Zulu war dance. Image credit ahram.org.eg

ZIMSEC O Level History Notes: The Zulu State: Tshaka’s military innovations

  • Shaka did away with most of the military tactics that had been in existence in Nguniland and improved them.


  • Shaka decided to abandon the long throwing spear assegai because he thought it was inefficient and replaced it with a short stabbing one called iklwa
  • This spear could be used more than once unlike the long throwing spear
  • Shaka also introduced a longer and harder shield for more protection called Ishlangu
  • The ishlangu was about six feet tall and three feet wide with its base made from a layer of thick wood and had a handle affixed to its interior.
  • The shield was the layered with cowhide, from about 1 to 3 inches thick.
  • He taught his army how to hook the enemy with the shield bringing him to the right and stab him using the iklwa
  • Each regiment had a distinctive coloured shield with some using black, others white with black spot among others with lower ranks getting darker coloured shields
  • He supplied cowhide skins to his troops kept them after battle as his property


  • Shaka abandoned the previously Nguni soldiers wooden sandals
  • He believed the sandals to be heavy and slowed the pace of the soldiers
  • He ordered his troops to go to war barefooted for greater speed, toughening of feet and improved footing in warfare
  • Thus  Zulu soldiers  became faster in pursuing the enemy
  • Soldiers who went against Shaka and wore sandals were killed
  • Shaka is believed to have trained his army in a march of about 80 km per day over hot, thorny and rocky terrain

Fighting formation

  • Although some historians argue that the Cow horn formation introduced by Shaka was already in existence, Shaka was more effective in using this method
  • Shaka introduced the cow horn formation in which his troops would be divided to form a cow horn shape when attacking the enemy as compared to the previously used mass combat
  • The Zulu regiments were divided into four groups to be positioned as a cow horn
  • The bravest soldiers were placed in the middle of the horns and these directly attacked the enemy whilst the younger soldiers made the horns
  • A reserve army was placed at the back of the horn
  • In case of stiff attack, the bravest soldiers would retreat and be replaced by the reserve army
  • Any soldier who returned with a wound in the back was killed as he was labelled a coward
  • He put spies and informers everywhere

Total warfare

  • Unlike other Nguni leaders who employed limited warfare to allow the enemy to recuperate and accept dominance of the winning chief, Shaka introduced total warfare
  • Total warfare was simply based on the knowledge that everyone participated in the war, either as soldiers or giving soldiers help
  • Total warfare also meant destroying the enemy completely so that they won’t be able to recover
  • Shaka removed the ruling family of the conquered group and replaced them with relatives of those he selected
  • Young men and women of defeated chiefdoms would be inscripted into the Zulu regiments

The female amabutho

  • Young women of the Zulu state were assembled at the military settlements
  • They were officially wards of the king
  • They were organized in female regiments equal to those of the male amabutho and they took part in ceremonial displays and dances
  • They were given to the male amabutho in marriage
  • Until retirement time, however, sexual relations between male and female age amabutho was not allowed
  • Those who did not follow this rule were punished by death

Standing Army

  • The regiments were kept in the barracks permanently
  • The army was supported by the state
  • The army was well disciplined and trained
  • Shaka made sure that his army was well fed and they were fed on beef mostly
  • Shaka had an army of about 20000 soldiers
  • During battle times small boys were employed as baggage carriers
    Shaka abolished circumcision
  • Nurses and doctors were assigned to treat wounded soldiers

Service in the army

  • Shaka’s soldiers were also known as amabutho
  • The military indunas or captains got many cattle from the king as they were his favorites
  • They were able to build huge personal followings.
  • All able bodied men who were 40 years and below were recruited into the army
  • Soldiers in Shaka’s army served up to 40 years
  • The army always lived in the barrack and were occasionally allowed short visits home

Regimental system

  • Shaka continued with the regimental system he had learnt from Dingiswayo
  • Shaka’s army was organized into regiments
  • These regiments were organized by age
  • Regiments were formed of recruits from all backgrounds and this promoted unity
  • All the Zulu soldiers were happy being part of the army as it won most of its battles

NB To learn more about the military organisation of the Zulu state go to this page.

To access more topics go to the History Notes page.