If you want to stab without getting stabbed, then a polearm can be a pretty good bet. Most RPG armory tables have lists of different polearms, but they’re often not divided by era, so you end up with an anachronistic porcupine of martial confusion. Nor do they explain how the polearm is best used – it’s all very well rolling a d10+2, but what if I want to know how to work it into the battle narrative – am I cutting, thrusting, twisting? Plus if, like me, you didn’t cut your teeth on a d20, it’s tough to tell the difference between a Stonspoon and a Halibut, and that’s before we start talking about the Brandy-stock (mine’s a double, on the rocks)…
So, we thought we’d bring you the low down on all things long and pointy.
Polearms, for those not in the know, are close combat weapons characterised by something metallic and stabby mounted on a (typically) wooden pole, which may vary in length depending on its usage.
Polearms were used by both infantry and cavalry for stabbing the enemy before they could stab you (reach weapons). Because they contain relatively little metal they were cheap to make and mass-produce, and thus became the favoured weapon of many peasant levies (many are, in fact, adapted from agricultural tools), though some were used by mounted combatants as well. Their range and impact (with enough force, some could penetrate armour) made many polearms successful weapons against mounted or heavily armoured opponents. Smaller weapons, like the spear, were quite agile on the battlefield, whereas longer weapons such the pike relied on their extended reach to give them the advantage.
Beyond this, there was a huge diversity in the silhouettes of the metallic heads and the lengths of the shafts, even within a single era, and subsequently their specific abilities. Historically, the terminology seems to have been somewhat interchangeable, and/or vague, which can make identification difficult. Part of the reason for this seems to be that the weapons makers began to combine useful elements from various original polearms – why not add a large spike and a hook to your axe? – to create weapons which could slash, stab and disarm with a single thrust or twist.
It’s worth noting that the head of the polearm isn’t the only useful part of the weapon. The polearm’s haft – provided it was thick enough and wasn’t too awkwardly long – could be used like a quarterstaff to block and parry attacks or to trip men and horses. Some weapons, like the pollaxe, also had an additional spike at the butt of the haft, giving it even greater flexibility of use.
The gunpowder age somewhat put an end to the use of the polearm, but a huge number were subsequently converted to ceremonial weapons. They look damn impressive, and give an archaic-yet-threatening appearance to palace guards and similar. So, if your era is Renaissance or later, you could still incorporate older polearms in a ceremonial capacity.
List of most common Polearms
We hope you enjoy the list below which, though it isn’t exhaustive, contains profiles and pictures of some of the better-known polearms which crop up in both historical and fantasy settings.
Do you have a favourite, or did we miss one out you’d like to see? Let us know in the comments below.
Ancient Polearms (pre medieval)
Used by: Thracians, Romans, but especially Dracians
Set up: A sickle attached to a long pole; 2 handed Dracian Falxes had a 3ft (0.91m) shaft, with an equal length blade
Good for: Splitting shields; dragging shields away, or reaching behind shields to shred the warrior; later used as a siege hook, for penetrating a protective wall and to tear out stones (often in conjunction with a battering ram)
Negatives: Two handed, so you can’t hold a shield
Used by: the Romans (especially Caterphracts), and Byzantines; 1st century AD until c.1100
Setup: 12ft (4 metres) long pole, with a simple sharpened tip
Good for: skewering two men at once whilst on horseback – immensely powerful and heavy weapon
Negatives: Difficult to use and required a lot of training! Had to be wielded with 2 hands, which meant steering your mount with your knees alone. Also very heavy.
- from c.1100 it was used 1 handed and couched in the armpit as a lance. (for medieval usage, see Lance)
- The name comes from the greek word for a barge pole.
Medieval Polearms (5th-15th century)
a.k.a.: English Long Axe, hafted axe, Dane Axe, broad axe and Sparth
Used by: Vikings! In 11th century it was adopted by Anglo Saxons and Normans. Later accepted by Knights (though never as popular as the sword), but originally associated with Vikings and (in England) peasants
Setup: light, sharp axehead (generally about 20-30cm/8-12in cutting surface); when used as a pole arm, the haft could be about 4-6ft (1.2-1.8m).
Variations: Sparth or Sparr axe – larger head, broader blade, rear-ward part sweeping up to contact or attach to the haft.
