The History of Medieval Weapons in Europe

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Personal Weapons

The weapons of early man

The weapons of mankind have changed a great deal since man first took up a rock to hunt with, they have grown more sophisticated, more complex, and have increased in complexity of use and maintenance and also in range and area of effect. Similarities will be drawn between the weapons of the past with those of modern times as well as follow the evolution from the incredibly personal combat of the past, to the push button "neutralizations" of today ("neutralization" being shooting from afar, barely seeing the target until you pass by its smoking remains on the way forward).

In the beginning man had only his body and wits to hunt with, but fortunately, his wits quickly devised tools with which to increase his ability to hunt, such as the stone (not actually invented, more found), club, and spear. Each could be used as both an extension of the body as well as a weapon of range (limited though it might be). The stone could be used both to throw and to bash animals with (holding in the hand). The spear is a straight stick with a sharpened end. Later the sharpened end might be hardened by fire. After man began hardening the sharpened end in fire, he tied a sharpened rock to a notched end; it can be thrust into an animal's innards or can be thrown into the animal's flank or limbs, depending on how close you are, or on how much of a risk taker you are. And finally the club, a short, thick piece of tree branch that is used to apply blunt trauma to the enemy or prey, usually about the head or back where it is most likely cause sufficient damage for the nerves to cease functioning. The club can be thrown but would mostly be used in the hand. These weapons where suitable for hunting and where all primitive man required. However as mankind evolved as a society, it required an increasing amount of sophistication in its weapons, not only to hunt, but also to defend against other human beings bent on taking what they had sought to acquire.

The sling and javelin evolved from the rock and spear, and where used throughout history by the vanguards of armies to harass and to cause what casualties they could, but as time went on, advances armor and shields eventually nullified the threat of rocks and javelins. The sling of course throws rocks with great speed and accuracy, and could stun or knock out the enemy or prey long enough for soldiers or hunters to close for an easy kill. The javelin is a short spear almost entirely used for throwing that which needs to die.

Early on in the days of the cave man, an exact date cannot be given due to the incomplete nature of history (cave men predate all forms of dating and history), a certain black rock was noticed to be useful in skinning animals, cutting hides, and about anything else that needed stabbed, cut, or otherwise opened by forceful means. This rock is later known as obsidian or flint. When struck along the grain, the rock chip into flakes, these flakes where natural razors, with very sharp edges and where relatively strong when not struck on the grain. These flakes were sometimes lashed onto a wooden handle so that the wielder wouldn't cut themselves while using it. This was the first knife (and spear head), and like other primitive weapons, was mostly used in hunting, in the preparing of food, and often, as both fork and knife (a tradition that lasted well into the 1300s in England and France [as well as other European areas]).

The knife

As the use of metals pervaded human civilization, obsidian was given up in favor of copper, brass, bronze, and eventually iron and steel. The knife is a simple weapon, a handle, a hand guard, and a blade. The blade can be single or double edged, serrated or not, depending on its intended use. Most knives of old where double edged and un-serrated, they where superb for slicing and thrusting, and where used often to thrust into the weak spots of armor or (as against unprotected opponents) to slash them to keep them at bay, to slit their throats when using stealth, or stab them when in extreme close quarters. Knives have always been in the gear of soldiers, and will be so long as they are so diversely useful. Knives were even attached under the barrels of rifles, these are called bayonets. Modern combat knives also serve this purpose, and are in the basic equipment of every army on earth.

The sword

The sword is a natural extension from the knife. Over years of advances in smith-craft the knife became the long knife, and from there the short sword. The short sword was useful mostly for thrusting, but was sharpened on the edges to slash at the enemy too. Like knives, swords can be single or double-edged, long or short, for a variety of different styles and purposes. "What could you use a sword for other than stabbing and cutting?" you ask, its not so much about their intended use, they are all still for killing the enemy and defense, but the differences are in how they are intended to kill.

