How effective is Spear/Shield combo compared to Sword/Spear?

Jul 2017
16
Illinois
(I meant "Sword/Shield", sorry!)

I've heard a lot of things about spears being used with shields. I've heard that it's only good in formation with multiple people, and unwieldy compared to sword and shield because heavy spears 7-8 feet long would have to be held in the middle, giving the user only 4 feet of reach (or less). A longsword would thus have similar reach, making a spear pointless in that situation. As far as I know, a spear is not usually the weapon used by a skilled fighter. It's cheap and easy to mass produce, requiring very little actual iron/steel, and generally easy to use, so it tends to be a cheap and simple weapon that you give to masses of relatively untrained troops. I admit that I don't know much, so can you please help me understand what makes spear/shield combo so good? Apparently it was used extensively in ancient Greece and Rome, but I don't see much about it in medieval contexts (I'm not counting pikes).
 
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Aug 2016
977
US&A
Shields help keep people from throwing or shooting dangerous things at you.

In medieval times good armor was more common, and so shields began to get smaller.

Still, lots of people in medieval times used spears and shields. I can't comment for sure, but I suspect this was still easily the most common type of equipment for melee troops.

Generally what makes the spear/shield combo so effective is:
The shield protects from missiles
Better formation flexibility compared to pikes
Better reach than swords
Stabbing is more likely to create deadly wounds than slashing
Stabbing penetrates armor more easily
Spears are easier to learn than swords
Spears are cheaper and easier to make than swords
You can put more force behind a thrust than a swing
Spears can be quickly retracted to protect from sword-attack
It takes several swings to damage a spear
Even one-handed spears are often still long enough to allow 2-3 spearmen to engage one swordsman

The reason people still sometimes used swords is:
They were symbols of nobility, and wealth
They were backup weapons in case your spear broke
Zweihanders were used to chop up pike formations
The Romans, well, they were weird

I've heard that it's only good in formation with multiple people, and unwieldy compared to sword and shield because heavy spears 7-8 feet long would have to be held in the middle, giving the user only 4 feet of reach (or less).
This is not true. It would defeat the point of pike formations. (pun intended)

Macedonian-style pikemen often used shields that were strapped to the arm. These were likely to protect from missiles.

A longsword would thus have similar reach, making a spear pointless in that situation.
Long-swords could be used to defeat pikes because pikes can't be withdrawn as quickly or as easily as regular spears.

I'm not sure whether you know this, but a longsword is a two-handed sword. The problem with spear/shield vs longsword is that it can be very difficult to damage the spear because spears can be retracted and thrust very quickly.

Against a one-handed sword the spear would have a great reach advantage.

As far as I know, a spear is not usually the weapon used by a skilled fighter.
Many highly skilled fighters have used spears. Samurai, knights, and numerous others would carry melee spears with them as their main weapon. Swords were typically backup weapons, and badges of rank. Something like an officer's pistol in recent warfare.

Apparently it was used extensively in ancient Greece and Rome, but I don't see much about it in medieval contexts (I'm not counting pikes).
Early Roman soldiers used spears, but this switched sometime shortly after the Punic war. (I believe)

I think a lot of literature on medieval warfare is unfairly focused on knights, vikings, and other categories of people that used swords somewhat more commonly. Your average man-at-arms, your rank-and-file, was equipped with a shield and spear. Early knights used regular spears both on foot, and on horseback. Later on knights would develop the lance, basically a specialized spear that could better transfer momentum to the target, but this was later on.

Medieval warfare consisted on soldiers of widely varying ranks, wealth, equipment, training, and experience. In feudal society your average peasant has a choice. You could work back-breaking labor until you die safely in bed at the ripe-old age of thirty-something, or join the army and earn far more, at risk of death and dismemberment.

Soldiers in the same unit often had widely varying equipment because you'd buy your own. As you gained more experience you could gain wealth and titles. That would allow you to equip yourself better and increase your chance of surviving. It was a strange form of meritocracy.
 
Jul 2017
16
Illinois
I'm sorry, I meant a bastard sword when I said Longsword. That would be around the same reach as a one-handed spear, which trivializes the latter.
 
Sep 2012
1,182
Tarkington, Texas
Spears are cheaper than Swords. The bulk of the tribal fighting group would have a shield and a spear, plus maybe a javelin or two. Any extra weapons and armor would depend on a Man's wealth. I like the way Robert Graves described the German Mercenaries in Rome. They carried a short spear and no sword. If they went to close quarters they would step on the spear shaft to shorten the spear into an Assegai.

Like said already, one on one a swordsman cab get inside a spear, but a team of Spearmen could protect each other from swordsmen.

Pruitt
 
Sep 2017
790
United States
One of the other main advantages of spears were that they were great for anti-cavalry. Because they were essentially long spikes that could be held out defensively, this made them great for impaling charging horsemen. With swords, you can't really hold them out like that to receive a charge.

In individual combat, sword/shield might have an advantage in some way, mainly because there are so many places and ways to strike with a sword compared to a spear that really only has thrusts, thus making a swordsmen more deadly. However, they have to be trained to use the sword effectively which is harder than for the spear.

Spears also were great weapons for formations, but swords could still be used in those scenarios. I think the Romans transferred to the gladius because it allowed them to fight behind their scutums better due to the specific design of both of them. They could do incredibly quick stabs that a spear was too unwieldy to do, and could also chop and cut when needed. However, the gladius eventually became the spatha and the Romans readopted the spear later on to fit the changing battlefield.

I think it really comes down to the training/style of soldier, the use of said troops, their enemies, and the tactics/tech of the time.

That being said, in battles with mock weapons, I have found a sword/hand weapon and shield a better combo than a spear and shield as the spear and shield is more unwieldy and is easily grappled. But a spear by itself or a longer polearm is often more deadly than either, due to the fighting styles. Not saying that any kind of mock battle is remotely realistic, but some concepts apply.
 
Apr 2017
750
Lemuria
Spear and shield combo is not good in formation. In formation you need a very high concentration of spear points two handed to be effective. These can compete with sword and shield effectively.
 

janusdviveidis

Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
2,009
Lithuania
For the most of history spear was most used and most useful weapon. Swords were expensive, required more training and could be used only for war. Spear was also a tool, you could hunt with it. You can use spear in melee, or throw it at your enemy. In most cases infantry was fighting with spears and used swords only like weapon of last resort (for example samurai or Renaissance pikemen). There are some exceptions, most famous would be Romans. Still, they were using pilum, which is type of trowing spear.

During late medieval period shields started to disappear, because armor become much better and more available. Even then sword mostly stayed as weapon of last resort. Actual fighting was mostly done with various halberds, pikes, warhammers and lances.
 
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