Everything I’m about to say is wrong.
I will speak with an authoritative voice. Everything I talk about will be well researched and investigated. I will quote famous arms collectors and prattle about language origins. Yes, everything I say will sound right and true.
But it’s all a bunch of guff.
Why am I saying this?
Because there were no concrete delineations between different polearms. There were *attempted* delineations, sure. Lots of lineating was tried. And some polearms even fit into the proper categories. But there were too many different shapes and styles in the world of pole weapons. Some fit into multiple groups. Some didn’t fit into any. Some fit into one group, but were classified in a group they didn’t really belong in. God, this sounds like high school all over again.
Okay, so, I know that pole arms are not swords. And I know this series is titled “The Anatomy of the Sword.” But this branch of the arms tree is so convoluted, I thought it was worth including here. So that I could convolute it even more.
What is a polearm?
Pole arms (also known as pole arms (get used to the “also known” folks) are weapons mounted on a long pole. So, yes, a spear is considered a pole arm. Some axes can be considered polearms, and some pole arms can be considered axes. In fact, many polearms start with the premise of an axe-blade on a long staff, and then start accessorizing with spikes and hooks and hammers, and dead gophers. Some polarms are loaded, so that they look like Swiss Army knives on a stick. Which is interesting, since Swiss pikemen and halberdiers were some of the most feared polearm soldiers in history. The whole Swiss-Army-Knife quality is what makes pole weapons so hard to classify. There are so many variations, and the naming rules don’t seem to apply uniformly.
Rather than speak at length about the forms and styles, I thought it best to simply list some of the most popular polearms in history, and let you see how horribly confusing it the whole thing is.
Ah! The glistening spine of the polearm family. A short axe blade on one side, a hooked spike on the other, and a deadly straight-spike at the top. Some halberds had a thorn on the hooked spike, to better tangle opponents (not to be confused with a guisarme, which is a thorn to better tangle opponents. Yeah, I know. It gets worse.). Some halberds had a thorn both on top and bottom of the hooked spike. Halberd blades were usually convex (curving outward for you dictionally challenged), but some had concave (figure it out) blades instead .
All in all, halberds were extremely versatile and looked really cool. So cool that the Pope himself adopted them for use by his personal Vatican Guard. The guards still use halberds today. I guess you don’t really need guns when your master is God’s BFF. The aforementioned Swiss soldiers of the 15th century used halberds to become some of the most feared warriors in history. They eventually switched to pikes (See below) for more efficiency in battles and better general dental hygiene, but it was the halberd that got them to the top of the warrior food chain.
Are you confused yet? If so, then abandon all hope, because it gets worse. Let’s get this next term out of the way, so we can have some false confidence when going into the next one. A guisarme is a thorn or hook or barb , if you will, that curves in the opposite direction of the main weapon blade on the head of the polearm. So, if you had an axe blade on one side of the staff, the guisarme would, typically, be on the backside of this blade. The curved hook on the halberd does not count as a guisarme. Why? Because it doesn’t. Don’t argue.
A glaive is a staff with a long, spearfish sort of blade at the top. Except the spear blade long and curved and sharped along both edges. And the point isn’t really sharp. So, yeah, nothing like a spear at all. If you are into Japanese weapons, then you might recognize the similarity between the glaive and the naginata. Sometimes. To further confuse things, sometimes a guisarme was added to one side of a glaive, to better catch an opponent with. These were called glaive-guisarmes. Later-day glaives were fitted with long spikes on the top of the staff, for added stabiness, and these were called glaive-stabbies. (Editor’s note: No, they weren’t).
Fauchards are basically glaives, but only one side of the blade is sharpened, which is awesome when you’re pressed up against a wall while fighting an opponent, or when you’re a character in a 2D video game. Not so awesome when you’re in a 3D blood-spattering, bowel-cleansing, honest-to-god battlefield. Fauchards often had guisarmes, like glaives, because someone thought it was better to have a hook on that side than another lethal edge. These type were called fauchard-guisarmes.
Take a meat cleaver, tie it onto a long broomstick. Congratulations. You have earned the Voulge trophy. Sometimes, voulge blades were really long, so that they looked less like cleaver blades and more like really thick spear blades that are sharpened on one side. Which reminds me of a certain weapon we discussed above. Yes, a voulge can look like a fauchard, but it’s never a fauchard, it’s a voulge. It just is. Sometimes, voulges had a hook or thorn on the backside, and this made it a voulge-guisarme.
Pike’s were spears. But they were really really long spears. Like, 10-20 feet long or longer. If you play D&D, you can’t bring a pike into the Temple of Elemental Evil. Pikes can’t be checked as baggage on planes, even as sporting equipment. Pikes have one purpose and one purpose only: To destroy infantry and drive back cavalry in battles. Okay, that’s two. Swiss mercenaries refined their battle prowess when they switched to the pike. So much so that the Germans copied them, forming the famous landsknecht warriors. The Germans eventually outdid the Swiss by coming up with the Zweihander sword—a ridiculous-looking two handed sword with saw teeth and barbs used for cutting pikes in half and leaving swiss mercenaries holding broomsticks.
Also known as a poleax, which was also known as a pole axe, which sometimes was referred to as a pollax, or pollax, or Jackson Pollock. Poleaxes had small axe-blades on one end of the staff, and a hammer or spike on the back, and a blade or spike on top. How does this differ from a halberd? It just does, okay? Polaxes could deliver ridiculously powerful blows and were short enough to be carried by men-at-arms and archers alike.
BEC DE CORBIN(ish):
Translated from French, this can mean “Put the automobile in reverse because you’ve hit the garbage can,” or “Beak of the Crow.” This was basically a a hooked spike attached to a pole, with a war-hammer head on the opposite side and as pike on top. It is not to be confused with the Lucerne hammer, which is a hooked spike attached to a pole, with a pronged war-hammer on the opposite side and a spike on top. Except that sometimes the bec de corbin’s hammer head was also pronged. But even with the pronged hammer head, it was still a bec de corbin. Unless it was a Lucerne hammer. Don’t argue. Just accept it.
The bardiche is a long axe blade attached to a long pole. Bardiches were shorter than most poleaxes, rarely reaching a height of five feet. They were faster than their longer cousins, but still had enough weight to crush armor. Bardiches are not to be confused with the Scottish Lochaber axe, which is a long axe blade attached to a long pole. Yeah. I did try to warn you.
The superintendent at my apartment complex. Nice guy, but don’t get him drunk. Also, a European polearm that looks a bit like those hooked butter knives that your mom keeps in the back of the silverware drawer. The bill came from an old medieval farming implement used to cut crops. In fact, many polearms had their origins in farming tools. If you add a hook curving in the opposite direction to the bill’s curve what do you have? A bill-guisarme? Probably! Who knows? Do you know? I don’t really know.
A wide spear blade mounted on a long pole, with hooked wings at the base with which to parry. Not be confused as the Ranseur, which is a wide spear blade mounted on a long pole, with hooked wings at the base. You can tell them apart because the hooks on the ranseur are sharpened and used for attack as well as defense. Sometimes. Oh, and did I mention that both of them are very similar to a Spetum? Yeah. They are. Except the spetum hooks are longer and thinner.
So there you have it. A comprehensive study of polearms. Sort of.
I have joked a lot, but the reality is that these weapons had a lot of different names and styles, based on regional preferences. It’s not so strange, really. If you order a grinder in Arizona, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. Order a Hoagie in Idaho? You’re liable to get punched. But a grinder and a hoagie and a subway and a big sandwich are all the same thing. Maybe slightly different from place to place, but still a sandwich. So it was with polearns.
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!