Swords and Pole Weapons

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Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby FireFief » 16 Jul 2014 13:17

I re watched one of Matt Easton's videos called Swords vs Spears on YouTube and I felt that perhaps Matt was wrong about some things, in particular the fact that swords were really, secondary or tertiary weapons except in rare cases.

I think people in general seem to be underestimating swords and equating them to pistols of their day. The fact remains that in close melees swords are extremely effective and frequently were used as primary weapons. For example, the typical knight in full plate with a couched lance would use it to charge at the enemy. But should he be unhorsed or forced to fight in a close melee, or should he come dismounted to the battle he'd be much likelier to use a sword than a lance, which is essentially a really heavy spear and quite awkward in a melee.

Now while a dismounted knight is likely to use a pole weapon as well, if he is clad in full plate and fighting other men in full plate, then the pole weapon loses many advantages. I feel the use of swords in melees as main weapons to be backed up partially by the many artworks of the medieval period in which swordsmen are very frequent and are clad in full plate.

Spears are fairly useless in such a close melee situation in full plate unless you attack his open face (difficult to do in any circumstance) or you have exceptional aim and manage to stab him in a weak spot and then quickly recover and parry. Poll axes and halberds are much better, as you can bludgeon and (potentially) stab straight through the armour or just aim for a weak spot with the spike, but in any case this is difficult to do, and if a man in full plate charges at you, you must react very very quickly.

If you do not react quickly enough and the fight goes to close quarters then you are at a disadvantage as a swordsman will have am much easier time grappling with his shorter weapon, and can potentially throw and bludgeon you.

But the thing to keep in mind is that even before plate armour, swords used with large shields still retain significant advantages over pole weapons in the massive infantry melees battles typically develop into. Looking at the Viking Period for example, most soldiers by far used spears, which certainly have great advantages over swords, but this isn't because they are necessarily better as main battle weapons in a melee.

First thing to keep in mind is that in the time period swords were ludicrously expensive. Second thing to keep in mind is that the advantages of pole weapons against swords largely have to do with range, the ease of recovery and the speed at which the point can be maneuvered due to the large lever. While these advantages are significant, they really only apply if you hold the weapon in two hands, quite risky in mail armour, especially as you may not have room to move about, and if your opponent is also carrying a large shield and armour, then your potential target area is significantly smaller. If you do use a shield however, as most spearmen likely did, you are better protected, but you lose those advantages, except for range and your spear will not maneuver as well.

So in short, yes, in the medieval period in many cases swords were secondary weapons, however this does not mean that they were rare or at a great disadvantage as primary weapons in infantry melees. The fact that spears are more common in most cases is a reflection on the expense of swords, resulting in them only being owned by the elite in the Viking Period as well as earlier among the Gallic tribes for example.

Disclaimer: This is not an attack on Matt or his awesome videos, just my two cents on the subject :)

(Yes, I already posted this to his video, but I would like for you guys to provide your opinions on the topic as well)
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby the_last_alive » 16 Jul 2014 13:32

For example, the typical knight in full plate with a couched lance would use it to charge at the enemy. But should he be unhorsed or forced to fight in a close melee, or should he come dismounted to the battle he'd be much likelier to use a sword than a lance, which is essentially a really heavy spear and quite awkward in a melee.


So the Lance is the primary weapon then?
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby FireFief » 16 Jul 2014 13:48

Only on horse and never on foot, thats why I waffle on lol
But even on horse, if you clash with enemy cavalry in a melee, a a couched lance is difficult to use. Thats why mounted knights used maces and warhammers when fighting other knights in a melee, and only used the lance to charge at the enemy.

My whole point in this was to discuss how in close combat melees, swords can perform as well or even better than pole weapons.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby FireFief » 16 Jul 2014 13:50

In particular I was referring to the usefulness of swords in armour, as armoured combat quite often involved grappling, but also generally in melees before the period of plate armour
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Eduardvics » 17 Jul 2014 08:27

I still can't figure out whether a pole weapon+cleave is better or double sword (non cleaving) is better. I remember seeing swords with cleave but it seems like all higher end swords don't do cleave. I do see that in general, a high hitrate double sword does more damage than a high end pole weapon. Anyway, is there a clear verdict on which does more damage with cleave/hitrate considered?
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby janner » 18 Jul 2014 07:20

I would suggest that a professional warrior in the Middles Ages would be as keen as his modern counterpart to have a toolkit of weaponry at his disposal.

Some might be useful for more than one task, such as having a point, edged, and bludgeon capability. Whilst others, such as the lance, were perfect for charging home against a mounted opponent and, in certain circumstances, foot.

Then there's the matter of personal preference and fashion :D
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby FireFief » 18 Jul 2014 09:45

No doubt its all about fashion. It's likely some knights came to battle with absolutely bizarre weapons.

I just wanted to stick up for the sword, I don't think Matt did it justice :D
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Chiron » 28 Jul 2014 20:32

Even when knights knights forced to get off their horse without access to a pole-axe (which is basically the final word in foot combat in armor) they shortened their lances by breaking the buts off. Keep lances were not the big clumsy things you see in jousts more like longer slightly thicker spears. On horseback Lances were still the primary weapon with a sword or mace/warhammer for back up. I wouldn't confuse secondary with unimportant though also don't overestimate a sword if you've ever fought a halberd or even spear with one you'll find out it's not as easy as it first seems, mainly because of weight and reach.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby FireFief » 29 Jul 2014 07:43

Lances are still thicker and heavier, ideal for mounted charges, less so for infantry melees. Soldiers were conscious of the lance's tendency to break during combat, so it was designed to be harder to break than a normal spear by being made thicker and in some cases by adding steel strips. Even if you did manage to break the butt in the midst of battle, you'd end up with a sub par weapon. In any case, my whole rant was about armoured combat rather than civilian dueling, and how pole weapons lose quite a lot of advantages, spears in particular. This applies to both earlier period mail armour and large kite or round shield, as well as later plate armour. Frankly, if you're fighting men in armour charging at you while you yourself are in a rather dense formation to begin with, its unlikely you'll be able to take advantage of the pole weapon's maneuvaribillity due to the limited space as well as the smaller available target area, added to the fact that most spearmen for example also carried shields.

I think as a general rule, as armour increases range decreases in importance. Pole weapons suited to fighting plate armour for example tend to be fairly short (e.g. pole axe). This is my whole point essentially, in close range armoured combat I think the sword is generally more useful than pole weapons, as its difficult to kill an armoured opponent a distance from you, in most cases they were killed in very close quarters (often with daggers in the age of plate armour) and if an armoured knight with a sword clashes with another with a pole weapon, if he charges in and it comes to grappling, his shorter sword is much easier to use, and its much easier to bludgeon, hook and use locks on their opponent. In armour, I think in most cases swords have the advantage. And despite the fact that spears have always been far more common, in the Gallic and German tribes for example, as well as Europe during the Viking Age, swords were quite expensive in those ears, especially those than were pattern forged, and were really only used by the nobillity.

As a final addendum, I'd like to point out something another youtuber already has and that is that pitched battles in the medieval period were not nearly as prevalent as sieges and skirmishes, during which the shorter size of swords and axes became vital. In a siege its difficult to climb a ladder with a spear, and if skirmishing and looting, you want a lighter and shorter weapon to be able to take more loot and engage and disengage faster
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Vasilly » 09 Dec 2014 16:26

I saw a discussion like this in the comments to one of Matt's recent videos. I'll just say I would like Matt to make a video on the topic.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Monzambano » 09 Dec 2014 22:37

To respond to FireFief on two specifics:

Look at the battle of Sempach 1386 - Duke Leopold III of Habsburg had his knights dismounted, and his tactics were initially successful, the Swiss attacks failed at horrendous cost. At some point, the Swiss managed to break through the Habsburg ring of pikes and get in the middle of the Habsburg knights; once in, the Swiss halberds were devastatingly effective. Duke Leopold himself was killed. The battle was on a hot summer day, so it may well have been a factor that the knights were worn down by the heat and their armour, whereas the Swiss were very lightly armoured.

