. Captured weapons of the whites were also pressed into service, but generally speaking not commonly, mainly due to the limitation of obtaining gunpowder and/or ammunition. Despite this limitation, guns were acquired and used by aboriginal tribesmen.

The muskets or ‘gooroobeera’, ‘stick of fire’ or ‘thunder stick’ were all names given to the white man’s firearms. Whilst not befitting their warrior code some adopted their use and often in ‘concentrated’ numbers once the ‘idea’ of using firearms had taken hold. It could be possible for 20-30 warriors to be so equipped though this was not common. The natural abilities of the aboriginal usually made them excellent shots when they acquired muskets and rifles.

Unlike many other British enemies the Australian aboriginal with firearms were potentially deadly foes. It is well that the aboriginal people’s never acquired nor developed the taste for the ‘fire stick’, as this would have made conflict much deadlier than it was and changed the tactical paradigm significantly on Australian battlefields. There were practical reasons however why firearms, at least of the smoothbore type, were not used.

These were a combination of a slow rate of fire, two or perhaps three rounds per minute. This compared poorly with spear throwing that was at least twice as fast. There were numerous incidences of misfires in wet or damp conditions compared to the spear’s all weather capability. The natural stalking style of combat preferred by aboriginal warriors did not suit the use of the cumbersome musket, which could also be made inoperative due to dirt or damage and the need to carry an ammunition pouch and provide for replacement ammunition, all of which did not suit the aboriginal style of warfare.

In addition, the weapon was not silent in the first instant of a surprise attack whilst by night and day it indicated the location of the firer. Lastly, the musket’s maximum effective range of about fifty yards, gave no advantage over a spear.

Whilst smoothbore muskets had a much greater lethality if they struck their target, on balance, they were an ill suited weapon for the style of warfare the aboriginals practiced. Thus, the hit and run style guerrilla tactics generally adopted by most tribesmen still favoured the use of silent killing and maiming weapons such as the spear, boomerang and war club…all of which were readily available and expertly used.



Quickly, the limitations of flintlock weaponry enabled aboriginals to develop tactics to both observe the initial flash of fire, take cover and rapidly move to contact, the so-called ‘rush on’, before reloading could occur.

These tactics were nullified to a degree with the advent of the percussion cap fire method of newer muzzleloaders but most significantly with the introduction of the breechloading and repeating rifle, with their high rates of ‘reliable’ fire. This technological shift significantly changed the battlespace in favour of the whites. So significant is this that it is worth taking a moment highlighting this important change in technology as it forever changed the tactical balance which could only end in one result.

Up to about 1850 the smoothbore, muzzleloading flintlock firing mechanism gave battlefield parity to the aboriginal using traditional spear weapons combined with superior field craft. The introduction of the six shooter Colt revolver, followed in 1862 by the single-shot breechloading rifle started to deliver rapid reliable firepower in the hands of the whites. The Snider, introduced to the native police in 1870, was pivotal in breaking resistance in Queensland. Still however, combat ranges of 50-60m remained consistent with these weapons.

The subsequent introduction of the Martini-Henry rifle enabled the whites to deliver longer, more accurate rifle further than ever before. Finally the repeating Winchester rifle, first used by the Western Australian police in 1866, made close range engagements potentially suicidal to any aboriginals unlucky enough to be caught in the line of fire.

‘Mercifully’ for the many aboriginal tribes widespread use of these emerging gun technologies was not easily achievable. Even though breechloaders and revolvers were available from the 1860s most settlers still used older style muzzle loading rifles, carbines, shotguns and pistols. Continued use of these older weapons prolonged the struggle until the last decades of the 19th century saw the wider use of modern weapons resulting in the total ascendency over the aboriginal traditional weapon systems.

When one considers the effect of weapon technology combined with the use of horse mounted soldiers and settlers, the balance tipped heavily against the aboriginal warriors who could neither out run nor compete in a stand up fight with spear vs the ever more efficient bullet. This tactical balance started to shift in the 1820s in New South Wales with the advent of horse mounted soldiers and reached an apogee in the fairly ruthless campaigns in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Northern Western Australia towards the end of the 19th century when horsemen combined with modern repeating firearms proved an unbeatable combination.



