The spear may be unique in that it may be the only weapon that every single culture used in warfare. Many nations had their own favourite weapons, some had weapons which only they used, but pretty much everyone came to the same conclusion: that a long pointed stick was an effective weapon of war. Indeed, one sometimes reads of “spears” being used to mean “soldiers”.
There isn’t a huge amount of functional variation in spears. All spear shafts are straight, and all spearheads are pointy. The shaft of a spear was made of a type of wood which was fairly tough (unlike pine) and which had a grain which ran nicely up and down it, with no lateral faults (unlike oak). A common wood to be used was ash. Handles on spears were pretty rare. They were not necessary, and most men seemed to prefer to be able to slide their hands up and down the shaft freely. Some spears had but the one pointy bit. Many had “butt-spikes” or “ferrules”, which were simple cone-shaped additions to the rear end of the spear. These had many uses. They were back-up spearheads in case the main head got blunted or fell off. They made it easy to stick a spear in the ground. They were often favoured for despatching fallen men, especially as a large formation marched over the fallen.
The main functional variation of the spear was its overall length. Many have argued over what length spears were. The evidence is not always conclusive. Many spears come from graves, but the wooden part of the spear has usually rotted away, and the distance between the head and butt-spike is not proof of the spear’s length. Perhaps a long spear was broken to fit in the grave. It seems unlikely that someone burying a man with his twelve-foot spear would dig a grave twelve feet long for him. Pictures of spears are not perfectly reliable either. Often spears are shown as short, so that a statue can fit in a pediment, or a relief on a frieze, or a painted figure in a band of design going round a vase.
Despite this, it does seem that there were two main lengths of spear, which I shall call long and short. The length of the long spear was limited by how long a spear a man could control in one hand. If the spear were any longer than this, then it would be so unwieldy that it would become a liability. I was once a member of a dark-age re-enactment society. We made full-weight spears out of wood and iron, and some of the weaker members of the society found it difficult to wield the longer spears. Whereas many of the stronger men could use an eight-foot spear with little trouble, no one could wield the nine-footer which someone made. Eight feet seems to be the longest a man can use. This accords with historical records and archaeology, although I repeat that the evidence is a bit variable. Greek hoplites seem to have used eight-foot spears. Herodotus insists that the Greek spears were longer than the spears of the Persians. It seems that the Persians were using short spears.
The shortness of a spear is limited by the advantage that a spear has over other weapons. The thing which makes a spear worth having is that it is quite long. If a spear is as short as a sword, then one should instead be using a sword, since a sword can cut as well as thrust, and is much more strong, wieldy, and versatile in a scrap. To be useful in battle, a spear must be long enough to keep sword and axe and mace-users at bay. Short spears seem to have been about the length of the height of the user. A six-foot man would have a six-foot spear. Again, this seems to accord near enough with the pictorial, written, and archaeological evidence. Persian spears, of the period of the Persian invasion of Greece, seem to have had counterweights on the butt ends of them, rather than butt-spikes.
There are much longer sticks with points on the end, and these are called pikes (the ancient Greeks might have said sarissa). Pikes are quite different weapons, because they are so long, that the user cannot wield them as a man might wield a spear, and to make the pike effective it has to be used in great numbers and dense formations. Pikemen must present a forest of spears to the enemy. Pikes were held in both hands. Pointed sticks designed for throwing were called “javelins” and I shall not deal with them here either.
Note that above I said that a man cannot wield in one hand a spear greater than eight feet in length. In the ancient world, armies used shields, and so spears were usually wielded one-handed. Only a one-armed man would use a spear one-handed if he had no shield to hold in the other. The shield is an excellent tool for self-defence, and it was so effective, that almost all cultures used it. Certainly all the armies fighting mass battles in the ancient Mediterranean world had shields. If the enemy is showering you with arrows or sling-stones, you want a shield. A formation of spearmen without shields is very vulnerable. If a formation of spearmen without shields came up against another, the slaughter would be terrible, as each man would have easy target, and be an easy target. Consequently, almost everyone used a shield, and held the shield in one hand, and his spear in the other. Exceptions, though rare, should be mentioned. One is the type of soldier, generally from later periods, who wears a great deal of armour, and another is the man who has a shield slung in front of him on a strap. This second type seems to have been common amongst the bronze age civilisations, such as the Sumerians and Minoans, who used very large shields.
