Spears and Pole Arms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The spear is among the simplest and most universal of early weapons: a simple penetrating point secured to a shaft that adds either aerodynamic qualities or leverage and distance from the target.

Nature and Use

The spear is among the simplest and most universal of early weapons: a simple penetrating point secured to a shaft that adds either aerodynamic qualities or leverage and distance from the target. Evidence for the manufacture and use of such weapons exists among every major population group in the world and stretches back to Paleolithic times. A basic spear consists of a long shaft of wood, bamboo, or iron with a sharpened head or point attached to one end. If the head is long and provided with a sharpened edge, the spear may be used as a slashing weapon. However, most spears were designed either to be hurled, as were javelins, or to be used as thrusting weapons held in one or both hands.Spears;ancientSpears;medievalPole arms;ancientPole arms;medievalSpears;ancientSpears;medievalPole arms;ancientPole arms;medieval

Used by infantry against other infantry or cavalry, pole arms encompass a range of weapons consisting of a long, sturdy pole, or haft, with a pointed, hooked, or edged blade attached to one end. The heads of these weapons–consisting of the blades plus the sockets and side braces used for attachment–varied in length and complexity. Hellenistic Sarissa (pike)sarissas (sarissophoroi) and late medieval Pikes;medieval pikes were fairly simple iron spear points at the ends of 16- to 18-foot poles. Medieval and early modern Halberds halberds were complex combinations of thrusting points, blades, and hooks used to unseat horsemen. Some scholars categorize any thrusting spear as a Pole arms;defined pole arm, while others define pole arms as having specifically evolved during the Middle Ages from agricultural implements such as pruning hooks, axes, forks, and hammers. The widest variety of these latter weapons is to be found in the European and Mediterranean regions and in Japan.


Early humans created the first spears by sharpening and later hardening in fire the ends of long, straight, wooden shafts. At some time people began to attach pointed heads of sharpened bone or flaked flint by notching the shaft end, inserting the flange, or tang, on the head behind the point, and lashing the two together. JavelinsJavelins had light shafts and triangular or even barbed heads that helped the weapon remain in its victim. Prehistoric Europeans as well as peoples of the Americas, Oceania, and Asia also developed Spear-throwers[spear throwers]spear-throwers, which were short handles of carved horn, wood, or ivory cupped at one end. The cup held the butt of the shaft, and the handle acted as a lever or rigid sling that hurled the spear with greater accuracy and force than could an unaided human arm. Thrusting Thrusting spearsspears developed longer, leaf-shaped heads that could be more easily withdrawn after penetration.

Copper, and later bronze, Spearheadsspearheads first appeared in Mesopotamia and were used along with stone spearheads. Beaten or cast metal allowed for the creation of sockets behind the heads. These sockets could be as long as 2 feet, making for a more secure attachment than lashed tangs and reducing the likelihood of the shaft breaking. The heroes of Homer’s epics the Iliad (Homer) Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611) and the Odyssey (Homer) Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1614) fought their individual combats with two javelins with 6-inch heads, as well as stout 10-foot olive-wood spears with sharpened butts and 2-foot bronze heads with straight, rather than leaf-shaped, edges and a prominent median ridge running back from the tip.

Iron heads emerged in tenth century b.c.e. Greece and among the Celts of the Hallstatt Hallstatt spearheadsSpears;Hallstattculture (c. 700 b.c.e.). The latter created leaf-shaped heads with short wings, or lugs, at the base of the point to prevent overly deep penetration–perhaps a development from hunting practice. Later La La Tène spearheads[La Tene]Tène-era (c. 500-50 b.c.e.) graves contained heads that display a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including triangular, wavy-edged, and leaf-shaped. Celts;javelinsCeltic charioteers hurled iron-tipped javelins, as did eastern Mediterranean light infantry, or Akonistai (Mediterranean light infantry)akonistai, at the beginning of Greece’s classical period. Fifth century b.c.e. Greek Hoplites hoplites, or infantry soldiers, fought with stout 9-foot spears in Phalanx;Greek phalanxes several men deep. Vulnerable Persia;spears Persian infantry armed with shorter spears had to rely on archers. The Armies;Macedonian armies of Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;spear use Great, king of Macedonia from 336 to 323 b.c.e. , and his successors also relied on phalanxes of spear-throwers in ranks of up to five men deep with ash-shafted Sarissa (pike) sarissas of up to 21 feet in length. Some Hellenistic cavalry also used sarissas, while others wielded shorter spears for under- or overhand thrusting. The Roman victory at Pydna (168 b.c.e. ) ended the dominance of the sarissa.