The saber and scimitar, the former is European and the latter Arab in style. They are both used primarily for slashing, and are often employed by cavalry, where the speed of the horse can drastically increase the weapon's ability to penetrate armor. The falchion is a weapon that looks a great deal like an enormous machete; it is used to penetrate chain mail by the English, French, and some of the western Germans, but it is almost useless against plate armor. The nature of the curved blade was particularly good for cavelry, because if the blade hit in any of the chinks in the armor, it would most likely drive through and cause a vicious wound, and if it hit the armor in a stronger point it would alsmost certainly knock the man down while the blade slides easily away so as to leave the caveleryman on his horse

Bastard, or hand-and-a-half blades (sometimes also called long-swords), are swords with longer than normal blades, a hilt that can accommodate one or two hands, and a heavy ball on the bottom (the pommel), which is both a counterbalance and mace that can be used to bash the heads of enemies. The broadsword, for most knights was the perfect balance of length and weight, as well as being equally useful at thrusting and slashing, it could penetrate most armor with a sufficiently powerful blow and could be swung incredibly fast, it could defend against most other swords and weapons. The long sword was wielded most effectively by the Teutonic order, who with their great strength and superior training could wear heavy armor and use heavy weapons with equal or greater speed of the unarmored, or less armored.

The claymore, used most famously by the Scots (especially William Wallace, who's claymore was 6 feet long from tip to pommel) are massive swords that are almost like axes in their weight and the manner in which they are used. The heavy weight of the blades can be used to pierce plate while the reinforced tips can be used to pierce through mail. A blow with a claymore could cleave through plate and shield easily, it would swiftly batter an enemy's weapon aside and the concussive force alone could crush ribs, cause internal bleeding, and even collaps lungs. The length of the weapon also had the advantage of keeping the wielder at a safe distance from anything less than a large battle axe, a spear, or a pole-arm.

The Gladius (which means "sword" in Latin). This is the classic Roman weapon, a mainstay of their legions throughout the Empire. The gladius is a short sword one to one and half feet long, while it can be used to slash it is primarily a thrusting weapon. The Romans first took it up to battle the Greek Phalanx, which was a formation of hoplites (soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armor with large shields, javelins, heavy swords, and spears). The phalanx was a formation like a box or a turtle (some even call it a turtle formation) the front rank bore heavy shields to protect the back ranks. The next two ranks carried long spears which projected through the spaces in between the shields, those rear of the front three ranks were there, swords ready, incase the front ranks were penetrated. The Romans waited until they were very close to the spears, then battered them away or broke them with their short swords and reached around the shield wall and stabbed the shield bearers before they could draw their swords. Used in combination with the classic Roman tower shield, the heavy protection the shield provided meant that Romans could easily get inside of the enemies' weapon arc and swiftly get inside the enemy soldier's individual defenses and stab them with relatively little chance of them countering. The trend in sword design is that of “long good, short bad” and it is safe to say that it supports the theory of the evolution of weapons throughout history to be longer range and more powerful.

The Rapier, and some similar weapons, are excellent for dueling, they are thin, light blades that are sharp, sturdy, and good for stabbing, slashing, and deflecting enemy blades to put the duelist in a better position to deliver a lethal strike. A man with a strong wrist and forearm can be quite lethal with one.

Dueling was a common practice from the earliest days of the royalties of Europe (mid 400s AD) to the mid nineteenth century. In duels a matter of honor would often be settled in full view of the court. Duelists would use swords, and perhaps a back up knife. What sword they used was their own choice, but light fast weapons such as rapiers or sabers would be used to give the best advantage of speed and cutting ability. While it was often a stab that ended a duel, it was the multitude of painful knicks, cuts, and slashes that brought the soon-to-be dead to the point where they could no longer block ro deflect a stab.

Swords are used even today. Many are collected as valuables or just something pretty adorn a wall. Millions of children the world over play with wooden broomsticks as swords and Fencing, which uses a dulled form of the Rapier, is an Olympic Sport.

