Writing: On Historical Fighting with a Pole Arm… (Part 1-Basics)

So, I’ve decided to do more posts like my equestrianism post because apparently you all liked it, it’s easier on me, and I have this wealth of knowledge that you won’t find outside of SCA groups and a couple of other small things you can find in your community, with some being more open to writer interviews than others. (Basically, your mileage may vary.)

A quick note on these types of posts: I am speaking from my personal experience, the words of others in my own medieval group, and my own readings. Again, your mileage may vary. (Maybe this will keep the Cranky [Old] Guys off this post griping about what’s wrong if I repeat it.) But if you are writing a character who fights only with a flag pole as a flash of brilliance, and then find yourself needing to actually write out the fight with no idea what to do, this is meant to give you something to think about.

(I’ll probably do a more advanced post on pole arms in the future going over the different heads/blade styles and their uses, because the French alone have like fifteen of them, and they all serve different functions better than others. This is just your basics.)

So by definition, what is a pole arm? Basically, a really long stick, not necessarily thick because you have to be able to wrap your hand around it. Optional are pieces of metal at one or either end of the stick, and the metal can or can not be sharp depending on preferences. How long a pole arm was depended a lot on function, such as if you are wielding it from the ground or on horse back or on ground against someone on horseback, but general rule of thumb is your average one was about as tall as you are, plus or minus a hand or two counting the metal bits, if you are on the ground, and the length of your horse plus half again to double your horse’s length if you were mounted or facing off against mounted fighters.

Why were the mounted ones so long? Because horses were expensive. If you could kill the rider or at least get him down to the ground and the horse could run off to survive, that was a lot of money on four hooves for the winning side to be able to collect later. Very rarely did tactics involve killing the horses, and usually only as a last resort. Your aim was for the rider. (Unless your character is particularly blood thirsty and sadistic, but you know, bloody ground is wet, slippery ground which sucks to fight on, and horses bleed a lot, so do with that what you will.)

What were the benefits to using a pole arm instead of a sword? The big one was reach, which means that rather than only being able to attack the person directly next to/in front of you, you could actually stop him from getting close enough to you to potentially injure you. This is not only a massive benefit to a taller person (who already has a lot of reach, so more reach makes things even better), but especially for a shorter person who normally wouldn’t have as much of a shot at defending themselves–though there are ways, more on this at a later post, I will talk about tactics at some point.

They are also a highly defensible weapon. I can’t tell you how many of my fights got to the disarm bit, but because I was using a staff, it was like, “Whelp. Hmmm. How?” You have more length available to block the strike, plus usually you are using one end to block the strike, giving you the other end to pivot and whack at your opponent with while their own weapon is engaged elsewhere. (Please note: if you take the route of a pole arm with metal bits, this is more difficult because of the weight, more on that later.) With more length, it can also be tricky for someone using a sword to even get close enough to get the proper leverage to disarm you. On horseback, it’s a bit easier because you are trying not to hit yourself or your horse, but your pole arm is more of a throw away weapon for you in that position anyway because…tactics.

The cons for a pole arm are both expected and not expected. First off, breakage. While at your local medfair, you have probably seen your fair share of shattered lances. Well, I promise you that in real battle, your pole arms aren’t that fragile. Those lances are usually made with woods inclined to splinter under force, and some companies even make marks in the lance so they will break on impact. Most of the wood for a real weapon would be treated and and of specific types of wood so it can take a sword blade to it a few times. (Mine has, even in stage choreography.) However, they will break eventually, unlike metal. Speak of metal, depending on the head, your staff could not only be top heavy (and it would be), but heavy period. Thus why the whole thing isn’t made of metal–you wouldn’t be able to use it effectively. With the balance thrown off by the head, your ability to manipulate the length of your weapon is slower than it would be with a staff or a normal sword. (But note without the metal bits, it’s harder to do more than give your opponent some bruises and broken bones, especially if they are in armor.)

The more unexpected problems includes the awkwardness. Not only do you have the weight to worry about and it slowing down your strikes, the footwork for a pole arm is slightly different from a sword, so depending on which way your natural instinct goes, you may have to be constantly thinking about it or risk losing your foot. Unlike a sword that has a built in grip, a pole arm usually doesn’t so you have to drill into your body where your hands go or risk getting your fingers broken or cut off. And if its a hot or rainy day? Be prepared for slipping around. Because it is so long, they can be hard to carry for long distances (unless you strap them to your back, then it takes a hot minute to get off and by then, you’re dead). They also can get too bound up if you are fighting in narrow quarters, since the reach does also require appropriate amount of space to move in.

Speaking of being bound up, many like to think a staff/glaive/pole arm as a woman’s weapon in addition to a mounted knight’s. While I know this is true in Japanese history, and feel free to research and run with it, I don’t think it was as common in European women, at least among nobility. Not to say they couldn’t, my natural fighting instinct leans towards pole arms. So why is that my opinion? Because unlike the traditional Japanese kimono, which binds the fabric to the form tightly but can be loosened and long sleeves tied back, European women’s attire involved long skirts that usually floated away from the body. Let me tell you, I have gotten my skirt tangled up in my staff more times than I can count, unless I put aggressive riding slits into it and wear trousers underneath. It can be kilted up, but the fabric is still there and the higher the class level of the woman involved, the more layers and other bits of fabric there are. While your average lower classes would use whatever they had on hand from farm tools, including pitch forks and others that could be considered pole arms, your merchants and nobility had other options that were better suited to their attire, but that’s another post.

Hopefully these bare basics and thoughts on fighting with a pole arm help someone. I’ll do another post next weekish on tactics of fighting with and against someone wielding a pole arm, as well as some basic blocking. Let me know if you want me to continue these types of posts too. 🙂

About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

One response to “Writing: On Historical Fighting with a Pole Arm… (Part 1-Basics)

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