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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Test-cutting with Eastern and Western polearms

Test-cutting with Eastern and Western polearms

photo by One Lucky Guy

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Conducting tameshigiri with long polearms is another interesting exercise, and is practiced by many in the Eastern and Western martial arts.  Often large and heavy, cutting with these weapons can be a challenge.  Indeed perhaps only specific polesarms (bladed, and thus meant to cut and slice rather than smash or bludgeon) are useful in modern test cutting.

Style and use of the weapons vary from culture to culture, and indeed from period to period, but could include (taken from and leading to Wikipedia links):

Dark Ages/Medieval Europe

 Renaissance Europe

Chinese polearms

Chinese polearms. Photo from Wikipedia




Generally speaking, polearms can be roughly divided into two groups by their intended targets or use.

Those with a long, sharpened edge, often shaped like a sword blade (glaive, guan dao, naginata) or sickle (guisarme, bill-hook) were intended for use in attacking mounted cavalry or lightly armoured foot soldiers.  The cutting blades were intended for use on the horses themselves, or to slash at the mounted warrior.  When used against foot soldiers, these forms of polearms could either be used from withing a formation to attack enemies beyond sword range (Europe), or as main foot weapons in single combat (China, Japan).

The second class of polearms were usually intended to inflict effective damage on heavily armoured warriors;  thus, these include a variety of pole-axes (halbard, voulge, poleaxe) or spiked or hammer-headed pole weapons (beck-du-corbin).  In both Chinese and European polearms, late developments included multi-use weapons, which might include a pointed-tip or spear, an axe or cutting head with a hammer or spiked back (late glaives and halberds).


On cutting through the shaft
As a side note,  there has been quite a bit of discussion among weapon aficionados about the use of polearms and spears in single combat.   Many people seem to have the Hollywood belief that a sword using warrior would just cut through the haft of the weapon in question, either cutting off the weapon’s head or shearing through the shaft.  While it’s within the realm of possibility that a single blow could do this, it isn’t quite as easy a task as movies may make it seem.  Various experts have shown that slashing at a pole arm being held as would be in combat usually results in only minor surface cuts on the shaft, as the impact of the sword blow knocks it away.  You’d have to fix the polearm shaft so it can’t move at all to be able to easily sheer all the way through on.


Cutting with modern pole weapons
Modern practitioners, both Eastern and Western, make use of a variety of pole-weapons in test-cutting.  In the main, these tend to be of the weapons designed for cutting and slicing, rather than the armour-smashing or blunt impact varieties.   Note that all polearms require more space to safely use than single or two-handed swords.  Additionally, safety being of primary importance, a practioner using a pole weapon should always check the integrity of the shaft and of the pins/screws holding the weapon’s head before cutting.

While I’ve attempted to locate quality videos of polearm tameshigiri, there is frustratingly little available.  I will attempt to locate more and add them to this article.



One of the best -known pole weapons today is the Japanese naginata.  Just how effective this weapon can be in hand-to-hand combat is demonstrated in the following (non-cutting) video:



Not surprisingly, cutting practitioners tend to be a little more conservative in their cutting attempts:


Cutting with the Billhook
On the other hand, the cutting ability of a European billhook (considered a peasant weapon which was developed from farming implements) is clearly shown:



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