The axe

The axe is another weapon that has its roots in a tool. The axe was originally used to chop down trees and to hunt and prepare food. Originally it was a sharpened stone, possibly obsidian, lashed to a stick with vine or entrails. It was effective at cutting branches and in hunting and skinning, but it soon found its way into battle. As metallurgy progressed, the axe was made increasingly more durable and could thus be used more effectively and with less risk of damage to the weapon in combat. There are a variety of different kinds of axe. There is double and single bladed, single and double handed. Some of the most famous axe-wielders were the Vikings, especially their Berserkers.

The Vikings used mostly hand axes with shields. Their single handed, single bladed axes were well crafted, very strong, very durable, very sharp, and in the hands of their skilled warriors, very lethal. The axe could cleave through both mail and plate with surprising speed and ease because it inflicted damage as much from concussion and impact as it did from cutting and cleaving. An axe blow on a shield was demoralizing and after four or five your shield arm could well go numb. The purpose of the double bladed axe is so that you can attack someone on the back swing, just like with a double-edged sword. This means that you have twice the killing capacity as you would if only using a single bladed axe. The two handed axe, like the two handed sword, came about as a way to provide a weapon that can easily cleave through shield, mail, plate, flesh, bone, trees, horses, and just about anything other than walls and mountains.

The largest axe of the two handed sort is the Danish Bearded Axe. This was the choice weapon of the most elite of pre-Norman warriors known as Housecarls. These were incredibly tall, incredibly built warriors that practiced with their huge axes for as much as twelve hours a day. Their axes were swung in a figure eight in battle and would kill horse and man with equal speed. The Housecarls nearly won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but they had the misfortune of being outflanked by William of Normandy. The axe was also the key instrument of execution until hanging was taken up as a more humane form of state execution. But the trend in the design of axes is obvious; they got bigger, longer, and more powerful, with the intent of a single blow from outside the enemy’s range being only necessary swing. The lengthening of the pole and increasing of force of impact to create a nearly unstoppable weapon is another example of the increase in reach and power inherent to the evolution of all weapons.

The extending range of axes as a weapon is even better illustrated by the Frankish throwing axes. Frankish warriors had designed and implemented the use of a throwing axe that had a modest range of about 50 yards with a good throw and clear line of sight. The axe head was where the weight was centered so when thrown it pulled the axe through the air in like a spinning tire and struck the target with sufficient force to penetrate both mail and plate. Few warriors facing the Franks expected a sudden volley of axes to be thrown at them so it was quite a surprise advantage at the outset of any battle, and even when armies started to use shield walls to prevent axe casualties that put them at the distinct disadvantage of being on the defensive.

Blunt instruments

Maces, hammers, flails and similar blunt force weapons are not so much weapons that get longer and bigger, but reflect weapon evolution in that they are specialized weapons, the depleted uranium ammunition of their time. The mace is a wood or metal stick about an inch wide and twelve to eighteen inches long. The mace has a leather loop so that it won't fly off the wrist when being swung and the part that strikes the enemy is a sphere, a sphere with spikes, a flanged hexagonal shape, or a small ball with angled blades radiating from it along longitudes. This weapon is almost purely blunt force; it was conceived of and used almost exclusively by warrior priests and warrior monks as a more civilized manner in which to kill. They considered that killing without drawing blood was a more holy way to go about it.

The hammer is the same idea as the mace but with a different design. Here it is essentially a giant hammer, like the modern ones, with a flat banging thing on one side and a "bec-de-corbin" on the other, which translates as "crow's beak." The hammer end is to smack people with and cause blunt trauma, which can crush ribs, cause internal bleeding, and crush lungs. The crow's beak is used to actually pierce the armor and cause bloody, painful, debilitating wounds. The flail is a mace but with a chain in between the "business end" and the handle. When swung it gathers even greater force on its way to the target and is almost certain to kill or mortally wound when one achieves a skull or thoracic hit.

