3 December 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Poleaxe

The poleaxe (aka pollaxe, polax, poll-axe, pole-axe, pole-hammer, two-handed warhammer) was one of the most popular weapons of the high middle ages. Combining the virtues of the warhammer, axe, and short spear, it was a versatile weapon designed primarily for defeating plate armour.

A hammer/axe poleaxe and a hammer/backspike poleaxe.

The classic poleaxe, to my mind, is a six-foot square hardwood shaft with a hammerhead, backspike, topspike, buttspike, and sidespikes.

There are a few variations on the poleaxe, all of which revolve around the head. All will have some variation of axehead, hammerhead, and backspike. It could be axehead/hammerhead, hammerhead/backspike, or axehead/backspike. All have a long heavy-duty spike on the top, and a short spike on the bottom. Most will have a short, round hand-guard a foot or two below the head, and most will have short spikes on either side of the head.

One of the main differentiating features between the poleaxe and the very similar halberd are the langets on the sides (the metal strips running down from the head in the pictures above). A halberd head is typically forged out of a single piece, and attacked to the shaft like a spearhead via a tube and pin. The langets made the end of the weapon significantly stronger and more durable. They were part of the modular forged design of the poleaxe - each piece of the head was forged separately, which allowed a stronger construction than a single piece stretched and flattened out.

A poleaxe with an axehead would also have a smaller blade than a halberd, the better to defeat armour.

Similar Weapons

The halberd, lucerne hammer, and bec de corbin are all pretty much the same weapon as the poleaxe. The differences are basically just in head design - halberds always have axeheads and backspikes, lucerne hammers and bec de corbins always have hammerheads and backspikes.

For game purposes, I believe it's totally reasonable to treat all of the "complex" poleweapons as poleaxes - glaives, voulges, bills, partisans - all of those wacky stick/blade combos Gygax loved so much. Yes, they're all different, and all have different fighting styles, but there are distinct similarities that set them apart as a category.


The complex polearms, as exemplified by the poleaxe, are generally good for both utterly devastating two-handed swings and powerful thrusts. For an idea of the force involved, imagine smashing a melon with a baseball bat. Now imagine the baseball bat is twice as long and has a metal hammer head on the end.

The poleaxe can easily pulp the skull of an unarmoured man, the axehead can sever limbs, and the topspike can easily force its way between the links of chain mail. The topspike even has a chance of piercing through a breastplate.

The guards and actions of the poleaxe are something of a hybrid between the longsword and the spear. Its use is also something of a hybrid of the two, the main difference from the longsword being the extended reach and the ability to trap the opponent's weapon with the complex head. The main difference with the spear is the equal focus on striking and thrusting.

This guard is shared by the longsword, poleaxe, and major league baseball. Fiore calls it the "Guard of the Woman" (Posta di Donna). Much like a baseball player, the master is prepared to swing the axe around with a hip rotation, imparting devastating speed and power to the axehead.


As the poleaxe is typically used by a fully armoured man against another fully armoured man, grappling is integral to defense, as even with a poleaxe it's not always easy to down a man in full plate harness. It's not uncommon for two combatants with poleaxes to get their axeheads tangled on the ground and abandon their poleaxes and switch to their daggers or to attempting a throw.

A combination axe/grappling play. The scholar (on the left) has obtained a key (a type of arm hold) on his opponent, immobilizing him for a counterstrike.

Otherwise, much like with offense, poleaxe defenses can be similar to spear or longsword plays, either seeking to knock the opponent's weapon offline and thrust, or to beat aside and land a strike.


  1. I always giggle at the illustrations from Fiore's book.
    Color commentary because I have nothing really else to add.
    Well....ok one thing. The axe-head (tailient to use the French) can, and should be used for hooking, if you find yourself fighting another armored foe but do not have mail (also French) and bec (seriously more French?) configured pollaxe (hache, haha FRENCH).

    What's next on the docket?

    1. I like the illustrations! :)

      Thanks for the reminder on hooking with the poleaxe. I should also have mentioned its use in grappling to trip and add leverage to locks.

      Not sure what's next, might move on to ranged weapons.

    2. Going to tackle the mighty armor penetrating power of the fearsome and powerful -English- Welsh longbow and then the horrendous killing power of the crossbow?

      On a more serious note, handgonnes?

  2. what would be a reasonable representative lengths, weights and points of balance for poleax, longsword and spear?

    1. Poleax - 5-6ft, 5lbs, balance near middle but closer to head
      Spear - 5-8ft, 4-5lbs, balance near middle
      Longsword - 4ft, 3lbs, balance 3 inches tipwards from cross

  3. Thanks Charles,
    I enjoy your informative posts and the illustrations.
    How could one model/modify the effects of the combat space on the weapon use and performance? Not just open vs confined space or engagement range but also proximity and randomness of other combattants?
    The way you use a sword 1 to 1 in a controlled training space would be different to enagement with multiple combatants. the available appropriate techniques would be different. The weapon damage potential may be less (compare the biomechanics between 2nd pic and 3rd pic)

    not quite sure what i am asking exactly :)

    to illustrate:
    these two youtube vids show knife fighting.
    First is 1 to 1 with skilled opponents sparring with training rubber knives.
    The second one shows an real encounter indoors with a number of armed participants (skilled or not?) very chaotic but to my eye more like a real melee.

    In neither is weapon space an issue, but in the second combat space and fear is.
    First: sparring knife fight (erroniously named "real life...")

    Second: group altercation between rival chinese mafia many using cleavers...go to 0.30

    Your thoughts?

    1. The way I handle the chaos of combat is this.

      Since in Spells and Steel you have a Defense stat instead of an Armour Class for your Hard-to-hit-ness, we can negate that stat when you're outnumbered.

      Everyone gets their full Defense stat against one opponent. If you're facing more than one opponent, though, you get a flat Defense of 10 (equivalent to AC 10 in ascending or descending systems).

      Every fighter level (there are 5) lets you fight one additional opponent without penalty.

      My comment on the videos would be that the first depicts techniques for deadly combat demonstrated in a controlled environment, whereas the second shows techniques for non-lethal combat in an uncontrolled environment.

      As far as I can see, no-one in that Chinese mafia video makes a serious attempt to kill anyone - it seems to be more about posturing and dominance than actual lethal combat.

      Notice that, although knives are drawn, the fighting starts with punching and proceeds to throwing things.