Good for: quick, light weapon for stabbing and chopping – more in common with a meat cleaver than a wood axe
- Famously used by King Stephen of England in 1141 at the battle of Lincoln.
- Variants continued in use into the 16th century in Scotland and Ireland.
a.k.a: chauve souris, corseca, corsèsque, korseke, runka, and rawcon
Used by: 13th century Europeans
Set up: 6–8 feet (1.8 – 2.4m) haft; spear head about 12-14 inches (30- 36 cm) long, with two projections at its base about half that length, which were single edged and used for slashing; many variations, but probably gave rise, in part, to the ransuer. The spetum is usually distinguished from the ranseur and partisan by its “prongs” being single edged and used for slashing.
Good for: stabbing! The main blade is long enough to destroy any significant organ in the human body with one quick thrust. The blunt backs of the side blades make the spetum useful for a variety of uses such as tripping and knocking aside shields, but more importantly they provide far more strength to the sharpened side and points than is possible with a dual-edged construction.
Negatives: a little cumbersome. Two-handed, so no shield.
- Corsescas are more usually associated with the Renaissance period.
Used by: Europeans, between 11th-14th centuries
Setup: Curved blade, sharpened only along the interior edge, set onto a 6-7ft (1.8-2.1m) pole. Later variants: one or more spear points at the back or top, for extra stabbing; a rear spike or the opposite side of the curved blade.
Good for: Dismounting horsemen, stabbing, hacking.
Negatives: 2 handed – no shield could be used
- After they became obsolete, fauchards became ornamental polearms; some very late ceremonial examples were almost too heavy to carry, let alone use
Used by: originally the French, but gained popularity in Europe
Set up: Essentially a sword on a stick – a roughly half-metre, sharpened blade attached to a 6-7ft/2m pole. Some were created with a reverse hook – these are called glaive-guisarme. Swedish glaives were double-edged. Great variety in blade shape.
Good for: attack with the sharp sword edge. The reverse hook, where present, was good for dismounting horsemen or disarming people, and the haft itself could be used defensively.
Negatives: somewhat cumbersome, and two handed, so no shield.
Notes: The term Glaive has been co-opted by various fantasy franchises to mean a throwing blades which return to the thrower (similar to the Chakram used by, among others, Xena, Princess Warrior). This is not related to the historical glaive.
Used by: Europeans between 1000-1400
Good for: Disarming Knights and horsemen
Negatives: lacks the stopping power of a spear
Set up: the unholy child of a pruning hook and a spear shaft – later had a small reverse spike in the back of the blade
- Developed by peasants
- Guisarme eventually became a catch-all descriptor for any weapon that included a hook on the blade, as weapon makers embraced it for its extra grabbage, stabbage and disarming power
Used by: Mounted warriors, and heavily associated with chivalry- throughout the medieval era, until around 16th century.
Set up: Long (2m or so) and balanced for one handed use, it was often couched under the arm. The lance rest appeared on armour in the late 14th century.
Good for: A full-gallop close ranked charge, to break infantry, archery or other cavalry units, and also defensive embankments; formations would be either 2 lines (French method “en haie”) or a deeper, wedge-shaped formation (German method). Extreme stopping power. A company of trained, mounted warriors with lances can be considered to be the tanks of the medieval era.
Negatives: Often one use only (they could shatter on impact), so you needed another weapon for the rest of the battle, plus too cumbersome for melee fighting in any case. Requires high degree of horsemanship. Arguably more effective (the historical debate is still out ) – if you have stirrups for your horse.
Notes: The jousting lance was flat at the end and used for unseating, rather than kebab-ing, your opponent. Because – you know – chivalry and stuff…
a.k.a.: Halbard, Halbert or Swiss Voulge. Not to be confused with hippoglossus hippoglassus (Halibut)
Used by: Especially by Swiss and German armies 14-15th century, and generally until mid 16th century
Set up: Two handed pole, topped with axe blade, spear spike and reverse hook or thorn; haft usually 1.5 to 1.8 metres (5 to 6 feet)
Good for: Hook for grappling (and dismounting) mounted combatants, spear for pushing back horsemen, axe for chopping; inexpensive to make; good for pikemen vs. pikemen action
Negatives: Better for attack than defence
- Similar in design and function to some voulges
- 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 from the University of Leicester theorise that a halberd or a bill sliced through the back of King Richard III’s skull at the Battle of Bosworth.
a.k.a.: English bill/Italian bill (variants), Bill hook or Bill-guisarme.
