The History of Medieval Weapons in Europe Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of Medieval Weapons in Europe

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Medieval weapons can be broadly divided into 'personal' weapons - those carried by individuals - and larger 'impersonal' or siege weapons, which had to be pulled onto the battlefield.

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 and have increased in complexity of use, maintenance and in range and area of effect. This Entry will show the similarities between the weapons of the past and those of modern times, as well as follow the evolution from the incredibly personal combat of the past to the push button 'neutralizations'1 of today.

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 both as 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, held in the hand, to bash animals with. 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; this 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 were 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 were used throughout history by the vanguards of armies to harass and to cause whatever casualties they could. As time went on, however, advances in armour 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 at that which needs to die.

Early on in the days of the 'caveman' - an exact date cannot be given due to the incomplete nature of history, as cavemen 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 to be stabbed, cut or otherwise opened by forceful means. This rock later became known as obsidian or flint. When struck along the grain, the rock chips into flakes, which are natural razors with very sharp edges and are 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 and preparing food. Often, the tool would be used as both fork and knife, a tradition that lasted well into the 1300s in England, France and other European countries.

The Knife

As the use of metals pervaded human civilization, obsidian was given up in favour 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 were double-edged and unserrated; they were superb for slicing and thrusting, and were used often to:

  • Thrust into the weak spots of armour.
  • Slash an unarmoured opponent to keep them at bay.
  • Slit throats when using stealth.
  • Stab an opponent when at extreme close quarters.

Knives have always been in the gear of soldiers and will long continue to be 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 development from the knife. Over years of advances in smith-craft, the knife became the long knife, and from there the shortsword. The shortsword 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. It's not so much about their intended use - they are all still for killing the enemy and defence - but the differences are in how they are intended to kill. 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 sabre and scimitar - the former is European and the latter Arabian 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 armour.

  • The falchion - a weapon that looks a great deal like an enormous machete. It was used to penetrate chainmail by the English, French and some of the western Germans, but it is almost useless against plate armour. The nature of the curved blade was particularly good for cavalry, because if the blade hit any of the chinks in the armour, it would most likely drive through and cause a vicious wound. If it hit the armour at a stronger point it would almost certainly knock the man down while the blade slid easily away to leave the cavalryman on his horse.

  • Bastard or 'hand-and-a-half' blades (sometimes also called longswords or broadswords) - swords with longer than normal blades, a hilt that can accommodate 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 armour with a sufficiently powerful blow, could be swung incredibly fast and could defend against most other swords and weapons. The longsword was wielded most effectively by the Teutonic order who, with their great strength and superior training, could wear heavy armour and use heavy weapons with equal or greater speed than others with less armour.

  • The claymore - used most famously by the Scots, especially William Wallace, whose claymore was six feet long from tip to pommel. Claymores are massive swords that are almost like axes in their weight and the manner in which they are used. The heavy weight of the blade can be used to pierce plate while the reinforced tip 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 collapse 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 gladius2 - the classic Roman weapon, a mainstay of their legions throughout the Empire. The gladius is a shortsword one to one-and-a-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 Hoplites3. 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 that projected through the spaces between the shields. Those behind the front three ranks were there, swords ready, in case 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 shortswords 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 the enemies' weapon arc and swiftly get inside the enemy soldier's individual defences and stab them with relatively little chance of them countering.

  • The rapier and some similar weapons - excellent for duelling. They are thin, light blades that are sharp, sturdy and good for stabbing, slashing and deflecting enemy blades. This puts the duellist in a better position to deliver a lethal strike. A man with a strong wrist and forearm can be quite lethal with one.

Duelling was a common practice from the earliest days of the royalties of Europe (mid 400s AD) to the mid-19th Century. In duels, a matter of honour would often be settled in full view of the court. Duellists would use swords and perhaps a back-up knife. Which sword they used was their own choice, but light, fast weapons such as rapiers or sabres would be most often 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 to deflect a stab.

Swords are used even today. Many are collected as valuables or just something pretty to 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 - 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 design of the double-bladed axe is so that you can attack someone on the back swing, just as 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 weapon of choice of the most elite of pre-Norman warriors known as Housecarls. These were incredibly tall, incredibly built warriors that practised 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 the 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 weapons 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 weight was centred on the axe head so when thrown it pulled the axe through the air like a spinning tyre 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. Eventually, armies started to use shield walls to prevent axe casualties, which 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 got longer and bigger, but reflect weapon evolution in that they are specialized: 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 can be 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 armour and cause bloody, painful, debilitating wounds.

The flail is a mace but with a chain 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, with 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. As described above, the spear was one of the key instruments in the phalanx. The throwing spear is different to the javelin in that it had greater weight and thus more impact force, which can still penetrate the weaker points of armour.

