The introduction of the horse into North America by the Spanish was to revolutionise warfare as conducted by the native Indians and, for one group in particular, the Comanche (or Nermernuh as they called themselves) it would turn their warriors into one of the most respected warriors on the American prairie, striking fear and awe into both fellow Indian tribes and white settlers alike. With a combination of both deadly archery and incredible horsemanship they brought a new dimension to the art of warfare in the Americas.
Comanche warriors would spend their lives on horseback; spurning to fight on foot; and adopting their tactics of warfare to fit. For the Comanche, warfare was a way of life. Old men were considered unnatural-a warrior who could no longer maintain his prowess in war was an object of scorn and his council received no respect, and even at night, around the camp fire, the telling of war-stories about particular raids would occupy the bulk of conversation.
The Comanche, however, were never cavalry in the European sense. They did not adopt mass tactics like the Persians, Mongols or Huns, nor did they use shock tactics like European Knights. Instead they created tactics that were very much appropriate to the wide open regions (eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas) to which they were native. The Comanche rode and fought very much as individuals and they never pressing a charge home-instead relying on horse archery to defeat the opposition. To the great surprise of many an opponent, Comanche tactics were often extremely well synchronised and orchestrated. So much so that even professional European soldiers had difficulty in understanding, or even describing, the Comanche’s approach to warfare.
Comanches would approach an enemy at a gallop, weaving, each warrior apparently taking no orders from the war chief. These magnificent horsemen never formed a solid line, instead they formed a swirling, breaking, dissolving and regrouping mass of separate riders, thundering across the prairie, making difficult moving targets,. The whooping riders charged, broke off before contact, dodging and weaving whilst at the same time circling the enemy, showering them with arrows from all directions. The Comanche also employed a trick of hanging over the far side of their steed by a strap or thong thus almost being protected from ball or arrow.
Against this even massed musketry was of limited usefulness in facing such an attack. Trained from youth to bring down a buffalo from 50 yards the skilful warriors could fire twenty shafts in the time that it took one trooper with a musket to fire a shot and seek cover to reload. Such deadly archery could bring consternation to their foe, inflicting considerable casualties, stampeding the enemy horses, and even occasionally managing to break-up European defensive formation.
In fact the Comanche warriors were not overly impressed by firearms (although they were certainly keen to obtain them as a trophy when they could). Firearms may have been superior in mountainous or wooded terrain but in the open plain the Indians suffered no real hardship through a lack of them. The bow and arrow, or war-lance was their weapon of choice in battle. Against a swirling mass of fast moving individuals firearms could often be less effective than the cloud of ceaseless arrows being shot back in return. Nor could the Comanche tactics be effectively countered by a cavalry charge. The warriors would just retire, peppering the troopers with arrows as they did so. The scruffy looking Amerindian horses proving to be incredibly quick and agile, leaving the heavier mounts of even Spanish Lancers dissipated and exhausted in the open prairie. Occasionally some Brave, keen to count coup, might charge forward to engage in hand to hand combat with axe or lance whilst his comrades kept up the ceaseless barrage of arrows but for the most part, breaking the enemy’s resistance with overwhelming archery was much the preferred method of combat.
Thankfully, in many battles with the Comanche, casualties were light, with few Indians killed or wounded. They realised that there would always be another day when things were going badly and preferred to call off the fight (sometimes after just one Comanche fell) in order to preserve themselves for a more advantageous situation. Furthermore Comanche Warbands were commonly never large enough to seriously disrupt the flow of European settlers encroaching into their lands, but until their final submission in the last decades of the 19th century, Comanche raids would continue to pose a major danger to travellers and settlements.
“The most common vices of the Comanches are vengeance, pride, and extreme laziness; but at the same time they are frank and loyal friends even to the Mexicans. When at war with us if Mexicans are in their camps, the Comanche will not harm them, showing that he who lives with them is their friend, regardless of his nationality.” (Jose Maria Sanchez, San Antonio, 1828)
The Comanche were a copper toned people usually dressed in buckskins (which were usually stained in a colour for effect and ornamentation). They frequently wore a kind of moccasin which was quite different to the small shoe worn by the other plains Indians, but instead a kind of combined boot and legging that reached from foot to hip. They did not adopt the feathered headdress, as so commonly depicted in Hollywood movies, until the reservation period, but instead devised a rather grim war helmet made from a buffalo scalp, complete with great thrusting horns, which give the warrior a terrifying appearance that no enemy ever forgot.
The Comanche took great care in the dressing of their hair. Their long locks being greased with buffalo dung or bear fat, parted along the top of the head and braided on each side. These braids being frequently decorated with silver, coloured cloth, beads, glass and tin. A single yellow feather worn in the scalplock was also a Comanche fashion during 18th century.
Warriors, particularly in the more southern regions, would wear a simple breechclout (protecting the sacred medicine bag that hung between the loins). Other medicine symbols were frequently worn including twisted thongs and berry heads, amulet bags, eagle feathers dyed red and eagle bone war whistles. Comanche warpaint was black, the colour of death, and normally consisted of broad stripes daubed across the face and forehead. The warpaint pattern was frequently copied onto their pinto ponies in the same pattern.
"The Comanche is a fine looking Indian…The squaws are dressed in deer skins, and are good looking women… appearance of a Comanche fully equipped on horseback, with his lance and shield by his side, is beautifully classic” (T.B. Wheelock, 1st Lt. Dragoons, Fort Gibson, 1834)