The Italian Bill, known as a Roncone in Italian, is an infantry pole-arm of the 15th and 16th centuries. Like many other European pole-arms of the late medieval and Renaissance period, the Italian Bill features a long spike, a cutting edge, and a hook. Like its cousin, the more famous halberd, the bill allowed infantry to gain a reach advantage over enemies armed with lance or sword, whether mounted or afoot. These weapons were especially effective when used in tight formation, which added a defensive adaptability that single fighters so armed might lack. The use of pole-arms in this manner was made famous in the 1315 Battle of Morgartern when Swiss confederates armed with early halberds ambushed and slaughtered a force of Hapsburg knights, setting in motion the late-Medieval turn toward large, organized bodies of infantry to counter the primacy of armies led by a knightly cavalry.
13th C depiction by the Master of Christ's Capture showing early bill form
Italian Bills appear to derive historically from a farming implement popularized by the Romans, the securis. The securis is a variety of agricultural billhook with specialized form optimized for viticulture - pruning and cultivating grapes. In order to produce grapes suited for wine production, the vines must be carefully tended, with extraneous growth removed. The hook on these knives was used to cut vines, the spike to dig, and the rear blade to chop.
Agricultural implements such as the securis were often transformed into weapons of war. With the frequent muster of peasants into temporary armies mobilized by landowning lords, these tools were often the only sharp implements of sufficient size available. Additionally, the peasants were already skilled in their use. Other examples include scythes and pitchforks being repurposed to reap men rather than wheat. Over time these implements were improved and adapted into martial weapons.
A securis style pole arm from The Kiss of Judas, Andrea di Jacopo d' Angmobene, Pistoia, Duomo 1316
Earlier examples of Italian Bills tended to maintain the spike as a cutting blade that extended the main body of the bill into flattened form, as below. This was probably cheaper and easier to produce than the square spikes of halberds, and was clearly derived from their agricultural use. The billhook that had served an agricultural mission was repurposed with a chisel point that made it effective both for devastating strikes to the helm, and for pulling cavalry from horseback, among other uses.
Later examples incorporated the heavier square-sectioned spike that made the weapon more useful against heavily armored foes. This was part of the back and forth arms-race of the medieval period in which advances in armoring technology, especially with the development and widespread adoption of plate armor, spurred advances in armor-piercing and crushing weapons. In the below picture you can observe that both the top spike and the back spike are reinforced.
Historically, Italian Bill heads averaged about 30 inches from spike to socket, and most weighed between 1.5 and 2.5 lbs. Some had langets extending down the shaft, but many had a simple socket into which the shaft was fitted.
Our reproduction features the square spike of the later examples, and is based on an early 16th century example from the Wallace Collection, #A930. In order to keep prices down we have opted to exclude the copper detailing on the socket and the decorative studs and wrapping on the haft (of course, if you want those, we are happy to make a custom example for you). The head is 30 inches long, mounted on a 68 inch ash haft. The spike is hand forged and the blade is differentially hardened carbon steel. The spine of the head is 1/4 inch thick, and tapers in a concave fashion to the cutting edge on the opposite side, which extends from the tip of the hook all of the way to the spike above the socket.
Resources for further reading.
Our Italian Bill in action
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.