30 November 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Spear

The spear is, without a doubt, the most popular weapon of all time. From the dawn of time until WWII, the spear was issued in vast numbers to the common soldier. Surprised to hear that WWII soldiers were issued spears? Well, a rifle with a bayonet on it is functionally a short spear. Bayonet techniques owe a heck of a lot to medieval spear techniques, which, I'm sure, owed a lot in their turn to Stone Age spear techniques.

The reason for this is simple, and two-fold: the spear is cheap and easy to make, and it is extremely effective. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's not for nothing that the spear is the King of Weapons.


I'm not sure this is really necessary, but...

The most basic spear is simply a sharpened stick, 5-8 feet long. At it's most advanced, the spear has a steel bladed head, 18" long, with lugs at the bottom of the head, a sharpened steel buttcap on the base, and a polished and lathed ash shaft 6-7 feet long.

The butt cap is an important point - many people don't realize that medieval spears have a sharpened steel spike covering the bottom. This makes the spear significantly more dangerous than if it only had the bladed head at the top.

A spearhead and buttcap.

The lugs allow some more parrying options, but they're certainly not necessary. Fiore's spear treatise doesn't show them except in the bit on a spearman vs. a horseman.

Spearhead with lugs.


Offence with the spear is really fairly simple - insert the point into the face of your opponent. Keep in mind, though, that the spear has a point on both ends. Since any defence against the spear will involve knocking the spearhead offline, a common tactic is to absorb and use the energy from that knock to spin the spear 180° and attack with the buttspike instead of the head.

Much of the stuff that applies to the halfsword (discussed in my earlier post on the longsword) also applies to the spear, as halfswording is really just turning your longsword into a 4-foot spear.

There is currently debate about whether the spearhead or spear shaft were used for striking as well as thrusting. There is little direct evidence for spears being used for striking, but arguments can be made for it. Viking sagas speak of "hewing spears" which were used for cutting. What these are is unknown - it is possibly just a normal spear, a spear with a long head, or something more like a glaive or naginata (i.e. a sword on a stick, as opposed to a spear, which is more like a dagger on a stick).

From handling spears, I can safely say that being bashed with the end would be pretty awful. I have little doubt that a solid hit from a spear could break bones in an unarmoured target.

There's also the fact that in Fiore's medieval fighting system there's a certain universality to the techniques - since the sword can be used like a spear, it's not unreasonable to see the spear sharing some techniques with the sword.

Wiser people than me disagree the the spear is used for bashing, though, so take the notion of bashing with the spear with a grain of salt.


Striking sideways with the spear definitely comes into play on the defensive. Most of Fiore's spear guards have the point off the line, pointing up, back, or to the side. The point-forward guards, while having the point forward, can still generate significant sideways force with a passing step.

The master (in the crown) stands in a typical defensive guard. His point is facing away from his opponent so that he can swing it around forcefully to knock his opponent's spear aside. Note that the combatants are depicted much closer than they would really be standing in combat!

The basic defence with the spear is to turn and swing your spear to strike the opponents weapon aside, ending up in a position where your point is directed at the opponents face or neck and your spear is between you and the opponent's weapon. If you over-parry (i.e. your spear keeps swinging past their face), you can keep that energy going and turn the spear right around and strike their face with the butt spike.

The master has successfully parried from the previous position. The momentum of the opponent's attack has carried him right onto the master's spear.


  1. Glad to see you've continued your series on real world weapons the way they were used back when they were used.

  2. The spear is a darned nifty weapon. They really do have the distinct advantage of making your arm longer. In fake fighting over the years it has often been the spear that has done me in reaching over the first rank or two or from my sword arm side and a few feet further away than a sword would be a threat.

  3. When was the spear+shield replaced by a two-handed spear? Also, those spear techniques wouldn't work in a tight formation, were there closely packed spearmen in the medieval period or where they mostly pikes?

    1. Shield use in general declined with the rise of plate armour. Starting in the late 1200s/early 1300s, the shield began to fall out of favour. By 1400, plate armour had more or less fully supplanted the shield for combat on foot. The buckler, however, remained in widespread service.

      There are a couple of reasons for this - one is that the increased protection offered by plate reduced the need for additional defensive weapons, and another is that you needed the power of a two-handed weapon to defeat plate armour (and you obviously can't use a shield AND a two-handed weapon). I would also point out that contrary to the rules of some RPGs, a buckler is NOT buckled to the arm, and using a buckler does NOT allow you to use your offhand for anything other than using the buckler.

      I'm more familiar with single-combat techniques than mass-combat techniques (all of what I'm talking about in the Real-world weapons series are dealing with single combat or the small group combat typical of D&D-like RPGS), but pikes were definitely in use during the medieval period - Bannockburn comes to mind. I'm less sure about massed spearmen - I think the spear was more typically a skirmishers/horseman/heavy infantry weapon in that period, but I could be off base.

      Just thinking logically, in a massed formation, the spear offers no real advantage over the pike. History bears that out - while massed spear formations are known, the pike (in the hands of a trained force) has always seemed to be superior.

      Mention may be made of the Vikings, who I understand typically fought with spear and shield. From what I know, they would form shield walls on occasion, but more typically fought as irregulars.

    2. Depending on the source and time period, the spear that is being used in single judicial combat is actually the lance that would be, or was, used while mounted and would be anywhere from 10 to 14 feet in length, but other sources depict spears intended specifically for foot combat, shorter 7 to 8 feet. There is also at least one recorded instance of knights shortening their lances for use on foot at a battle, so seeing a mass of spear wielding knights wouldn't be unusual.