Spear & shield vs pike

Which weapon or weapon combination is the most effective?


  • Total voters
    13
Nov 2013
586
Kingdom of Sweden
In the early middle ages, pikemen were unheard of in the northwestern areas of Europe where the armies heavily relied on light infantry with axes and shorter spears, with shields for protection. This changed in feudal times, when long and heavy pikes wielded in two hands came to dominate infantry warfare until the age of the musket and beyond.

But why? A one-handed spear offers adequate reach against enemy cavalry, without sacrificing effectiveness in infantry battles - not to mention the shield giving a huge advantage in combat. So why did two-handed pikes replace one-handed spears, and which weapon do you consider to be the most effective?
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,008
MD, USA
Well, for starters, men fighting in formation with shields and spears are not "light" infantry, but "heavy", regardless of their armor. Just a technical nitpick! Though it is true that shieldmen like that can be used in more versatile ways and on more varying terrain than pikemen typically can. So I certainly understand your question!

It should be noted that the English Assize of Arms for the 12th and 13th centuries do not require shields for the lowest-class spearmen, only gambesons and helmets. I believe the Scottish requirements around the time of Bannockburn (1314) are about the same. It does seem to be that the Scots were using "long spears" at that time, as were apparently the Flemmings (Courtrai, 1302?). I don't know what the evidence is for English spears in the 12th and 13th centuries, but if the men are typically not carrying shields, I would not be surprised to find them using something 10 or 12 feet long and 2-handed.

SO it might be that the people living back then found the pike to be more effective for what they needed, and in the end that's what matters. If we don't think it makes sense, it's probably because we don't understand something crucial.

But in this case, it's very possible that a major factor was CAVALRY. Shields and spears are great things, to be sure, but when Sir Ironman and his hundreds of mounted mail-clad terminators are coming at Joe Infantry like a freight train, Joe and his buddies are going to be a lot better off with LONG weapons in a very dense formation. It simply allows you to put more pointy things between you and those killing and stomping machines. Pikes, baby. Pike, padding, pot, and prayer. With pavises for the front rank, just to keep the alliteration.

If the terrain is not suitable for pikes, don't fight there! Yes, it helps to have a leader with a clue, not always a certain thing, I know...

Matthew
 

Edgewaters

Ad Honorem
Jul 2007
9,098
Canada
The pike doesn't just have a longer reach, it's also more stable because it's held with both hands. Resisting the impact and momentum of a charge with one hand is a lot harder than with two.

Shields by this point had been getting smaller and smaller for years, as armour became heavier. Dropping the shield allowed the use of heavier, two handed weapons. Not only did this mean bigger, heavier weapons - it also meant more specialized weapons.

There was also an evolution of increasingly powerful ranged weapons. Longbows, and then superheavy crossbows like the cranequin, and then gunpowder weapons appear on the field. The role of melee combat began diminishing from a central element, to a support role: infantry protecting shooters against cavalry. The pike quite naturally fits this role.

The other development, that came with gunpowder, was bigger armies, that demanded weapons that could be effective without a great deal of proficiency. Formation combat reappeared because the men only needed to learn drill, they didn't need to master the intricacies of hand to hand combat. They just needed to be able to hold a weapon in a few different positions and turn or move together on command. This allowed a much broader range of people to take part in combat.
 

Willempie

Ad Honorem
Jul 2015
5,578
Netherlands
Isn't it simply a question of costs? For a longer spear you just need a longer tree. For a useful shield you have to pay money.
Plus at least in my area a lot of the armies were haphazardly assembled with a lot of peasants or townspeople. They usually didn't have a shield at the ready but either had a spear or some farming tools which could be used as such.
 

HackneyedScribe

Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
6,564
From general Qi Jiguang:

There is an old saying "Killing three thousand enemies, but suffering eight hundred casualties.", but that is only for the evenly matched. Killing three thousand, yet suffering not even one casualty,..., that is the advantage of longer weapons.

杀人三千,自损八百,此相敌之说也。杀人三千,我不损一,则称比之术也。譬如彼以何器,我必求长于彼
 
Sep 2014
1,222
Queens, NYC
Maybe psychology. A longer spear to hold cavalry off may be more reassuring than a short spear.
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
In the early middle ages, pikemen were unheard of in the northwestern areas of Europe where the armies heavily relied on light infantry with axes and shorter spears, with shields for protection.
Not to nitpick, but the Picts developed a pike phalanx, and they certainly qualify as northwestern Europeans in the early Middle Ages. Granted, their isolation could make their usage of the pike something of an inconsequential fluke.

Didn't Flanders also produce pikemen in the earlier part of the Middle Ages? Hate to say it, but I'm basing that mostly on a memory of a mercenary unit in Medieval Total War :lol:
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,008
MD, USA
Isn't it simply a question of costs? For a longer spear you just need a longer tree. For a useful shield you have to pay money.
Plus at least in my area a lot of the armies were haphazardly assembled with a lot of peasants or townspeople. They usually didn't have a shield at the ready but either had a spear or some farming tools which could be used as such.
No. No one was drafted for military duty unless they could meet the minimum standards of equipment. The whole idea of "haphazard" mobs of farmers with tools on the battlefield is a myth. Militias had basic training and were organized, though they were rarely considered as reliable or competent as professional soldiers.

Basically, if you required to have a shield, it was because you had enough income to afford one. The 12th century English regulations start with a minimum of gambeson, helmet, and spear, which would seem to be more expensive than just shield and spear, which had been the standard in Anglo-Saxon times.

So I don't think cost had much to do with it.

There *was* some stockpiling and issuing of equipment by communities and/or nobility at some times and places, as well. Sometimes for militia use, sometimes for mercenaries, sometimes for household troops. Pikes may have been one of those things which it was more practical to purchase in bulk and store in an armory for general issue. Cuz lemme tell you, trying to get even a 10-foot spear into a house to store it...

Matthew
 

Willempie

Ad Honorem
Jul 2015
5,578
Netherlands
No. No one was drafted for military duty unless they could meet the minimum standards of equipment. The whole idea of "haphazard" mobs of farmers with tools on the battlefield is a myth. Militias had basic training and were organized, though they were rarely considered as reliable or competent as professional soldiers.
That may be true for England, but here only few nobles had that luxury.
Basically, if you required to have a shield, it was because you had enough income to afford one. The 12th century English regulations start with a minimum of gambeson, helmet, and spear, which would seem to be more expensive than just shield and spear, which had been the standard in Anglo-Saxon times.

So I don't think cost had much to do with it.
I know that in the towns a shield was quite useless in a siege, so that may be another reason.
There *was* some stockpiling and issuing of equipment by communities and/or nobility at some times and places, as well. Sometimes for militia use, sometimes for mercenaries, sometimes for household troops. Pikes may have been one of those things which it was more practical to purchase in bulk and store in an armory for general issue. Cuz lemme tell you, trying to get even a 10-foot spear into a house to store it...

Matthew
Whence the longhouses ;)
 
Oct 2011
478
Sloboda
I am in favor of two-handed pike.

Phycology is the major factor in combat.

A big shied allowed soldier to use the help of his friends and comrades and to be less active and responsible.

Contrary to that, front-men of the pike formation have only their pike and a pair of hands to protect themselves - in a result they would be active and responsible, not due to the enormous training or the team spirit, bot out of the need to survive. I won't go into the ethics of the thing, but it seems to be quite effective to motivate a soldier. The same as to put him on the edge of the cliff or deprive him of any way to escape from the battle and he would use both his hands with such devotion and motivation that he can be a match for a professional soldier.

The case of a small shield is different. The small shields were not used in big infantry formations, but they were used by individual soldiers, either to increase their armor or to support fencing style. With small shield soldier too is very active and responsible.