Several million years ago among our primitive ancestors who still walked on all fours, was an ape who figured something out about sticks. A long, solid pointy stick could penetrate the skin of an enemy, a predator, or prey at a distance. This sort of thinking caught on and became common. Eventually these primates worked out how to make sticks pointy by chewing or using tools to carve out a point. Much later they figured out that fire could make the points harder and better at poking through stuff, and eventually that a triangular pointy rock tied to one end was even better than that. This is the origin of one of the oldest and most extensively used weapons in human history: the Spear, the first of the many types of weapons collectively known as pole-arms. The spear, having been in use for over 500,000 years, is older than the human species and the only melee weapon still in common use today, and has occasionally been seen being used by chimpanzee (albeit in a far cruder form than any human-made ones). It is therefore an objectively correct statement to say that the spear is one of the most effective and versatile weapons ever devised.
In fantasy settings, spears are often a universal weapon, with all races typically making use of them in some way because of their tactical significance in warfare relative simplicity of use (compared to other weapons), and ease in manufacturing, compared to other weapons.
Spears in Warfare after the agricultural revolution
First off, a general fact. Spears are designed to do one thing: poking the enemy to death. They do this very well, but they are pretty poor at other things. If they run at you, or you run at them (or better still, are on a horse running at them) that momentum makes the poking all the more effective. Two-handed spears can be longer, up to 7 meters and like a Pokémon get a new name, Pikes. One-handed spears leave the other free to hold a shield for better protection.
In melee combat on foot spears have one big advantage as far as weapons go: reach. With a spear you can attack your enemy from further away than you could if you had an axe or sword. Your blade, after all, is at the end of a shaft of wood at least a meter and a half long. However, if your enemy should get past the point of your spear and has a sword, mace, or axe, you are at a big disadvantage and are generally screwed. The best way around this fact is to gather up a bunch of spearmen and stand shoulder to shoulder, with more men behind you in case you miss. Thanks to the length of the spear and the simplicity of its combat use (stabbing) it was possible for those in the back ranks to fight over the shoulders of the guys in front of them. These formations can be very resistant to cavalry charges since one: you can stab the guy off his horse. Two, horses' momentum is working against him, increasing the strength of the stab the faster he rides towards you. And three horses often balk and shy away from charging headlong into spears killing the momentum of their charge and of the horses behind them. A major downside of spears is their cumbersomeness. Spears are not good in confined spaces due to their length. That's why elite or well equipped spearmen usually carried short swords or daggers for when enemies come really close or their spear broke in the middle of battle (being made of mostly wood they tended to do this quite often).
Another important fact about spears is that they are dirt cheap and easy to train with. A perfectly adequate steel tipped spear could be made by a village blacksmith or farrier in about three hours. A good sword would take a whole longer to forge, more iron and fuel to heat, and generally require a more skilled smith. If you want to raise a bunch of conscripts or militia and can't/don't want to pay a lot of money training and equipping them, or you want it done fast; a spear is your go-to weapon.
Unlike with swords, axes or bows, spear wielders benefit the most not from the personal skill, but from discipline, as their strength is usually in formations that prevent their foes from coming dangerously close. While technically spears are a hard counter to cavalry, medieval knights utterly curb-stomped undisciplined spear-armed militiamen, while similarly armed but heavily-drilled Italian and Swiss mercenaries with pikes royally buttfucked any heavy cavalry stupid enough to charge them... from the front. That is of course the other problem with spears, because they work best in tight formations outflanking and hitting the side of the formation is often a slaughter as the tightly packed men can't turn well to adjust to the new threat on their side. Alexander solved this by putting lighter troops on the flank, later the Europeans would use hand gunners to help repel charges. Swiss, however, solved this problem completely by training the everloving shit out of their soldiers so their pikemen blocks could switch direction in a matter of seconds, turning former flanks into new front and vice versa, all the way wile RUNNING at enemy in perfect formation (something no other spearmen in history had ever done before, though the descendants of these nutters would later adopt the idea). They were so OP at their time, other nations waged wars for the right to hire them and in fact the modern Swiss constitution makes it outright illegal for the Swiss to serve as soldiers for other nations, with ONE exception: the Swiss Guard who have been guarding the Pope ever since 1506, yes, over 500 years, making them one of the, if not the, longest serving military units in history.
Spears were also perfectly functional naval weapons used by marines. Two vessels that came alongside for boarding actions would often have teams of fighters as dedicated spearmen to stop enemy soldiers coming on board by jumping between ships and clear spaces on the opposing vessel for their own swordsmen to board themselves.
