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"New on YouTube - why did pole arms dominate the battlefield?" Topic

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Warspite128 Jan 2020 8:30 a.m. PST

Very interesting…

YouTube link

He makes a number of points especially the increased leverage of the length of the poles shafts when bringing the blade down in heavy armour. In effect you are not cutting plate so much as driving it inwards.

I have added my own comment that there is also an increased fear factor with a weapon like a bill, compared to a simple sword.

What do members think?


dapeters28 Jan 2020 9:05 a.m. PST

Thanks Barry. I been having and ongoing argument with my brother about the true purpose of period training manuals and this guy had an interesting question about those books. I think anyone who is familiar with the period understand that the sword had taken a real backseat to pole weapons and yet the sword is still a symbol of status in this period. He also gave several reasons why a group longbowmen would not want to attack a group of men with pole weapons head on (yours as well), even after demonstrating their dexterity and elite-ness by getting their strung bows on their backs. (sorry could not help myself.)

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP28 Jan 2020 10:38 a.m. PST

The sword was never a primary weapon in the medieval period.
It was always a sidearm. Regular infantry on the high medieval period would have spears, some of those had swords as sidearms. For the knight the main weapon was the lance with swords, hammers etc being back up.
Even when the best armor a knight could get was mail the sword is quite useless. You're not going to stab or cut through knighty mail.
Later regular infantry would start to use pikes, bills, clubs etc various pole arms to combat the better armor. Again with swords being back ups. As the video says the poleaxe was a knightly weapon. So used by the well trained and wealthy.

So your not really going to find a time in medieval period were the sword was anything but a sidearm.

Warspite128 Jan 2020 11:06 a.m. PST

@dapeters: "Don't re-start that one!" :)

Poleaxes do appear among the levy weapons at the Bridport muster:

TMP link

which surprised a few people including me.


DeRuyter28 Jan 2020 11:09 a.m. PST

Also plenty of videos with HEMA fighters and others demonstrating the relative uselessness of a longsword on plate armor. A sword cleaving straight through a 14th-15th century helmet is pure Hollywood. Poleaxe, hammer, Ravensbeak, mace were much more effective.

Warspite128 Jan 2020 11:15 a.m. PST

More from the same poster… (scholagladiatoria) this time on the poll axe or poleaxe.

YouTube link

Thank you!


Mithmee28 Jan 2020 1:22 p.m. PST

Well I going to say…


newarch28 Jan 2020 1:43 p.m. PST

All this stuff tends to overconcentrate on technical reasons for things occurring historically in my view. Pole arms and spears were ideal for most troops who were probably relatively inexperienced even in the era of the professional soldier. They had a degree of familiarity for most users, especially those from the countryside. They were easy to use, and didn't require years of training to master, and allowed troops to keep the enemy at some distance from them. They were usually quite cheap and easy to produce.

Bandolier28 Jan 2020 1:49 p.m. PST

Good video.

While the sword was definitely a secondary weapon. I wouldn't devalue it too much. The first few strikes would be quite effective while the edge and point were sharp. After the edge was dulled it was still effective in breaking bones and cracking heads regardless of armour.

dapeters29 Jan 2020 9:51 a.m. PST

Sorry GunFreak but I think you have it wrong the Fall of Rome up to the beginning of the 13TH century the sword was the weapon to have. "Even when the best armor a knight could get was mail the sword is quite useless. You're not going to stab or cut through knighty mail." Stab maybe and maybe not but the thing about mail is that it does nothing to stop the force of a blow so the sword swing that lands on a collar bone will not hack threw the flesh but will still cause an incapacitating wound and no there not enough padding to stop it either.

ROUWetPatchBehindTheSofa29 Jan 2020 12:08 p.m. PST

Basically its more about blunt force trauma and getting your opponent on the floor where you can finish them with something sharp and pointy enough to be slid through a gap in their defences – as evidenced by the evolution of daggers along the same kind of timeline as armour.

coopman29 Jan 2020 3:39 p.m. PST

Hook them off their horse or off their feet & finish them off.

