A halberd (also called halbard, halbert or Swiss voulge) is a two-handed pole weapon that came to prominent use during the 14th and 15th centuries. The word halberd may come from the German words Halm (staff), and Barte (axe). In modern-day German, the weapon is called a Hellebarde. The halberd consists of an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft. It always has a hook or thorn on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants. It is very similar to certain forms of the voulge in design and usage. The halberd was 1.5 to 1.8 metres (5 to 6 feet) long.
The halberd was inexpensive to produce and very versatile in battle. As the halberd was eventually refined, its point was more fully developed to allow it to better deal with spears and pikes (also able to push back approaching horsemen), as was the hook opposite the axe head, which could be used to pull horsemen to the ground. Additionally, halberds were reinforced with metal rims over the shaft, thus making effective weapons for blocking other weapons such as swords. This capability increased its effectiveness in battle, and expert halberdiers were as deadly as any other weapon masters. A Swiss peasant used a halberd to kill Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy—decisively ending the Burgundian Wars, literally in a single stroke. Researchers suspect that a halberd or a bill sliced through the back of King Richard III's skull at the battle of Bosworth.
The halberd was the primary weapon of the early Swiss armies in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Later, the Swiss added the pike to better repel knightly attacks and roll over enemy infantry formations, with the halberd, hand-and-a-half sword, or the dagger known as the Schweizerdolch used for closer combat. The German Landsknechte, who imitated Swiss warfare methods, also used the pike, supplemented by the halberd—but their side arm of choice was a short sword called the Katzbalger.
As long as pikemen fought other pikemen, the halberd remained a useful supplemental weapon for push of pike, but when their position became more defensive, to protect the slow-loading arquebusiers and matchlock musketeers from sudden attacks by cavalry, the percentage of halberdiers in the pike units steadily decreased. The halberd all but disappeared as a rank-and-file weapon in these formations by the middle of the sixteenth century.
The halberd has been used as a court bodyguard weapon for centuries, and is still the ceremonial weapon of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican. The halberd was one of the polearms sometimes carried by lower-ranking officers in European infantry units in the 16th through 18th centuries. In the British army, sergeants continued to carry halberds until 1793, when they were replaced by pikes with cross bars. The 18th century halberd had, however, become simply a symbol of rank with no sharpened edge and insufficient strength to use as a weapon. It did, however, ensure that infantrymen drawn up in ranks stood correctly aligned with each other.
Different types of halberds
- Hippe (Bill)
- Ji (戟)
Pole arms often mistaken for halberds
- Bardiche, a type of two-handed battle axe known in the 16th and 17th centuries in Eastern Europe
- Bill, similar to a halberd but with a hooked blade form
- Bisento, a pole weapon with a large blade from feudal Japan
- Dagger-axe, a Chinese weapon in use from the Shang Dynasty (est. 1500BC) that had a dagger-shaped blade mounted perpendicular to a spear
- Fauchard, a curved blade atop a 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) pole that was used in Europe between the 11th and 14th centuries
- Guisarme, a medieval bladed weapon on the end of a long pole; later designs implemented a small reverse spike on the back of the blade
- Glaive, a large blade, up to 45 cm (18 in) long, on the end of a 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) pole
- Guan dao, a Chinese polearm from the 3rd century AD that had a heavy blade with a spike at the back
- Lochaber axe, a Scottish weapon that had a heavy blade attached to a pole in a similar fashion to a poleaxe
- Naginata, a Japanese weapon that had a 30 cm (12 in) - 60 cm (24 in) long blade attached by a sword guard to a wooden shaft
- Partisan, a large double-bladed spearhead mounted on a long shaft that had protrusions on either side for parrying sword thrusts
- Pollaxe, an axe or hammer mounted on a long shaft—developed in the 14th century to breach the plate armour worn increasingly by European men-at-arms
- Ranseur, a pole weapon consisting of a spear-tip affixed with a cross hilt at its base derived from the earlier spetum
- Spontoon, a 17th-century weapon that consisted of a large blade with two side blades mounted on a long 2 m (6 ft 7 in) pole, considered a more elaborate pike
- Voulge, a crude single-edged blade bound to a wooden shaft
- War scythe, an improvised weapon that consisted of a blade from a Scythe attached vertically to a shaft
Citizens of Zurich on 1 May 1351 are read the Federal Charter as they swear allegiance to representatives of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Lucerne. The person on the right side is a scribe reading the text. One of the representatives carries a typical Swiss Halberd of the period depicted (as opposed to the time the image was made, 1515).
Saint Wiborada is often (anachronistically) depicted with a halberd to indicate the means of her martyrdom.
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- Gilbert, Adrian (2003) . "Medieval Warfare". The Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Earliest Times to the Present Day. Guildford, CT: The Lyons Press. p. 71. ISBN 1-59228-027-7. "At Nancy, it was a halberd that brought down Charles the Bold with a single blow that split his skull open."
- Richard III dig: Grim clues to the death of a king By Greig Watson, BBC News, 4 February 2013
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