Preparing for battle

Before direct confrontation occurred it was common for aboriginal warriors to conduct tasks and rituals. One great advantage they had was an innate ability at pre battle stealthy reconnaissance. This was usually conducted when spying on an enemy clan before an attack and was generally much easier against the somewhat clumsy white soldiers or settlers, though this was not always the case.

For the most part, the aboriginals held the battlefield initiative if their opponents were on foot – white mounted forces however changed this and often put them at a disadvantage unless the mounted troopers themselves were at a disadvantage such as in rocky mountainous terrain or thick scrub.

This same skill set was critical to the gathering of food by ‘the hunt’ and the aboriginal warrior excelled at this ability, seldom ever surpassed by their European foes. This gathering of intelligence gave them a great advantage in determining the enemy strength, size, location and ‘tactical disposition’ that provided them with the knowledge to plan their attacks – and plan they did. They usually struck when the whites were at their most vulnerable.

Impetuous, uncontrolled or rash assaults were not typical of the aboriginal warrior regardless of tribe. They understood they had limited resources and needed to minimise their losses and achieve their tactical/operational goal to delay or deter settlement and survive. Whilst such terminology might not be in the vocabulary of aboriginal culture, understanding of the terms and their implementation was. This in many ways reflected the experience of small tribes of North American Indians when they had encounters with enemies, local and foreign.

When a tribal council decided on action it was not uncommon for the aboriginal to prepare for battle by donning war paint. One notable feature of aboriginal warfare that continued in use against the whites was warpaint which had the added the added benefit of instilling fear in their enemy unaccustomed to their appearance. When called to arms warriors commonly used used red coloured warpaint though white was also used and generally more associated with original body painting. Some tribes used bird feathers in their hair also such as cockatoo feathers and headwear was also used, though to what extent is unknown.

Some tribes had a reputation for aggressiveness regardless of warpaint. The commander of the expedition against the Tiwi tribes in the Northern Territory, Captain Gordon Bremer, R.N., who was sent to occupy the island in 1824 was very aware such that he requested additional troops be made available to ” ‘… secure [the settlement] from any hostile attack on the part of the Natives, who are understood to be of a ferocious disposition”. Brevet Major John Campbell noted that the Tiwi had “cunning, dexterity, arrangement, enterprise and courage” – not all aboriginal warriors were the same.


Sorcery also played an important role before battle by the so called ‘Clever Men’. Whilst it seems perhaps unreasonable to consider this a ‘tactic’, the aboriginals believed their medicine men could indeed influence supernatural events. Conjuring up bad fortune on enemies, particularly Europeans who would be unaware of the ‘magic’ directed against them, was one way to inflict loss on their opponents without potentially stirring up a punitive retaliatory attack against themselves.

Whilst this method of fighting was largely dismissed by the white man as superstition, it was believed to be true by all aboriginals and could sometimes be the basis for conflict between neighboring clans or bands.

These sears were integral to aboriginal society and played a part in the rituals and expectations of war. One particular tactic commonly thought to be within the Clever Man’s ability was to control the weather so as to inflict damage or drought on settler farmsteads or stations. Whilst it is not plausible that they could control weather events it is possible that they had an understanding of local weather patterns which could suggest a degree of knowledge that suggested control of weather patterns to the uninitiated. For the most part sorcery was considered a real phenomenon by aboriginals and was met with predictable scepticism by the white man.

Taken together, the pre battle rituals of sorcery, war paint and the war dance (corroberie), the selection of where and when to strike were all features of aboriginal tactical methods used in variation combinations and degrees pertinent to the situation.

Whilst assaults on established homesteads pre determined the location of many engagements, when attacks were made against whites ‘on the move’ the aboriginals used natural terrain such as mountains and dense bush locations to level the military ledger considerably. Combined with slow loading smoothbore weapons, tactically, aboriginal warriors could tip the battlefield scales in their favour by some way and often the results showed.




In the next post we shall take a detailed look at aboriginal tactical methods.

