Pike vs. Spear and shield vs Sword and shield

Dec 2015
84
California, USA
Looking at the battles of the Macedonians (pikes), Greeks (spear and shield), and Romans (sword and shield), as well as later battles between European footsoldiers, it would seem to me that there is a rock paper scissors between pike, spear and shield, and sword and shield for footsoldier combat.

That is, spear and shield tended to be superior to sword and shield due to longer reach, better stabbing due to being stiffer, and better balance due to having a counterweight, in addition to the ability to effectively wield a spear overhand from behind a shieldwall (i.e. phalanx). The only major drawbacks to spear vis a vis sword is that you have to worry about hitting the person behind you with the stick of the spear and that it is more of a single-use weapon than a sword (though you can have a small sword as a sidearm for backup).

Meanwhile, pikemen seem to have had an advantage over spear and shield because the longer reach made it very difficult for the spearman to get within striking range of the pikeman. He could try to block with the shield and push the pike out of the way, but would also have to contend with the pikes from the second rank of spears.

In contrast, infantry armed with sword and shield (assuming the shield was sufficiently strong, unlike say the wicker shields of the Achaemenid armies) could hold their own against pikesmen in frontal combat because the sword could hack through the pikes and assist the shield in pushing them out of the way. Additionally, those armed with sword and shield had much higher mobility than those armed with spears, allowing them to more easily outflank pikemen or exploit gaps in their lines, taking advantage of the biggest vulnerability of pikes - their poor maneuverability.

Thoughts? Any historical sources that support (or don't) this theory?
 
Aug 2015
333
Korean in Canada
This might be going to a wrong topic, but this link on legions vs phalanx gives a good comment on what you are talking about
http://www.scout.com/military/deadliest-blogger/story/1416208-phalanx-vs-legion-closing-the-debate
Basically its saying that legion system defeated phalanx system because of its flexibility and adaptability, as legionnaires could go in then out and flank and all that stuff, while phalanxs were less able to do that.
Tho perhaps if phalanxs adapted to be more flexible (if that is possible) perhaps the debate might be much different.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
5,015
Australia
It is practically impossible to cut through a pike with a sword - even two-handed one. The only way to do this is if your target held still for a few minutes while you hit the same spot on the shaft over and over. Swords have a lot of tactical uses against pikes but cutting through the shaft is not one of them.
 
Last edited:

Poly

Ad Honorem
Apr 2011
6,698
Georgia, USA
...it would seem to me that there is a rock paper scissors between pike, spear and shield, and sword and shield for footsoldier combat.

That is, spear and shield tended to be superior to sword and shield due to longer reach, better stabbing due to being stiffer, and better balance due to having a counterweight, in addition to the ability to effectively wield a spear overhand from behind a shieldwall (i.e. phalanx). The only major drawbacks to spear vis a vis sword is that you have to worry about hitting the person behind you with the stick of the spear and that it is more of a single-use weapon than a sword (though you can have a small sword as a sidearm for backup).

Meanwhile, pikemen seem to have had an advantage over spear and shield because the longer reach made it very difficult for the spearman to get within striking range of the pikeman. He could try to block with the shield and push the pike out of the way, but would also have to contend with the pikes from the second rank of spears.

In contrast, infantry armed with sword and shield (assuming the shield was sufficiently strong, unlike say the wicker shields of the Achaemenid armies) could hold their own against pikesmen in frontal combat because the sword could hack through the pikes and assist the shield in pushing them out of the way. ...
A couple of points;

First of all if a body of men - whether in tight formation or not - hold their spears overarm, they don't present much of a threat to their comrades behind them. This is actually the case if spearmen fight holding their spears underarm

Pikemen were shown to be at a disadvantage against spearmen by the Romans - if the spearmen had spears that can be easily thrown, the exposed pikemen have a problem especially if they have a short sword to pull out and rush in to exploit an advantage

As already stated, you cannot hack or chop through a pike with a sword. It is said that at the battle of Flodden, English bill-men (a kind of spear but not one you can throw) defeated pike armed Scottish infantry and chopped off the heads of their pikes
It is said they trapped the Scott's' pikes against the ground and chopped off the head
 
Sep 2012
1,177
Tarkington, Texas
Keep in mind that the Roman system also included Pilum, which were thrown before contact. The Light Pilum went off first and then the heavy ones before contact. If your front ranks were being hit by missile fire this could disrupt the first couple of men in the formation. To be most effective the Macedonian Phalanx needed the the ranks to be able to repel swordsmen that got under the first few pikes. In later times, Two Handed Swordsmen could and did disrupt Pike Formations by getting under the Pikes.