Used by: Europeans, throughout Medieval era, though use in England extended into 1500s
Set up: A billhook (originally an agricultural tool) plus long pole, with a spear spike on top. English – short and rounded: Italians – long thrusting points
Good for: stopping power of a spear, chopping power of an axe; dismounting Cavalrymen, finding chinks or crevices in armour. English bills had a focus on chopping, therefore tended to be shorter; Italian bills had an extended spike and focused on thrusting.
a.k.a: Partizan, espontono,
Used by: Medieval europe, became obsolete in the gunpowder age
Set up: Essentially a spear head, but with 2 short-but-broad, curved, sharpened side pieces. Mounted on a long shaft, 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4m) long.
Good for: Parrying swords, esp. with the side pieces.
Negatives: not especially flexible.
- Partisans are now carried ceremonially by the Yeomen of the Guard – the bodyguard of the British Monarch.
- I’m sure there will be outcry that I categorized these two weapons together, but there seems to be no practical difference between them. Perhaps our lovely readers can comment on this?
a.k.a. Runkah, Runka or a Rawcon, Rawcuer
Set up: A long spike/spearhead with two symmetrical side pieces which take various profiles – they may be thin and pointed, as a trident, or broader, bladed and more similar to a partisan/spontoon.
Good for: Parrying bows, stabbing. Dismounting riders (depending on the side pieces)
Negatives: 2 handed (no shield)
Notes: The Ranseur is based on the trident – a fishing spear, which was also used as a weapon in ancient Rome in conjunction with a net, which trapped opponents.
Renaissance Polearms (14th-17th century)
a.k.a. Poleaxe, Pole-axe, Pollaxe, Polax, and Hache
Used by: Knights and other men at arms whilst fighting on foot; European infantry; 14th-16th century
Set up: Mounted axe head, to which is added a reverse spike and another jutting from the top. Haft length varied greatly – usually 4-6.5 feet (1.2-2m). Extra spike added at the butt end of the haft.
Good for: Breaching heavy plate armour
Negatives: 2 handed weapon, so no shield
Fighting techniques: because it was used in the age of treatises (i.e. the Renaissance) we have more info about fighting techniques, which were based largely on quarterstaff fighting. The blade can be used, not only for hacking, but also tripping, blocking a weapon, disarming, slicing, and blocking unarmed blows. Both the head spike and butt spike can be used for thrusting attacks. The haft can be used for blocking the enemy’s blows (the langets help reinforce the head to extend the life of the pole shaft), “cross-checking” and tripping him.
- Not to be confused with the danish axe or the halberd, which can have a similar silhouette
- Most schools of combat suggested a haft length comparable to the height of the wielder
- This is my favourite polearm. You can quote me on that. George Silver, who wrote Paradoxes of Defense (1599) also ranked it pretty highly.
a.k.a. Brandestoc, Buttafuore or Feather staff
Used by: Infantry and civilians alike, primarily police officers in Italy between the 16th and 19th centuries
Set up: Measuring some 5 feet long, the brandistock construction was unique for polearms in that it had a retractable blade. The head consisted of either a single or a trio of long thin points, which were kept in a hollow aperture inside the rest of the shaft. A sharp thrust of the weapon forward propelled the heads out, where they could be readily locked in place.
Good for: Stabbing. Better for every day use, as not too long, and retractable blade made it less dangerous
Negatives: Retractable blade can get stuck either in or out.
Used by: 15th-19th centuries
Set up: Two long tines, set upon a long haft
Good for: Beginners, as it was easy to use and didn’t require much training
Negatives: Not especially flexible.
Notes: Descended from the Pitchfork
Used by: 16th-17th centuries
Set up: The blade varied greatly in shape, but was most often a long, cleaver type. The distinction was in how the blade was attached to the pole. This was either via two sockets (one at the top of the pole and one lower, at the base of the blade), or one socket at the top and one surface mount at the base, effectively mounting the heavy blade to the wooden shaft.
Good for: In Russia and in Poland this weapon was used to rest handguns upon when firing. It was standard equipment for the Streltsy (literally “shooters”) corps (foot, mounted and dragoons) and also for the Polish infantry (shorter version invented by King Jan III Sobieski). Another use of the bardiche was for execution.
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