The war hammer was a classic late medieval weapon designed to defeat plate armor. War hammers are part of the family of weapons often referred to as poll-axes in period, and varied considerably in size from single-handed examples like those we focus on in this blog, to larger two-handed hammers on poles five feet long or, very occasionally, longer. They are also functionally related to maces, another medieval weapon used to deliver crushing blows to armored opponents. In all these cases, the weapons were designed to injure an opponent who was largely immune to being cut due to the quality of his armor. If you cannot cut a foe you are left with two options; either pierce the armor with a point, or defeat it with a blunt force blow.
While maces primarily focus on delivering blunt force trauma, war hammers are usually equipped with both a hammer face and heavy piercing spikes. Paolo Uccello's ~1445 paintings depicting The Battle of San Romano depict 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 that could be used against appropriately armed foes as needed. For example a hammer could be used against an armored knight or a sword against a less armored foot soldier. Of course, as the broken weapons on the ground attest, knights also carried multiple weapons because it was quite common for weapons to fail during battle and it was essential to have backup arms.
These paintings are particularly interesting in this regard because we can see a series of weapons to be used against armored foes in order of preference, and durability. The knight to the left is using a lance or spear, a weapon that gives significant reach and is relatively effective at damaging armored men. Lances are also expected to break in combat, perhaps after the first substantial strike against a foe. The wooden hafted war hammer might be the knights next choice. The single handed example could be readily wielded from horseback, but if the beaked point succeeded in penetrating the foe's armor it might hypothetically be pulled from ones hand and lost. In that case the knight could resort to his sword, a weapon more suited to cutting less armored foes, or for wielding against an armored foe in both hands and on foot. In the end, you fight with whatever you have to hand.
The force of blows concentrated on the hammer or spike would impede armor even if it did not penetrate the plates. This particular hammer has a spike on the hammer face which allows for the impact to grab the armor a bit as opposed to glance off as the armor is designed to do. A crushed and immobile elbow cop would be a serious disadvantage for someone in combat wearing armor.
The top spike, not seen on all war hammers, provides this weapon with the ability to deliver a powerful thrust as well as smashing blows. A spike like this could find openings in the armor or deliver a devastating thrust to the eye slot of a helmeted opponent.
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.
At Arms and Armor we make several war hammers, including our two handed Italian Pole Hammer, and our 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 with our research and friendship with David Edge, the former conservator of the collection. Below are photos of the original and of our reproduction. 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.
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.