From left to right, a pilum, with a leaf-shaped tip and an iron neck weakened to break on impact; a corseque, with a triangular blade and wings; a halberd, displaying a characteristically complex combination of thrusting points, blades, and hooks for unseating horsemen; a glaive, with a spike and a long, gently curving blade, like that of a knife or single-edged sword; and a bill, with a broad outward-curving blade for cutting or grabbing horsemen.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

The standard Roman Rome;javelinsjavelin was the Pilum (spear)pilum. One third of its 5.5-foot length was a long iron neck with a leaf-shaped tip. To prevent the pilum from being hurled back, its wooden socket was weakened to break upon impact. Later, under Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e. ), the iron neck was weakened so that it would bend after penetration and render the enemy’s shield useless. From either the Sabines or the Celt-Iberians, the Romans borrowed theVerutum (spear)verutum, a curved-bladed javelin thrown with a leather sling, or Amentum (sling) amentum, that wrapped around the shaft. The verutum largely replaced the pilum in the second century c.e. The Falarica (spear) falarica, or Saguntine Saguntine spear spear, was a javelin with a foot-long head of triangular section; balls of fiber soaked in pitch could be attached and ignited to make an incendiary missile.

In Asia, Tibet;spearsTibetans wielded the Dung (spear)dung, a spear 7 to 10 feet in length with a long, narrow, two-edged head on a socket. The shaft was often wrapped with iron bands, tipped at the butt end with an iron cap, and was used by cavalrymen for vaulting into the saddle. Japan;ancient Japanese armies carried several types of pole weapons, beginning with theTake-yari (pole weapon)[takeyari]take-yari or Take-hoko (pole weapon)[takehoko]take-hoko a 6.5- to 8-foot bamboo pole tipped with a simple jagged edge. The traditional Yari (spear) yari usually had long tangs that attached either triangular or diamond-sectioned tips with pegs and metal collars, called Habaki habaki. Some heads were as long as short swords, and spear-fencing emerged as a respected martial art. Wings, hooks, and curved blades eventually were added, as in the forked or crescent-headed Sasumata (spear) sasumata or the cross-shaped Maga-yari (spear)[Maga yari] maga-yari. Other Japanese pole arms included the Ono (poleax) ono, a poleax with a hammer or peen opposite the blade, and the Kama-yari (pole arm)[kama yari] kama-yari, with a picklike head. Hafts were usually of wood, lacquered or plain, and sometimes wrapped in silk thread.

InAfrica;medievalAfrica, native and Arab warriors hurled the 4-foot-long Assagai (spear)assagai or Zaghaya (spear) zaghaya, with a long, barbed lancet head whose tang was lashed to a wood or bamboo shaft. At lengths of up to 36 inches, the shorter javelin known as the Jarid (javelin) jarid, or Djerid (javelin) djerid, with its square-sectioned steel head was used in most Islamic-dominated areas.

In medieval Europe;medievalEurope the use of the spear continued while other pole arms were developed. Frankish warriors borrowed the Roman pilum (angon), barbing the tip and sheathing nearly the entire shaft in iron. Frankish thrusting spears had leaf-shaped tips with short lugs or wings at the base. Scandinavians;medieval Scandinavians used a variety of spears, including those designed for slashing (hoggspjot), hurling (gaflak), and flinging with an amentum (snoeris-spjot). They also employed thrusting weapons with long spikes. Hundreds of iron heads with bronze or gold inlay and ashwood shafts of 6.5 to 11 feet have been found in Danish graves. Norse warriors often named their weapons, usually incorporating serpent imagery. European infantry continued to use thick-shafted spears tipped with lugged, leaf-shaped, or triangular heads until well after 1500 c.e.

Stirrups Stirrupsand deep-welled Saddlessaddles allowed Cavalry;medievalcavalry to wield spears more effectively in both over- and underhand motions, as shown in images such as the Bayeux Bayeux tapestrytapestry (c. 1080 c.e.), which depicts the Norman Conquest. The Lanceslance developed as a shock weapon couched close to the body for charging other cavalry. Roman and early Byzantine Empire;spearsCataphracts (cavalry)Byzantine cataphracts lashed their long spears against their horses’ necks, supporting the butt by a rope sling at the croup. In the high Middle Ages, the 9- to 11-foot-long shaft had uniform thickness and a small, leaf-shaped tip. Tournament jousters used a three-pronged tip, or Cronel (spear tip) cronel, designed to grab, rather than to penetrate, the opponent’s shield or armor. Hilts Hilts were added in the fourteenth century to absorb recoil upon impact, and conical Vamplates (armor) vamplates that also served to deflect the enemy’s lance tip appeared in the fifteenth century. Jousting Jousting shafts shafts composed of bundles of thin staves (bourdonass) designed to shatter upon impact replaced those of solid wood, and plate breast armor sported small brackets, called arrests, that cradled the butt of the knight’s lance.

Infantry spears evolved in two directions after about 1200 c.e. On one hand, the sarissa emerged again as the Pikes;sarissaspike, with its small diamond-sectioned head at the end of a 12- to 18-foot-long ash shaft. Phalanx;medievalPhalanxes or squares of up to four effective men deep could withstand the most determined cavalry charge with their leveled weapons, as at Courtrai, Battle of (1302)Courtrai (1302 c.e.) and Bannockburn, Battle of (1314)Bannockburn (1314 c.e.), but archers easily decimated the unprotected ranks at Falkirk, Battle of (1298)Falkirk (1298 c.e.). Nonetheless, armies of pikemen proved successful until effective firepower broke their ranks, as at Bicocca, Battle of (1522)Bicocca in 1522 c.e.

