History Features

How Did Indians Bring Down Buffalo With Primitive Weapons?

We asked buffalo hunting expert Brett Cogburn, and here’s what he told us.


Big game hunters will tell you that the large mammals of this earth are hardy critters who can take a pretty good dose of lead and still keep on trucking.

Despite magnum rifles with cartridges that look more suited for battleship barrages, many African hunters have learned this lesson the hard way, ending up as bloody hoof prints or as some feline’s lunch. Yet we know that the Plains Indian regularly downed the American bison, a notoriously cantankerous beast, with nothing more than a bow and arrow, or a lance.

I have to admit, many times I have laughed myself silly watching Hollywood renditions of Indians running buffaloes. The sight of an actor in feathers and a breechclout using his little toy bow and single arrow to drop a stampeding, half-ton bovine as if struck by a lightning bolt has provided many hours of scoffing. But the fact remains that Indians did kill buffalo with such weapons. Much like the Ice Age mammoth hunters must have thought, when you pack that much potential sustenance into one beast, somebody is going to figure out how to kill one of them, and darned efficiently.

Archery hunters know that a well-placed arrow through the heart will down just about anything. But the thought of shooting buffalo from the back of a horse running over rough ground, even at point-blank range, seems to be a practice that would require a large quiver of projectiles. Surely, there were mighty hunters who could regularly bring home the rib eye before they ran out of ammo, but it’s easy to surmise those types were the exception and not the rule. Some historical accounts relate how individual warriors marked their arrows for ownership. I always assumed that this was to settle any arguments over the half-dozen twig missiles buried into a dead buffalo.

But a few years ago, I had to humbly admit that I was guilty of the same lack of “outdoor common...

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