Patrick R29 Jan 2020 3:43 p.m. PST

Mail was increasingly backed with a gambeson, so much so that knights in the 12th and 13th century were extremely well protected against most attacks, though the use of the lance started to become a problem resulting in the development of the coat of plates which over time became the plate harness.

As armour use increased even with lower ranks, more powerful weapons were required that would give a soldier a greater ability to attack and defeat enemy soldiers and knights.

Hagar the Horrible30 Jan 2020 2:38 a.m. PST

This has been great conversation.

There have been some great points raised, but I think coopman made the ultimate point. The rise of the pole arm armies in Europe (in all it's forms, including pikes and spears) was the infantry reaction to defeating horsed knights. Most shorter pole arms – bill, halberd, whatever – had a hook or something to pull a knight off his horse. The fact they were awesome against infantry too was icing on the cake.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP30 Jan 2020 8:06 a.m. PST

Sorry, dapeters. But swords are horrible percussive weapons, they simply do not have the mass, a Sword is never gonig to do damage to a human wearing mail and gambeson(which a knight would use) You could argue during the Viking Age, as there is no evidence to true padded armour, then you might be able to break bone through the mail. But even so, the axe which was cheaper and easier to get would still be better at that.
A sword is first and foremost to use against unarmored opponents, and if you had a sword and you met someone armoured you needed special techniques to defeat the armor.

dapeters30 Jan 2020 9:15 a.m. PST

Gunfreak go buy a riveted mail shirt and padded jack put them on and have someone hit you with a sword. I saw this happen with some reenactors who got out of hand. I also seen reenactors hack up shields with their swords.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP30 Jan 2020 10:02 a.m. PST

Reenacmtnent isn't history. Reenactors have a tendency to save money, leading to bad equipment. Including badly made swords that are more like iron bars then historic swords. Again swords are useless against armor, including mail over gambeson.

Giving examples, when you don't know any of the variables is not evidence.
How was the shields made? How thick was the padded Jack? How was the sword made?
Shields were expected to be destroyed, like spears they weren't expected to last very long. Shields are just thin boards with rawhide over them, so it doesn't take that much to do good damage to then.

If you want to do blunt damage to someone you don't use a sword. You use hammers, clubs, maces or an axe, that's why those weapons were invented (before plate) if you just need to hit someone with a sword you'd never need anything but a sword. But the sword.

Charlie30 Jan 2020 11:36 a.m. PST

I'm sure if you whacked someone wearing mail and gambeson really hard with a sword you might well give them a nasty bruise…. but yeah it wouldn't be the best weapon to seriously injure them.

(Never underestimate how effective armour was, including gambeson, mail and brigandine. You don't have to be wearing full plate to be very well protected. If you had say a brigandine over a sleeved mail shirt and gauntlets, you are REALLY well protected, you can expect most blows to your torso to be easily turned aside by the brigandine. Sure, your legs might be unprotected, and also your face if you have no visor – but you'll be trying hard to keep your opponent's weapons away from those areas, and hopefully you'll know how to do that!)

Concerning polearms, I've always been wary of the idea that a bill or something is some sort of super-powerful armour smasher. But I guess the argument that the length adds leverage which allows very powerful blows does make a lot of sense!

But I think the advantages of such weapons are three:
1) Reach (obviously).
2) Capable of hitting really hard (but consider that not all your blows are going to be huge overhead swings, most are gonna be jabs and glancing strikes!)
3) Flexible – able to thrust, cut, chop, hook, etc, to adapt to your opponent – a blade for slicing unprotected flesh, a fine point for getting between armour plates, etc. The extra spikes and hooks make it useful for parrying and binding enemy blades too.

Definitely would be the preferred primary weapon you'd want to use. But of course you'd also want a sword as backup too!

And remember one reason why swords are everywhere but are possibly NOT primary battlefield weapons is they are easy to wear. You can go about your casual day-to-day business in your civilian clothes wearing your sword. You won't go to the shops with a bill over your shoulder! Battlefield weapons are different to 'everyday' sidearms. You only use them when you are going into combat (or on guard duty, etc).