Spears and Lances

These are pretty simple weapons, strictly for piercing, not at all useful for slashing. The spear is like a giant arrow, it is a metal head on the end of a wooden shaft. Spears can be used to throw from a wall or from on horseback, or can be used in the melee (the battle on foot) to keep the enemy back and stab them in the guts. The spear was one of the key instruments in the phalanx, a formation of hoplite infantryman. The men in front protected with their tower shields while the next two ranks had their spears forward and stabbed anyone in range with them. The throwing spear is different from the javelin in that it had greater weight and thus more impact force, which can still penetrate the weaker pints of armor.

The Romans had a special throwing spear that was a super weapon in their time. The pilum, a two foot long steal shaft with a barbed end attached to a two to three foot long wooden handle. When thrown the spear head could penetrate through shields and mail due to its length and sharpness and the handle would break off on impact so that the enemy couldn't throw it back. It was a devastating weapon that helped win many battles for the Roman Legions. The lance is similar to the spear in its intended use, but slightly different in its design.

The lance was a longer wooden pole with a metal tip specifically designed to plow through plate, mail, and flesh. The opposite end from the tip was weighted so that it could be used one handed and there was a flared pierce between the hand-guard and the pole as it got closer to the tip as a balance point and to add some protection for the hand. The lance is used entirely by cavalry, as it would be foolish for an infantryman to attempt to use one except against a cavalry charge at the beginning of a battle to stop. The lance wielded by armored knights on horseback and gathered in large numbers (300 to 400 knights was not at all unusual) it became a battle-ending weapon. On the field of battle, few armies could stand before a massed force of heavily armed and armored cavalry until a longer form of the lance was formed. When this longer lance did come into use it turned the tide of battles from those who had cavalry, to those who did not. The use of throwing spears, pilum, and the lance are more examples of the use of longer and longer range weapons to keep the enemy at a safe distance.


True to their name, these weapons are on the ends of poles. There are numerous different kinds of pole arms for numerous uses. First is the glaive, essentially a sword on a stick, in addition to being able to pierce armor like a spear, it could also chop and slice through the enemy with its curved and sharpened edges. It was a weapon particularly effective against cavalry not only because you could slash the horse's feet out from under him, but also because you could blindside the rider with it, knocking them off with the pole or getting in a chink in the armor and wounding them. Next is the halberd, this is like an axe on a stick. The force of the swing is greater with this weapon and can cause greater damage to both armored and unarmored opponents. Often there is a spike on top of the pole, and on the other side of the axe blade so as to give a more precision armor-piercing weapon as well as to give the user something to kill an opponent with on the backswing.

Next is the billhook. This is a weapon that evolved from a gardening tool, and can still be found today. The billhook is a metal hook on a pole that has a serrated inner edge so that it can be used to cut off tree branches. It also has a spike on the top and opposite the hook to whack tree branches with. This tool was probably taken up as a weapon by peasants who were under attack and had nothing else to fight with. The hook can be used to yank an armored knight around by the straps and the spikes on the top and reverse of the hook to kill the knight by piercing his armor.


Armor may not be a weapon, but it is the necessary repercussion of weapons. At first there was no armor, only cloth and flesh, but this was swiftly remedied. As human culture evolved, so did its clothing, and in the process, we moved on from skinned animal hides, to leather. Leather was the first armor, thick layers of leather were used so that glancing blows, sling thrown rocks, and weaker impacts from swords and axes would either not penetrate, or would penetrate much less, this is due to the thickness of leather, as well as its strength and seeming unwillingness to get pierced.

But as metals got better, and weapons got sharper, leather became increasingly obsolete. Thus plate and mail were born. It is unclear who invented either plate or mail but they were in use in some form or other since at least the later years of Assyrians. Plate was used by all the major military powers in the ancient world, Greek Hoplites used heavy breast plates, leg armor and helmets; the Romans used light helmets and breast plates with boiled leather vambraces and greaves; the Germanic Barbarians used mixes of boiled leather (predominantly), mail, and plate, depending on what they could find and how much metal they had at hand, as did the Scots later.

