Types of Poleaxes

There are a great variety of poleax shapes and consequently names. Many of these weapons have very obvious connections to agricultural tools. A fauchard has nearly the shape of a modern day tree pruning hook and is derived from the scythe. These weapons did form from simple tools for hunting and farming, however over time they gained complexity in shape and specialty in use. The pole arm can be given a simple definition so that the great variety of shapes can be included. The pole arm is any weapon at the end of a stick of a length no shorter than 5 feet.


Though not usually thought of a pole arm, it is essentially a dagger on a stick, therefore a pole arm. There The spear is a weapon for thrusting only in SCA combat. Historically a broad blade (ox tongue) could be used as a cutting weapon as well, but it is not recognized by the SCA. The length of the shaft could range from 5 to 12 feet historically. Though you may find some areas that allow spears in 12 feet of total length, many kingdoms limit the length to 9 feet.

Construction Preferences
The modern material preferred for spear shafts is extruded fiberglass piping. The thrusting points on the competition weapons must be 3 inches in diameter and must compact 1.5 inches with moderate pressure. Many include the addition of foam “knobs” on the back of the thrusting tip to represent the barbs of a spear point or the crossbar present on a boar spear. Adding these small knobs on the shaft is very useful in fouling a shield to assist another spearman.

A lance is a long spear carried by a mounted man. Therefore have no place in SCA combat

Although there is no set rule, any spear with a shaft of 15' or longer is considered to be a pike. Due to length regulations, there are no Pikes in SCA combat.

The spetum was probably designed to increase both offensive and defensive capabilities of a normal spear. To a sharp, tapering point two blades which point forward at about 45° are added to provide secondary attack modes, deflect opponents' weapons, and catch and hold opponents at a distance if penetration with one of the blades is not achieved. Weapons in this same class are the various corseques or korsekes.

At first glance, a ranseur appears to be a form of spetum, or vice versa, but the purpose of the design of the former weapon is more complex than that of the latter. A ranseur's secondary blades are backward-hooking projections set well below the large central blade. The spearing function of the weapon is apparent, and the deflection includes the trapping of opponent weapons in the space below the main blade, where a twist of the shaft would apply pressure from it or the secondary projections to either break the caught weapon or disarm its wielder. Additionally, the side projections provide both a means of holding an opponent at long range or of pulling mounted opponents off their horse. Similar weapons (or synonymous names) are chauve souris, ransom, rhonca, roncie, and runka.

This form of pole arm is basically a spear - often with an ox tongue blade - to which a pair of small axe heads were added below the dagger blade. To the thrusting stab of the spear was added the defensive use of the side axe blades and their cutting/penetrating potential.
Thus, the spear family that you will see mimicked by the SCA is the spear, spetum, the ranseur; and the partisan. All weapons in this class are basically daggers atop a sturdy pole, with trimmings added to make the weapon more efficient in one way or another.


pdroppedImage_1.jpgThe Pole Axe

The axe takes many forms. The axe was primarily a chopping and butchering tool with spear points added as a secondary thrusting tool. Despite the variety of shape these are all axe heads. Due to the weight added by providing the appropriate shape with foam, the length of a SCA regulation pole axe is limited to 6 feet.


This form of a pole axe is seen as a convex-headed broad axe in early examples, but the head is set at a convenient angle (considering the point where the blade is most likely to impact upon an enemy), so this alone makes it quite distinct from an ordinary long hafted axe. The whole weapon reached 8 feet (2.4m) in length. It was also always topped with a fairly long spear point and backed by a spike, which was often angled or hooked slightly downward. The spear point is, of course, designed to keep opponents at bay and deliver a thrusting attack. This proved quite useless when opposing mounted knights armed with lances (cf. Battle of Arbedo, 1422). The opposing spike was for penetration of heavy plate armor, with a secondary function as a hook for dismounting opponents.


This very broad and heavy axe links the pole axes to the pole cleavers as a sort of transitional step between the two forms, although its only obvious use is as a military arm. A bardiche head ranged from about 2 feet to over 3 feet (0.6 - 0.9m) in length, and it was attached to its haft with two rings or a single one in those examples where the blade is shorter and backed with a hammer head or spike. The bardiche in all of its forms was very heavy and cumbersome - more so by far than a halberd - and was used principally in Eastern Europe.

As stated, the family of axes set on poles for use in war overlaps into many other weapon forms, but its only true members are the pole axe; the halberd (possibly the brown bill); and the bardiche. The related cleaver-type weapons are so similar in function, however, that they can almost be treated as pole axes.


pdroppedImage_2.pngIt seems quite likely that some outraged peasant fastened his meat cleaver to the end of a stave in order to protect himself and his family, and thereby created a weapon form which was to be widely used in both Europe and the British Isles for several centuries. The same derivation holds true for the majority of the other pole arms which will be discussed; they are simple agricultural tools converted to a warlike use, and their form is easily distinguishable and identifiable.

Place a hefty cleaver at the end of a long, stout shaft, and the leverage which the pole gives the wielder will enable him to cleave through armor. The voulge has no provision to keep the enemy at a distance in its simple form, but if the top front or back edge is ground down so as to provide a pointed dagger-like tip, the weapon assumes a more complete form. The voulge was sometimes backed with a spike or hooked spike to make a crude guisarme-voulge.

Lochaber Axe
In its early, crude forms this weapon was used the same as a voulge. Development of the Lochaber axe added a hook to the weapon, either as a tip or a blade backing, and in this form it is nearly identical to the guisarme-voulge. To all intents and purposes the two forms are so nearly the same as the types of voulges they resemble that there can be no real differentiation between them as far as function and form are concerned.

Continental Europe developed the pole cleaver as the voulge, while the Scots in the British Isles developed the same thing and called it the Lochaber axe. Both types of pole arms were developed to deliver a powerful cleaving blow, just as the pole axe family were designed to do. Both forms had secondary functions which were aimed at keeping enemies at a distance and/or dismounting them.

This weapon is a development of the scythe or sickle. Set upon a long pole, the curving blade of a fauchard could be used for both cutting and thrusting, although it is to be strongly suspected that it did neither too well. Furthermore, the weapon offered little in the way of parrying or catching/holding and had no provision for dismounting opponents in its early and more common form. Later models include a back hook to dismount horsemen, but the weapon was still not efficient, and it passed out rather quickly, although its combination form, the fauchard-fork, remained.

Having employed just about everything else, there was no reason not to add the single-edged knife at the end of a staff also. This family of arms is as small as the fauchard family and about as efficient.

The glaive is a knife-bladed spear. It has the thrusting function of the spear, and the secondary cutting function of the convex blade of the knife. The weapon was rapidly enlarged in the blade in order to give it a greater cutting function as well as a cleaving attack. As with a spear or fauchard, however, it was not overly effective at holding opponents back, nor did it have the piercing or dismounting capabilities, so modifications produced the glaive-guisarme, which is discussed in the combination arms section. The increase in the size of the blade of these weapons brought some to the point where they nearly merged with cleaver-type weapons.

Medieval peasants discovered that their pruning hooks made reasonably effective pole arms. The provocation which necessitated such development was undoubtedly considerable, but the upshot was likely to have been as unsatisfactory as having no weapons. Pole arms of this sort, called guisarmes, were soon modified into highly efficient combination weapons.

The guisarme was furnished with a sharp cutting edge along its convex side, probably from reverse spike to hook. The spike, of course, could be used to penetrate armor when the weapon was swung, and the curved hook provided an ample means of pulling horsemen to the ground. Deficiencies in this form of pole arm are apparent - no spear point for thrusting and only one projection for penetrating. The guisarme was soon combined with other forms of peasant weapons to make a second generation of highly effective, all-purpose pole arms.

Bill Hook
The English bill hook was almost exactly the same as the French guisarme, but its concave (hook) edge was the sharp one, and rather than a straight back spike it typically had an L-shaped tine projecting forward. This arrangement was slightly more effective than the European guisarme.

Military Fork
The lowly hay fork was straightened and strengthened to provide a very potent weapon, the military fork. This pole arm had two efficient piercing points, for holding off an enemy, and sometimes a shorter third tine in the crotch of the fork, so that opponents were channeled into a third attack. The major drawback to this pole arm was its lack of effective penetrating power with respect to heavily armored targets. The fork principle was soon combined with other pole arms to form very efficient tools of war.


pdroppedImage_3.jpgA few other designs can also be mentioned here, more or less in passing, as they pertain to weapons that are not true pole arms, but their size is such that they are sometimes considered in the general class.

The threshing flail, a wooden handle on another billet of wood attached to it by a swivel or several links of chain, was easily adapted and modified to become a ghastly weapon. Horsemen commonly employed a short-handed flail with one or more chains ending in smooth or spiked iron balls. The peasant's tool made a far more effective weapon when swung by a strong man. From a heavy shaft of about 3 to 4 feet (0.9 - 1.2m) in length was hung one or two rods of metal shod and spiked wood or iron. The whole weapon was over 5 feet (1.5m) long and had tremendous penetration and crushing power.

There are also two pole arms which were certainly developed purely as weapons. There is a resemblance between the two, but they are separate and distinct.

Lucern Hammer
This weapon is very similar to the halberd, but the spike on its end was generally longer than that of a halberd, and instead of an axe head the Lucern hammer featured a smaller, hammer-like head with three prongs. Evidently this function was not as efficient against armor as the axe blade, for it was replaced by the halberd amongst the ranks of the Swiss after the 14th century.

Bec de Corbin
At first glance, a bec de corbin might be mistaken for a Lucern hammer, but important functional differences can be noted. The bec de corbin was used late in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by knights and nobles, not by commoners. Its heavy, crow's-beak blade was designed to puncture the heavy plate armor common to upper-class warriors. In this weapon the beak is the major feature. This is backed by a flat hammer head, or by a clawed head somewhat similar to that of a Lucern hammer, and the end spike is more bladelike and far shorter than the awl spike of the Lucern hammer, for the latter weapon was not so specialized.

These varieties of pole arms were developed to compensate for weakness of simpler weapons or to enhance already powerful ones. Technically, all pole arms with a secondary spear tip for thrusting can be considered combination weapons. However, this sort of improvement was done so often and could be done so easily to most weapons that it is necessary to ignore secondary spear tips when classifying pole arms. By the same token, a partisan could be considered a combination weapon, but since it was primarily used as a thrusting weapon, it should be classified as part of the spear family.

There were two general forms of this combination weapon. The first followed the typical fauchard form, with a single spike set to project from the back of the scythe blade. The second reversed the scythe blade so as to have its concave cutting edge face toward the opponent, the blade being more curved and sicklelike, and a spike tipping the pole end (or projecting from the scythe blade).

This weapon is nothing more than a scythe blade backed by a heavy hook for dismounting opponents.

To the heavier and longer glaive head was added a guisarme hook to enable the wielder to jerk horsemen from their seats.

This pole arm is similar to the Lochaber axe, but the hook is formed from the blade of the voulge itself, not added separately. Guisarme-voulges featured the pointed tip or spike so as to make the weapon as all-purpose as possible.

There are quite a number of designs of the bill-guisarme. Each type has the following features: 1) a sharp spear or awl point; 2) a large hook formed from the body of the weapon; 3) a back spike for armor penetration; and 4) several sharpened edges. Some forms of the bill-guisarme have a sufficiently heavy blade and cutting edges placed so that they are actually voulge-like. This form of pole arm persisted the longest of all save the pike and the halberd, for it was certainly efficient in all functions - piercing, holding off, cutting, penetrating, dismounting, and cleaving. The scorpion is one typical form of the bill-guisarme.

The pole arm was developed in order to put infantry on even terms with cavalry. This did it admirably in the hands of well trained, disciplined formations such as those of the Swiss (who mixed pike, halberd/Lucern hammer/morning star, and crossbow/arquebus in almost equal proportions - 40-40-20 as an average), who could hold the best European cavalry at bay with laughable ease in pike square. The Germans emulated the Swiss with close to the same success, and most other European armies fielded large bodies of pole-armed infantry (with something less than great success in most cases). The reason for the proliferation of the pike was that it proved the most useful for keeping horsemen at a distance. (Swiss pikemen did not ground the pike butt to accept a cavalry charge, but rather held the rear part of the shaft higher than the front, so the points which glanced off armor would not go uselessly into the air but would be forced downward into rider or mount - at worst, into the ground to form a barrier.)

Other pole arms gave way to pike and halberd for one or two reasons. Those with massive heads were not as efficient as the pike; when their shafts were lengthened past a certain limit, they were too cumbersome to wield. (Spear-type pole arms were lengthened to pikes and were then called just that - there are ox-tongued and spetum-like heads, but the pike shaft is too long for useful employment of ranseur or partisan heads.) Those which were shortened for use as cleaving weapons were not as efficient as the halberd, or were changed so that they became almost indistinguishable from the halberd (typically guisarme-voulge forms).

Dilligaf. Lexicon of Polearms. 1999. 4-6-2003. The Creators Group <www.ipass.net/~dilligaf/>