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Pole arms were invented to increase the effectiveness of infantry against cavalry and they can be devastating in disciplined formations of well-trained soldiers. Over the centuries, pole arms developed from the basic forms to more sophisticated and specialized ones as the art of war progressed. Naming, describing and classifying the myriad types of pole arms is not standardized, and indeed seems to vary greatly even among authoritative sources. This article presents a system of classification and nomenclature that readers should find reasonable and easy to use.
What is a pole arm? It is an infantry weapon designed to strike an enemy before they can strike you. A pole arm is simply a weapon on the end of a stick. To be considered here, the haft or shaft length of the weapon must be a minimum of 5 feet (1.5 meters) long.
- Spears are primarily thrusting weapons and, in warfare, are not intended to be thrown because it leaves you without a weapon in the middle of a battle. Spears are the oldest form of pole arm. The spear family includes the regular spear, the long spear or pike, the spetum, the ranseur, and the partisan. The lance is included here because it can be used by foot soldiers as well as mounted ones.
A dagger mounted on a pole. Definitely a thrusting weapon but can be given a cutting function if the blade is made wider (called an ox tongue blade). Increasing the length of the blade increases the cutting ability. A spear with a shaft of 15 feet (4.5 meters) or more is called a pike.
- Lances are long spears carried by mounted soldiers, which would seem to exclude it from this category, but there have been many battles where the men-at-arms dismounted and used these weapons with great success against forces who did not have even longer pole arms to keep them at bay. Norman lances were about 12 feet (3.6 meters) long but later in the Middle Ages they grew to an average length of about 14 feet (4.2 meters) giving a knight a reach beyond the horse's head of about 10 feet (3 meters). As with spears and pikes, different heads were used in accordance with the opposing force's armor.
For the purposes of this classification system, a pike is a spear with a shaft length of 15 feet (4.5 meters) or longer. It was designed to do thrusting damage at relatively long range and keep opponents from closing the distance. Pikes were always used in large numbers because a few can be circumvented by a brave warrior in armor but almost nothing can get through a line that bristles like a porcupine. There are many types of blades found on pikes but the most common was probably the awl pike, a strictly piercing weapon. Pikes were often fashioned with protective metal on the last foot or two (30 to 60cm) of the shaft to prevent the enemy from hacking off the blade and making the pike useless.
These pole arms are variations on a theme, adding secondary capabilities to the primary thrusting function of a spear. However, not all pole arms equipped with a dagger head should be considered spears, as described below. The name should identify the primary function of the weapon.
The spetum offers an additional attack mode and some defensive capabilities to the common spear. The spearhead is sharply tapered and two smaller blades are added near the base of the head pointing forward at about 45° to provide another chance to pierce or to deflect enemy weapons. These secondary blades can also be used to catch and hold an opponent at a distance if the first thrust fails. Corseques or korsekes are also in this same class.
Similar to the spetum at first glance but the ranseur's secondary blades are set further back, backward-hooking, and are shaped and angled to deflect or better yet trap the enemy weapon. The main blade is indented at the base to facilitate entangling. Once trapped, a twist of the shaft can break the opposing blade or disarm the opponent. Some ranseurs have a more open space between main and secondary blades which still can entangle a blade but allow the side projections to be used to hold an opponent by the armor or pull them off a mount.
The partisan takes the basic spear, usually with an ox tongue blade, and adds two small axe heads with pointed tips below the dagger blade. This increases the defensive ability of the weapon and adds the cutting and penetrating potential of the axes. Later versions of this weapon saw a gradual change in the axe blades until they became almost unrecognizable. An example of this is the Bohemian earspoon where the axes have been changed to spikes for piercing plate armor.
Axes set on poles are not exclusive to this family of pole arms, but for purposes of this classification scheme the only true members are the pole axe, the halberd, and the bardiche. Axe heads have two basic versions, broad and narrow. Narrow blades are often made thicker to adjust the weight for more damage. An argument can be made to include the cleaver-type pole arms but they are given their own category in this system.
In essence, a pole axe typically features a smaller axe head of any type set on a shaft that was generally around the same length as the user. This included the usual variances like hammers, spikes, bec de corbin -like protusions on the back, or indeed replacing the axe head. Usually combined with a stiff square point or small spearhead on top, and a reinforced metal point on the other end of the stave.
A knightly weapon meant for armored combat on foot, combining versatility, offense and defense.
The main features differentiating a pole axe from a halberd are length ( ca. man height vs 2.2-2.4m ), head construction with the halberd being one piece, and the pole axe being constructed out of 2 pieces ( with the spike and langets being one piece and the axe/rear hammer being the 2nd piece). Though the latter is not a rock solid rule.
- The halberd uses a concave, broad axe head set at an angle which makes it distinct from the pole axe. The salient angle of the head is for better contact with the target. Halberds also have a fairly long spear point on top and a spike on the back which is angled slightly downward. These weapons are often 8 feet (2.4 meters) long not including the spear point.
The bardiche is a broad, heavy axe that represents a transition stage between a pole axe and a pole cleaver. The head of the bardiche can be about 2 feet to over 3 feet (60cm to 1 meter) long attached to the haft by a ring. The heel of the blade is also attached to the haft to prevent swiveling and the toe of the blade is extended upward and comes to a knife point. Bardiches are heavy and cumbersome weapons but can inflict great damage. Because of the weight, the haft is considerably shorter than that of a halberd.
Gallery of the Axe Family of Pole ArmsEdit
Most pole arms are just farm and agricultural implements turned to warlike use and the pole cleaver is no exception. The rudimentary pole cleavers were just that, a meat cleaver attached to a stave, perhaps by some threatened peasant to defend himself and his family. Pole cleavers were widely used throughout Europe and the British Isles for several centuries, eventually combining with other pole arms and evolving into forms that are difficult to classify. The voulge was created in continental Europe while the Lochaber axe was developed in Scotland.
The simple voulge is a heavy cleaver (usually a shorter blade than a bardiche) attached to a stout pole and used for the purpose of cleaving through armor. The toe of the blade is pointed for piercing like the bardiche. The voulge has no real defensive capability but it was later combined with other weapons to make it more versatile.
Add a hook to a voulge, either to the back of the blade or the tip and you have a Lochaber axe. The hook gives some small defensive capability to the weapon but is primarily used for pulling riders off their mounts or keeping enemies at a distance.
The fauchard is a weaponized version of a scythe or sickle, a curving blade set on a long shaft. This weapon can cut or be thrust at an opponent but because of the curved blade it is harder to aim so that the point of the fauchard makes solid contact. Not hook-like enough to dismount riders, no good parrying or holding capability, the fauchard is not a favorite of the pole arm class but it can be seen in some combination forms.
What else is there to put on the end of a stick? How about single-edged knives. The glaive is a knife-bladed spear which can be thrust at an opponent with the tip or slashed to attempt to cut the enemy. This weapon evolved quickly toward pole cleaver status as the blade was enlarged to give it a bigger cutting edge and more weight for cleaving. As with the spear and fauchard, it is not very effective holding opponents at bay or forcing them off their mounts. The glaive has gone the way of the fauchard and is most often seen in combination weapons.
Pruning hooks join the list of farm implements turned into pole arms in the guisarme. A guisarme is similar to a glaive in that it has a sharp cutting edge along its convex side up to the point of the hook. While the hook was proficient at pulling riders off their mounts, this weapon has no spear point for thrusting and only the back-pointing hook for piercing. Later versions added a back spike which gave the guisarme another sharp point for sideways swinging and minor defensive capability. Like the fauchard and the glaive, the guisarme was soon combined with other forms to make the next generation of pole arms. This class includes most couteaux de breche although some are considered glaive-guisarmes in this classification system.
The English bill hook is almost exactly the same as the French guisarme except the concave edge (inside the hook) is the cutting edge and the back spike is typically L-shaped pointing forward. This arrangement was a slight improvement over the guisarme.
Finally the hay fork was hammered straight and strengthened into the military fork. A military fork usually has only two tines but some have a shorter third tine in the crotch of the fork to prevent a body part from safely going between the two main piercers. This pole arm is efficient at holding enemies at bay but lacks the penetrating power of a spear. Once again it has been combined with other styles to make an improved weapon.
There are a few weapon designs that are not true pole arms but due to their size they are sometimes considered to be in the general class.
The threshing flail is a wooden handle with another piece of wood attached by a swivel or short length of chain and was easily modified into a weapon of war. The handle became a heavy shaft 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.3 meters) long and the threshing wood piece replaced by one or two rods of wood or iron covered in short spikes. The overall length was more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) and was devastating when wielded by a strong person. Mounted soldiers often used short-handled flails with one or more chains ending in smooth or spiked iron balls.
The other special borderline case is the morning star (also called the holy water sprinkler or godentag in the Low Countries). A morning star is an extrapolation of the lowly club, typically a heavy wooden haft from 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) or more in length. The business end has a cylinder, barrel, or truncated cone of wood attached, which is then bound with metal straps and set with vicious metal spikes. The longer varieties included a spear point at the top and so fit the definition of a pole arm. The morning star was easy to make and a favorite with the peasants.
The next two pole arms are probably not based on farm implements but rather developed specifically for warfare.
Very similar to the halberd but instead of an axe head the Lucern hammer has a smaller hammer-like head with three prongs. The awl spike on the top is generally longer than that of the halberd. This pole arm has now been almost completely replaced by the halberd.
Bec de corbinEdit
The bec de corbin was developed late in the Middle Ages and used into the Renaissance by knights and nobles, not common infantry men. It looks similar enough to the Lucern hammer that it could be mistaken for one, but it has major functional differences. The heavy crow's-beak blade could puncture the plate armor worn by upper-class warriors. The spear tip is much shorter and broader than the awl spike on the Lucern hammer, and the back side of the blade had either a flat hammer head or a clawed head somewhat similar to the Lucern hammer. All in all a more specialized weapon for a higher class fighter.
These pole arms were created to improve on the simpler designs, either to mitigate weaknesses or enhance the strengths of those early weapons. In this classification system, it takes more than just adding a spear tip to an existing weapon to make a "combination weapon", a technique so simple it was widely used. A partisan could be considered an exception, with its small axe blades, but since its primary mode of use is thrusting it has been placed in the spear family.
There are two main modifications to the fauchard that create the fauchard-fork. The first adds a single, forward projecting spike to the back of the scythe blade. The second moved the cutting edge from the concave side to the convex side (facing the opponent), curving the blade more like a sickle, and adding a spike to the pole, and sometimes another spike was added to the forward cutting edge.
Attaching a heavy hook to the back of the scythe blade of the fauchard created the fauchard-guisarme which could pull riders off their mounts.
In similar fashion, a hook was added to the heavy bladed glaive for dismounting opponents. Variations include a double hook, one facing forward and one backward, perhaps to trap weapons or to push a rider unlucky enough to be caught by this weapon.
This weapon is similar to the Lochaber axe but with the hook formed from the blade of the voulge, not added separately. A pointed tip on the blade or a spike on the shaft made this weapon fairly versatile.
There are many different designs of the bill-guisarme but each has the following set of features:
- a sharp spear or awl spike
- a large hook formed from the body of the weapon
- a back spike, used for armor puncturing
- several sharpened edges
The scorpion is one typical example of the bill-guisarme. Some bill-guisarmes are nearly in the voulge category due to a sufficiently heavy blade and the positioning of the cutting edges. This pole arm, along with the halberd and the pike, saw the most use during the Middle Ages because it was versatile and efficient in all its functions.
In ancient Netheril, most varieties of pole-arms came into use around 2312 NY (−1547 DR), with glaives preceding them (−1688 DR) and halberds coming later (−1275 DR). The lance was never employed in that magic-rich empire, as the stirrup never came into use there. Surrounding cultures, however, knew of the lance since ca. 1300 NY (−2559 DR).
Notable pole armsEdit
- Gary Gygax (August, 1985). Unearthed Arcana (1st edition). (TSR, Inc.), pp. 123–128. ISBN 0880380845.
- Ashdown, Charles, Armour and Weapons in the Middle Ages (London 1925); British and Foreign Arms and Armour (London 1909)
- ffoulkes, Charles, Armour and Weapons (Oxford 1909)
- Oman, C.W.C., A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (two volumes, London 1924)
- Saxtorph, Niels, M., Warriors and Weapons of Early Times and Use of Arms and Armor (New York 1934)
- Encyclopedia Brittanica, Eleventh Edition (New York 1910-11)