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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby MEversbergII » 10 Dec 2014 18:13

Difficult to climb a ladder with a spear, that's for sure. The defenders don't have any such restriction, though - that must suck!

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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby SteelCat » 10 Dec 2014 18:41

the_last_alive wrote:
So the Lance is the primary weapon then?



Wasn't the lance primarily a jousting weapon, a weapon for a very high class tournament sport? Were they really used in combat?
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby tea » 10 Dec 2014 19:59

SteelCat wrote:
the_last_alive wrote:
So the Lance is the primary weapon then?



Wasn't the lance primarily a jousting weapon, a weapon for a very high class tournament sport? Were they really used in combat?


Yes, endlessly. Lances are as old as cavalry, and show up throughout the medieval period, as well as long before and after.

FireFief wrote:Lances are still thicker and heavier, ideal for mounted charges, less so for infantry melees. Soldiers were conscious of the lance's tendency to break during combat, so it was designed to be harder to break than a normal spear by being made thicker and in some cases by adding steel strips. Even if you did manage to break the butt in the midst of battle, you'd end up with a sub par weapon.


Nonetheless, Froissart among others record knights deliberately shortening the lance to use as a foot weapon. A stout short spear is an excellent melee weapon for a foot fighter in plate armour - it can give powerful blows, effective thrusts, and maintain distance if required.

That's the general niche of pole-arms on the battlefield anyway: distance. Certainly, in full plate armour it is easier to close through an attack and fight with a shorter weapon, but that's much harder to do against a wall of hundreds of men with halberds than it is against just one man. Repeatedly being smashed in the head with pole-arms will ruin anyone's day, armour or no. Increasing armour works for the pole-arm unit as well, because it means they can use two-handed weapons that have more powerful strikes, instead of being required to use shields - hence the move from the spear and shield to the halberd, bill, and pike.

There's a reason that massed formations with pole weapons are popular, and it's because (as long as they hold, and have enough armour to resist missiles) they're a brutally effective mincing machine of death.

FireFief wrote:Poll axes and halberds are much better, as you can bludgeon and (potentially) stab straight through the armour or just aim for a weak spot with the spike, but in any case this is difficult to do, and if a man in full plate charges at you, you must react very very quickly.

If you do not react quickly enough and the fight goes to close quarters then you are at a disadvantage as a swordsman will have am much easier time grappling with his shorter weapon, and can potentially throw and bludgeon you.


This I disagree with (although you're rolling together classes of weapon that shouldn't really be equated).

With the pollaxe in particular, when fighting with it in close quarters you have nothing but advantages over the sword. Your weapon is maybe a foot longer, but it's held centrally, allowing it to be used at bad breath distance easily enough. Both ends are lethally effective, the blows are much more powerful than a sword can deliver, the thrusts are potent, the grapples and throws are very strong. It's an extremely effective all-purpose can opener of a weapon.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Vasilly » 10 Dec 2014 21:28

tea wrote:
SteelCat wrote:
the_last_alive wrote:With the pollaxe in particular, when fighting with it in close quarters you have nothing but advantages over the sword. Your weapon is maybe a foot longer, but it's held centrally, allowing it to be used at bad breath distance easily enough. Both ends are lethally effective, the blows are much more powerful than a sword can deliver, the thrusts are potent, the grapples and throws are very strong. It's an extremely effective all-purpose can opener of a weapon.

Excuse me, but that's simply not true. You should try sparring with someone using a pole weapon. You would know that as soon as you lose the distance your polearm becomes useless unless you find a way to push your opponent back, which is unlikely even if you're alot heavier.

