The generic term for any type of thrusting or cutting weapon mounted on a long handle is pole arm.
The generic term for any type of thrusting or cutting weapon mounted on a long handle is pole arm. These weapons have been in use since the time of primitive humankind, and they persist to this day in vestigial form as bayonets affixed to the muzzles of rifles. Because pole arms allow both thrusting and cutting, many types have evolved over the centuries under a wide variety of names. Generally those pole arms designed for thrusting only have been called spears, or since the fifteenth century,
Because of the pike’s limited utility in close combat, pole arms with shorter shafts and cutting edges were developed. Typically such weapons were mounted on shafts of about 4 to 6 feet in length. In Europe the most common forms of cutting-edged pole arms featured either ax-heads or swordlike cutting blades. A bewildering variety of names in many languages were created to describe weapons whose appearances and uses were often quite similar. An early pole arm popular with knightly combatants was the
To ensure that the heads were not cut off their shafts, most of these pole arms featured steel shanks called
Spears have been in use as weapons since ancient times. The dense pike formations favored by the ancient Greeks and Macedonians were called phalanxes.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, disciplined pike-armed infantry had become the backbone of Europe’s increasingly professional armies. At the same time,
By the beginning of the seventeenth century the need for pikes was further reduced by the military reforms introduced by the military innovator Maurice of
An engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger showing Schlechten Krieg, or “bad war,” the result of tangled pole arms (here, pikes wielded by Swiss pikemen, or Landsknechte) in an early sixteenth century battle.
As the need for dense pike formations decreased due to the increasing reliability and firepower of handguns, the use of pole arms such as the halberd and glaive underwent a great change. The potency of pike- and gun-armed forces was tied directly to their ability to hold formation. Disordered ranks proffered openings that invited an enemy charge; once a formation was breached, individuals were vulnerable. In a pike formation, though, a halberd was too short to be of use except in extreme circumstances. Thus halberds were increasingly relegated to use by officers and line sergeants. For junior officers, the shaft of a halberd was a good tool for aligning ranks, pushing against the backs of men who were slow to advance. If a unit disintegrated, such a weapon could also be useful in a melee. As a result, varieties of pole arms such as spontoons and partisans saw increased usage as badges of
As the proportion of pikes in a formation continued to decline, a simple solution to the need for pike protection for the musketeers was the introduction of the
Although pole arms ceased to be realistic weapons of war by the end of the 1600’s, their simplicity has made them useful in conditions of extreme need. For example, while planning for his slave insurrection, the abolitionist John
Anglo, Sydney. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Colby, C. B. Revolutionary War Weapons: Pole Arms, Hand Guns, Shoulder Arms, and Artillery. New York: Coward-McCann, 1963. Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. Grant, R. G. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. New York: DK, 2007. Miller, Douglas. The Landsknechts. Illustrated by Gerry Embleton. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1979. Snook, George A. The Halberd and Other European Pole Arms, 1300-1650. Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1998. Stone, George Cameron. A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries in All Times. New York: Jack Brussel, 1961. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1999. Tarassuk, Leonid, and Claude Blair. The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons. New York: Bonanza Books, 1979. Ancient Discoveries: Death Weapons of the East. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.
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