Langets are the thin strips of metal that run from the head down the hafts of most pole arms. Weapons with langets typically have two or four strips that extend between several inches to a couple of feet along the haft. The earliest examples of langets are usually D-shaped in cross section tapering thinner as they get further from the head. These are usually slightly curved as well to hug the round hafts of these early polearms. The use of square or rectangular hafts started to appear in the last half of the 14th C and most polearms are square or rectangular in haft cross section by the mid 15th C.
The early and lower status examples of pole arms are usually crafted with langets that sit on top of the haft. Later and higher status examples had langets inset into the haft. These langets recessed into the wood of the haft, such as our knightly pole axe, a replica of a 15th Century weapon in the Wallace Collection can be seen in several originals that have survived. Today these langets are not quite flush to the surface of the haft, standing proud by a couple of millimeters but this is difficult to assess whether it was intended or due to wood shrinkage over time.
Langets, as well as the body of most pole arm heads are made from iron. The hardenable steel/iron mix of period smiths would be used on the higher status weapons for the edges. Today we use modern mid carbon steel for langets. This probably increases the resistance to deformation over period langets. Iron is a soft ductile material and can be bent relatively easily.
The earliest langets are supporting the back and front of the hafts. These can be seen on the earliest forms of halberd and long spears. The side strips appear later and, in many cases, actually fold around the corners of the haft to create a socket like structure as opposed to there being a full socket for the haft.
In the transition of these placement of the strips the langets on the sides become attached to the heads or in some cases are one long strap wrapped over the top of the head. The front and back of langets tend to become detached and terminate just short of the weapon head, as can be seen in the photo below. All four langets reinforce the shaft in the area where it is most subject to shearing force when in use and add durability from blows by opposing weapons.
Most medieval European pole arms made use of tapering langets attached to the surface of the shaft, such as the Italian Pole Hammer seen below. This weapon is a replica of a piece in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On this example the langets are integral to the hammer, taking the place of a socket. The langets nearly cover the sides of the shaft for the first foot before stepping down to a smaller dimension. Rivets are placed through the langets and the shaft to secure the head to the pole.
Other pole arms had no langets at all. For example, this Italian Bill dating from around 1540, currently housed in the Wallace Collection. The haft is simply fitted into a socket, much like a modern day shovel.
Today most langets are attached with through rivets. These should be of a relatively slim nature as boring large holes through a wooden haft can weaken the piece. In the medieval period they would have used clinch nails vs rivets. These are thin nails longer than the width of the haft. They would be driven in and the back of the opposite langet would turn the point to “clinch“ the nail. This is a sturdy construction and was used in many crafts such as boat building.
Detail of clinched nails from Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe by John Waldman
The attachment of heads to hafts would have been a separate craft from those couple of crafts that constructed the heads and the haft makers. The creation of a pole arm may well have involved 5 or more independent skills.
A note on hafts:
The wood of choice in period was ash. There are very few pieces of surviving hafts that are not ash. Most of these are birch or beech on a few long pikes. Most examples of hafts of other wood have been found to be later refits. The hafts would have been cut and shaped then boiled in linseed oil in long vats. These would have then been taken by the shafters (a separate profession) who would mount the weapons to their hafts. These shafters were sometimes employed by the armouries or sometimes independent. They even had their own marks often seen just below the head on pole arms with their original hafts.
Sometimes you will hear it declared that langets were to keep the heads of pikes from being looped off by swords. This is not true. Not only does the physics of such a cut not work but we have langets being used prior to the organized use of pike squares. Rather langets are reinforces and attachment points for pole arm heads. Yes, they were used to support and strength but that was more about the physics involved with using an iron or steel headed weapon on a long pole. These weapons create exceptional forces, they could often snap a wooden haft if the weapon was not used correctly. So as opposed to stop looping off heads they were to keep your weapon as sturdy as possible from your use in the heat of battle.
We are sometimes asked to add thick langets to a weapon to "beef" it up. But this can easily overweight the pole arm. The dynamics of pole arms can be thrown off quite quickly if the weight distribution and structure are off. This is one reason the langets need to taper appropriately for the weapon. Performance of the piece can be hindered if constructed incorrectly or used without the appropriate attention to the physics of the weapon.
So to answer our question, Yes, most pole weapons work best with langets. They are not seen on all weapons though and they need to be appropriate to the piece to make the finished item what the original designers intended.
Best Source for more info on Pole Arms is John Waldman's, 2005 Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons between 1200 and 1650.
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.