Spears are often portrayed as being used overhand, meaning that if you point your fist outwards the tip is pointing down. While this may sound like a bad idea; it creates an incredibly unwieldy angle to use your weapon at, limits your thrusting strength and does not allow you to stab as far as an underhand grip, it does allow to stab over your shield and this style of spear use was widely practiced by the Greek Hoplites. (as the picture above shows), and as a nice trick it also doubles as throwing stance (so you can launch your spear in surprise attack without telling it to your opponent with a sudden stance-change). Speaking of which:
Spears at Long Range
So far this has all been about spears as melee weapons. Spears can also be thrown, though for best results you usually need specialized spears. Thrown spears (or Javelins) are typically shorter and lighter than melee spears, but heavier than arrows. They don't have the same speed or range, but since they are heavier they can make quite an impact. Regular one-handed spears while not designed for it, could be thrown too, though at far less distances, and throwing your main close combat weapon at enemy is usually a bad idea, unless he retreats or is a giant hulking elephant you don't want to face in melee.
Notable users of throwing-spears were Roman legionnaires, whose pila were specifically engineered to sink into a shield, bend at the long, flexible barbed tip to make removal just about impossible, and then detach from their handles. This served the three-fold purpose of making the pilum unusable for the enemies thus attacked, ruining any shields they happened to sink into, and being nearly impossible to treat without heavy surgery off the field, inflicting significant losses even on armored opponents. other famous throwing spear users were the Aztecs who used the ancient atlatl to throw stone tipped spears with enough force to supposedly penetrate Spanish steel armor and of course Early Ice Age humans the world over used spears to hunt Woolly Mammoths.
Long Spears (Pikes)
Spears are good at keeping a enemy at a distance so one day some king from Macedonia made the spear three times longer, called it the sarissa, and then his son went and took over the known world with it. A longer spear means that you can have more guys fighting at a time and so make dense blocks of men more dangerous.
You know how spears can fight three ranks deep in Warhammer Fantasy Battle? Well, real life Macedonian phalanxes could fight around five ranks deep, meaning more spearheads than available targets. It was said that a pike formation facing forward could only be broken by a charge of elephants, though this probably has less to do with elephants being invincible and more to do with soldiers shitting themselves at being charged by elephants.
After Alexander's death, the idea fell by the way side, mostly as the generals following him assumed their pike formations were invulnerable and forgot about combined-arms tactics and protecting the vulnerable flanks of their pike formations with spearmen, swordsmen, or their own cavalry. Thus, the first Roman-style professional armies could outflank the formation and take it apart. Then the stirrup was invented, which allowed cavalry to really charge home, putting the full weight of the horse behind the lance and allowing cavalry to overrun infantry formations.
But like a swinging pendulum, the pike's day was coming back. The Swiss are known today for clocks and little knives that do everything, but back in the 15th century, the Swiss were known for being the greatest mercenaries in Europe. There is a reason why the Pope chose the Swiss out of all of Christendom for his guards: the Swiss solved issues with pikes by having much stronger training programs so their pikemen could be much more aggressive by closing with the enemy rather than "poking" from seven meters away, giving guys in the front rank swords or daggers while the men behind him stabbed forwards. Later, the addition of early hand guns made a match truly from hell as pikemen could be used to protect the vulnerable musketeers from cavalry charges.
To understand 15th century tactics, go play Warhammer Fantasy as the Empire. Seriously, they're so similar to each other it practically a learning experience.
Death of the Pike
Guns and cannons finally killed the pikeman: a gun took only modestly more training than a pike, but a musketeer or rifleman can kill you from considerably farther than seven meters away (like ten meters for early firearms). That said, pikes and guns worked together for much of the 1500's to the late 1600's, where men with black powder guns were protected from dangerous cavalry rushes by being combined into mixed formations with well trained pikemen.
However, as the development of ranged weaponry progressed, having large formations of men became tactically unsound. Massed firepower or artillery could easily wipe out blocks of soldiers. This meant that being a professional pikeman was quickly becoming suicide, as the enemies were less and less likely to engage you in melee and more likely to use you as target practice. So the "deep" formations of the past were phased out in preference to smaller, tighter "lines" of men, which meant that bouncing cannon balls would go through far fewer targets. Pike men only really work in deep formations, since that's the whole point of the long ass spear.
However, this was not the final deal breaker for pikes. After all, guns or not, cavalry were still a problem until rifles gave infantry enough range to over come the speed advantage of cavalry. What truly finished off pike formations off were bayonets. Why let a man only have a spear when you could give a man a gun that could stab, or rather a spear that could shoot (since smoothbore firearms sucked in every regard except armor penetration and ease of training). This dual purpose would allow formations of musketeers to ward off cavalry charges and protect themselves in melee engagements from other infantry just like if they had a pike while still keeping up with their barrage of shots while unengaged. Additionally, better practiced gunners with more advanced and rifled guns were capable of achieving high enough rates of fire at long enough ranges to no longer need the help of pikemen to ward off incoming charges and phase out the need for bayonets altogether. People still carry them, but most modern bayonets are meant to double as normal knives as well.
| Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
| Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling