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Old April 3rd, 2018, 06:39 AM   #1
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Spears/Pikes vs Swords


From what little I know, most melee infantry in history had spears/pikes rather than swords: the Romans stand out as a rare exception here. Elite units, however, tended to prefer the sword which has been a status symbol since the Bronze age I believe.

In my mind, please do correct if wrong, the advantages of spears/pikes are:
  • Cheap to make
  • Easy to train people to use reasonably well
  • Allows lots of your army to attack simultaneously (shoulder-to-shoulder formation packs men in tightly, and several ranks can reach at the same time)
  • Particularly strong against cavalry

while swords have the upper hand in
  • Flexible in broken terrain / more able to deal with getting flanked
  • More deadly in the hand of a trained expert??
and I'm really unsure about the later one. A friend of mine whose a martial arts expert and has done a fair amount of medieval reenactment fighting swears that on a 1v1 he'd rather have a medium length spear than a longsword. And, the theory goes, spears get better and better the more people you have with them while swords stay approximately as good.

Firstly, is this really the case? Is a trained swordsman at a disadvantage vs a trained spearman, either 1 vs 1 or 1000 vs 1000?
And, if so, why did swords have (and *still* have) such an aura of prestige around them and become such a powerful status item?
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 07:01 AM   #2

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1v1 the spear almost always has the advantage. Shields can help balance out the difference though. Swords are generally considered prestigeous because they are more expensive, require more training to use, and they are also a sidearm which can more comfortably be carried during civilian life.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 07:10 AM   #3
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Swords are generally considered prestigeous because they are more expensive, require more training to use, and they are also a sidearm which can more comfortably be carried during civilian life.
That they can be carried around during civilian life makes sense as part of their prestige. But the other arguments don't convince me.

Why would something more expensive than a spear, and which requires more training than a spear, but is still worse in combat than a spear become more prestigious than a spear? I'm sure I can invent an endless number of weapons that are more expensive and less useful than a spear (or even a sword!), and that such weapons occasionally crop up in history, but didn't become as widespread or synonymous with rank as swords did.

I just find it hard to imagine that swords would have stuck around for literal millennia in more-or-less the same form if their only real advantage vs spears was their image. Certainly, you'd then expect sword-based armies to do comparably worse than their spear-based contemporaries. The fact that the Romans did so well suggests that were not handicapped by their choice of weaponry.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:10 AM   #4
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The Roman line infantryman's weapon wasn't the gladius, the sword. It was duel weaponry, the pila/gladius. Disregarding the former is like considering only the bayonet and not the musket. By having those two pila for throwing it gave them a major distance advantage over someone armed only with a spear or pike. It made them a much more versatile soldier, because with missile weapons and close combat weapons they can perform many more duties than a soldier armed with a spear or pike only as the primary weapon.

And even so, many ancient spear armed peoples also carried swords as close quarters weapons. Hoplites, phalangites, Celts, Iberians, etc. The difference is they saw the sword as a back up weapon, only to be used if close combat occurred, whereas the Romans sought out close combat. But only a few notable occasions did Romans wade into battle with swords and nothing else, and those occurred largely out of a desire for violence or because an assault happened so quickly they did not have time for a pila volley. So when discussing Romans, one must remember that the pila played just as an important role in battle as the gladius, maybe even more so.

And there were numerous Greeks and Romans authorities who flat out wrote that soldiers need not train to use a sword, as they were a rather instinctive weapon. They all promote mindset over weapon skill, bravery and fearlessness (or Virtus as the Romans called it) tempered with discipline/obedience. Through most of ancient history, weapons training was not something commonly trained, at least not by the army. When institutional training on swordsmanship did occur by the Romans it was always due to a lack in skill and confidence at a trying time by an army whose abilities were doubtful. Scipio Africanus' army in Spain had performed poorly previously, Scipio Aemilianus' army in Spain had performed poorly, Rutilius Rufus' army was unblooded and facing off against seemingly invincible giants who specialized in close combat (Terror Cimbricus). So much of the training wasn't to actually ensure soldiers would win in a fight, but to make them believe in their own skills and abilities. Confidence builder.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:17 AM   #5

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It's a complicated question. Swords are the most versatile weapon, in decently trained hands. They can also be carried easily in a scabbard as a backup weapon, or off the battlefield.

I don't think we can demonstrate that spears will always beat swords in general! It does seem safe to say that *most* armies (as you point out) use spears as their main weapons, simply because that's sensible and effective.

Not sure what "elite" sword-armed units you are referring to? Probably most of them actually used swords as secondary weapons.

Part of the status of swords was probably their cost! That made them the prerogative of the upper class for a long time (in the middle ages, I mean), long enough that the aura remained long after cheaper swords were available.

Oh--I doubt flanking or broken terrain were large factors in armament. Typically it's not the weaponry which became a problem when outflanked, it was the fact that the unit was outflanked! And there have been plenty of cultures which fought in hilly or rocky ground with spears.

*Pikes* are often a separate discussion, by the way. Things change when you go to dense formations of significantly longer weapons and 2-handed use. At least you get different variables in the mix!

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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:25 AM   #6

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One reason for the ubiquity of swords is they can be worn and so are a lot easier to carry around than spears. For that reason, swords make good secondary battle weapons but throughout history, they are almost always secondary weapons. The Roman case is exceptional and relied on a lot of other factors -- heavy shields, armor, pila, tactics, etc. -- to counteract the spears they were facing. It's not evidence that the sword is a really a superior weapon and that somehow the Romans understood this while everyone else through the ages did not.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:47 AM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by aggienation View Post
The Roman line infantryman's weapon wasn't the gladius, the sword. It was duel weaponry, the pila/gladius. Disregarding the former is like considering only the bayonet and not the musket. By having those two pila for throwing it gave them a major distance advantage over someone armed only with a spear or pike. It made them a much more versatile soldier, because with missile weapons and close combat weapons they can perform many more duties than a soldier armed with a spear or pike only as the primary weapon.
Don't forget the scutum as well. A gladius isn't much but a stubby sword in melee without the gladius.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:48 AM   #8

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Are spears or swords more effective against armor?
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:55 AM   #9

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Olleus View Post
That they can be carried around during civilian life makes sense as part of their prestige. But the other arguments don't convince me.

Why would something more expensive than a spear, and which requires more training than a spear, but is still worse in combat than a spear become more prestigious than a spear? I'm sure I can invent an endless number of weapons that are more expensive and less useful than a spear (or even a sword!), and that such weapons occasionally crop up in history, but didn't become as widespread or synonymous with rank as swords did.

I just find it hard to imagine that swords would have stuck around for literal millennia in more-or-less the same form if their only real advantage vs spears was their image. Certainly, you'd then expect sword-based armies to do comparably worse than their spear-based contemporaries. The fact that the Romans did so well suggests that were not handicapped by their choice of weaponry.
Swords can still be effective on the battlefield when used in conjunction with shields. And the fact that they are more expensive, but still useful, makes them a prestige item. At least this is quite noticable when one looks at the Migration era.
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Old April 3rd, 2018, 08:59 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Spike117 View Post
Don't forget the scutum as well. A gladius isn't much but a stubby sword in melee without the gladius.
Yep. The scuta not only protects better than most other ancient shield types, its also more dynamic, more capable of being used offensively as a weapon. Its every part of combat, long range and close, for the Roman, to compliment their own ability to offensively use missile and melee weapon.
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