A Pole-Arm technically refers to any type of weapon consisting of a metal head with a long wooden pole. Spears fall under this classification, but more often than not it is used to refer to weapons with something more than just a point at the end to stick people with. Pole-arms were usually capable of any combination of chopping, cutting, smashing, or stabbing an enemy by attaching axe-heads, spikes, hammers, and various blades to the end of a long shaft. Due to their relative ease of use and the sheer versatility they offered, pole-arms have been used by civilizations across the length and breadth of the globe and have proven themselves to be very effective in mass combat, even up to the Napoleonic and American Revolutionary wars.
The sheer number of different weapons the term covers means that attempting to classify them can get confusing, especially with some of the ones from Europe. Since there was no rigorous system of classification in place and several weapons like the bill, war scythe, and military fork were developed from peasants' hand tools, several different weapons have been called by the same name, and several different names have been applied to the same weapon; and that's without getting into things like glaive-guisarmes, fauchard-forks, and the various other combination weapons people tried to kill each other with over the centuries. As you might expect, this has sparked many arguments over what is called what.
Pole-arms in warfare
When compared to spears, pole-arms retain some of the advantage of reach while gaining more flexibility in how they attack. A spearman is limited to simply poking his enemies to death, whereas a halberdier or billman can also hack at them and even drag horsemen off their mounts with the hooks on their weapons.
Types of Pole-arm
Spears are far from being the only form of pole-arm; there are numerous others, most of which tend to be difficult to distinguish from one another. A short list of some of the more notable types is as follows:
- Ahlspiess/Awl Pike: Take a spear, then replace the spearhead with a three-foot-long metal spike with a disc to protect the user's hand and you have the ahlspiess. The name comes from the fact it resembled an awl, a tool used to pierce holes in leather and wood, which fit rather well considering how good it was at poking holes in people. Unlike a normal spear the metal spike was impossible to cut though with a sword, which made it quite effective in a melee, if a bit on the heavy side.
- Bardiche/Berdiche: A Russian polearm taking the form of a long handled axe with a broad curved axehead on a long handle typically 1.5 meters in length. The lower end of the axe-head was attached to the shaft, while the upper end extended several inches above it. It was notable in that it was often used as a monopod by Streltsi (an elite force of musketeers that existed from the reign of Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great).
- Bayonet: Honorable mention goes to the blade at the end of a gun, which was extremely handy back in the days where it took a long time to reload. Not used very often in modern times except by the British, who have engaged in bayonet charges during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Modern bayonets attachments would make guns more similar to a glaive than a spear though (with a big curve similar to that said weapon).
- Bill: Derived from a pruning tool called the billhook, a bill consists of a cutting blade that curves forward to form a hook, with later versions adding a spike on the top and a hook on the back of the blade. This combined the stopping power of a spear with the cutting ability of an axe, giving it the ability to pull horsemen out of the saddle, hamstring man and mount alike, and pierce gaps in the protection of heavily armored opponents. For this reason, it was the national weapon of England well into the 16th century. Interestingly, at a time when all the continental armies were using pikemen to form the bulk of their foot soldiers, an English army of hastily-raised levies (most of the English army being abroad in France, dying of dysentery and being of minor annoyance to the French) devastated a Scottish army, whose principle weapon was the pike, at Flodden Fields to such an extent they took a generation to recover. Often conflated with the guisarme due to their similar origins and use, they may very well be regional variants of the same general weapon.
- Bohemian Earspoon: This oddly-named pole-arm really existed; it was used in central Europe around the 14th and 15th centuries. It consisted of a tapered blade with a medial ridge and pair of lugs beneath the blade, similar to a boar spear, to prevent an impaled target working its way down the pole to reach you.
- Brandistock: An unusual 16th century Italian thrusting polearm in that, not only did it possess three spikes at the end, but they were also retractable.
- Falx: The Falx is an oddity that doesn't easily fit any category; most historians list it as a polearm as, despite being somewhat shorter than an ordinary polearm, it's shaft is too long to be considered a sword. This weapon was used by the ancient Dacians and Thracians against the Romans, and featured a 3 foot sickle-shaped blade with an equally long shaft, meant to be used two-handed and could deliver devastating downward blows, splitting shields and helmets alike. It's for that reason that the Roman Gallic helmet has a special ridge specifically for blocking falx blows. In fantasy, the Falx has been re-purposed as an Elven Greatsword of sorts, owing to its more unusual shape.
