Medieval Weapons for Beginners
 

Weapon Analysis

Contents
Introduction
Weapons Glossary
Weapon Analysis
Selecting the Right Weapon for the Job

Every culture used most of the weapons listed on the previous page, albeit under different names and with some allowances for regional style and type of armor against which the weapon was meant to function. The question now is why? Why would any warrior choose to use a sword when it lacked the range of a spear? Why use a spear when it lacked the impact of a pollaxe?

Each type of weapon will be analyzed according to the following categories: Peak Era of Use, Main Role in Combat, Pro/Con. Weapons will be arranged into broad categories, with special consideration made for specific weapons within each category as necessary.

Please note that when judging the "Peak Era of Use" in the analysis of each type of weapon, the earliest date considered will be 800 A.D., as that is the earliest date in the scope of the MMCG's study. If the peak era of use falls after 1500 A.D., that will be noted as well.

Clubs and Maces
Clubs and maces are solely impact weapons. They are effective against most types of armor - even plate armor to a degree. They are quick, effective and brutal. The chained weapons have the added effect of being deceptive and difficult to predict when fighting against them.

One of Lady Ceolmhor's flails. Note that in period examples, the chain would have been shorter than seen on this commercially-available re-creation.

Peak Era of Use: Varies (Club, 850 - 1000 A.D.; Mace 1000 - 1500 A.D.; Flail 1300 - 1500 A.D.)
Main Role in Combat: Crushing armor and people. Club and mace weapons were not generally meant for a first assault, but rather to help break resistance once the battle had been joined. All types of these weapons were used both on foot and mounted. As time progressed, the armor-defeating properties of the mace and flail became more prominent and thus enhanced its role against armored troops.
Pros: Relatively cheap and easy to make. Effective against a wide range of armor types.
Cons: Comparatively heavy. Limited range of attack (quite short range only) and limited variety of attacks (crush only). Chained variations can be difficult to control.

Daggers
Daggers are mostly used for stabbing and thrusting, although limited slashing application does exist for certain types. Daggers were ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, and saw use both on the battlefield, as a civilian weapon, and as a weapon for use in Trial by Combat. They are light, quick and deadly.

An example of a double-edged dagger with double fullers (grooves) on each side. This might have been seen in the Early Middle Ages.

Peak Era of Use: All Middle Ages
Main Role in Combat: Finishing off downed opponents, civilian defense.
Pros: Readily available for all walks of life (with variations in quality, of course). Easily carried and hidden. Effective against light armor. Fast.
Cons: Very limited attack range. Not as effective against plate armor.

Axes
Axes are effective as both chopping weapons and as crushing weapons. The wounds they cause are appalling and difficult to heal, with a high number of bone breakages. In the two-handed variety, axes can cleave through even plate armor from time to time. In the one-handed variety, their crushing impact can be felt in armor, even if the blow fails to crack through completely. Pollaxes in particular were favorites for combat both in the lists and in war.

This hand axe is modeled after a Late Middle Ages motif, between 1300--1450 A.D.
Ser Owen's "bearded" hand-axe is of a type more commonly used in the early Middle Ages.

Peak Era of Use: Varies (Throwing Axe, 800 - 1000 A.D.; Long Axe 850 - 1150 A.D.; Hand Axe 1000 - 1300 A.D.; Pollaxe 1400 - 1500 A.D.)
Main Role in Combat: Throwing Axe: ranged assault. Long Axe: primary assault and anti-armor. Hand-Axe: mounted combat (and sometimes on foot with shield). Pollaxe: anti-armor and anti-cavalry.
Pros: All types of axe are effective at causing terrible, immediately disabling wounds. Their blade geometry makes them useful for fighting against armor.
Cons: Comparatively heavy (especially pollaxes). Due to distribution of weight, use can be awkward. Relatively small striking surface compared to length of weapon, making it easier to miss or strike a haft-blow.

Spears
The spear was used more than any other weapon throughout all of history. Spears are simple to make, easy to train with, and effective at what they do. They can be held in one hand with a shield, thrown, hold in both hands, or used from horseback. Javelins were often carried in multiple quantities.

This is a good example of a 12th century spear, made by Chris Poor of Arms & Armor.

Peak Era of Use: Varies (Javelin, 800 - 1200 A.D.; Spear with Shield, 800 - 1300 A.D.; Two-Handed Spear, 1350 - 1450 A.D.; Lance, 1000 - 1500 A.D.)
Main Role in Combat: Spear: primary assault. Javelin: ranged assault. Lance: mounted combat
Pros: Good range, even when not thrown. Simple to make and maintain. Simple to train with.
Cons: Length can become a liability at close range. Limited variety of attack (almost exclusively thrusting).