(The same applies to armour – consider the Sallet and Armet helmets of the 15th century. If you're riding about on campaign you could happily wear your sallet with the visor up all day long. You're only going to put your armet on when you're actually going into combat, and even then you might prefer the sallet).

Warspite130 Jan 2020 12:08 p.m. PST

Re-reading Blood Red Roses, the archaeological report on the 40/41 bodies found in a gravepit just behind Towton (1461) revealed that nearly all had head and leg injuries or face and leg injuries. There were some defensive injuries to hands and arms but almost no body injuries between the shoulder and mid-thigh. None.

Now the archaeologists especially commented on this as a survey of a similar civilian population in York revealed some chipped ribs and nicks in the spine which suggested civilian stabbings, etc were commonplace. All this also suggests that the Towton dead were wearing padded jacks or other body armour when killed and the process seems to be that they had their legs cut out from under them and then their skulls or faces were stoved-in while they were on the ground. The ground behind the skull would provide extra resistance to the killer blow. One might also ponder whether the jacks were worn in peacetime as well say down the pub hence the absence of 'civilian' injuries.

Interestingly the dead from the other well known gravepit, Wisby or Visby which was fought during the sword and shield period of the mid-14th century (1361) show a similar pattern of injuries. Face and legs, head and legs.


So what we have is an apparent acceptance that body armour WILL be effective and the attacker therefore decides not to waste time and effort upon it when other vulnerabilities are easier and readily available.

For those of you who have not seen it, the Towton 'Blood Red Roses' documentary is here:

YouTube link

It is well worth a watch. I also have the book. The book is expensive but a fascinating read, even down to the state of their teeth.


Zephyr130 Jan 2020 9:34 p.m. PST

The troops most likely found that a polearm was easier to use than a spear (as long as you didn't throw it… ;-)

Warspite131 Jan 2020 2:06 a.m. PST

Given that the quarter-staff was familiar to them as well one could argue that a pole weapon of any type is merely a quarter-staff with 'attitude'.


Patrick R31 Jan 2020 9:40 a.m. PST

Reality is far more vomit inducing that say even the goriest scenes from GoT or Braveheart.

People didn't go down nicely on the first blow. They would be knocked down and then tried everything to stay alive, hence some pretty sobering injuries to the arms and hands before they would hack away at the head to knock out the CPU.

Regarding swords, they are extremely versatile, but they remain "sidearms" just like a soldier might carry a handgun as a close protection weapon, but would still use a rifle as their main weapon. The longsword and zweihander do provide some ability to take on armoured opponents by either halfswording, trying a murderstroke or even using an estoc to stab the enemy in an exposed area.

In earlier periods when armour was less common a sword was an effective weapon, but the spear was still the main weapon in battle even for knights, transitioning into the lance.

Spears were cheap, quite effective because of their greater range and probably common for hunting and self defense so many people would have some experience with them in any case.

dapeters31 Jan 2020 10:25 a.m. PST

"Reenacmtnent isn't history"
Very true

" Reenactors have a tendency to save money"
Hey I represent that! And I would add gamers too!

"Including badly made swords that are more like iron bars then historic swords. Again swords are useless against armor, including mail over gambeson."
So what does that say about historic weapon, if badly made ones can break bodies through mail and hack threw shields? (said shield that was used was wood with steel reinforced band and steel boss, the shield in question was breached of course through the wooded part.)

"If you want to do blunt damage to someone you don't use a sword. You use hammers, clubs, maces or an axe, that's why those weapons were invented (before plate)."
They are also for the most part cheaper as well. But I think what your missing is, look at what a sword really is. It a medal club with and edge, in fact medieval swords were not razor blades because all that is needed is to hack with the utility of being able to jab, which is great for dealing with opponents on the ground. Does anyone think that a piece of rebar would only cause a bruise?

The other thing is that mail does not do all that well in stopping the shock of a blow. To many variables? Fine go find a living history event, and ask the reenactors if you can try someone's padding and mail, then ask them to punch you in you chest, with a gauntlet it, but first ask them what they think.

Warspite131 Jan 2020 4:42 p.m. PST

Side bar on re-enactors:
One of the members of Harold Wood Wargamers (my old club in the 1980s) joined a Dark Age type re-enactor group. They met in Sunday morning, we met in the afternoon.