The Romans had a special throwing spear that was a super weapon in their time: the pilum, a two feet long steel shaft with a barbed end attached to a two to three feet 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 plough through plate, mail and flesh. The opposite end from the tip was weighted so that it could be used one-handed. There was a flared piece 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. The lance, when wielded by armoured knights on horseback and gathered in large numbers4, became a battle-ending weapon. On the field of battle, few armies could stand before a massed force of heavily armed and armoured cavalry until a longer form of the lance was created. 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 ranged 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 armour 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 armour and wounding them.

Next is the halberd, which is like an axe on a stick. The force of the swing is greater with this weapon and can cause greater damage to both armoured and unarmoured opponents. Often there is a spike on top of the pole and on the other side of the axe blade to give a more precise armour-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 pole with a metal hook 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 armoured knight around by the straps, while the spikes on the top and reverse of the hook can kill the knight by piercing his armour.


Armour may not be a weapon, but it is the necessary repercussion of weapons. At first there was no armour, 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 armour. 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 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 from at least the later years of the Assyrians. Plate was used by all the major military powers in the ancient world: Greek Hoplites used heavy breast plates, leg armour 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 with a 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 thrusted weapons and narrower arrowheads. For a while this was the ultimate advantage, but improvements in armour-piercing technology in swords, axes, bows, crossbows and spears eventually rendered plate to be 'possibly protective' and not a guarantee of battle survival.

In the 1300s through to the 1500s, 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 armour specifically fitted to you, like a tailored suit. This armour would fit perfectly, so perfectly that a knight who was knocked down - but not wounded of course - could get back up within a second. Knights had full range of motion in well-fitted armour and could mount their horses with little or no aid. While armour 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 armoured knight was the tank of his day and one knight could often take on ten 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 dishonour and possibly the seizure of their property, but a victory meant more prestige, more glory, possibly a social elevation and most certainly more money. Plate and mail armour were the standard until the late 1500s, when the proliferation of firearms, first matchlock and later flintlock, had rendered armour more of a hindrance than an advantage. In modern times we still use armour and shields in tough situations. Armies use body armour to try to 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 armour too has translated into the modern era.


Bows, along with spears, were some of the first complex weapons ever designed. 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 passed, the power and designs of bows improved. The pinnacle of bows was the English longbow, sometimes called the war bow. The longbow was a 150 to 200 lb bow, which meant that it took a 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 realised 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 useful throughout history: every time someone developed armour that could stop and arrow, a new head or more powerful bow was invented to render that armour ineffective.

Arrows, too, evolved. At first the arrow head was nothing more than the sharpened end of the stick. Later - it is unsure exactly when, as few in the old days wrote down such things - arrows had evolved from sharpened sticks to barbed, broad arrowheads that cut deep and are hard to remove. When mail and plate began stopping these, the bodkin was invented. The bodkin arrowhead is simply a steel 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 labelled '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, although it takes much longer. A skilled archer can notch and fire every two seconds, while a crossbowman can only fire one or two shots a minute. The advantage of the crossbow, however, is that it fires the bolt5 at such great velocities that it ploughs through armour (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 the slow firing rate was overcome by the Teutons, 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 pulleys so it doesn't exhaust you. This made the rate of fire about half that of the bow and arrow.

Impersonal Weapons

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 Battering Ram

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 long as 10 metres, half a metre wide and capped with steel. The ram was suspended by heavy hemp ropes between the legs of a reinforced frame that was set on wheels and had thick armoured walls and a roof. This could be wheeled up to the doors of a castle and was impervious to almost anything but boiling - and burning - oil or really big rocks.

The Catapult

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 basket swung upwards until 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.

The Battle Tower

Another siege 'weapon', the battle tower is more a vehicle than a weapon. 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 likelihood 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 at the approximate 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 for archers, spearmen or crossbowmen to 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 defences more intricate, this became an increasingly bad idea, which is why the battle tower was invented in the first place.

The Trebuchet

The biggest and baddest of all non-gunpowder throwing weapons was the trebuchet, which was carted into battle in pieces. At first glance it might look like someone was attempting to build a three-storey 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 is like a catapult in that it throws really big or heavy rocks at the enemy with a fair 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 and 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.

The Cannon

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 cannon to take down the supposedly impenetrable walls of Constantinople, which it turned out were only impenetrable to trebuchets and catapults. Cannon eventually found their way to Europe, where they were employed by the French against the British during latter days of the Hundred Years War.

Cannon also 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 Renaissance began.

1'Neutralization' being shooting from afar, barely seeing the target until you pass by its smoking remains on the way forward.2Which means 'sword' in Latin.3Soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armour with large shields, javelins, heavy swords and spears.4300 to 400 knights was not at all unusual.5A short, thick arrow with a steel tip.

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