Saturday, February 2, 2008

Pollaxe Configurations

As I was working on my pollaxe book I had a revelation: As most of you know, almost all Fechtbücher (with the exception of Codex 11093 and Mair, who treats it more like a halberd than a pollaxe) show pollaxes of the hammer and spike variety, whereas the vast majority of non-Fechtbuch iconography from the 15th century show the hammer and blade configuration (after the 14th century; the earliest pollaxes seem to have been of the blade and spike sort). This has long bothered me, but I have a suggestion of an answer:

Many pollaxes have Languets, or straps of metal that run down the sides (and less commonly, the front and back) of the shaft. I've never seen a lot of value in these because I've always thought of swords hacking into the pollaxe shafts (which wouldn't be that effective), but that's stupid: swords weren't that useful on the 15th-century battlefield (on foot) except among lightly-armored support troops. But what if the axe blades on pollaxes were used to hack opponent's pole weapon shafts (including but not limited to pollaxes), much as Doppelsoldner's among the Landesknechts used Zweihanders to hack the heads off of pikes in the next century?

That would explain the discrepancy: That sort of tactic would be of relatively little value in single combats of the sort covered by the Fechtbücher (it's too easy to simply pull your axe away from such a heavy blow), but highly useful in war. And we've already established that relatively few men probably had extensive Fechtbuch training in the middle ages, so naturally when they did enter into single combats they'd choose the sort of pollaxe with which they were most familiar--the one they'd have used in war. That explains why most non-Fechtbuch iconography, even single combats, shows the axe and hammer sort of pollaxe!

I think the timeline looks like this:
--Pollaxes developed from regular axes in the 14th century as knights sought ways to overcome heavier armor
--The 15th century saw the development of the hammer on pollaxes because experiment showed them superior for overcoming armor; axe blades were retained on pollaxes used in war because they were good at chopping through shafts, but were left off of dueling pollaxes such as those in the Fechtbücher because they had little value
--The 16th century saw a reversion to the axe blade on pollaxes because they were more often either ceremonial or used in unarmored or partially-unarmored combat

Of course there are *serious* exceptions to most of that; these statements represent apparent *trends*, not "facts". For example, the likely reason we see knights engaged in duels with axe and hammer pollaxes in non-Fechtbuch iconography might be that they never studied with a Fechtmeister and that was the kind of axe they were used to from military service.

I must emphasize that there's no evidence one way or other on this subject, and that this theory is purely speculative. It does, however, neatly answer the question, I think.


Unknown said...


your observation is in fact interesting, but I would favor another explanation that is, I have to admit, by no means less speculative. The problem might be related to the design of sear- and arrowheads. Some years ago, I asked myself why such spear- and arrowheads do exist in two varieties: narrow ones, that can easyer penetrate armour, and broad ones, that usually can't. I mean, if you have the choice, between a weapon that can penetrate armour, and a very similar one that cannnot - why should anybody choose the second option? I came up with an answer to myself when I realized, that hunting waepons are almost always of the broad, non-penetrating kind. Broader spearheads simply make broader wounds, thereby very likely causing more severe damage. So even in medieval times, weapon design might often have been a trade off between penetration and stopping power.
Opposing an opponent in full-plate armour, a pollaxe of the spiked sort would be my first choice weapon (based on my non-existent battlefield experience) for its versatility, and because it is one of the few weapons that actually provide me with an chance to wound the opponent not only by beating or wrestling him down and putting a dagger into his armpit, but also by penetrating his armour with a direct hit.
On the other hand, such a spike cannot penetrate too deep into the enemies body. I don't say it's not leathal, but no weapon is always leathal and the spike design does for sure not provide as much stopping power, as other weapons. Fighting on a medieval battlefield you're likely to encounter a lot of opponents that are either much less protected than the iconic, streel-clad man-at-arms, or wear no armour at all. When hacking at poorly protected limbs, an axehead will more probably cause severe demage than a short and narrow spike. Additionaly, the axehead more heavy than a spike and thereby adds more impulse to slashes. And there is one aspect, that is often overlooked by modern people that rarely really wound their opponents any more: bone can be a nasty material and narrow points driven into them tend to stick until significant pulling force is applied. Of course, a spike can also get trapped in an armour plate, but some bone can be sufficient.
So let's sum it up:
Advantages of the spiked pollaxe: it can penetrate armour and it is a bit lighter, i.e. it allows for a more agile usage of the 'buisiness end'
Advantages of the axeheaded pollaxes: it causes more damage at a poorly protected target and the higher weight allows more forcefull blows. After a hit, it is less likely to get trapped in the enemy and thereby become on 'one-way weapon'.
Considering all these aspects, the spiked pollaxe should be the rational choice for single combat against an armoured opponent, while the axe-headed pollaxe has considerable advantages on the battlefield, at least if it is your only weapon or you do not plan to primarily target steel-clad elite troops.The fechtbücher usually cover single combat situations.
Personally I never believed too deeply in the possibility to jump onto some spearmen and simply chop off their shafts with either sword or axe. Those are flexible things and sorry, but your can't cut wood that easy if not placed on a solid surface. That's my opinion from a few tests in hazelnut staffs. But on the other hand, repeated parrying of sword and axeblows woth the shaft might put significant stress on the wood, and here metal straps in the side could be very useful. But I'm not familiar enough with pollaxe fighting to judge that possibility. And I don't think there is too much contemporary material on the use of the pollaxe against other weapons, if you know sources, I would be interested in reading them.
So much for my thoughts on the topic, thank you for bringing it up!



Hugh Knight said...

Steffan, thank you for your comments, but I have to say, with respect, that they indicate several misunderstandings on your part about medieval combat. First, narrow arrowheads, usually referred to as “bodkin” points, do no penetrate plate armor. Indeed, a study at Leeds determined that most of the ones found on several battlefields were of unhardened iron, which is hardly what one would use for punching through plate. I could show you *lots* of evidence on this subject as I’ve done extensive research on it, but I trust you’ll take my word for it. In fact, bodkin points were used to punch through *mail*, not plate. But you’re right about broadheads—they do cause more extensive wounds. That’s part of the reason for wearing so much mail under plate—to prevent your opponent from being able to use broadheads on you.

Further, the spike on a pollaxe was not used to punch holes in armor, nor was it capable of doing so. I have experimented on this personally using a high-quality pollaxe reproduction and a good breastplate repro. Moreover, I have studied every extant pollaxe Fechtbuch in great detail, and I wrote a book on the use of the pollaxe based upon that study. There isn’t a single technique, not one, in which the back spike is used to strike any target, armored or not in any Fechtbuch. They are *only* used to hook.

As for using the axe blade to attack weapon shafts, there are no sources that discuss this because almost all of the pollaxe Fechtbücher we have use the hammer and spike style of axe rather than the hammer and blade style. There is one exception, but it doesn’t have any text, so it has nothing to say on any subject. We do know, however, that weapon shafts could be cut. In fact, the Landsknechts had specially trained soldiers who used large great swords to go out in front of a formation and cut the heads off of enemy pikes. That’s the primary purpose of languets—to prevent such cuts. And what a Zweihander could do, a pollaxe could do.

Thus, it seems a reasonable extrapolation that pollaxes used in war would be used to cut weapon shafts, too, and almost all the pictures of pollaxes in battle scenes show the type with axe heads. This would be pointless in the kinds of single-combat duels for which the Fechtbücher are intended since it would be very hard to do to a single opponent—but easy to do to a shaft sticking out of a formation of troops. The real weapon on a pollaxe for striking people is not the axe blade, but the hammer head (note that both types of pollaxe have hammer heads). These are designed to cause stunning blows and to damage armor. The only swung blows in any Fechtbuch are done with the hammer head.

Unknown said...

Tank you for your detailed answer and this great and interesting discussion.

I did not intend to idicate any kind of arrow would punch though a solid breast plate. (Some advocates of the 'English longbow - the nuke of the middle ages' fraction want to make us believe this, but I am not one of them.) But plate armor is not the universal body protection of the middle ages, it evolved quite late and even then it was far from being the universal battle garment. The principle remains the same: you have to chosse between a narrow arrowhead that can penetrate mail armor, or a bread one that has superiour stopping power. Equally, axeheads have more 'stopping power' than narrow spikes.

It is an intersting point that the spikes are incapable of piercing plate armor and I have to admit that I was not aware of that fact. (On the other hand, here again, it might be able to penetrate 'inferior' types of armor.) Being a scientist myself I know quite well, how easy rumors based on very weak evidence, or even guess only, can become established facts even among an informed audience. Thank you for investing expensive material to put it to the test! Additionally, one has to consider that under combat conditions, he would rarely hit in an perfect right angle.

However, I have some suspcion that the same could be true for the story about Landsknechte with Zweihändern that jump forward and just easily slice of pike heads. I know that story for long and I have read it in several books, but until know, I failed to find the original source. Physically, it does not seem to make too much sence and my experience is: when I ask somebody to hold a stick that would qualify as a waepon shaft, and I try to cut it with a simple sharp chopping axe - it doesn't work. (One might blame my tool, or my skill in wielding it.) Anyway, using a 'sword cut' at the shafts to just push the pikes to the side so your comrades have some points less to fear when going forward to attack the enemy formation, that seems totally realistic option. The almost insanely wide crossguards you find on Renaissance Bidenhänder may be additionally usefull to control multiple pike shafts simultaniously. So the whole story about shaft cutting could be a misunderstanding.

end of part 1

Unknown said...

beginning of part 2

That leaves us with the question about spikes and axeheads and their use. You have the practical experinece: do you think a spike could be more useful for hooking an armored oppent than an axehead? I mean, the spike might hook in the gaps of the armor more easily.
Concerning the axehead, you write, that blows described in the Fechtbücher are exclusively done with the hammer head. The reason could be, that Fechtbücher almost exclusively (please correct me if necessary, you know the sources better than me) describe pollaxe combat between armoured opponents. As you said, the spike doesn't penetrate armor, the axehead neither for sure, you will mots likely damage their edges on impact. The hammerhead is less likely to slide of the plate, thereby more likely to transfer more impulse onto the target.
On the battlefield however, one could still use the axehead against poorly protected targets. Just my theory, and for sure, there have been exceptions. I would be interested in the source showing combattands with the hammer-and-blade style pollaxes. Are they armored or unarmored?

Weight can also be in important issue. I don't really know, how it affects perfomance or the possibily to perform all the techniques, but hammer and blade type looks much heavier to me. Maybe an advantage when standing in a battle line and just exchanging brutish overhead blows? Have you tested your axe simulators with heads of different weight?

And there is one last point when it comes to 'battlefield' setups. Viking age reenactors doing freefights (how realistic they are in particular is another point of discussion) regularly report the benefits of axemen in the battleline being their ability to 'hook' enemy shields to create an opening for the neigbouring comrade to hit. For sure, there was little use (as far as I know) of shields in the late middle ages, but the axehead in combination with the long point on top of the pollaxe provides a gap that may be usefull to control the shaft of a longer polearm, either to push it out of the way, evade the point and attack with a dagger, or simply to prevent any parrying while another man attacks the opponent. This brings us, again, closer to the idea of using the axesheads against enemy weapon poles on the battlefield - just not by hacking at them, but by controling them.

Hugh Knight said...

Response to Part 1:
It is, of course, possible that the Landsknecht Döppelsoldner didn't really chop the ends off of pikes, but then, why else would pikes have languets? I can see you might put languets on a pollaxe shaft to reinforce it so that it wouldn’t break as easily while swinging it, but you didn't swing pikes, so that use does not apply. The only use that makes sense is to protect them from being cut. I haven’t tried chopping a shaft held out at length with a sharp pollaxe blade, however, I have broken oak pollaxe shafts by hitting them with our rubber-headed axe simulators when I’ve done seminars on the axe for other groups. That’s why I don’t allow oak shafts for pollaxes in our group. Moreover, shafts aren’t always held out unsupported. You’d be surprised how often shafts of weapons get braced across other troops or their weapons, making them much easier to cut.

I am not an authority on 16th century-combat, so I won’t make this argument too forcefully, but I can see no other reason for putting languets on pikes. And if it applies to pikes, then it just as easily applies to spears or pollaxes, too.

Hugh Knight said...

Response to Part 2:
I don’t think the spike is necessarily better for hooking than an axe blade would be, they both, in my experience, work very well. The axe blade is nice for it because the bottom of the blade was often a nasty sharp corner, and you can really hurt someone with it if you hook that into a tender spot not covered by plate—I accidentally did this to one of my students once in a demo.

Yes, the Fechtbücher exclusively refer to armored opponents, even the ones that show the techniques using figures in street clothes. And yes, the axe blade works very well on unarmored opponents. I hope from my previous posts, however, that you realize that most of the lines of battle would have absolutely no unarmored men in them. That would only come up if the men at arms beat the other side’s men at arms and then went up against their archers, engineers or other support troops, or against the lightly-armored men in the back of a pike unit if the unit broke and routed so you could get at them.

Again, it’s important for you to understand that unarmored troops just didn’t fight in infantry battle lines against men at arms in the High Middle Ages unless something went badly wrong.

Yes, there does seem to be a weight issue, and I think you’re right that this may be part of the battlefield use of axe-and-hammer pollaxes. Hammer-and-spike axes (and they were called “axes”—Axt or Streitaxt in German, and hache in French—even when they had no axe blade at all) seem to have been lighter and this would make them handier in single combats.

You are correct that the axe blade could be used to hook the enemy’s weapons (and that there were no shields on the battlefield at this time); this can be very effective, and I’ve done it myself in melee. But you are still mistaken to discount the ability to cut through shafts with an axe blade. Again, as I wrote before, there would be no good reason for putting languets on pikes if this were not so.

Unknown said...

Thank you for clarifying the point about armor usage. Concerning the languets, you may have a point. Still it is possible they serve other purposes. The spouts on pikeheads are not really large. The impulse created by thrusting forward a weapon of this weight must be considerable and I think there are several possible situation in combat where enormous bending forces act on the conenction between pikehead and shaft. Here, some languets might come handy as well. So, this is definetly a valuable argument, but still not 100% convincing. I think we can hardly settle that point without finding some Renaissance reenactors willing to try it out on their precious material. Maybe I can find some to ask who already tried.

By the way: what would you recommend as a shaft for a pollaxe simulator? I see you use rubber heads (haven't found a source yet), do use lead or something so simulate the weight?

Hugh Knight said...

Go to your kitchen and get a single piece of dried spaghetti. Hold it at one and, and slowly push it into a hard surface (e.g., the wall) as if you were thrusting. It will break about in the middle. Try it several times, it will almost always (barring a material flaw) break in the middle. Pikes are the same way, so the languets don't keep them from breaking. therefore, they must be there to prevent them from being cut.

For pollaxes, we use rattan. If you get it before it's been dried, it's fairly dense and it never breaks--it just mushes out a bit at worst. Lots of people use hardwoods, but I've broken several of them.

We use rubber axe heads from Purpleheart:
We use a slightly earlier style than the one shown there, but they're essentially the same.

Unknown said...

I have to apologize for formulating my thoughts in a misleading manner. I don't think the wood could break. I was thinking about the connection between the wooden shaft and the metal head. If not hitting a surface at a right angle, there must be considerable bending forces on that connection, and the languets might be the solution to connect the parts as strong as possible, with a minimal use of additional metal that makes the weapon more top heavy.

Hugh Knight said...

Steffen, I have to apologize for the delay in posting your last comment. I wasn't ignoring it on purpose, it just got stuck between some other things and I didn't notice it, then it slipped my mind.

Having said that, I don't believe that's the purpose of the languets; if that were the case, why would so many pollaxes, which already have a firm attachment similar to what a pike would get from languets, have to *also* have languets running so far down the shaft?