Also think of a Roman Legion as a mixed arms formation. They had Slingers and Archers softening up the foe before contact. The Macedonians did not all have heavy armor against sling shot, arrows and javelins. There was a reason the Sarissa had a butt spike, to finish off wounded and prone enemy.

Pruitt
 

Poly

Ad Honorem
Apr 2011
6,698
Georgia, USA
Keep in mind that the Roman system also included Pilum, which were thrown before contact. The Light Pilum went off first and then the heavy ones before contact...
Are you aware that there is some debate on whether the Roman legionary carried one or two pila ?

According to those well read, there seems no prime sources that says the Roman legionaries carried more than one pilum/pila
 

Thegn Ansgar

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
5,638
Canada
According to those well read, there seems no prime sources that says the Roman legionaries carried more than one pilum/pila
Polybius?

This gravestone of Castricius Victor?



Caesar's Bello Gallico book VII?
 
Sep 2012
1,177
Tarkington, Texas
Are you aware that there is some debate on whether the Roman legionary carried one or two pila ?

According to those well read, there seems no prime sources that says the Roman legionaries carried more than one pilum/pila
Well silly me! I thought some Legionaires carried a Heavy Pilum and two Light Pila. It probably depended on when and where the Legions were. Later they carried Plumbata that were attached to the inside of the shield.

Try getting Ancient Warfare Magazine. They have shown many a picture of a man kitted up in full marching gear. They carried the Pila around the shaft of the furca.

Pruitt
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,484
South of the barcodes
A couple of points;

First of all if a body of men - whether in tight formation or not - hold their spears overarm, they don't present much of a threat to their comrades behind them. This is actually the case if spearmen fight holding their spears underarm

Pikemen were shown to be at a disadvantage against spearmen by the Romans - if the spearmen had spears that can be easily thrown, the exposed pikemen have a problem especially if they have a short sword to pull out and rush in to exploit an advantage

As already stated, you cannot hack or chop through a pike with a sword. It is said that at the battle of Flodden, English bill-men (a kind of spear but not one you can throw) defeated pike armed Scottish infantry and chopped off the heads of their pikes
It is said they trapped the Scott's' pikes against the ground and chopped off the head
The other point is that the bill part of the billhook is an agricultural tool specifically designed for chopping wood and trimming trees.

you get one handed bills for trimming bushes and two handed bills for trees.

It got militarised by adding the one handed peasant bill to a back spike, spear point and long pole to make it a pole arm. The average village had a ready supply of bills and even the dimmest blacksmith could bodge together the welded spikes and fixing ring.

You get a bunch of peasants familiar with chopping wood and a weapon designed for hacking through tree branches and the result is going to be fairly obvious.
 
Aug 2014
525
Northumberland
In early Hellenistic battles the Pike versus Pilum combats were considered to be fairly even.It was recorded in on Pyyrhic battle that the Romans could no make any headway against the pike phalanx as it was blocking a gateway and the Romans could not get round it.In fact the Roman maniples (and later cohorts) could only defeat phalanxes by manoeuvering onto their flanks or fighting them in bad terrain as at the battle of Pydna.

The Galatians (Eastern Celts) had a string of victories against Pike armies and fought naked with sword,javelin and spear much like early Gallic armies were successful against Republican Roman armies.
Only with experience and tactics involving other troops did the Greeks and Romans learn to beat these enemies.

Later European pike armies,particularly the Swiss did use more flexible pike tactics by using deep columns called kiels supported by a halbard armed reserve who would move from the rear of the Kiel to break any deadlock.This was a successful tactic throughout the 15-16th centuries and was only countered by improved artillery and firearms used by combined arms armies.