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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Some thoughts on spears and cutting: the universal weapon

Some thoughts on spears and cutting: the universal weapon

photo by Kevin Harber

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Spears are the universal weapon, and one of the earliest tools mankind invented.   From a whittled, fire-hardened tree branch to today’s high-tech equivalent of the rifle-mounted bayonet, spears have been found on every battlefield.

While most people think of spears as throwing weapons, as in short spears or javelins, or as thrusting weapons with very short heads, as in long spears or horseback-used lances, not everyone realizes that some types of spears were designed to cut — or at least slice — as effectively as they thrust.

Often used with shorter hafts, from the Atgeir or Viking hewing spear   to the European art of spear fencing, through the veldts of Africa, to the martial arts of China and Japan, styles and techniques of combat with long-bladed, sharp-edged heavy spear heads were developed.



While they maintained their primary raison d’être of being thrusting weapons, often used in formation, spears of this type had the added advantage of allowing the individual user to slash and cut with the edge of the blade.  Most often used in foot combat — though occasionally recorded as being used on horseback — the hewing spear was often combined with the art of staff fighting, as noted in the  The Spear, the King of Weapons (an analysis of 15th century European fighting manuals) and as seen in modern Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

The combination of being able to thrust at medium-to-long range, and to engage with shaft, haft and razor-edged head at close range, made this style of spear very effective.  Which is one reason we’ve seen the development of modern bayonet-and-rifle techniques.  With time, spears tended to evolve into more the more complex and devastating form of weapons we know as polearms, with additions specifically designed for blocking, hacking or catching opponent’s weapons, or the opponents themselves.


Evolution of spears to polearms


Of course, no single weapon or style of fighting is superior to all others;  an interesting introduction to the basics of European spear-on-sword fighting are covered in the next two videos.

An academic review of the spear and its place on the battlefield:



In Asia, the spear went through similar developments;  known as the qiang in China and the yari in Japan.

Below is a short documentary on the use of the Japanese spear (yari).  Note that several types of spears are shown in the video, including long, short and the magoyari — with its curved tines — which we would tend to class as a polearm.



A final video gives a close-up look at the specific fighting style developed around the magoyari, which is very suggestive of the fighting style Europeans would likely have developed around similar weapons.  Unfortunately, the video owners have disabled viewing of this video through WordPress.  It’s still worth your time to click on the YouTube link in the video frame and see the video there.





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