The point of mail was to prevent slashes and broad headed arrows from penetrating and causing wounds. A thrust spear or sword would penetrate enough to kill or seriously wound and an axe would cleave through. Plate was invented to prevent slashes from wounding as well as to deflect thrust weapons and narrower arrowheads. For a while this was the ultimate advantage, but improvements in armor piercing technology in swords, axes, bows/crossbows, and spears eventually rendered plate to be “possibly protective” and not a guarantee on battle survivability.

In the thirteen through fifteen hundreds, mail and plate were combined. The knight going into battle would dress in a cloth undergarment (some would wear leather over that), then mail, and then plate. If you were wealthy, or had a wealthy sponsor, you would get armor specifically fitted to you, like a tailored suit, this armor would fit perfectly, so perfectly that a knight who was knocked down (but unwounded of course) could get back up within a second. Knights had full range of motion in well-fitted armor and could mount their horses with little or no aid. While armor weighed in between 80 and 140 lbs it was so well dispersed about the body that it hardly felt like a burden at all.

The armored knight was the tank of his day, and one knight could often take 10 armed peasants at once, they were incredibly well trained, very disciplined, and had not only their lives, but the livelihood of themselves and their families to consider when they went into battle, a loss would be dishonor and possibly the seizure of their property, but a victory, was more prestige, more glory, possible a social elevation, and most certainly more money. Plate and mail armor was the standard until in the late 1500s when the proliferation of fire arms, first matchlock and later flintlock had rendered armor more of a hindrance than an advantage. In modern times we still use armor and shields in tough situations. The Army uses body armor to try and prevent wounds from bullets, or to make them "less than lethal" and the police do the same. In situations of extreme civil unrest the police even bring out clubs (just like maces) and tower shields (from the Greek and Roman times) to protect themselves and innocents and to stop barbarous rioters, so armor too has translated into the modern era.


Bows were some of the first complex weapons ever designed besides the spear. The bow was originally invented for hunting; an arrow or two could be notched and fired into an animal before they ran off (wounded if you had skill or luck). After this you had to track it down by its blood trail and then kill it with a knife or spear. The whole point of the bow is to wound or kill the enemy at range, keeping you safe. As time grew on, so did the power and designs of bows. The pinnacle of bows was the English Long bow, sometimes called the war bow. The long bow was a 150 to 200 lb bow, which meant that it took (combined) pushing and pulling strength of 150 to 200 lbs to draw the string back. While other armies left their archers to train on their own (because they were seen as inferior to warriors), the English realized their use.

They trained their archers for as much as eight hours a day and a minimum of three. The common method of attack was for the archers to fire one volley into the air and another straight forward, this caused arrows to fall on the enemy from above while the front and near front ranks also had to contend with them coming from the front, this maximized casualties because the enemy could only shield in one direction. Bows became increasingly more useful throughout history, every time someone developed armor that could stop and arrow a new head or more powerful bow was invented to render that armor ineffective.

Arrows too evolved. At first the arrow head was nothing more than the sharpened end of the stick. Later (it is unsure of exactly when, as few in the old days wrote down such things) arrows had evolved from sharpened sticks to barbed, broad arrowheads which cut deep and are hard to remove. When mail and plate began stopping these the bodkin was invented. The bodkin arrow head is simply a steal tip with a sharpened point that is narrow enough to go through the holes in mail and fired by a bow powerful enough to pierce steel plate. This is like the depleted uranium rounds today.

The crossbow is an advanced form of the bow. It was a weapon so effective at killing that it was outlawed by several kings of England and France and even labeled "un-Christian" by the Pope.

