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Monday, March 7, 2016

Military History Monday: the Zulu Buffalo Horns

Welcome back to Military History Monday! Today’s topic is the Zulu Buffalo Horns formation largely credited to the Zulu chieftain Shaka. While the buffalo horns formation was used as a hunting tactic prior, Shaka is usually noted as having adapted it to a military one. It was used to great success even against the technologically superior British forces at Isandlwana on 22 JAN 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu war.

Zulu and southern African tactics before Shaka

Before Shaka’s rise, the vast majority of conflict on the African plain was usually small-scale raids. There was occasional direct conflict between forces. Such conflict often involved stylized formations, taunts, even celebratory gatherings. These rarely resulted in large-scale slaughters or high casualties.
As Shaka rose to power in the Zulu clan, he began making changes to how his warriors fought, as well as which tools they used. He modified the existing spear (the assegai), creating a shorter spear with a wider blade point (the iklwa), and improving the shields they used. In addition, he changed their tactics to employ the buffalo horns (impondo zenkomo) formation in battle, among other changes.

Details of the Buffalo Horns

The impondo zenkomo formation consisted of three main elements:
        The “Chest” (in essence, the main body)
        The “Horns” (the left and right encirclement elements)
        The “Loins” (a final, reserve force)
In the short, here is how the formation worked:
The main body, or “chest” of the Buffalo would engage and pin the enemy force. The encirclement forces, or “horns” would then come around the enemy force on the left and the right, attacking them from the sides and rear while the main force continued to attract the majority of the enemy’s attention. The reserve, or “loins,” would wait until needed and would plug any parts of the formation that needed reinforcement.
The “chest” would be the best warriors, the strongest and most capable fighters. They would need to be able to charge into the enemy and stay engaged while the “horns” made their move around the flanks.
The “horns” would be the newest, and often youngest, warriors. They had to be fast. They were expected to move quickly around the enemy flanks and encircle them.
The “loins” would be the oldest and most experienced warriors. They were often hidden or had their backs turned toward the battlefield so that they wouldn’t get overeager and attack prematurely.
Though the formation itself was not invented by Shaka—encirclements as a tactic had a long history in other military forces—the Buffalo Horns formation was notable for Shaka’s focus on training his warriors to use it.


Once Shaka’s Zulu forces began using the Buffalo Horns formation routinely, they were able to subjugate several nearby tribes. Eventually, the Zulu became the most prominent and dangerous tribe in eastern south Africa. They were dangerous enough in battle against other, similarly equipped tribal forces, but also succeeded against a technologically superior force of British regulars at the Battle of Isandlwana, slaughtering the British force with their spears, cowhide shields, and Buffalo Horns formation even against the Martini-Henry rifle-equipped 1st of the 24th British Foot soldiers.


During Shaka’s reign, the Zulu transformed from one of the many tribes in the eastern part of south Africa, in the modern areas of Swaziland, southern Mozambique, Lesotho, and eastern South Africa, to the predominant tribe in the area. Although the Zulu were eventually defeated in war by the British, their military prowess under Shaka’s influence—including the use of the Buffalo Horns—led to significant change in the power and prowess of the Zulu. 

References and further reading

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