Picks, axes, and war hammers are shock weapons.
Picks, axes, and war hammers are shock weapons. Like all members of this weaponry class, they are designed to be held rather than thrown and to multiply the amount of force that can be brought to bear upon an opponent, while also extending the warrior’s deadly range beyond the length of the arm.
Prehistoric picks, axes, and war hammers were variations on a single basic design. A wooden or bone haft, or handle, served as an extension of the user’s arm, so that the bone, horn, wood, stone, or metal head could be swung through a larger arc, thus acquiring more speed than could be achieved with the arm alone. When the head struck an enemy, its speed and mass transferred sudden, intense pressure to a small area and thereby delivered a wound that could be either disabling or fatal, depending upon the part of the body struck. The three weapons differed only in the impacting surface delivering the force and the type of damage that ensued.
The pick had a pointed head and was meant to puncture. The natural and most force-efficient method for wielding the pick was an overhead stroke, which meant that the head, shoulders, and frontal chest cavity of the opponent were the primary targets. Slanting and even horizontal strokes to the body trunk, although more awkward to perform, could also cause deadly injuries. Furthermore, should the pick point pierce the chest cavity, even if the blow was not swiftly mortal, the small, deep wound that the pick head made was likely to become infected.
The ax-head was a wedge with a sharpened edge that ran parallel to the haft. The
The head of the war hammer, or war club, was blunt, often only a sturdy wooden knob or lump of stone, and its purpose was to shatter and crush. Although the war hammer could break leg, arm, and rib bones, the primary target areas were, again, the head and shoulders. A direct blow to the head killed by causing massive hemorrhaging even if the skull was not caved in, but even a light or partial impact was likely to stun, at the very least. Likewise, a blow to the shoulders, with their relatively delicate clavicles, could disable enemies and leave them unprotected against further attack. A variation on the war hammer, the
The great advantages of shock weapons were their accuracy, power, and economy. Even an unskilled warrior was capable of swinging and striking home with a pick, ax, or club, whereas it took considerable training and skill to use successfully such stand-off weapons as javelins or bows. Moreover, unlike javelins and arrows, which once sent in flight were difficult to retrieve for reuse, shock weapons posed a threat as long as warriors had the strength to wield them. On the other hand, picks, axes, and war hammers were very short-ranged, seldom extending the warriors’ effective battle reach more than twice that of the arm alone. The warrior, in close proximity to his enemy, was in imminent danger.
Combatants using shock weapons had to exploit these advantages while mitigating the disadvantages. Archaeological evidence, anthropological studies of nineteenth and twentieth century primitive societies, and surviving weapons reveal three often-employed tactical uses. Most often, battles opened with an exchange of fire from standoff weapons by the front ranks of opposing groups separated by an empty zone. If one group stopped fighting and fled, the second might pursue to kill or capture the enemy. The pursuers then used shock weapons after closing with the foe. Picks, axes, and war hammers also proved effective for fighting in confined spaces where standoff weapons were impractical: for example, a forest ambush or an assault on a fortified area. The weapons could be used to break apart defensive works and to destroy property as well as to harm people.
From left to right, an early sixteenth century battle-ax with a double-headed blade; an early Japanese pick with a stone blade bound to a wooden haft; and a late fifteenth century Italian war hammer with langets securing the head to the haft.
Last, shock weapons were occasionally used for close combat. A high degree of discipline is required for troops to meet face-to-face in a battle line, but by the Bronze Age, societies were sophisticated enough to support the requisite level of training, and this basic battle doctrine lasted into the Middle Ages. Engagements almost certainly began with exchanges of arrow or javelin fire, but then the front ranks of warriors advanced on each other until the lines collided, and warriors fought directly with shock weapons. In this hand-to-hand
During the Iron Age, however, swords and lances increasingly became the main battle weapons. Axes, picks, and war hammers were used more and more as auxiliary weapons.
By about 1.5 million years before the present, the first small hand axes were being produced as part of the Acheulean tool tradition of the Lower
The addition of the
With one face left blunt and the other shaped to either a point or a blade, the Neolithic weapons could function as combination hammer-axes or pick-axes. When artisans learned to grind the edge, rather than to form it by flaking off chips of flint, they were able to produce slimmer ax-heads with sharper edges, which enhanced the power of the weapons to pierce and slice. These finely wrought axes were valuable commodities. In some areas, notably prehistoric England, axes were highly prized for barter. In fact, archaeologists debate whether the axes were intended to be wielded or to serve strictly as a kind of currency, although they might well have served both functions.
Another innovation occurred when humans began to use
The advent of iron and steel made it possible to shape more elegantly flared, sharper ax-heads with thinner heads, as was true, for instance, with the two-handed Viking battle-ax.
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