There's a reason why both spearmen, pikemen, halberders and basically all pole weapon users almost always had a sidearm, very often it was a sword. And a longsword, when used in half-swording manner is, in my opinion, a perfect all-purpose weapon for melee if you wear full plate armour, the only disadvantage of it that I see is that it's not very useful when you're dealing with cavalry.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Monzambano » 10 Dec 2014 21:57

I strongly suspect this is a question of the tactical situation - whether you're in formation or not, and who your threat is.
I'd also be hesitant to lump lance, pike, halberd and pollaxe under the same heading; e.g. pikes are devastating in formation, but an albatross when you're on your own.
I would agree, though, that the bearer of a pole weapon would always have a secondary weapon (sword, longsword or messer) and a tertiary one (dagger).
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby tea » 10 Dec 2014 22:16

Vasilly wrote:Excuse me, but that's simply not true. You should try sparring with someone using a pole weapon. You would know that as soon as you lose the distance your polearm becomes useless unless you find a way to push your opponent back, which is unlikely even if you're alot heavier.

There's a reason why both spearmen, pikemen, halberders and basically all pole weapon users almost always had a sidearm, very often it was a sword. And a longsword, when used in half-swording manner is, in my opinion, a perfect all-purpose weapon for melee if you wear full plate armour, the only disadvantage of it that I see is that it's not very useful when you're dealing with cavalry.


I have sparred with pole weapons, quite regularly, and I stand by my statements. You can shorten your grip fairly effectively on many of them, allowing you to handle yourself at a shorter range. Both ends are weapons, allowing you to strike at closer measures than otherwise.

The pollaxe is also a very different kettle of fish to the weapons you listed, by simple virtue of being much shorter. Many pollaxes are 5 feet long or less, and wielded from the centre that's every bit as versatile as a half-sworded sword. Here's a good reproductionone: note that it's about 56" long, or 4ft8. That's perfectly useable at wrestling distance, and both ends are weapons.

I would pick something like that over a longsword as a primary weapon in plate armour any day of the week.
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby SteelCat » 10 Dec 2014 22:44

Vasilly wrote:And a longsword, when used in half-swording manner is, in my opinion, a perfect all-purpose weapon for melee if you wear full plate armour, the only disadvantage of it that I see is that it's not very useful when you're dealing with cavalry.



Going after the horse with your longsword?
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Vasilly » 10 Dec 2014 23:36

tea wrote:
Vasilly wrote:Excuse me, but that's simply not true. You should try sparring with someone using a pole weapon. You would know that as soon as you lose the distance your polearm becomes useless unless you find a way to push your opponent back, which is unlikely even if you're alot heavier.

There's a reason why both spearmen, pikemen, halberders and basically all pole weapon users almost always had a sidearm, very often it was a sword. And a longsword, when used in half-swording manner is, in my opinion, a perfect all-purpose weapon for melee if you wear full plate armour, the only disadvantage of it that I see is that it's not very useful when you're dealing with cavalry.


I have sparred with pole weapons, quite regularly, and I stand by my statements. You can shorten your grip fairly effectively on many of them, allowing you to handle yourself at a shorter range. Both ends are weapons, allowing you to strike at closer measures than otherwise.

The pollaxe is also a very different kettle of fish to the weapons you listed, by simple virtue of being much shorter. Many pollaxes are 5 feet long or less, and wielded from the centre that's every bit as versatile as a half-sworded sword. Here's a good reproductionone: note that it's about 56" long, or 4ft8. That's perfectly useable at wrestling distance, and both ends are weapons.

I would pick something like that over a longsword as a primary weapon in plate armour any day of the week.

Well then I guess we can settle this debate only in an armoured duel to the death :D

Update I remembered about this video: http://youtu.be/SAwK2TwsAp4?t=1m6s

It perfectly demonstrates what I mean when I say that polearm becomes useless in close quarters: your own pole just gets in your way not allowing you to do anything, while a longsword still can used to bash with the hilt or slide the blade in the gaps of your opponent's armor:
http://youtu.be/X59wt28e9pk?t=2m1s
http://youtu.be/JFbQXpRvL2Y?t=4m15s
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Re: Swords and Pole Weapons

Postby Vasilly » 24 Feb 2015 05:29

I felt the urge to bump this thread
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