Pole weapon

Pole weapon
A selection of polearms, mostly halberds

A pole weapon or polearm is a close combat weapon in which the main fighting part of the weapon is placed on the end of a long shaft, typically of wood, thereby extending the user's effective range. Spears, glaives, poleaxes, halberds, and bardiches are all varieties of polearms. The idea of attaching a weapon onto a long shaft is an old one, as the first spears date back to the Stone Age. The purpose of using pole weapons is either to extend reach or to increase angular momentum—and thus striking power—when the weapon is swung.



Pole weapons are relatively simple to make, and they were fairly easy for most people to use effectively as they were often derived from hunting or agricultural tools. For example, the Chinese Monk's spade, with its shovel-like end, served two purposes for the monks who used it: if they came upon a corpse on the road, they could properly bury it with Buddhist rites; and the large implement could serve as a weapon for defending against bandits.

Massed men carrying pole weapons with pointed tips (spears, pikes, etc.) were recognized fairly early in the history of organized warfare as effective military units. On defence the men holding the polearms were hard to reach; on the attack, as in the Greek phalanx, they were devastating to those units which could not get out of the way.

With the advent of armored fighters, especially cavalry, pole weapons frequently combined the spearpoint (for thrusting) with an axe or hammerhead for a swinging strike which could pierce or break armor.

In more recent times, pole weapons have largely been superseded as battlefield weapons by firearms. However, the bayonet of a modern rifle (especially sword bayonet or knife bayonet), when attached, can still be regarded as a form of pole weapon. Today, the military use of pole weapons is restricted to ceremonial guards, such as the Papal Swiss Guard or Yeomen of the Guard. They also remain a common sight in many schools of martial arts that study weapons.

Varieties of pole weapon

Ancient Europe and Asia


The sarissa or sarisa (Greek: σάρισα) was a 4 to 7 metre (13–21 feet) long pike used in the ancient Greek and Hellenistic warfare. It was introduced by Philip II of Macedon and was used in the traditional Greek phalanx formation as a replacement for the earlier dory, which was considerably shorter. The phalanxes of Philip II were known as Macedonian phalanxes. The sarissa, made of tough and resilient cornel wood, was very heavy for a spear, weighing over 5 kg (12 pounds). It had a short iron head shaped like a leaf and a bronze shoe (also known as a butt-spike) that would allow it to be anchored to the ground to stop charges by enemy soldiers.[1] The bronze shoe also served to balance out the spear, making it easier for soldiers to wield. Its great length, up to eighteen feet, in two lengths that were joined in a central bronze tube,[2] was an asset against hoplites and other soldiers bearing shorter weapons, because they had to get past the sarissas to engage the phalangites. However, outside the tight formation of the Phalanx the sarissa would have been almost useless as weapon and a hindrance on the march. Complicated training ensured that the phalanx wielded their sarissas in unison, swinging them vertically to wheel about, then lowering them horizontal. The uniform swish of the sarissas daunted the Illyrian hill tribesmen on whom the young Alexander exerted his early sortie.


Medieval and early modern Europe

Classification difficulties

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.

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.[3]


A corseque has a three-bladed head on a 6–8 ft. (1.8m-2.5m.) haft which, like the partisan, evolved from the winged spear or spetum in the later Middle Ages.[4] 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"[5] listed as being in the armoury of Henry VIII in 1547[6] (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.[7]


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 glaive the cutting edge was only on the concave side. This made the fauchard blade resemble that of a sickle or a scythe. This was not a very efficient design for the purposes of war, and was eventually modified to have one or more lance points attached to the back or top of the blade. The modern name for this weapon is a fauchard-fork, but is very often erroneously referred to as a guisarme or bill-guisarme, since it superficially appears to have a "hook".


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.[8] It is similar to the Japanese naginata, as well as the Russian sovnya. 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.[1] Typically however, the blade was around 18 inches (55 cm) long, on the end of a pole 6 or 7 feet (180–210 cm) long. Occasionally glaive blades were created with a small hook or spike on the reverse side.[9] The modern term for these is glaive-guisarmes.


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.[10]


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.[11] 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 poleaxe. The Swiss were famous users of the halberd in the medieval and renaissance eras,[12] with various cantons evolving regional variations of the basic form.[13]

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.


A Linstock is a Swiss polearm similar to both a Halberd and a Pike (or Spear.) The primary difference is that a Linstock lacks the blade that a halberd has, and has replaced the blade with a (usually ornamental) cats holder for slow matches. The spear point would be used to defent artillery, and the slow-match would be used to fire the cannon.

Long axes

Danish axe

The Danish Axe (also Broad Axe, Dane-axe) is a weapon with a heavy crescent-shaped head mounted on a haft 4 ft. to 6 ft. (1.2-1.8 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.[14] Variants of this basic weapon continued in use in Scotland and Ireland into the 16th century.[15]


In the 13th century, variants on the Danish axe are seen. Described in English as a sparth (from the Old Norse sparðr)[16] or pale-axe,[17] 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. Another development extended the forward part of the crescent.

In Ireland, this axe was known as a Sparr. Originating in either Western Scotland or Ireland, the sparr was widely used by the galloglass.[18] Although sometimes said to derive from the Irish for a joist or beam,[19] a more likely definition is as a variant of sparth.[20] 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.[21]

See also Bardiche


In the 14th century, the basic long axe began to evolve, gaining an armour piercing spike on the back and another on the end of the haft for thrusting. This evolved into the pollaxe of the following century. The pollaxe evolved to break through 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.[22]

See also Bec de corbin, lucerne hammer


The maul is a long-handled hammer with a heavy metal head, either of lead or iron. It is similar in appearance and function to a modern sledgehammer but is sometimes shown as having a spear-like spike on the fore-end of the haft.

The use of the maul as a weapon seems to date from the later 14th century. In 1382, rebellious citizens of Paris seized 3,000 mauls (fr. maillet) from the city armoury, leading to the rebels being dubbed Maillotins.[23] Later in the same year, Froissart records French men-at-arms using mauls at the Battle of Roosebeke, demonstrating it was not simply a weapon of the lower classes.[24]

A particular use of the maul was by archers in the 15th and 16th centuries. At Agincourt, English longbowmen are recorded as using lead mauls, initially as a tool to drive in stakes but later as an improvised weapon.[25] Other references during the century (for example, in Charles the Bold's 1472 Ordinance) suggest continued use.[26] They are recorded as a weapon of Tudor archers as late as 1562.[27]

Scottish polearms

Many of the polearms used in Scotland to the beginning of the 16th. century were similar to those used elsewhere. However, a number of distinct forms did evolve. The nomenclature of Scottish axes in particular is confusing and the text below follows the classification scheme proposed by David H. Caldwell in his 1980 paper "Some Notes on Scottish Axes and Long Shafted Weapons".[28]

Brogit staff

The name means literally "spiked staff". This polearm is recorded in a Scottish law listing types of weapon in 1430 and is mentioned on other occasions in the 15th. and early 16th. century. Though clearly a pole weapon, its exact form is obscure. David Caldwell suggests it may have been similar to a Holy Water Sprinkler.[29]

Jeddart staff

The Jeddart (or Jedburgh) staff is a polearm of the 16th & 17th centuries with a glaive-like blade which is fixed to its haft by two sockets, in the manner of a bardiche. Form D in the Caldwell classification.[30]

Lochaber axe

A simple axe with a broad curved blade usually attached to its long haft at two points. On the back of the blade is a simple hook. This type of axe is first recorded in 1501 and was used until the 18th. century. Form E in the Caldwell classification.[31]

Scottish Halberd

The Scottish halberd is thought to have derived from the continental halberd probably in the late 16th century though it shares features with the pollaxe of the century before. They continued to be used into the 18th century. It has a spear-shaped point, small axe-blade and a back-spike, often curved. They were often carried by town officials and town guards. Form B in the Caldwell classification.[32]


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.[33] 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 voulge (occasionally called a pole cleaver) is a type of polearm that existed alongside the similar glaive in medieval Europe. Superficially, a voulge might strongly resemble a glaive, but there are some notable differences in construction. First, the attachment of the voulge blade to the shaft was usually done by binding the lower two thirds of the blade to the side of the pole; the glaive would often have a socket built into the blade itself and was mounted on top of the pole. In addition, while both had curved blades, that of the voulge was broad and meant for hacking, while that of the glaive was narrow and meant more for cutting. Indeed, a voulge looks something like a squashed bardiche head, or just a meat cleaver attached to a long pole.

Winged spear

The winged (also lugged or barred) spear was a common type of thrusting spear during the early Middle Ages. It consisted of a leaf or lozenge shaped head, beneath which on the socket there were prominent wings. The earliest use of barred spears for hunting is recorded by Xenophon in the 4th. century BC and illustrations of Roman examples are known.[34] Its use in war, however, seems to relate to German tribes in the Early Middle Ages, particularly the Franks,[35] although it was also by the Vikings.[36] The type is commonly illustrated in Early Medieval Art, including the Bayeux Tapestry and the Golden Psalter of St. Gallen [2].

The winged spear is shown used by both cavalry and infantry. Although some authors claim the intention of the wings was to prevent the weapon from penetrating too deeply into an enemy,[37] others see them as an aid to spear-fencing.[35] In the later Middle Ages a number of polearms derived from the winged spear evolve. Some, such as the Bohemian ear spoon, differ little from the original. Weapons such as the Spetum, Ranseur, Corseque and Partisan show a greater evolutionary change.


East Asia

A selection of Chinese pole weapons

Guan dao

A guan dao or kwan dao is a type of Chinese pole weapon that is currently used in some forms of Chinese martial arts. In Chinese it is properly called a Yanyue dao (偃月刀) which translates as reclining moon blade). It comes from the late Han era and was said to have been used by the Han general Guan Yu. Alternatively the guan dao is also known as "Chun Qiu Da Dao" or Spring Autumn Great Knife. It differs from more plain Chinese weapon known as a "pu dao" (long-handled sabre) a.k.a. zhan ma dao (horsecutter sabre) which has a lighter blade and a ring at the end in that it, instead, 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 China sabre or the Japanese naginata and bisento, or the European glaive and voulge. Often the edge will taper to a point on the top for thrusting. While a pu dao is an infantryman's weapon mainly used for cutting the legs off oncoming charging horses to bring down the riders, a guan dao is a cavalryman's and usually a general's weapon in that many generalships in ancient days involved the demonstration of personal martial skills to impress troops sufficiently that they would follow him and it took someone of great physical prowess to wield a guan dao in combat. In addition there are sometimes irregular serrations that lead the back edge of the blade to the spike. Usually a red sash or tassel is attached at the joint of the pole and blade. Variations 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.


The Korean woldo was a variation of the Chinese guan dao. It was typically used by the medieval Shilla warrior class the hwarang. Wielding the woldo, because it was heavier than other long-reaching weapons, took time, but, in the hands of a practised user, the woldo was a fearsome, agile weapon famous for enabling a single soldier to cut down ranks of infantrymen. Korean cavalrymen, usually in the Choson era, also used the woldo, mainly because it was longer than most other pole weapons and for its heavy striking power. Korean warriors and generals who took military exams to take up high positions in the army had to take an exam that tested proficiency and skill with the woldo. Those who could demonstrate great martial skill in the use of the woldo passed one of the exams and proceeded to the next. Those who could not were ordered to withdraw and to train for the next military examination.


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. They are still used for training purposes by many Chinese martial arts. The ji resembles a Chinese spear for the most part, with a small crescent blade attached to the head and a red horsehair tassel where the head is fixed to the shaft. It was a relatively common infantry weapon, especially in its common Bronze Age variant known as the dagger-axe, although it was used by cavalry and charioteers as well. There were several types of ji, e.g. with a rectangular, serrated blade instead of the crescent-formed one, or spear tips with two curved blades attached.

They have two or three sharp points of attack, the side blade or blades and the tip, plus often a rear counter weight that could be used to strike the opponent. The way the side blades are fixed to the main spear pole differs, but usually there are empty spaces between the pole and the side blade. The wielder could strike with the shaft, with the option of then pulling the halberd back to hook with a side blade; or slap his opponent with the flat side of the halberd blade to knock him off his horse.


The dagger-axe, or GUH (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 jade (ceremonial), bronze, or later iron, mounted by the tang of the dagger to a perpendicular wooden shaft with a spear point. There is a variant type with a divided two-part head, consisting of the usual straight blade and a scythe-like blade.

Though the weapon saw frequent use in ancient China, the use of the dagger-axe decreased dramatically after the Qin and Han dynasties. By the medieval Chinese dynasties, the use of the dagger-axe was almost nonexistent. The horizontally aligned blade could be attached to a spear to form a much more useful polearm.


A nagamaki is a pole weapon that was traditionally used in Japan by members of the samurai class, typically against mounted opponents. It had a much longer grip and shorter blade than the naginata, and was developed later. Unlike most Japanese weapons, there were no specific rules about exact measurements and proportions for nagamaki. It varies from typical European construction of polearms in that, like most Japanese weapons, it was mounted with a tang and held in place with a pin or pins, rather than going over the shaft using a socket.


A naginata (なぎなた or 薙刀) is a pole weapon that was traditionally used in Japan by members of the samurai class. It has become associated with women and in modern Japan it is studied by women more than men; whereas in Europe and Australia naginata is practised predominantly (but not exclusively) by men. 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 varies from typical European construction of polearms in that, like most East Asian weapons, it was mounted with a tang and held in place with a pin or pins, rather than going over the shaft using a socket.



  1. ^ Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great 1973:76f.
  2. ^ Fox (1973), p. 75
  3. ^ Oakeshott, Ewart (1980). European Weapons and Armour. Lutterworth Press. p. 52. ISBN 0718821262. 
  4. ^ Norman, A. V. B.; Wilson, G. M. (1982). Treasures from the Tower of London : Arms and Armour. London: Lund Humphries. p. 67. ISBN 0946009015. 
  5. ^ Grayned meaning bladed
  6. ^ Norman & Wilson (1982), p.67
  7. ^ Oakeshott (1980), p.51.
  8. ^ Oakeshott (1980), p.53
  9. ^ media:Bannockburn.jpg
  10. ^ Ewart Oakeshott (1980), p.53
  11. ^ Oakeshott (1980), pp.47-48
  12. ^ Douglas Miller : The Swiss at War 1300-1500, Osprey MAA 94, 1979
  13. ^ Oakeshott (1980), p.47, fig 6
  14. ^ Edge, David; John Miles Paddock (1988). Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight. London: Defoe. p. 32. ISBN 1870981006. 
  15. ^ 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 0859760472. .
  16. ^ Oakeshott (1980), p.47
  17. ^ Nicolle, David (1996). Medieval Warfare Source Book Vol. 1. London: Arms & Armour Press. p. 307. 
  18. ^ Marsden, John (2003). Galloglas. East Linton: Tuckwell Press. p. 79. ISBN 1862322511. 
  19. ^ Marsden (2003), p.82
  20. ^ OED
  21. ^ Cannan, Fergus (2010). Galloglass 1250-1600. Oxford: Osprey. p. 23. ISBN 9781846035777. 
  22. ^ Miles & Paddock, p.127-8
  23. ^ Tuchman, Barbara (1979). A distant Mirror. London: Penguin. p. 380. ISBN 0140054073. 
  24. ^ Bourchier, John (1523). Macaulay, G.C.. ed. Chronicles of Froissart (1924 edition ed.). London. p. 288. http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/books/Froissart/index.cfm?page=0288. Retrieved 2/8/09. 
  25. ^ Strickland, Matthew; Hardy,Robert (2005). The Great Warbow. Stroud: Sutton. p. 337. ISBN 0750931671. 
  26. ^ Strickland & Hardy (2005), p.364
  27. ^ Strickland & Hardy (2005), p337
  28. ^ Caldwell (1981), pp.261-2.
  29. ^ Caldwell (1981), p.308
  30. ^ Caldwell, David (1981), pp.290-299
  31. ^ Caldwell (1981), pp. 209-305
  32. ^ Caldwell (1981), p.278-281
  33. ^ media:Dolstein 1.gif
  34. ^ Blackmore, Howard (2003). Hunting Weapons from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Dover. pp. 83–4. ISBN 0486409619. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XnnlOcLAnBIC&pg=PA90&lpg=PA90&dq=medieval+boar+spears#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved May 2010. 
  35. ^ a b Nicolle (1996), p.81
  36. ^ Paddy, Griffith (1995). The Viking Art of War. London: Greenhill Books. pp. 178–9. ISBN 1853672084. 
  37. ^ Griffiths (1995), pp179-180

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