In the vast majority of instances, shield-using spearmen clashed with their foes, using a spear one handed. The spear would have been short enough to wield in that one hand, and could be used to parry enemy weapons, especially if the enemy was using spears. A common clash was between two formations of spearmen.
There are many writers who insist that spears were used over-arm. I believe these writers to be wrong. The pictorial evidence is very poor. Where spears are shown to be used over-arm, it seems that this is for dramatic effect rather than for authenticity. Archaeology will tell us nothing on this issue, and I have come across no written record from antiquity which strongly backs up the over-arm theory. I shall now present my case for the under-arm use of spears.
The two competing handholds are as follows:
1. Over-arm: the spear is held in the centre, with the right hand. The hand is held at about head-height, with the elbow of the right arm out to the side. The right thumb of the user is on the head-side of his hand, and his four fingers curl over the top of the spear.
2. Under-arm: the spear is held in the right hand, with the thumb on the top of the spear and the spear held typically at around waist height. The fingers curl under the spear shaft. The spear shaft rests along the underside of the forearm with the butt-spike by the right elbow.
With the over-arm hold, the spear is held in the centre. This means that half the length of the spear is wasted, and serves merely as a counter-weight to the front half. No man would be strong enough to hold a spear horizontally over-arm by one end. This goes dead against the whole idea of a spear. A spear is a device for keeping your enemy at a distance. He cannot come close to hit you with a club or sword, because as he advances to his fighting distance, he gets skewered. An eight-foot spear is turned into a four-foot spear if it is held over-arm. If two formations of spearmen clashed, one using spears underarm, the other over-arm, then the fools using their spears over-arm would face their enemies’ spears before they themselves were in striking range.
With the over-arm hold, the rear end of the spear acts as a counterweight to the front end. If a foe were to strike the spearhead sideways with a sword, then the counterweight would act against the spear-user. The front end of the spear would act as a lever, twisting the wrist of the spearman, and the swinging rear counter-weight end would act to exaggerate this effect. To close with a spearman, a sword user has to knock the spearhead aside and rush in at his foe. The over-arm grip would make this enormously more easy. With an under-arm grip, the spearman has his spear braced along his forearm, and has much more control of the spearhead. The spearhead may be knocked aside, but it will resume position a great deal more quickly. If a high thrust over a shield is wanted, this can be achieved by bringing the right elbow up to shoulder height. Also, if the swordsman advances, then the under-arm spear user can retreat a great deal faster, to bring his spearhead between them, as he has the ability denied to the over-arm user, of pulling back his spear, and sliding his right hand up the shaft, to shorten the weapon for close use.
With the under-arm grip, a spearman can thrust with his spear downwards at the feet of his foe, or upward at his face. The strongest thrust he can do it at waist height, and he can disguise his intentions easily. He can hold his shield in position during all of this. Using an over-arm grip, the feet of the foe are out of reach. Greaves, protection for the lower leg, were very common in the ancient world, being part of the standard hoplite panoply. This suggests that the lower leg was a common target. Not only are the feet out of reach, but the thighs are difficult targets. A thrust at waist height is difficult, and the spear point will be travelling downwards, and will glance of a shield more easily. The only really strong thrust will be at the face and neck of the enemy. The neck was seldom armoured in ancient times. Greeks and Romans usually had no armour there at all. This thrust will be easy to see coming. Worse still, the spearman thrusting over-arm will of necessity expose himself as he does this, leaning forwards out of formation, and turning his shield to the left to give himself room for the thrust. If an enemy spearman to the right of the over-arm user saw the thrust coming, he would have an easy victim: a man who has stepped with his weight onto his front foot (thus preventing any evasion by footwork) with an exposed shieldless side.
As I mentioned, most ancient spears had butt-spikes, and spears were used in large formations. An under-arm grip allows the butt-spike to be controlled, tucked away where it will do no one any harm. Anyone standing behind an over-arm spearman will be faced with a butt-spike going in and out at every thrust, and unpredictably sideways whenever an enemy knocks the spearhead. If spears were use over-arm, then a lot of people would have had somebody’s eye out by mistake.
Spears can be used for parrying, but only if used under-arm. The under-arm spear can be used very effectively to rake the enemy’s spears aside. Each man in a formation can act to protect not just himself, but his neighbours this way. Such group strength will win the day against men who cannot act to help their neighbours. Under-arm use of spears also means effectively longer spears, so parries can start further out from the user, which is a big help, and one spear can guard a larger volume of space.
The armour that soldiers wore seems to have been designed for under-arm spear use. Hoplite and legionary armour involves stiff broad pieces which come over the shoulders. These make holding an arm up very awkward, uncomfortable, weak, and limited. Armpits were generally not armoured. If a man were using a spear over-arm, his right armpit would be exposed all the time during a fight. Many shields had cut-aways in the side which allow a spearman to keep his shield nicely in front of him, and his spear in fighting position – as long as it is underarm. Shields were either round or taller than they were wide. If thrusting over a shield all the time, why make life awkward with a tall shield, and why not protect yourself better with a wide shield? Hoplite shields were very unusual, in that they had the handle for the left hand at the edge of the shield rather than in the middle (see shield essay). This makes sense if the spear is being used under-arm, since it means that the shield does not get in the way of the spear so much, but is bafflingly daft if the spear is used over-arm, because it would serve simply to further expose the wielder.
A spear used under-arm is easy to set in the ground against a cavalry charge or the like. It is also easy to ditch in favour of a sword when the melee gets frantic and mixed. A spear is easy to deploy underarm. When on the march or standing at rest, a spear would be held vertically, and the spearman simply has to lower the spear into position, and thrust it out in front of him. Greek texts refer to orders given to the men to “lower” spears and advance. To deploy a spear over-arm, a man has to throw the spear upwards, quickly get his arm underneath it, and catch it again (unless he was holding it upside down, with the butt spike in the air, but this is never pictured, and would mean that the main spearhead would get blunted on hard ground).
Another snag with the over-arm grip is that it is very tiring. Just holding your arm up and out to the side can get tiring, without the weight of a spear on it. With the under-arm grip, the spear is held close in to the body, is much easier to hold, and it is much easier to take a rest. During the slightest of lulls in the fray, the spearhead can be lowered to the ground, and from there, it can rapidly be redeployed.
To appreciate the weight of the above arguments, it is necessary to imagine large numbers of spearmen clashing in formation. The front row of each formation would try to present the enemy with spearpoints, and a wall of shields. From re-enactment experience, I can say with confidence that the person most likely to kill you is not the man opposite you. If you are half-competent with your shield, then you will always be able to move it to block your opponent’s thrusts (with the possible exception of thrusts aimed at the feet, and these are only possible with under-arm use). As you fight, you will be watching for an opportunity to make a kill – to thrust through a gap in the enemy’s shieldwall. Your enemies are doing the same. When you see a chance to thrust into a gap and take it, then you are for that instant exposed to some extent (utterly exposed if using over-arm). If an enemy has predicted your thrust, then he will spear you as you make it. You defend yourself against the man in front of you, and defend your neighbours from him, while watching for a chance to spear one of his neighbours. With underarm use, his neighbours are in easy reach, and his neighbours’ neighbours are in possible reach. With over-arm use, his neighbours are possibly within reach.
Sometimes, the furious charge of one side in a battle would sweep away the enemy. It takes nerve and confidence in one’s fellows to stand fast as the enemy rushes on screaming out war-cries. Where both sides keep their nerve, however, then two other possibilities arose. One was that both sides would get to spear-using distance, and then halt and fight it out. In such circumstances, under-arm users would have the advantages spelled out above, and more. Spears are sharp. A hard thrust into a shield would cause it to blunt, or worse, to stick. Once your spear is stuck in an opposing shield, you cannot thrust, or parry. You could yank the spear out, perhaps killing the man behind you with your butt-spike, or ditch it. You would want to avoid this. With under-arm spear use, spearmen can prod. Over-arm spearmen cannot. Prods are very useful. By prodding an opposing shield off-centre, you can turn it, creating an opening for one of your neighbours to thrust through. By prodding at an enemy’s shield, you can force him to pay attention to parrying you. You may not kill him this way, but you occupy his attention, and that has many uses. You can poke and prod about to work your spear into position, and then make a quick thrust. An over-arm spearman has to wait for his moment and then commit himself. If he hits a shield, which he often will, then he will very likely get his spear stuck.
Another possibility, often referred to in ancient literature, is that a “pushing match” develops. This sometimes involved not just the men of the front row, but of the whole formation, favouring the deeper one. It is reasonably easy to understand how such a pushing match might develop if spears were being used under-arm. It is next to impossible to imagine how it could happen, if men used spears over-arm. With under-arm spear-use, the spears themselves might be a way to push at the enemy. Spears of the first rank or two could be pushed into enemies and enemy shields, and used to shove the enemy back. If the spearmen got very close, such that they were pushing with their shields against the shields of the enemy, then their spears would be impotent, and perhaps ditched in favour of swords. Conversely, if spears were used over-arm, then they could not be used for shoving the enemy back. Furthermore, I don’t see how the two sides could close to shield-pushing range, without horrendous slaughter (and seeing this slaughter coming both sides would hang back). Once to shield-pushing distance, each side would have its spears above shield height, where they would be in the perfect position to thrust into the faces of the men opposite, and those men probably wouldn’t be able to parry. The bloodshed would be very rapid indeed, which contrasts not just with common sense, but also with the literary records which talk of these contests lasting some considerable while.
There is one instance in which an over-arm use is better than an under-arm use. This is when the spearman throws his spear. A spearman would only carry one spear, and this was a melee weapon, not a missile weapon. However, if he had the time and the space, and was going to ditch his spear anyway, in favour of a sword or axe or knife, then he might very well throw his spear, and this would be far more effective over-arm.
I hope that I have made a convincing case for under-arm spear use. To date, I have encountered very strong opposition to my case, from academics who have never wielded anything heavier than a pen. They argue that spears were used over-arm because 1. That’s the way they’d always imagined them to be used. 2. Some pretty pictures on pots show this. 3. There’s no proof in the ancient texts that they were used under-arm. The modern classical tradition holds that spears were used over-arm, much as it holds that hoplite cuirasses were linen. Classicists have had expensive educations telling them of these things, and they do not want those educations to be proven worthless.
The spear was a weapon which was simple and effective. With it, men could combine their efforts against an enemy, and could keep that enemy at bay. A strong thrust was better than a cut at penetrating armour, and a spear was a good defence against cavalry. It was easy to make, and easy to learn to use.
A limitation of the spear is that it is not a great weapon when used alone. A single swordsman has the advantage when facing a single spearman. Once he has closed with the spearman, he can hack away and the spear has become useless. The spearman can ditch his spear to get out a secondary weapon, but this takes time. Spears were not used other than in large formations. Once in close mixed melee, all ancient warriors preferred shorter weapons. In re-enactment fights, we found that it was worth bothering to use spears even if there were as few as three men in a line. The fights I took part in involved typically about a dozen a-side, hardly huge battles. Sometimes one side would charge effectively and win quickly, but most often the two sides would come together, and the spear-prodding stage would last for a few minutes (and several more if obstacles were involved). At some point, one side would see that it had the advantage. Perhaps the numbers of the enemy had been whittled down. Perhaps a gap in the line had been opened up, or one flank defeated. At this point, the side believing itself to be winning would ditch its spears and draw swords and axes and knives. Almost always, the only rational response to this would be to ditch spears as well, and then a fast and furious fight would start, and this would last for not many seconds.
Of course, since we were not actually killing people, nor fearing being killed, our re-enactments were not perfect duplicates of what actually took place in the past, but in terms of the wieldiness of weapons, and the effectiveness of low-level tactics, I feel that they were informative.
We did experiment quite a bit with the formation known as a “swineberg” or pig’s head. This involves one side's forming a wedge, with just one or two men at its point, which smashed into the enemy line. Since we didn’t fear being killed, the defending shieldwall almost never ran away when the charge came. A well-drilled shieldwall always defeated the swineberg in our fights. We concluded that to get the pig’s head to work in a real fight, it would be necessary 1. To have an obviously-raving psychopath at the head of the wedge, and 2. To put terror into the enemy.