- Fauchard: In many respects a fauchard is very similar to a glaive, except that it has a hook somewhere on the cutting edge, and above the hook the blade tapers into a sharp point.
- Glaive: The glaive was equipped with a single-edged tapering blade (like a kitchen knife) affixed similarly to an axe head. Some variations (called glaive-guisarmes) had a small hook on the end meant for catching horsemen, like a bill, or for locking enemies' blades in combat. Glaives often came in a very wide variety of bizarre shapes, so oftentimes it is used to describe a polearm with a blade shape that doesn't fit any of the other categories.
- Goedendag: the goedendag was a Flemish combination of a spear and club. It's believed to have been first used like a spear to blunt a charge, but then as a club once the melee is joined. Making it good against armored knights, and it was used to defeat French knights at the "Battle of the Golden Spurs". The word "Goedendag" means "good day" in Dutch, so if nothing else this proves that the Flemish have a sense of humor.
- Guan-Dao: The Guan-Dao is a chinese polearm with a huge fucking blade at the end of a five-foot pole, with a small prong at the back and usually a tassle or two for ceremonial purposes. It is named after a popular character from the 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms called Guan Yu, who is often depicted as using a particularly beautiful Guan-Dao (even though he almost certainly didn't do so in reality, as the weapon didn't exist at the time).
- Halberd: One of the most iconic pole-arms, differing from the poleaxe in both form and function. Intended as more of a formation weapon than an individual weapon, both the shaft and spike were longer, as it was primarily a thrusting weapon. While possessing an ax's blade (which typically featured a slant pointing downward as opposed to a straight parallel or circular edge), it was less used for chopping (due to its unwieldy nature) and more as an extra attack; the ax was used in a draw cut in case the thrust missed its target and attempted to close in. The blade could also pull a mounted knight off his horse, though the bill was better known for this tactic. In the early Renaissance, the Halberd was a favorite weapon of the Dobbeltsöldner, being a good weapon to bump away enemy pikes and then blend the innards of the peasants holding the pikes.
- Ji: A common Chinese polearm that evolved over time; early versions took the form of a "dagger-axe," more properly called a "Ge," which was little more than a short blade that stuck out perpendicular to the shaft, then sloped down the shaft a bit to form the axe-head. The Ji evolved from the Ge by adding a spike to the top, turning it more into a halberd-type weapon. Finally, the blade was replaced with an inverted crescent shape, sometimes double bitted. This was famously the preferred weapon of Lu Bu, a warlord from the Three Kingdoms era.
- Lance: A bigger, heavier spear intended for knights and other mounted warriors. They were too bulky to be wielded on foot and too heavy to throw, relegating them to use on horseback; however, they could be absolutely devastating during a cavalry charge. Variations of the lance continued to be used until World War I. They were also the go-to weapon for jousting tournaments.
- Lucerne Hammer: Basically a warhammer with a very long shaft, the hammer's head was pronged to better pierce the plate armor in use at the time. It also bore a long spike opposite the hammer and an even longer spike extending from the top. The name comes from the city of Lucerne, Switzerland, where many of them have been discovered.
- Bec-de-Corbin: Ask some people what the difference between this and a Lucerne hammer is and most people will have no idea what either of them is. The few who do know and can describe both will probably spend a few hours arguing over what the difference truly is. The name is Old French for "raven's beak" so maybe they hit people with the spike instead of the hammer. It's best to just consider them to be the same weapon with some slight differences.
- Man Catcher: A pole with two pronged semicircular head with or without spikes inside it and possibly with a mechanism to close it, designed for immobilizing enemies by catching their limbs or neck and pining them down and also for knocking enemies off of horses.
- Military Fork: It's basically a big pitchfork. The prongs made it effective at piercing plate armor and some had hooks much like other polearms to counter cavalry.
