A spontoon, sometimes known by the variant spelling espontoon or as a half-pike, is a type of European polearm that came into being alongside the pike. The spontoon was in wide use by the mid seventeenth century, and it continued to be used until the mid to late nineteenth century.
Unlike the pike, which was an extremely long weapon (typically 14 or 15 feet), the spontoon measured only 6 or 7 feet in overall length. Generally, this weapon featured a more elaborate head than the typical pike. The head of a spontoon often had a pair of smaller blades on each side, giving the weapon the look of a military fork, or a trident. There were also spontoon-style axes which used the same shaped blades mounted on the side of the weapon with a shorter handle.
Italians might have been the first to use the spontoon, and, in its early days, the weapon was used for combat, before it became more of a symbolic item.
After the musket replaced the pike as the primary weapon of the foot soldier, the spontoon remained in use as a signalling weapon. Non-commissioned officers carried the spontoon as a symbol of their rank and used it like a mace, in order to issue battlefield commands to their men. (Commissioned officers carried and commanded with swords, although some British Army officers used spontoons at the Battle of Culloden.).
During the Napoleonic Wars, the spontoon was used by Sergeants to defend the colours of a battalion or regiment from cavalry attack. The spontoon was one of few polearms that stayed in use long enough to make it into American history. As late as the 1890s, the spontoon could still be seen accompanying marching soldiers.
The American Militia Acts of 1792 specified that commissioned officers were to be armed with an espontoon. Lewis and Clark brought spontoons on their expedition with the Corps of Discovery. The weapons came in handy as backup arms when the Corps travelled through areas populated by bears. At the Battle of Cowpens during the American Revolution, a spontoon was used by Captain Anderson of Maryland to pole vault to a British cannon and capture it just before it could be fired.. Today, a spontoon (or espontoon, as it is referred to in the manual of arms) is carried by the drum major of the U.S. Army's Fife and Drum Corps, a ceremonial unit of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).
- Fitzroy MacLean, Bonnie Prince Charlie, New York: Atheneum, 1989, p. 208
- Moore & Hanes, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery (Farcountry Press 2003)
- Paul Schullery, Lewis & Clark Among the Grizzlies (TwoDot 2002)
- L. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, 2001, pg 120
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