In the late medieval period the war hammer evolved into several forms designed to combat armored opponents. The single handed war hammers was an impact weapon similar to a mace but with the details of a hammer style face and often a spike on the back side though there do seem to be a few double faced hammers depicted. The hammer would allow one to rain crushing blows to armored opponents while the spike gave one the best chance to exploit seams and thin armor. This weapon's objective was to injure the opponent or damage armor enough to inhibit their ability in battle.
Paolo Uccello's ~1445 paintings depicting The Battle of San Romano are excellent examples of mounted combat with a single handed war hammer against foes armed with swords and lances.
The combatants are mostly fully armored knights in the latest style armor, though there are also less heavily armored foot soldiers in the background. The knight wielding the war hammer also has a sword at his side, and the ground is littered with broken shields and hafts from other weapons. This highlights an often overlooked aspect of medieval warfare, that members of the knightly class were often armed with a variety of weapons. A warrior could use a hammer against an armored knight or a sword against a less armored foot soldier. Being armed with multiple weapons was quite common for weapons fail during battle and it was essential to have backup arms.
The wooden hafted war hammer depicted here is wielded from horseback. But we do have examples of the single handed hammer being used on foot. This could be in battle or melee combat in the list. The ability to bring both hands together for a two handed blow would have increased the power this weapon could deliver on impact.
We see the effectiveness of these weapons on some of the damaged armor that has survived, as well as forensic evidence from those wearing armor that failed, or not armor at all. We discuss some of this evidence in our research on wounds and their care with The Oakeshott Institute. If you are interested in this topic, we would also suggest the research into the remains from the Battle of Towton. There are examples exhibiting some of these types of wounds and are documented in the study of the mass graves found from this battle.
Knightly combat with Hammers and Shields
War Hammer with steel haft
As the medieval period evolved many hammers were made with steel hafts. This would eliminate broken wooden hafts and was often seen with small hammer faces and long spikes. We had a model of this style of hammer we made for quite a while in the 90s and early 2000s but it was not very popular at that time. If you have one of those its a collectors item :-)
Today at Arms and Armor we make a lovely single handed War Hammer, which is modeled on an extant piece dating from circa 1450 in the Wallace Collection. We are fortunate to have handled and measured the original weapon here are photos of the original and of our reproduction.
Wallace Collection #A975 and Arms and Armor War Hammer
You can see we have decided to omit the spiked butt plate as it is a modern add on. Of course, we are happy to make semi-custom pieces with a butt spike if needed :-), for a reasonable fee. This hammer is ~24 inches in total length, features a carefully selected ash haft with a solid steel head, spikes, and langets. The piece weighs just a bit over two pounds and is exceptionally lively and maneuverable in the hand. Check out this review of the piece by Bill Grandy on MyArmoury.com.
Also check out how the hammer does in our post looking at its affect on mail.
If you are interested in learning more about this broad family of poll-arms and impact weapons you can check out these previous blog posts: Bec de Corbyn Spotlight, Burgundian Pollaxe Spotlight, How to use an Italian Pole Hammer, Three books you must read to understand Polearms, or The Knightly Pollaxe.
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.