Pole Arms 1500-1900


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.

Nature and Use

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, pikes, after the French word pique. The lengths of pikes varied greatly, though they commonly measured between 15 and 21 feet. Such lengths made pikes unwieldy and awkward for use in individual combat. To be effective in battle, pikes had to be used en masse, because a single pike could be blocked or evaded, allowing the enemy to attack in close. The best use of pikes was a dense formation in which overlapping rows of pike heads threatened the enemy.

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 poleaxe, which combined a short, hammer-shaped head and a strong pike-head with a spike on the back of the head. The halberd combined an axhead with a pike point and a spike on the back of the head. Another common weapon was the glaive, which featured a swordlike cutting edge and some form of spike set at an angle to the head. The spikes on the backs of these weapons generated great penetrating power and could also be used to drag mounted combatants from their saddles.

To ensure that the heads were not cut off their shafts, most of these pole arms featured steel shanks called langets that extended part way down the shaft. The langets were usually riveted to the shafts. By putting cutting heads on the ends of long shafts, infantry gained not only reach over their adversaries but also weapons capable of penetrating the increasingly common plate armor of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Another common feature of early pole arms was a small steel roundel mounted at the base of the blade. This roundel deflected blows sliding down the blade away from the user’s hands. These weapons were very popular among infantry forces throughout the Renaissance. Other pole arms featured wide-bladed heads in the shape of exaggerated spear points. These weapons probably derived from civilian boar spears, but the edges on these heads also allowed slashing attacks. Such weapons included the partisan and the spontoon.


Spears have been in use as weapons since ancient times. The dense pike formations favored by the ancient Greeks and Macedonians were called phalanxes. Phalanxes were very daunting to face but could seldom maintain formation integrity when moving across rough ground. More mobile sword- armed foes such as the Romans defeated the pike-armed phalanxes by attacks to the flanks and rear. During the Middle Ages, battles were usually decided by shock delivered by a cavalry charge. The best antidote to the cavalry proved to be a steady, pike-armed infantry. Overlapping ranks of pikes deterred the horses and gave the infantryman a weapon long enough to strike his mounted foe. The best known and most effective infantry of the Middle Ages was that of the Swiss pikemen. Threatened by the Burgundians in the fourteenth century, the Swiss cantons defended themselves with militia forces using pikes. Since the militiamen could not afford the expensive armor of the day, most went into battle with little or no armor. Without the weight of armor these foot soldiers could travel easily across even the roughest terrain. Their formations could therefore move with unprecedented speed. When facing cavalry forces, the rapid Swiss infantry charges usually overwhelmed the enemy before it could properly deploy for battle. At battles such as Morgarten (1315) and Sempach (1386) the Swiss caught mounted knights in restricted terrain and inflicted horrendous casualties with their pikes. The Swiss also found that if the front of their formations became disordered or if mounted knights penetrated into the pike phalanx, the pike’s awkward length made the pikemen vulnerable and resulted in many casualties. To protect the pikemen, the Swiss began to include a number of halberd-armed men in every pike column. The halberd’s shaft still allowed it to reach a mounted man, but its shorter length allowed it to be swung within the confines of the phalanx’s inner ranks. In addition, the length of the shaft allowed a great momentum to be imparted into the weapon’s head, thus creating the great percussive power necessary to penetrate or crush the plate armor of the day.

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, firearms had become lighter and convenient enough to be used by infantry in battle. Such handheld firearms could inflict heavy casualties upon pike-armed forces arrayed for battle but suffered from the very serious short- coming that the harquebusiers were vulnerable while performing the slow and complicated steps involved in reloading their weapons. Under El Gran Capitán, the Spanish commander Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (1453-1515), Spanish forces began to combine blocks of pike men with blocks of harquebusiers. Such formations, called tercios, were successful combined-arms units. The harquebusiers deployed outside the pike square and fired into the enemy lines. If the enemy charged, the harquebusiers could retreat into the pike formation for protection. Thus a tercio combined continuous fire with the shock power of the pike. The devastating potential of these tactics was demonstrated at the Battle of Cerignola (1503). A French force of cavalry and Swiss mercenaries attacked Fernández de Córdoba’s Spanish forces deployed behind a ditch. The fire of the harquebusiers was so severe that the French formations broke apart, whereupon Fernández de Córdoba’s pikemen charged. The disordered French were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties. These tactics put a premium on the pikes and handguns but reduced the need for cutting weapons such as halberds and glaives.

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 Nassau (1567-1625). Maurice’s reforms reduced the size and depth of formations to facilitate maneuverability and increased the number of muskets in units. Adopted throughout the continent, these reforms saw mixed pike and gun formations with the ratio of guns to pikes increasing; for example, by the end of the English Civil War of 1642-1651 the forces of the New Model Army of military leader Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) averaged two or three guns per pike.

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 rank, especially for noncommissioned officers. As these weapons became less necessary in the battle line, they became more ornate and ostentatious. Halberds and spontoons of this period, for example, often featured embossed coats of arms on their blades. These weapons were especially evident at parades and other formal occasions. By the end of the eighteenth century such weapons had largely disappeared from battlefield use, but they remain in ceremonial use to this day. England’s ceremonial guards, the Beefeaters, and the Papacy’s Swiss Guard, for example, still serve at their posts with halberds in hand.

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 bayonet. A bayonet was a cutting weapon that could be affixed to the muzzle of a musket to turn it into an emergency pike. Bayonets ranged in length from oversized knives to short swords. The earliest bayonets were plug bayonets, which were probably introduced in the early 1600’s, though the earliest accounts of their use date from the 1640’s. These were typically double-edged daggers whose handles fit into the muzzle of a musket or harquebus. The difficulty of a plug bayonet was that while it was being used, the harquebus could not fire. In 1688 this problem was solved when the French field marshal Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) introduced the socket bayonet, a bayonet mounted on a socket so that the blade was offset to the side. The socket fitted over a musket’s muzzle and onto a lug located near the muzzle. This allowed the musket to be loaded and fired with the bayonet attached. Although it was not as long as a pike, the bayonet offered the soldier a pike-like weapon for close-quarter fighting. With the bayonet at hand, there was no longer a need for specialized pike troops, and pikes dis- appeared from use. Since Vauban’s introduction of the socket bayonet, bayonets have been in continuous use throughout the world. Changes in the shape of the socket or the size of the bayonet have not altered the weapon’s basic function. Although many military thinkers praised the bayonet charge as the ultimate moment in battle, statistics show that by the nineteenth century bayonet combats were very rare. Indeed, the diaries and accounts of soldiers indicate that bayonets were used far more often for utilitarian purposes such as opening cans, cooking food over a fire, or chopping brush than for battle. In the late twentieth century bayonets increasingly became more of a utility tool than a weapon. Many Soviet bayonets, for example, featured a lug on the scabbard and a matching hole near the bayonet’s tip to allow the blade to fit over the lug and be used with the scabbard as wire-cutter with the bayonet’s back edge as the cutter. Although this innovation enhanced the bayo- net’s usefulness, it removed it yet further from its roots as a pike.

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 Brown (1800-1859) forged pikes with which to arm runaway slaves. In the final days of World War II, Japanese civilians, including women, trained with bamboo pikes as part of the planned last-ditch resistance to an American landing.

Books and Articles

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 Artil- lery. 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 Ar- mor 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.

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