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The lance is a pole weapon or spear designed to be used by a mounted warrior. During the periods of Classical and Medieval warfare it evolved into being the leading weapon in cavalry charges, and was unsuited for throwing or for repeated thrusting, unlike similar weapons of the spear/javelin/pike family typically used by infantry. Lances were often equipped with a vamplate – a small circular plate to prevent the hand sliding up the shaft upon impact. Though best known as a military and sporting weapon carried by European knights, the use of lances was widespread throughout Asia, the Middle East and North Africa wherever suitable mounts were available. As a secondary weapon, lancers of the Medieval period also bore swords or maces for hand-to-hand combat, since the lance was often a one-use-per-engagement weapon; assuming the lance survived the initial impact intact, it was (depending on the lance) usually too long, heavy and slow to be effectively used against opponents in a melee.
A lance in the original sense is a light throwing spear, or javelin. The English verb to launch "fling, hurl, throw" is derived from the term (via Old French lancier), as well as the rarer or poetic to lance. The term from the 17th century came to refer specifically to spears not thrown, used for thrusting by heavy cavalry, and especially in jousting. A thrusting spear which is used by infantry is usually referred to as a pike.
History of use
The first use of the lance in this sense was made by the Assyrians, Sarmatian and Parthian cataphracts from around the 3rd century BC. Long thrusting cavalry spears was especially popular among the Hellenistic armies' agema and line cavalry.
The Roman cavalry long thrusting spear was called a contus (from the Greek kontos, barge-pole). It was usually 3 to 4m long, and grasped with both hands. It was employed by equites contariorum and equites cataphractarii, fully armed and armoured cataphracts.
The Byzantine cavalry used lances (kontos or kontarion) almost exclusively, often in mixed lancer and mounted archer formations (cursores et defensores). The Byzantines used lance both overarm and underarm, couched.
The best known usage of military lances was that of the full-gallop closed-ranks charge of a group of knights with underarm-couched lances, against lines of infantry, archery regiments, defensive embankments, and opposition cavalry. Two variants on the couched lance charge developed, the French method, en haie, with lancers in a double line and the German method, with lancers drawn up in a deeper formation which was often wedge-shaped. It is commonly believed that this became the dominant European cavalry tactic in the 11th century after the development of the cantled saddle and stirrups (the Great Stirrup Controversy), and of rowel spurs (which enabled better control of the mount). Cavalry thus outfitted and deployed had a tremendous collective force in their charge, and could shatter most contemporary infantry lines. Recent evidence has suggested, however, that the lance charge was effective without the benefit of stirrups.
Because of the extreme stopping power of a thrusting spear, it quickly became a popular weapon of infantry in the Late Middle Ages. These eventually led to the rise of the longest type of spears, the pike. This adaptation of the cavalry lance to infantry use was largely tasked with stopping lance-armed cavalry charges. During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, these weapons, both mounted and unmounted, were so effective that lancers and pikemen not only became a staple of every Western army, but also became highly sought-after mercenaries.
In Europe, a jousting lance was a variation of the knight's lance which was modified from its original war design. In jousting, the lance tips would usually be blunt, often spread out like a cup or furniture foot, to provide a wider impact surface designed to unseat the opposing rider without spearing him through. The centre of the shaft of such lances could be designed to be hollow, in order for it to break on impact, as a further safeguard against impalement. They were often at least 4m long, and had hand guards built into the lance, often tapering for a considerable portion of the weapon's length. These are the versions that can most often be seen at medieval reenactment festivals. In war, lances were much more like stout spears, long and balanced for one-handed use, and with sharpened tips.
Lance (unit organization)
As a small unit that surrounded a knight when he went into battle during the 14th and 15th centuries, a lance might have consisted of one or two squires, the knight himself, one to three men-at-arms, and possibly an archer. Lances were often combined under the banner of a higher-ranking nobleman to form companies of knights that would act as an ad-hoc unit.
The mounted lance saw a renaissance in the 18th century with the demise of the pike; heavily armoured cuirassiers used 2 to 3 m lances as their main weapons. They were usually used for the breakneck charge against the enemy infantry.
The Crimean War saw the use of the lance in the Charge of the Light Brigade. One of the four British regiments involved in the charge, plus the Russian cossacks who counter-attacked, were armed with this weapon.
After the Western introduction of the horse to Native Americans, the Plains Indians also took up the lance, probably independently, as American cavalry of the time were sabre- and pistol-armed, firing forward at full gallop. The natural adaptation of the throwing spear to a stouter thrusting and charging spear appears to be an evolutionary trend in the military use of the horse.
During the Second Boer War, British troops successfully used the lance on one occasion - against retreating Boers at the Battle of Elandslaagte (21 October 1899). However the Boers made effective use of trench warfare, field artillery and long range rifles from the beginning of the war. The combined effect was devastating, so that British cavalry were remodeled as high mobility infantry units (dragoons) fighting on foot. For some years after the Boer War British lancer regiments carried the lance only for parades. However in 1908 the weapon was readopted for active service.
The Russian cavalry (except for Cossacks) discarded the lance in the late 19th century but in 1907 it was reissued for use by the front line of each squadron when charging in open formation. In its final form the Russian lance took the form of a long metal tube with a steel head and leather arm strap. It was intended as a shock weapon in the charge, to be dropped after impact and replaced by the sword for close combat in a melee. While demoralizing to an opponent, the lance was recognized as being an awkward encumbrance in forested regions. 
World War I
Lances were still in use by the British, French, Russian, Belgian, Turkish, Italian and German armies at the outbreak of World War I. In initial cavalry skirmishes in France this antique weapon proved ineffective, German uhlans being "hampered by their long lances and a good many threw them away". With the advent of trench warfare, lances and the cavalry that carried them ceased to play a significant role.
Those armies which still retained lances as a service weapon at the end of World War I generally discarded them for all but ceremonial occasions during the 1920s. An exception was the Polish cavalry which retained the lance until 1936 but contrary to popular legend did not make use of it in World War II.
Use as flagstaff
United States Cavalry and Canadian North-West Mounted Police used a lance-like shaft as a flagstaff. In 1886, the first official musical ride was performed in Regina, with this fine ceremonial lance playing a significant role in the choreography. The world's oldest continuous mounted police unit in the world, being the New South Wales Mounted Police, housed at Redfern Barracks, Sydney, Australia, carries a lance with a navy blue and white pennant in all ceremonial occasions.
"Lance" is also the name given by some anthropologists to the light flexible javelins (technically, darts) thrown by atlatls (spear-throwing sticks), but these are usually called "atlatl javelins". Some were not much larger than arrows, and were typically feather-fletched like an arrow, and unlike the vast majority of spears and javelins (one exception would be several instances of the many types of ballista bolt, a mechanically-thrown spear).
- Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War, originally published in 1920; University of Nebraska Press (reprint), 1990 (trans. J. Renfroe Walter). Volume III: Medieval Warfare.
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- From Lance to Pistol: The Evolution of Mounted Soldiers from 1550 to 1600 (myArmoury.com article)