Steel Combat with Spears
by Robert Fitz John
Spears come in two basic types. The simple thrusting spear has a light head, and only scores a hit if the point touches the opponent. Broad-headed spears have a much wider head, with cutting edges down each side. These score a hit either by touching with the point, or by sliding an edge across the opponent. Other polearms can be treated as broad-headed spears, with appropriate designations of thrusting points and cutting edges.
Any spearhead must have a 3mm edge and a minimum radius of curvature of 14mm. It is recommended that the shaft of the spear should be bound (eg with leather) for a reasonable distance behind the head to protect it from splintering. A broad-headed spear should have a fairly large leaf-shaped or triangular head, to distinguish it from the smaller thrusting type of spearhead. As with all weapons, the Marshal's word is final concerning the use of any spear or polearm on the field of combat.
Attacking With A Spear
The simplest way to use a spear is with both hands. In one hand, hold the butt end of the spear with an overhand grip: this is your rear hand. Then, with the other hand, grasp the spear about halfway down the shaft from beneath: this is your forward hand. Slope the spear downward slightly (ie have your forward hand lower than your rear hand). Now practise the two types of thrust. First, grip with both hands and push forward. Second, grip with the rear hand and let the pole slide through the forward hand, like a snooker cue. With both methods, you should aim to touch your opponent gently: a careless jab from a spear can be rather painful!
Having mastered this, here is an important safety note. On no account should you let the spear slope upward, so the tip is pointing at your opponent's face or neck. Try to keep the spear level, or sloping downward.
The broad-headed spear has the advantage of a second attack mode, although this is offset by its relative slowness in comparison with the lighter thrusting spear. The additional mode is to draw the edge of the spearhead across the opponent. This can be done either on the forward stroke or while pulling the spear back. A simple touch with the edge does not count for a spear, but with a heavier polearm, where the edge is equivalent to an axe blade, a touch would count.
Your opponent will defend himself by knocking your spearpoint aside or by interposing a shield. To prevent this, keep the tip of your spear moving to confuse your opponent and to make it a less easy target for a parry. Jab the spear forward frequently to keep your opponent on the defensive. If he places his shield squarely in front of your spearpoint, push forward against it to try to unbalance him, and to keep him away. If you are using the snooker cue method, only loosen your forward grip while actually sliding the pole: grasp it firmly at other times to prevent the spear being knocked out of your hand.
Feinting with a spear is not too difficult. As described above, just keep the tip moving and jabbing, and hopefully your opponent will not know quite where or when you intend to make a killing thrust. Another trick is keep the spear head about a foot further back than you can actually reach, so your spear seems that much shorter than it really is. Then, when your opponent thinks he is out of range, you can thrust forward and suprise him.
It is possible to wear a shield with a guige (a long strap round your neck) to cover your forward-hand side. A long shield such as a kite is best for this. The shield will not be significantly manoevrable, since you will have both hands holding the spear, but it may be better than nothing.
The other method for using a spear is to hold it with one hand about halfway down, tucking the butt end under your arm. To check the position of your grip, straighten your arm and ensure the spear remains tucked under your arm. Your other hand can be used to hold another weapon or, more likely, a shield. The ideal combination for this method is a long thrusting spear and a long shield (eg a kite). The major disadvantages of this method are that it is more difficult to aim the spear, and it is much easier for your opponent to knock the spear away.
Defending Against A Spear
Firstly, some tips on personal safety. A spear is a thrusting weapon, and can give you a nasty bruise. Obviously, the person wielding the spear must ensure that he doesn't hit you too hard. However, it is up to you to take care that you don't impale yourself as you step forward, and that you don't deflect the point onto a vulnerable area (particularly the throat and face). You are also advised to wear a gambeson or similar body protection: even a gentle jab in the stomach can hurt.
If you are also using a polearm, tactics simply comprise knocking the opponent's spear away and then blocking any attempt to bring the point to bear on you. If you can knock the spear out of his hand, so much the better: you can then attack while your opponent is recovering.
If you are defending using a shorter weapon, with or without a shield, you cannot reach your opponent until you have got past the tip of the spear. First, you must deflect any thrusts away from your body. Then, to attack, you should keep the spear blocked while you advance quickly. You now have the advantage: the spear is too long for effective attack or defence at short range.
Defending With A Spear
If an opponent armed with a shorter weapon gets past your spearpoint and closes with you, there are two basic defences. First, bring the spear back toward you to try to interpose the point between you and your opponent. At the same time, retreat as quickly as possible to keep out of the attacker's range. Another defence is to use the spear as a quarterstaff, which allows you to parry and/or attack with either end.
The best defence I've seen requires you to have a knife in your rear hand or in your belt. As the attacker closes, you step forward and attack with the knife at close quarters. This neatly turns the tables on your opponent, since he now finds you inside his defence, rather than vice versa. I've known members of Regia Anglorum to use this method with impressive effect.
There's no substitute for experience, so go out and try it. One final tip: watch out for the sneaky opponent who grabs hold of your spear and wrenches it out of your grip!
Although I have used the masculine form of words, it is not my intention to imply that women cannot engage in Steel Combat. Feminine readers are requested mentally to substitute her for him, and so forth.
No liability is accepted by the author, the Far Isles Medieval Society, or any of its members, for any misadventure you may suffer while engaging in combat re-enactment.
Robert fitz John welcomes correspondence on this and related subjects.
First published as Fighting with Spears in Far Horizons Vol. 6 No. 1, Spring 1993.
© Trevor Barker 1993, 1997. Minor updates 18-JUL-2000.
You may copy this article or extract material from it, provided the author's name is quoted.
About the Author
Trevor Barker is a computer software/systems consultant who lives in Surrey, England with his wife and two young sons.
Robert fitz John is a Flemish mercenary who served the Normans as an archer during the conquest of England in 1066. Later, he joined the infantry and learned the use of many different weapons. His inability to win tourneys is almost legendary. He has now retired from active service, and divides his time between domestic duties as seneschal to the Household of Stoke Manor and State business as Master Secretary to the High Council of the Principality of the Far Isles.