Bills & Staff Weapons
Beyond spears, bills and staff weapons were amongst the most popular weapons on the medieval battlefield. Because of their effectiveness both against footmen and mounted troops, staff weapons (or "pole-arms") remained popular in one incarnation or another from the Early Middle Ages to after the Renaissance. Their combination of spear and other blade-types in a single weapon made them comparatively versatile. For the purposes of analysis, they are broken into three groups below. The "Bladed" group is comprised of most the pole-arms: Bills, Fauchards, Glaives, Halberds, Partisans, Pikes and Voulges. The "Hammer" group is comprised of Bec de Corbins, Pole Hammers and other long staff - hammer weapons (i.e., Lucerne Hammer). The "Fork" group is comprised of Guisarms and other Military Forks.

Peak Era of Use: Varies (Bladed, 900 - 1400 A.D.; Hammer, 1400 - 1500 A.D.; Fork, 1150 - 1500 A.D.)
Main Role in Combat: Anti-cavalry defense and primary assault.
Pros: Good range, fairly adaptable to combat conditions. Some of Bladed group can be easily modified from common agricultural tools. Hammer group is excellent against armor.
Cons: Can be cumbersome. Addition of blade, hammer or fork to end of shaft makes this set of weapons more difficult to learn for effective use than simple spears. Long shaft can become a liability at close range (although less so than spears).

One-Handed Swords
The "classic" medieval sword, one-handed swords were often carried both as an auxiliary weapon and as a symbol of rank. Because swords of any type were difficult and expensive to make, they were generally only affordable by the rich elite of society (i.e., knights and nobility). A notable exception to this rule is the falchion/Messer group of swords, which seem to have been used by common troops as well as knights. This may be due to the fact that their cleaver-shaped blade was less difficult and therefore less expensive to produce. It should be noted that most one-handed swords were meant for use with a shield, although they could of course be used by themselves.

Two simple arming swords from Lady Ceolmhor's collection. Note the short, one-handed grip.

Peak Era of Use: Varies (Swords, 800 - 1500 A.D.; Falchions/Messers, 1150 - 1450 A.D.)
Main Role in Combat: Swords, auxiliary assault, auxiliary mounted assault. Falcions/Messers, anti-armor assault and civilian defense.
Pros: Swords, versatile and adaptable to combat conditions. Excellent variety of attack. Falchions/Messers, heavier blade geometry allows for stronger strike than normal one-handed swords.
Cons: Fairly short range. Difficult to use effectively. Falchions/Messers difficult to thrust with.

Longswords & Greatswords
Originally just the overgrown cousins of one-handed swords, longswords and greatswords soon carved out a considerable niche for themselves in medieval combat. These are the weapons about which most medieval fencing treatises are written, and are by far the most adaptable and versatile of all medieval weapons. Their longer blades and grips made them capable of horrific cuts and strikes that one-handed swords would be hard-pressed to duplicate. They were often used in Trial by Combat and in Pas D'armes and other chivalric sport-fighting as well as in war.

A great example of a High Middle Ages longsword from about 1250. This particular model is one the author owns, from Albion Armorers.

Peak Era of Use: 1200 - 1500 A.D.
Main Role in Combat: Longsword, auxiliary assault, auxiliary mounted assault, civilian combat. Greatsword, auxiliary assault, civilian combat.
Pros: Most versatile of all medieval weapons. Reasonable reach. Excellent variety of attack.
Cons: Quite difficult to learn to use effectively. Reach still poor compared to staff weapons.

Bows
The scourge of the French at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, the bow was an important part of medieval warfare - especially after its sometimes-exaggerated mandate of regular use by Edward I of England. As a loose rule of thumb (although certainly not universally true for all times and places), bows tended to be most popular in Britain while crossbows tended to be most popular on the Continent. In fact, longbows were known as "English Bows" in many places.

This bodkin-headed arrow would have been ideal for piercing mail and other armor defenses. Made by Ben Holman (Ser Owen Godwinesson).

Peak Era of Use: 1100 - 1500 A.D.
Main Role in Combat: Ranged assault (exclusively).
Pros: Bows: cheap and easy to make. Light. Quick reload time. Crossbows: strong, and simple to train with. Not as easily affected by rain.
Cons: Bows: Difficult to learn effective use. Easily affected by rain and cold. Crossbows: Expensive to make. Heavier than bows. Slow reload time. Both bows and crossbows only useful for as long as their ammunition supply lasts.

 

   
 
 
     
   
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