First time out he turned up at the club in the afternoon with his left arm in quite a state – cuts, bruises, scratches, etc.

"They might have given you a shield" I said.

"They did", he said, "They also gave me a guy on the other side of the shield armed with a rhomphaia who proceeded to demolish my shield and turn it into firewood…"


ROUWetPatchBehindTheSofa01 Feb 2020 6:40 a.m. PST

My 2 pennies worth having finally sat down and watched it.

Its largely uncontroversial. Basically as long as you've got some ponces on horses charging around the battlefield anyone on foot is going to want to stick together and have something with reach. Reach is also handy versus people hudling behind shields and for keeping those opponents who maybe out class you, possibly in several senses, at arms length. Clearly as armour improves the traditional point on a stick is going to loose effectiveness.

By default the sword ends up a back up weapon though I would argue it must have retained some effectiveness or at a minimum weapon smiths continued to evolve the weapon in the belief it could be effective against improving armour though clearly by the look of some designs they were pushing at the fringes of the practical and possible. It never faded out, became an entirely class bound sysmbol or was completely replaced by something else axes for example were clearly popular and I would have thought for the common soldier considerably more utility than sword off the battlefield. I'm also skeptical that in a reasonbly close formation chopping cleaver like with a polearm would be particularly lethal versus the good armour that was being discussed I'd suggest you'd probably be more interested versus cavalry in trying to hook or push them off their mount.

As for the issue of armour its uncontrovertible that harness got better through time. But would Sir John of the hamlet and hide of Poorlydrained on the Marsh have been rocking the highest quality contemporary armour or indeed the most expensive warhorse? I've long wondered just how much older gear remained in circulation, looking at accounts from the Tower of London suggests that they clearly had stocks of older armour, which on occasion were repaired. And here I'd also take Medieval art with a bit of a pinch of salt if you look at alot of pieces the degree of uniformity in terms of armour and dress is very, very high or you'll see that there are a limited number of variations on a theme to create the look of a crowd. And anyone from the noble classes who can afford an effigy for their tomb is probably not wearing the cheapest munition on it! I'd buy the core semi- or fully pro- commoner members of any retinues being well armoured either supplied by their Lord (though possibly with lower quality munition) or acquired second-hand from someone with no further use for it, but not much more than that. For everyone else old mail vest, coat of plates, jack or fabric armour and a helmet probably all of variable quality. Also going back to swords, and the issue of cost and quality, you could acquire one in England in 14thC for 6d!

Sandinista01 Feb 2020 1:01 p.m. PST

6d does not sound a lot but would be about the lowest quality one, costing about a weeks wage for the unskilled mid 14th century, that's about 800NZ$ now

Charlie01 Feb 2020 1:13 p.m. PST

Swords were like cars. You could spend a lot of money and get something really fancy, or find a bargain and get a used but perfectly use-able sword for not much money…. Or get a piece of crap for next to nothing!

ROUWetPatchBehindTheSofa02 Feb 2020 5:39 a.m. PST

The 6d figure is lifted from an Ian Mortimer book, he doesn't give the source, but does infer that there is more than one source for the price. He assumes its cheap and says for something descent the outlay would be 1 to 2s (this may include the scabbard IIRC). Other possibilities are its not new or that's its actually an unfinished piece – medieval craftsmen did trade in part finished pieces.

For a thatcher, a popular wage dataset, 6d was about 2 days wages for most of the 14thC. Peasant incomes are more tricky but eyeballing a couple of inventories 6d wouldn't be an impossible expenditure for a peasant family doing well and 1-2s well within the reach of the better off peasants and yeomen. Bear in mind a long bow would have cost ~1s unpainted and ~2s painted mid-14thC.

An just an exemplar on the variability of armour. In 1369
200 plate harnesses purchased for the Tower comprising a mail shirt, bacinet, aventail and pair of gauntlets (cerothes de plate) at 46s. 8d each (personally I'm assuming munition-grade). Approximately 4 years later the King's helmet maker was paid 41s 6d a pop for 7 bascinets.

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