To make this essay complete, I should mention a few other uses of spears, although you should bear in mind that these were all much rarer than the uses described above.
One use was with two hands. Some eastern martial artists use spears this way. Used two handed without a shield, a spear becomes very wieldy indeed, though the user is very vulnerable to missiles. Some formations of cut-and-thrust weapons, like swords on the end of poles, were used, but these are not strictly spears, and were used for hacking through armour as well as thrusting. By and large the double-handed spear without shield is a weapon of last resort, or of the single martial artist. An interesting feature of some Chinese spears used this way is a big tassel of cords below the spearhead, for distracting foes, and preventing blood from running down the shaft.
It seems that two-handed spears used with shields were sometimes used by soldiers with very large shields, such as the Minoan tower and figure-of-eight shields. In these cases, the sheer size of the shield is exceptional and presumably the users of these shields relied on this size for defence, rather than any ability to wield the shield. Later pike users had smaller shields, slung from a strap. With pikes, however, the techniques of attack and defence are totally different from spears, so this does not concern us in this essay. I have seen modern depictions of soldiers from later periods, such as Norman knights, using large but not huge slung shields, and spears two-handed. I doubt that the evidence for this use is conclusive. It is also noteworthy that these are often soldiers fighting not in their main role (heavy cavalry) but in a secondary role.
I have not dealt with exotic spears such as those edged with obsidian, or with sharks’ teeth. That is not where my expertise lies. The spear is a simple thing, and so most of the tiny variations are of little consequence. The various edges added to spears gave them some limited tearing/cutting ability, but the deadliness of them still came from the thrust. Some spearheads had little “wings” or cross-bars which stopped them going right through an opponent, so that they would be easier to pull out. Early metal spearheads had tangs rather than sockets, and so would not have been fixed so firmly to the shaft. Stone heads would have been more weakly attached – glued with resin and bound with leather. Some spears used two-handed in the very late periods by men with excellent armour had hexagonal or octagonal cross-sections, and metal studs, to improve grip.
The simplicity of the spear is one of its strengths. Most spears were a very clean shape, so that they did not have hooks and such things that might catch on friend or foe. In ancient fighting, many men would have been killed while they were fumbling in some way. A man is vulnerable while his weapon is caught up in the clothes of his foe, and troops would want weapons that were not prone to this. In my re-enactment fights, I can only remember one instance of my fumbling with a spear during a fight. That was when I got it caught in a bush. By contrast, I can recall a hundred fumbles which occurred when I ditched my spear and raced to get some other weapon out. The swapping of weapons is a key moment. Spears do break. In re-enactment, most get broken when people fall on spears lying on the ground. In real fights, men would try to break their opponents’ spears, and a strong blow from a sword could damage a spear’s shaft. Formations of spearmen were often very deep, and many of the men near the back would never close to spear range. Also, many servants attended warriors at battles, and carried spare weapons. My belief is that a spearman at the front whose spear broke, could reach behind him and be fairly likely to have a replacement handed to him without much quibble.
A basic spear, for the vast majority of soldiers in antiquity, was around five and a half to eight feet long, and had a metal spearhead with sharpened edges at one end, and usually a simple spike at the other. The various shapes of spearhead and butt-spike served to identify the culture of the user, but had little functional variation. The longer spears were better at keeping enemies back and at dealing with cavalry, but the shorter spears were a bit more wieldy when the fighting got a bit messy – a sort of compromise between the formation effectiveness of the longer spear, and the individual effectiveness of the sword.
© Lloyd 2000
Footnote: I shall mention here the mystery which is the Renaissance period pikeman, who used no shield . No one can explain how these men fought. All re-enactments of these soldiers end up having to avoid the issue. For displays of pushing, the re-enactors are forced to raise their spears and push body against body with their foes. When they try clashes at pike-point between formations, the front rows of both pike blocks almost immediately suffer 100% casualties. True, the men at the front were paid double, but this is insufficient explanation. Perhaps clashes between such formations were solely tests of nerve. Most foes of the famous Swiss pikemen ran away rather than fought. Perhaps the men of the front row grabbed the pikes of their opposite numbers, and then closed to knife-range. The truth is not known.