By: Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu – Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, Indigenous Military History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


Shaka Zulu is still considered a great military genius, nation-builder, and Zulu kingdom founder-king who ruled from circa 1816 – 1828. He was extremely obsessed with groundbreaking military innovations, tactics, and strategies from his early military career. Let us peruse Shaka’s famous ‘impondo zenkomo/the bullhorns’ tactical battle formations.


Early military career of Shaka Zulu


Sigidi iLembe kaSenzangakhona affectionately known as ‘Shaka Zulu’ (circa, July 1787, to September 1828) was a son of chief Senzangakhona kaJama of the Zulu chieftaincy and princess Nandi Bhebhe of the eLangeni people. The young Shaka grew up as an outcast in exile away from his father’s and mother’s homesteads around the nearby communities.


When the right time arrived for young Shaka to do his national service and serve his king, Shaka wabuthwa/enlisted at eLangeni. At that time eLangeni chiefdom was under the overlordship of Shaka’s uncle, paramount chief Gondogwana kaJobe, alias Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa paramountcy. Shaka joined Dingiswayo’s newly revived iziChwe ibutho under the commandership of General Bhuza of the Mthethwa impi. With the permission of his principals, Shaka modified his personal edge weapon. Shaka learned a lot from Bhuza; they spent a lot of time discussing military tactical and strategical battle formations and military innovations. Shaka also learned a lot from his mentor chief Dingiswayo, who was a military tactician and strategist and had a statesman’s craft acumen. He inevitably inherited his mentor’s main rival in chief Zwide kaLanga of the Ndwandwe chiefdom.


Tactical and strategic positions of Shaka Zulu


Shaka became a brutal warrior and proved his military geniuses to his principals. He rose to prominence through military ranks. Dingiswayo noticed Shaka’s progress and appointed him a senior official (induna) to oversee one of his military homesteads (ikhanda). Shaka was also endorsed to a tactical/strategical position of commander of iziChwe regiment. Subsequently, upon general Bhuza’s retirement, Shaka was appointed a general of the Mthethwa impi. Shaka and iziChwe ibutho used to be deployed by Dingiswayo for various military campaigns. That was a great opportunity for Shaka and iziChwe ibutho to experiment Shaka’s new concepts in tribal warfare. Shaka ensured that uDibi boys and his warriors did not wear sandals to increase speed and cover a few miles within a short time.



Figure 1. A new concept in tribal warfare – Shaka and the isiChwe ibutho of the Mthethwa impi against the Ndwandwe at Nongoma, 1812 (Source Image: Lt Cdr E.H. Ward, 1983, p.39)


After the death of chief Senzangakhona of the Zulu chieftaincy in 1816, Singujana was installed as the new Zulu chief. Through the military assistance of chief Dingiswayo, Shaka managed to eliminate his half-brother Sigujana, and occupied his father’s throne/the Zulu chieftaincy. Shaka transformed the Zulu chieftains into a mega ceremonial military force. Shaka became a successful Zulu state-builder and founder-king, while recognising Dingiswayo as his overlord. Shaka ruled as Zulu king from 1816-28.

Dingiswayo had an extended geopolitical conflict against Zwide’s Ndwandwe. Previously around 1812, Zwide was subdued and captured by Dingiswayo. Following his extraordinary kindness (against Shaka’s advice) and Dingiswayo pardon, Zwide was kindly released. Zwide’s defeat and disgrace determined him to revenge.  


In 1817, Dingiswayo was mysteriously captured and killed by Zwide. This was despite Dingiswayo’s earlier clemency, and reconciliation gesture towards Zwide. Now Zwide’s focus was on Shaka, which resulted in the Ndwandwe-Zulu War of 1818-19. Shaka managed to eliminate Dingiswayo’s successor and incorporate the Mthethwa chiefdoms and its confederacies into the Zulu kingdom. During his reign, Shaka personally led and command his own Zulu Amabutho/forces. He deployed his famous ground-breaking tactics and strategies on the battlefield that ushered the defeat of his rival chiefdoms.

Around April 1818, Zwide’s army sprang on Shaka. He was ready for them, since he trained and prepared his warriors based on his famous tactical battle formation: ‘impondo zankomo/the horns of the bull/buffalo. Shaka introduced this new concept (impondo zankomo) in tribal warfare during his military career as a commander of iziChwe and general Mthethwa’s impi. Therefore, it was not the first time for Shaka to deploy this formation at the Battle of KwaGqokli Hill in 1818.