By using a crank to draw the string back, one can generate more force than by simply drawing it back by hand, however it takes much longer to do. A skilled archer can notch and fire every 2 seconds, while a crossbowman can only fire one or two shots a minute. The advantage of the crossbow however is that it fires the bolt (a short, thick arrow with a steel tip) at such great velocities that it plows through armor and people regardless of how thick it is. Another advantage of the crossbow is that it takes little or no skill to operate effectively. The disadvantage of firing rate was overcome by the Tuetons, who invented a lever action re-drawing system for the wire. Pull down on the lever, and the wire hook goes forward and hooks under the wire, draw back on the lever, and it draws the wire back with the help of some gears and pulley's so it doesn't exhaust you. This made the rate of fire about half that of the bow and arrow.

"Impersonal" weapons

Seige Weapons

But there is more to consider in medieval arms than just what men and horses carried on their backs, there is also what they towed onto the battle field with oxen. The siege weapons.

The first of the siege weapons was the battering ram. This was a log with a couple of rope handles. When man felt safe behind clay walls and wooden doors, this shook his sense of security. The weight of the log was enough to batter the door down when swung with enough force, or enough times. As doors got bigger, thicker, stronger, and contained more metal, so did rams. Eventually they grew to be as much as 10 meters long, half a meter wide, and capped with steel. It was suspended by heavy hemp ropes between the legs of a reinforced frame that was set on wheels, and had thick armored walls and roof. This could be wheeled up to the doors of a castle's walls and was impervious to almost anything but boiling (and burning) oil or really big rocks.

Next was the catapult. This was a basket on a stick, into which one big rock, or several small rocks were loaded. This basket on a stick was attached to a cross pole which was cranked down until it could be cranked no more. When released, the basked swung upwards, till the stick knocked against a cross pole perpendicular to the ground. This stopped the basket, but not its contents. The rock or rocks flew towards the enemy encampment with a great deal of speed and force, and could damage or destroy stone walls on impact.

Another siege weapon, is less a weapon, and more of a vehicle. This is the battle tower. Originally, the battle tower would not have to be pre-assembled and pushed into combat, but could be assembled at night right under the noses of the wall guards, but as walls got bigger, the likely hood of successfully completing the construction of the battle tower decreased to zero. The tower was a three walled structure set on wheels. There was a boarding ramp approximately at the height of the battlement on the walls, and a ladder to get to it, there was also a platform to stand on, and another above that which archers, spearmen, or crossbowmen could stand on and soften up the enemy before the boarding ramp was dropped. These were not often used, because they were a large and ungainly target for the enemy's catapults. The battle tower evolved from the ladder, which is a rather simple device. Men used to carry ladders up to the walls of a fortified installation, prop them up, and start climbing. As walls got bigger, and defenses more intricate, this became and increasingly bad idea, which is why the battle tower was invented in the first place.

The biggest and baddest of all non-gunpowder throwing weapons was the trebuchet. The trebuchet was carted into battle in pieces. At first glance it might look like someone was attempting to build a three story house on the edge of the enemy formation, but when they start to see the pulleys or the counterweight, they will know what it is that will be their end. The trebuchet, approximately three stories tall, is like a catapult in that it throws really big or heavy rocks at the enemy with a fare degree of accuracy. A brief explanation of the working principles is this: you put a big rock in the bag, tie the bag off, aim the bag, pull the rope that releases the counter weight, the weight drops, the bag rises, at about 90 degrees from the ground the bag opens and releases the rock, which spins and arcs over walls, and smashes into the target, often doing some hefty damage to it.

Lastly, the cannon. While gunpowder and rockets were invented by the Chinese, it is the Ottoman Turks who invented the cannon. The cannon was, and is still, a metal tube from which a hunk of metal was propelled by the fast oxidation of gunpowder. The Ottomans used cannons to take down the supposedly impenetrable walls of Constantinople (and they were impenetrable, to trebuchets and catapults). Cannons eventually found their way to Europe, where they were employed by the French against the British during latter days of the Hundred Years War.

Cannons eventually made their way onto ships at sea, it is around this point in the mid to late 1400s that the Medieval Age ended, and the Renascence began.

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