A pole weapon or polearm is a close combat weapon in which the main fighting part of the weapon is fitted to the end of a long shaft, typically of wood, thereby extending the user's effective range. Spears, glaives, poleaxes, halberds, and naginata are all varieties of polearms.
The purpose of using pole weapons is either to extend reach or to increase leverage (thanks to hands moving freely on a pole) and thus increase striking power. Because they contain relatively little metal, polearms are cheap to make. This has made them the favored weapon of peasant levies and peasants in rebellion the world over. Many are adapted from farm implements, or other tools.
Polearms were common weapons on medieval European battlefields. Their range and impact force made them effective weapons against armored warriors on horseback, because they could penetrate armor. The Renaissance saw a plethora of different varieties. Polearms in modern times are largely constrained to ceremonial military units such as the Papal Swiss Guard or Yeomen of the Guard, or traditional martial arts. Chinese martial arts in particular have preserved a wide variety of weapons and techniques.
- 1 Classification difficulties
- 2 List of pole weapons
- 2.1 Ancient pole weapons
- 2.2 Post-classical pole weapons
- 2.3 Modern pole weapons
- 3 References
- 4 External links
The classification of pole weapons can be difficult, and European weapon classifications in particular can be confusing. This can be due to a number of factors, including uncertainty in original descriptions, changes in weapons or nomenclature through time, mistranslation of terms, and the well-meaning inventiveness of later experts. As well, all pole arms developed from as few as 3 early tools (axe, scythe/wide bladed knife, and the reaping hook) and one weapon, the spear. For example, the word 'halberd' is also used to translate the Chinese ji and also a range of medieval Scandinavian weapons as described in sagas, such as the atgeir.
In the words of the arms expert Ewart Oakeshott,
Staff-weapons in Medieval or Renaissance England were lumped together under the generic term "staves" but when dealing with them in detail we are faced with terminological difficulty. There never seems to have been a clear definition of what was what; there were apparently far fewer staff-weapons in use than there were names to call them by; and contemporary writers up to the seventeenth century use these names with abandon, calling different weapons by the same name and similar weapons by different names. To add to this, we have various nineteenth century terminologies used by scholars. We must remember too that any particular weapon ... had everywhere a different name.
While men-at-arms may have been armed with custom designed military weapons, militias were often armed with whatever was available. These may or may not have been mounted on poles and described by one of more names. The problems with precise definitions can be inferred by a contemporary description of Royalist infantry which were engaged in the Battle of Birmingham (1643) during the first year of English Civil War (in the early modern period). The infantry regiment that accompanied Prince Rupert's cavalry were armed:
List of pole weapons
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Ancient pole weapons
Ji (Chinese: 戟), the Chinese halberd, was used as a military weapon in one form or another from at least as early as the Shang dynasty until the end of the Qing dynasty. The ji resembles a Chinese spear with a crescent blade attached to the head, as sort of an axe blade. Sometimes double-bladed with 2 crescent blades on opposing sides of the spearhead. (Refer to the right most weapons in the two Chinese polearm pictures) It was created by combining the dagger-axe with a spear.
The dagger-axe, or gee (Chinese: 戈; pinyin: gē; Wade–Giles: ko; sometimes confusingly translated "halberd") is a type of weapon that was in use from Shang dynasty until at least Han dynasty China. It consists of a dagger-shaped blade made of bronze (or later iron) mounted by the tang to a perpendicular wooden shaft: a common Bronze Age infantry weapon, also used by charioteers. Some dagger axes include a spear-point. There is a (rare) variant type with a divided two-part head, consisting of the usual straight blade and a scythe-like blade. Other rarities include archaeology findings with 2 or sometimes 3 blades stacked in line on top of a pole, but were generally thought as ceremonial polearms. Though the weapon saw frequent use in ancient China, the use of the dagger-axe decreased dramatically after the Qin and Han dynasties. The Ji combines the dagger axe with a spear. By the medieval Chinese dynasties, with the decline of chariot warfare, the use of the dagger-axe was almost nonexistent.
A Guan dao or Kwan tou is a type of Chinese pole weapon. In Chinese it is properly called a Yanyue dao (偃月刀) which translates as reclining moon blade. Some believed it comes from the late Han Era and supposedly used by the late Eastern Han Dynasty general Guan Yu, but archaeological findings so far showed that Han dynasty armies were generally using straight single-edged blades, as curved blades came several centuries later. There is no reason to believe their polearms had curved-blades on them. Besides, historical accounts of the Three Kingdoms era had several specific records of Guan Yu thrusting his opponents down (probably with a spear-like polearm) in battles, instead of cutting them down with a curved-blade. Alternatively the guan dao is also known as Chun Qiu Da Dao ("Spring Autumn Great Knife"), again probably related to Guan Yu's loyal image depicted in the Ming dynasty novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but possibly a Ming author's invention. It consists of a heavy blade mounted atop a 5-to-6-foot-long (1.5 to 1.8 m) wooden or metal pole with a pointed metal counter weight used for striking and stabbing on the opposite end.
The blade is very deep and curved on its face; this resembles a Chinese Sabre or Dao. Used by cavalry. Supposed to take great physical prowess to wield in combat due to great weight. Variants include having rings along the length of the straight back edge as found in the nine-ring guan dao for use as distractions or entanglements for incoming enemy weapons, having the tip curl into a rounded spiral as in the elephant guan dao, or featuring a more ornate design as exemplified by the dragon head guan dao.
Chinese polearm, a 'long-handled sabre', also known as the zhan ma dao (horsecutter sabre) which has a lighter blade and a ring at the end in that it. A pu dao is an infantryman's weapon mainly used for cutting the legs off oncoming charging horses to bring down the riders.
The ngao or ngau (ง้าว,ของ้าว) is a Thai polearm that was traditionally used by elephant-riding infantry and is still used by practitioners of krabi krabong. Known in Malay as a dap, it consists of a wooden shaft with a curved blade fashioned onto the end, and is similar in design to the Korean woldo. Usually, it also had a hook (ขอ) between the blade and shaft used for commanding the elephant. The elephant warrior used the ngao like a blade from atop an elephant or horse during battle.
Post-classical pole weapons
The Danish Axe (also Broad Axe, Dane-axe) is a weapon with a heavy crescent-shaped head mounted on a haft 4 to 6 ft (1.2 to 1.8 m).) in length. Originally a Viking weapon, it was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons and Normans in the 11th century, spreading through Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. Variants of this basic weapon continued in use in Scotland and Ireland into the 16th century. A form of 'Long Axe'.
In the 13th century, variants on the Danish axe are seen. Described in English as a sparth (from the Old Norse sparðr) or pale-axe, the weapon featured a larger head with broader blade, the rearward part of the crescent sweeping up to contact (or even be attached to) the haft.
In Ireland, this axe was known as a Sparr Axe. Originating in either Western Scotland or Ireland, the sparr was widely used by the galloglass. Although sometimes said to derive from the Irish for a joist or beam, a more likely definition is as a variant of sparth. Although attempts have been made to suggest that the sparr had a distinctive shaped head, illustrations and surviving weapons show there was considerable variation and the distinctive feature of the weapon was its long haft.
A fauchard is a type of polearm which was used in medieval Europe from the 11th through the 14th centuries. The design consisted of a curved blade put atop a 6-to-7-foot-long (1.8 to 2.1 m) pole. The blade bore a moderate to strong curve along its length; however, unlike a bill or guisarme, the cutting edge was on the convex side.
A guisarme (sometimes gisarme, giserne or bisarme) was a pole weapon used in Europe primarily between 1000–1400. It was used primarily to dismount knights and horsemen. Like most polearms it was developed by peasants by combining hand tools with long poles, in this case by putting a pruning hook onto a spear shaft. While hooks are fine for dismounting horsemen from mounts, they lack the stopping power of a spear especially when dealing with static opponents. While early designs were simply a hook on the end of a long pole, later designs implemented a small reverse spike on the back of the blade. Eventually weapon makers incorporated the usefulness of the hook in a variety of different polearms and guisarme became a catch-all for any weapon that included a hook on the blade. Ewart Oakeshott has proposed an alternative description of the weapon as a crescent shaped socketed axe.
A glaive is a polearm consisting of a single-edged tapering blade similar in shape to a modern kitchen knife on the end of a pole. The blade was around 18 inches (46 cm) long, on the end of a pole 6 or 7 feet (180 or 210 centimetres) long However, instead of having a tang like a sword or naginata, the blade is affixed in a socket-shaft configuration similar to an axe head, both the blade and shaft varying in length. Illustrations in the 13th century Maciejowski Bible show a short staffed weapon with a long blade used by both infantry and cavalry. Occasionally glaive blades were created with a small hook or spike on the reverse side. Such glaives are named glaive-guisarme.
A voulge (occasionally called a pole cleaver) is a curved blade attached to a pole by binding the lower 2/3 of the blade to the side of the pole, to form a sort of axe. Looks very similar to a glaive.
A svärdstav (literally sword-staff) is a Swedish medieval polearm that consists of a two-edged sword blade attached to a 2-metre staff. The illustrations often show the weapon being equipped with sword-like quillons. The illustrations sometimes show a socket mount and reinforcing langets being used, but sometimes they are missing; it is possible this weapon was sometimes manufactured by simply attaching an old sword blade onto a long pole on its tang, not unlike the naginata.
A naginata (なぎなた or 薙刀) is a Japanese polearm that was traditionally used by members of the samurai class. A naginata consists of a wood shaft with a curved blade on the end; it is descended from the Chinese guan dao. Usually it also had a sword-like guard (tsuba) between the blade and shaft. It was mounted with a tang and held in place with a pin or pins, rather than going over the shaft using a socket.
The Korean woldo was a variation of the Chinese guan dao. It was originally used by the medieval Shilla warriors. Wielding the woldo took time due to its weight, but in the hands of a trained soldier, the woldo was a fearsome, agile weapon famous for enabling a single soldier to cut down ranks of infantrymen. The woldo was continually in use for the military in Korea with various modifications made over the decades. Unlike the Chinese with the guan dao, the Koreans found the woldo unwieldy on horseback, and thus, it was specifically tailored to the needs of infantrymen. The Joseon government implemented rigorous training regimens requiring soldiers to be proficient with swordsmanship, and the use of the woldo. Though it was never widely used as a standard weapon, the woldo saw action on many fronts and was considered by many Korean troops to be a versatile weapon. Recently, a contemporary revival in various martial arts in Korea has brought interest into the application of the woldo and its history.
Modern pole weapons
A corseque has a three-bladed head on a 6–8 ft (1.8–2.4 m).) haft which, like the partisan, is similar to the winged spear or spetum in the later Middle Ages. It was popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Surviving examples have a variety of head forms but there are two main variants, one with the side blades (known as flukes or wings) branching from the neck of the central blade at 45 degrees, the other with hooked blades curving back towards the haft. The corseque is usually associated with the rawcon, ranseur and runka. Another possible association is with the "three-grayned staff" listed as being in the armoury of Henry VIII in 1547 (though the same list also features 84 rawcons, suggesting the weapons were not identical in 16th century English eyes). Another modern term used for particularly ornate-bladed corseques is the chauve-souris.
A halberd (or Swiss voulge) is a two-handed pole weapon that came to prominent use during the 14th and 15th centuries but has continued in use as a ceremonial weapon to the present day. First recorded as "hellembart" in 1279, the word halberd possibly comes from the German words Halm (staff) or Helm (helmet), and Barte (axe). 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. Early forms are very similar in many ways to certain forms of voulge, while 16th century and later forms are similar to the pollaxe. The Swiss were famous users of the halberd in the medieval and renaissance eras, with various cantons evolving regional variations of the basic form.
In the 14th century, the basic long axe gained an armour piercing spike on the back and another on the end of the haft for thrusting. This is similar to the pollaxe of 15th century. The poleaxe emerged in response to the need for a weapon that could penetrate plate armour and featured various combinations of an axe-blade, a back-spike and a hammer. It was the favoured weapon for men-at-arms fighting on foot into the sixteenth century.
- Dean, Bashford (1916). Notes on Arms and Armor. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Oakeshott, Ewart (1980). European Weapons and Armour. Lutterworth Press. p. 52. ISBN 0-7188-2126-2.
- Warburton, Eliot, Memoirs of Prince Rupert, and the cavaliers: Including their private correspondence, now first published from the original MSS, 2, London: R. Bentley, p. 149 citing "Special Passages," No. xliii. (King's Collect.)
- Edge, David; John Miles Paddock (1988). Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight. London: Defoe. p. 32. ISBN 1-870981-00-6.
- Caldwell, David (1981). "Some Notes on Scottish Axes and Long Shafted Weapons". In Caldwell, David. Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800. Edinburgh: John Donald. pp. 262–276. ISBN 0-85976-047-2.
- Oakeshott (1980), p.47
- Nicolle, David (1996). Medieval Warfare Source Book Vol. 1. London: Arms & Armour Press. p. 307.
- Marsden, John (2003). Galloglas. East Linton: Tuckwell Press. p. 79. ISBN 1-86232-251-1.
- Marsden (2003), p.82
- Cannan, Fergus (2010). Galloglass 1250-1600. Oxford: Osprey. p. 23. ISBN 978-1-84603-577-7.
- Ewart Oakeshott (1980), p.53
- Oakeshott (1980), p.53
- The Morgan Library & Museum Online Exhibitions - The Morgan Picture Bible
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- Norman, A. V. B.; Wilson, G. M. (1982). Treasures from the Tower of London : Arms and Armour. London: Lund Humphries. p. 67. ISBN 0-946009-01-5.
- Grayned meaning bladed
- Norman & Wilson (1982), p.67
- Oakeshott (1980), p.51.
- Oakeshott (1980), pp.47-48
- Douglas Miller : The Swiss at War 1300-1500, Osprey MAA 94, 1979
- Oakeshott (1980), p.47, fig 6
- Miles & Paddock, p.127-8