On the other hand, spears with short wings or lugs evolved into more complex thrusting weapons as the tips lengthened and the wings arced out from the base. The Langue-de-bœuf (pole arm)[Langue de boeuf]langue-de-bœuf (ox Ox tongue tongue) began as a long, two-edged blade with a short socket and no wings; in the fifteenth century wings were added, and the resulting weapon became known as the Partisan (pole arm) partisan. The Italian Corseque corseque, with a broad, triangular blade and generally longer wings evolved similarly. The wide, flat surfaces of the corseque served Renaissance decorators well, and the weapon ended up as the ceremonial weapon of bodyguards.

Although ancient Egyptians had fought with axlike blades attached to long poles, most slashing Pole arms;development ofpole arms evolved from the agricultural implements that European peasants used to defend themselves against mounted warriors. The English Bill (pole arm)bill, designed for pruning, consisted of a long and broad cleaverlike blade that curved outward at the top. It could strike downward or horizontally, and the hooked top could cut or grab mounted men. Iron sleeves that protected the shaft from blows gradually evolved, as did the blade’s design. The fully developed bill of the fourteenth century sported a long, curved fluke on the backside, a pointed thrusting blade on the top, hooked and sharpened lugs at the base, and a peen or spike that projected perpendicularly from the haft, or pole. The top blade or spike could penetrate breastplates and the peen could penetrate helmets, while the fluke could hook and pull knights from horses or trip foot soldiers. The French Guisarme (pole arm)guisarme retained more of the early bill’s cutting edge, while the symmetrical Italian double-bill resembled a fleur-de-lis mounted on a long, broad leaf-shaped cutting blade.

Axes came with short or long hafts, and long hafts were favorites with the Norse, Russians, and Anglo-Saxons. Poleaxes;development ofPoleaxes developed in the later Middle Ages and were surmounted by long, straight, or curved Danish ax-heads, perhaps with rear-projecting flukes. When a thrusting point was added, in approximately 1300, a proper Halberdshalberd was born. Swiss halberdiers slaughtered Austrian troops at Hildisrieden, Battle of (1386)Hildisrieden and at Sempach, Battle of (1386)Sempach in 1386 and at Näfels, Battle of (1388)[Nafels]Näfels in 1388, and later became the Pope’s bodyguards. Various combinations of flukes, points, and blades often make differentiating between bills and halberds difficult, but the halberd is generally distinguishable by its salient convex ax-blade. The Glaivesglaive, or Broadswordsbroadsword, evolved during the fifteenth century from the long-hafted scythe, with its long, gently curving blade. The concave edge was inverted to convex, like that of a knife or single-edged sword, and spikes or flukes were added to the back of the blade. The Fauchard (sword)fauchard, with its distinctive crescent fluke, derives from the glaive. The practical value of these weapons declined after the late fifteenth century, and bills, halberds, and glaives became highly decorated ceremonial weapons.

Other farmFarm tools as weaponsimplements, including hammers, flails, and forks, were also mounted on poles for military use. Pole hammers might also sport hooked flukes or long spikes, whereas military forks with two tines were sometimes supplied with blades or hooks. Spiked maces with long hafts and even spiked balls with one long spike extending as a thrusting point also appeared on late medieval battlefields.Spears;ancientSpears;medievalPole arms;ancientPole arms;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Bradford, Alfred S. With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World. Illustrated by Pamela M. Bradford. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
  • Cundy, B. J. Formal Variation in Australian Spear and Spearthrower Technology. Oxford, England: B.A.R., 1989.
  • 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.
  • Knutsen, Roald, and Patricia Knutsen. Japanese Spears: Polearms and Their Use in Old Japan. Folkestone, Kent., England: Global Oriental, 2004.
  • Miller, Douglas. The Swiss at War, 1300-1500. Illustrated by Gerry Embleton. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1979.
  • Nicolle, David C. Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era. 2 vols. White Plains, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1988.
  • _______. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • O’Connell, Robert L. Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Free Press, 2002.
  • Puricelli-Guerra, A. “The Glaive and the Bill.” In Art, Arms, and Armour, edited by Robert Held. Chiasso, Switzerland: Acquafresca Editrice, 1979.
  • Santosuosso, Antonio. Soldiers, Citizens, and the Symbols of War: From Classical Greece to Republican Rome, 500-167 B.C. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Snook, George A. The Halberd and Other European Pole Arms, 1300-1650. Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1998.
  • Spring, Christopher. African Arms and Armour. London: British Museum, 1993.
  • Swanton, M. J. The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements. London: Royal Archaeological Institute, 1973.
Films and Other Media
  • Arms in Action: Slings and Spears. Documentary. History Channel, 1999.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.

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