The Spear

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

Lloyd notes that the spear may be the only weapon used by every culture in warfare — and used in roughly the same form. An eight-foot spear is about as long as a man can wield with one hand, and almost all soldiers wanted to keep their other hand free to hold a shield:

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.

The more interesting question involves how exactly they used the spear — overhand or underhand?

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.

As a re-enactor, he notes that he has “encountered very strong opposition” to his case from “academics who have never wielded anything heavier than a pen.”

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