5 thoughts on “Australian Frontier Wars – Aboriginal Way of War (part II)

  1. The the smoothbore DB muzzle-loading carbine of the NMP was reckoned to have an effective range of about 60 yards. Like the revolver, it was theoretically outranged by the spear-woomera combination, however, under the stress of combat conditions, where warriors were under fire from weapons whose projectiles they couldn’t evade, many spears were thrown hastily and without proper preparation, reducing their range and velocity to something like those of an unassisted spear, and also putting the thrower off his aim. I represent this phenomenon in my game ‘Boomerang’ by distinguishing between prepared and unprepared throws. An action is required to prepare a spear and woomera for a prepared shot, and a warrior base can be rendered unprepared simply by firing at it, whether or not a hit is scored. An unprepared throw has half the range of a prepared throw and is less accurate.

    The Snider carbine was a ‘game changer’, in that it allowed troopers to fire while standing off well out of range of Aboriginal missile weapons – except in close terrain, and sometimes when the NMP were deployed on foot. The issuing of revolvers to troopers seems to have ended with the introduction of the Snider, probably because there was no longer a need for a personal security weapon such as was required when fighting in proximity to the enemy; the danger of being caught in a sticky situation was much reduced. It should be noted however that the new weapon was introduced only gradually; some sections were still using the old carbine in the mid 1870s.


  2. Hi Leigh,

    Nice tips on Boomerang – thanks.

    Smooth & Rilfled handles these issues quite nicely as well.

    In S&R a figure/group can choose to expend an action to AIM to further chances of a hit. It effectively doubles the cost of firing in activation points for a kick in effectiveness, but reflects this element as you describe above making fire more effective…if a player chooses👌The double cost to fire for tribal troops means their fire drops off quite a bit when they need to aim.

    Shaken units also loose their ability to shoot so a tribal unit under fire can quickly be suppressed through some figures being shaken from Rifle Fire and with a double action aim cost, well, you can see that accurate fire potentially falls away pretty quickly as those activation points get gobbled up.

    Snider BLRs are similar ‘game changers’ in S&R with a significant range shift in effectivensss so they are much deadlier. They also have the ability to hit multiple targets via penetration, such as the Martini – Henry Rifle, if lucky.

    Revolvers are also suitably reflected…

    …so these important elements are handled quite nicely by S&R when combined with its unique group/no group concept…they’re a good low level set of rules that I think will portray salient feature for AFW 👌👌


  3. The game process I describe above would generate a very different effect to what you describe for S & R. For one thing, there are no ‘unit’s in ‘Boomerang’. There are ‘commands’ on the colonial side, but they’re flexibly constituted. On the native side (I use this term for convenience; as well as the NMP, there can be tribal forces on the colonial,side) the figures within a ‘tribe’ can combine into mobs, split, and recombine (if a leader is present) freely; only individual bases can be rendered unprepared, which creates target selection decision dilemmas for the colonials, e.g. do I fire that figure at those unprepared warriors in spear range with only a chance of scoring hits on them, or at those prepared warriors currently out of unprepared spear range in the certain knowledge that it will reduce the danger to me by ‘depreparing’ them? It also gives the native player(s) another tactical objective in addition to getting as many warriors as possible into advantageous positions: preparing bases and keeping them that way long enough to use the advantages of that condition. It adds an additional layer of tactical finesse to the ‘dance’ that is a game of ‘Boomerang’.

    Naturally the target has to be within range to be rendered unprepared.

    This system also allows for the representation of tribes that didn’t use the woomera: they simply always throw their spears unprepared.


  4. Sounds like Boomerang has many similar ideas. Smooth and Rifled uses No units..every figure, every turn can move as desired or under group orders from leaders…all using activation points.

    Figures can only fire in S&R if loaded. Smooth bore Muskets require two actions to load, breech loader 1action, spears no action. All require 1action to aim and 1action to shoot.

    …thus it produces timing decisions on when to shoot, hope to damage, shake or drive off enemy before being able to reload again…then there is moving, advancing, etc…it’s all there. It appears both games deliver similar equations of movement and firepower.

    Sounds like both rule sets have these important parts in the low level skirmish dynamic built in which is well suited for AFW.



  5. Although ultimately only a thorough reading can settle the question of S & R’s suitability for colonial Australia games, you’re certainly making a persuasive case for at least considering it. It would be helpful to be able to read the rules ahead of the publication of your mods, Happy; it would obviously make them more comprehensible and allow me to properly analyse them, but alas… between Boomerang and the Chris Peers rule sets I already have every angle of this subject adequately covered, so for me it would be an unnecessary purchase and is therefore unlikely to happen.


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