Are spears good weapons?

 The spear is one of our favorite weapons for its simplicity and economic use of resources. It often gets short shrift in how good it is for hand-to-hand combat, but literally this may be human's oldest weapon. Its use from hunting to war is part of every culture. The use of the spear in the medieval period is well documented but how good is it as a weapon? One area that surprises many today when answering this question is how functional the spear is versus mail armor when put to the test.

In the community of historical reenactors and scholars there have been infinite discussions, over a beer, about how certain pairings of armor and weapons match up. Our commitment to making great pieces and love of history often combine in doing research on the reality of this context and function. We also often support those who pursue a better understanding of these goals in their own research. In our three plus years of doing blog posts we have done a few posts on cutting, thrusting, and smashing of targets and armor to demonstrate some of what we have learned over the decades of working with medieval weapons and armor.

Spear thrust into mail

We are careful to state that these demonstrations are data points and do not fully prove all the functionality of a piece with a couple of tries. As you combine practice, research, and the data points from our own and others good work you can inform and expand the knowledge of how the object of study performed and was used.

In the spear vs mail encounter, many assume the spear will be able to pierce the woven net of wire with the force of a well-placed thrust from a strong warrior exerting their strength and body mechanics ideally. The results of our demo of this showed that the spear head did not penetrate as much as one might think. A couple of folks questioned the dynamic and whether it was accurate. Some tried their own tests and told us they were surprised by how well the mail worked. A couple of well-trained folks even came by the shop to try the spear versus mail with their own muscle and form. We looked to see if different factors, i.e. body position or thrust length affected the results and were surprised again how the mail made a good showing as defence against a thrust.

Gospel of Echternach c. 1030

Gospel of Echternach 1030-1050 Soldiers using spears

Early Medieval warriors relied heavily on spears and axes. Both weapons making the best use of the limited resources of steel and iron. Swords and mail armor were both used, but being higher status objects due to the cost. A king such as Charlemagne could outfit armies with spears and create a very effective military with better use of money and supplies.

Arms & Armor 12th C Spear head

12th C Spear by Arms & Armor Inc. 

The Norse were another large group of spear lovers. The availability for the average person to have a spear or two close by almost constantly was a direct result of its efficiency in use and construction. This weapon allowed their influence to reach far and wide and is a good example illustrating how good spears were as combat weapons in this period. One of the better studies on this was conducted by the researchers of Hurstwic, some details here as we helped a bit.

Anglo-Saxon spearman  

Anglo-Saxon spearmen Harl. MS., 603

As mail armor becomes more widespread and affordable the spear continues to be used widely but may have switched from its use as piercing weapon against the cloth covered opponent to being able to imbed into the mail and force a man back or to the ground or even off his horse. Here again the spear is a great weapon when used with this intent. In fact, we see the spear advocated to exploit armor in this way even in manuals dealing with plate armor such as Fiore, Gladiatoria and beyond.

Gladiatoria 8th play of the spear

Gladiatoria 8th play of the spear

Now we are not saying here that a spear cannot get through mail. It is not as good as this.

But rather when the spear is used it gives the wielder excellent leverage and force to dominate an opponent that is armored. If they are not armored then it is even more deadly, so the spear continues to be a great weapon through time.

Norseman Spear by Arms & Armor Inc.

Norseman Spear by Arms & Armor Inc.

In this video the researchers have done a great job setting up the demonstration and the results look to support the other data points we have mentioned. Especially starting about 2:10.

 So to answer our question, heck yes get yourself a spear :-) 

divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985

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