The Zulu forces were commanded by Shaka against their main rival chief Zwide kaLanga’s forces, commanding by Nomahlanjana kaZwide of the Ndwandwe impi. Shaka finally conquered Zwide and his successor and incorporated the Ndwandwe’s into the Zulu kingdom in 1819. Shaka’s ground-breaking military tactics included, transforming the indigenous warfare concept: long-distance spear-throwing battles into ‘the vicious close combat’. He also invented a short-handled long stabbing assegai/iklwa, which was used in combination with the shield during ‘the closed combat’ (see Fig. 2).



Figure 2. An illustration of Shaka’s Zulu warriors using a shield and short-handled long stabbing assegai/iklwa in the ‘bloody’ close combat/battle (Source Image: Lt Cdr E.H. Ward, 1983, p.42).


Impondo zankomo/the horns of the bull tactical battle formation

Impondo zankomo is an indigenous tactical battle formation invented by Shaka Zulu. It requires a suitable terrain (i.e., down sloping), cautious co-ordination of the regimental amabutho commanders and their four collaboratives’ tactical regimental groups for its effectiveness and gaining victory over their rivals. Shaka Zulu successfully deployed this tactical battle formation for the very first time during the Battle of Gqokli Hill/Gqori (circa April 1818) and gained the greatest victory over Zwide’s army/the Ndwandwe impi (his main rival) for regional power in 1819. Zwide lost four sons including his rightful heir/successor Nomahlanjana, who was a commander of the amaNkayiya regiment of the Ndwandwe impi. Subsequently, it was associated with the Zulus forces. Impondo zenkomo’s tactical battle formation was also deployed during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.


Figure 3. Impondo zenkomo’s tactical battle formation applied during the Battle of Gqokli Hill (Source Image: Jeffery P Berry Trust, 2015).

Zulu forces (in red) commanding by Shaka versus Zwide’s Ndwandwe’s/forces (amaNkayiya in blue) commanding by Nomahlanjana kaZwide (Zwide’s heir). The bullhorns consisted of young fit warriors:  uDlambedlu and iziChwe/izi-Cwe (on the left horn), and uKungela and uFasimba (on the right horn) surrounding their enemy/amaNkayiya without being detected.

The isifuba/the chest consisted of experienced firm skilled warriors: amaWombe pinning their enemy (see Fig. 3 the highlighted blue arrow) in place with a direct head-on assault. The umova/loins consisted of married and matured warriors: Jubingqwanga who acted as the reserve and deployed to plug any gaps in the attack (see Fig. 2,3).



Shaka deployed his new tactical and strategies on the battlefield, which allowed him total defeat over his rival chiefdoms. Impondo zankomo/the horns of the bull tactical battle formation was simple, yet effectively. All that was needed was a suitable downward-sloping terrain (e.g., the Battle of KwaGqokli Hill). That could take a spot in the enemy’s back and both sides (right and left) without being detected. It also required careful co-ordination on the part of the Zulu regimental commanders with their four collaborative tactical groups. The first and second tactical groups are the impondo zankomo/horn of the bull which include two groups from both sides to surround their enemy. The third tactical group was the isifuba/chest which was a direct head-on assault on their enemy. The fourth group was the umova/loins which acted as a reserve and backup; they were also deployed to close any gaps in the attack. This formation further required self-control and bravery on the part of the regimental amabutho warriors who made up the respective fundamentals of this formation. Its achievement or failure over decades depended on the success of these factors. This battle formation was applied for the very first time by Shaka’s forces against the Zwide’s forces during the Battle of KwaGqokli Hill of 1818. Subsequently it began to be used by the Zulu forces.




Ward E.H (1983) ‘The Defaqne-Socio-Military Revolution and Demographic Determination’, Scientia Military, South African Journal of Military Studies, 13 (3).


Knigt Ian. Great Zulu Commanders 1838-1906 (London: Wellington House, 1999).

Ritter E.A. The Rise of the Zulu Empire (London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1955).

Wylie, Dan. Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (Pietermaritzburg: KwaZulu-Natal Press, Press).

Images Sources

Jeffery P. Berry Trust. (2015) ‘Impondo Zankomo/the horns of the Bull Tactical Battle Formation at the Battle of Gqokli Hill’.

Lt Cmdr. E.H. Ward (1983) ‘Illustrating Shaka Zulu’s warrior using a shield and short-long stabbing assegai/iklwa’, (Scientia Military, South African Journal of Military Studies, 13 (3). p.42.

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