- Naginata: Similar to the glaive, the naginata is a wooden shaft with a large curved blade at the end which was covered with a sheath when not in use. Like the katana, it became a favored weapon of the samurai, particularly the women (who were especially appreciative of its ability to keep opponents at a distance, thus compensating for the difference in raw strength between the sexes) in fact learning how to use a Naginata was mandatory for school girls in the Empire of Japan and it's still popular there. While they can be used to stab and hook opponents, the curved blade makes naginatas most effective as a cutting weapon; although it lacks the speed, control, and longer cutting edge of a katana, it makes up for it with superior reach and better leverage. Fun fact; sometimes when a katana broke, the blade would be reused to make a naginata.
- Partisan: A weapon that consisted of a spearhead mounted on a long shaft with protrusions on the sides of the spear head, which aided in the user in parrying sword thrusts. It remains in use as a ceremonial weapon in some countries. Party-focused politicians are known for fighting with these in political debates.
- Pike: Perhaps the most effective of the pole weapons, but certainly the most widespread. The pike was, at its heart, a very long, sharp stick. We're talking 10-25 feet, here. It was ideal for defensive maneuvers, especially when wielded en masse; each rank of pikemen was trained to hold their pikes so any charging enemy infantry had to deal with more sharp spiky objects than a hedgehog convention pointed at them. However, the tight formations needed to pull this off made pikemen vulnerable to archers and the unwieldy size of the pikes made it too difficult for them to effectively defend themselves if outflanked. Nevertheless, their lethality and defensive skill made them popular into the late 1600s, at which time people realized standing around in dense formations made pikemen an easy target for arquebusiers and artillery. Both the Landsknechts and the Swiss became famous for their proficiency with pikes. Some Japanese yari would be long enough to qualify as pikes and were used in a similar manner as the Europeans did.
- Poleaxe: It's an axe head on a pole, just as the name suggests. Compared to a halberd, it has a smaller head, which focuses kinetic energy onto a smaller area and lets it cut through armor more effectively. In other words, while the halberd prioritizes thrusting, the poleaxe prioritizes chopping. The spike on the end of the pole's butt also made it useful for thrusting attacks, and it could be used to block in the same way as a quarterstaff.
- Quarterstaff: The simplest type of polearm there is, inasmuch as it is an actual pole. It's probably the oldest, too; smacking someone with a stick is easier to think of than sharpening it so you can stab them. A favored weapon of monks and other unarmed classes in DnD, these could be used both as a blunt implement and as a thrusting weapon, while a carefully aimed sweeping blow aimed at the legs could easily knock a foe off his feet and send him sprawling onto the ground. It's not too likely that these were used in actual warfare, as they were mainly meant for self-defense and martial arts. They were also useful as walking sticks, of course.
- Shaolin Spade:: As the name suggests, it's a weapon with a spade-shaped blade on one end, with a crescent shaped blade on the other. The Shaolin monks used this weapon for two purposes: to bury the dead, and for defense against bandits. Possibly one after the other.
- Spetum: A spear-like weapon with two smaller, single-edged blades extending at acute angles from the base of the spear's head. Not only could it be used to impale and stab with the main spearhead, the smaller blades made it effective at knocking aside shields and severing limbs as well.
- Swinefeather/Swedish Feather: A predecessor to the bayonet, this was a musket rest combined with a spear, which allowed early musketeers to defend themselves against cavalry. As its name suggests, it was heavily used by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War, with the weird name possibly coming from the Swedish word for 'pig-sticker'.
- Swordstaff: Take a full sized doubled edged sword, including the guard, but replace grip with a long pole. Swordstaff like weapons pop up in fantasy every once in a while but were rare in history, so not much is known about how they were used.
- Trident: The go-to weapon for a water-themed character. Mostly this was used by fishermen to skewer fish. The retiarius, a type of gladiator, used a trident alongside a dagger and net.
- Voulge: While superficially similar to the glaive, the voulge had a broader blade meant for hacking rather than cutting. Think of it as a meat cleaver on a pole and you have the general idea of how it worked. Also like the glaive, some forms (called voulge-guisarmes) had hooks added to the back of the blade, along with a pointed tip for stabbing.
- War Scythe: Contrary to popular belief, a scythe on its own is too unwieldy to make a good weapon. But if the scythe's blade is re-mounted to extend upward instead of out to the side, it can be fairly effective as far as improvised weapons go. Because of the ease with which they could be repurposed from common tools, they were one of the most likely weapons to be used in peasant uprisings. War scythes were the preferred pole arm of the Poles.
| Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
| Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling