Thrown Melee Weapons Useless against Heavy Armor/Shields?

Apr 2017
1,630
U.S.A.
Are thrown melee weapons (axes, daggers, javelins/spears) largely useless against heavy armor and shields? A notable exception being the Pilum against wooden shields. What about thrown maces, could they be of use?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,471
Dispargum
Some of these missile weapons were thrown more to take out the enemy shields than to injure enemy soldiers. After the axes, pilae, maces, etc shattered the sheilds, those soldiers no longer had protection in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed. So just because an ax, pilae, mace, etc does not draw blood it doesn't mean the weapon is useless.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,756
Australia
It is impossible for someone to wear enough armour to completely cover their body. There are always vulnerable places to aim for - even on someone wearing full plate harness. Hand weapons (including arrows and javelins) are useless against plate that is thicker than 2 mm, but if you throw enough missiles at an armoured person, eventually one of them will find a spot that is not well-protected.

Some kinds of armour such as scale, mail, and lamellar are more susceptible and it is here that a javelin might have an advantage. Javelins travel slower than an arrow but have more mass. The amount of energy involved is similar for both but the javelin has more momentum. This should make it better at penetrating some kinds of armour than an arrow but I'm not aware of any published comparative tests.

The end of the Bronze Age saw more prevalence of body armour than previously and, around the same time, charioteers changed from being archers to being javelin skirmishers. IMO the likely reason for this change is to be better able to counter troops wearing armour.
 
Last edited:

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,966
MD, USA
Some of these missile weapons were thrown more to take out the enemy shields than to injure enemy soldiers. After the axes, pilae, maces, etc shattered the sheilds, those soldiers no longer had protection in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed. So just because an ax, pilae, mace, etc does not draw blood it doesn't mean the weapon is useless.

No single thrown weapon is going to "shatter" a shield. A pilum or something similar might penetrate enough to wound the man, otherwise you might get some cracking or splitting of the wood from an axe, etc. But the shield will still be functional for quite a while.


I don't think any weapons were deliberately thrown *at shields*. They were thrown at enemies, or at a formation or group of men. Many of those weapons might be blocked by shields, but they'll still bounce off wildly with various amounts of momentum, cartwheeling dangerously until they finally hit the ground. Where they can still be tripped over. So they're going to be incredibly disruptive, with every man frantically blocking and flinching and reacting to even the noise of hundreds of weapons raining in. You can do a lot of damage to an enemy formation without killing any of them!


Another thing is that typically the guys we think of as being completely armored didn't often carry shields. Late medieval men-at-arms used 2-handed weapons, protected by armor rather than shields. So you generally did not need a weapon which could get through *both* shield and armor. (Though there were still pavises and mantlets, sometimes!)


Matthew
 
Apr 2018
281
USA
In other words it sort of depends on what you mean by "useless". A volley of throwing weapons probably wouldn't stop an enemy charge on it's own, but they could still cause bruises, minor wounds, and general discomfort to add up over time and exhaust or demoralize armored enemies.


Also, high ground is your friend when it comes to throwing weapons; let gravity do much of the work for you. Throwing spears, darts, and regular old rocks remained a staple of the defenders during sieges even well into the early modern period.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,471
Dispargum
Well, there's this passage from Procopius discussing the Frankish intervention in the Italian wars of the 6th century:


"...each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men."


Bk VI, Ch XXV


Shatter might be too strong a word, but my point was that missile weapons can be used to weaken shields. Drawing blood is not the only function of a missile weapon. A shield with a pilum stuck in its face will probably be cast aside and its owner will subsequently fight without his shield.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,756
Australia
Well, there's this passage from Procopius discussing the Frankish intervention in the Italian wars of the 6th century:


"...each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men."


Bk VI, Ch XXV


Shatter might be too strong a word, but my point was that missile weapons can be used to weaken shields. Drawing blood is not the only function of a missile weapon. A shield with a pilum stuck in its face will probably be cast aside and its owner will subsequently fight without his shield.
These kinds of translations are too unreliable to be useful. Need to see the original language.
 

AwP

Aug 2017
74
USA
Even if a hail of thrown weapons don't hurt a single enemy, they are still useful for disrupting their formation right before the clash. They will be ducking, flinching, covering their faces, etc.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,756
Australia
Even if a hail of thrown weapons don't hurt a single enemy, they are still useful for disrupting their formation right before the clash. They will be ducking, flinching, covering their faces, etc.
They also help to direct the enemy towards a predetermined position. If you hit them on the left, they will drift towards the right. If you hit them from both sides they will bunch up in the middle.