Getting to the Point: The Spear



African elephant hide shield and an assortment of spears. The spear is still being used in some remote locations.


The first warriors probably used whatever weapons they could find on the ground. Sticks, stones, and bones have all been used to smash, pierce, or otherwise do in an enemy. Most likely it wasn’t long before people began improving what they found. One of the earliest, and certainly the deadliest of these first purpose‑made weapons, was the spear. The improved club may have been first, but there’s not much you can do to improve a club as a weapon. In a battle, you’d use it the same way you’d use an unworked tree branch.

Some ancient warriors may have noticed that a partially burned stick tends to have a pointed end – the fire consumes the outer layers of the wood first.

Then the warrior saw that if he scraped the charcoal off the stick, the point became even sharper. Better yet, it was much harder than the original wood. If he took a fairly long stick – a straight branch or a sapling – and sharpened one end with fire and scraping, he’d have a formidable weapon. A few years ago, such a weapon was found between the ribs of an elephant skeleton preserved in a German bog.

Perhaps about the same time, people began breaking stones to get a sharp edge for cutting meat and scraping hides. They quickly learned that the best kind of stone for this was flint or obsidian – hard, glassy minerals that could be given an extremely sharp edge by chipping. As they developed the technique of chipping, they produced thin, sharp‑edged, needle‑pointed blades. Then somebody tried mounting one of these blades on the edge of a pole to make a new and even deadlier type of spear. The next big step, of course, was the use of metals – first copper, then bronze, then iron – for weapons and tools. Bronze‑tipped spears appeared in the Near East around 3500 B.C., and metal‑headed spears continued to be the most important weapon of war in most armies until the late 17th century A.D.

The spear goes so far back in prehistory that there’s no way to know exactly how it was first used in war. The most primitive people modern anthropologists study tended to use the spear as a throwing weapon. These people, like the very ancient spear‑wielders, relied on hunting for a good share of their food. A human can seldom get close enough to a game animal to kill it with a spear thrust. A thrown spear is much more effective. So when hunters went to war, they used their spears the way they had learned to use them on their frequent hunting expeditions: They threw them.

Things were different when people gathered in towns and relied on farming for food. The proportion of people to game animals became so high that hunting could no longer be an important source of food. Townspeople got far less practice throwing spears, but they had many more activities that called for close cooperation and teamwork by many people – such things as building temples and digging irrigation canals. They developed a form of warfare that fitted their lifestyle. They appeared on the battlefield as a closely packed mass of spearmen, line after line of them. They charged, holding that formation, and were able to knife through more scattered opponents. This was the first appearance of the phalanx, a formation that made the Swiss infantry the terror of central Europe in the 15th century A.D. and didn’t disappear until the invention of the bayonet at the end of the 17th century.

The phalanx prompted the invention of body armor. A mass of infantry made a good target for javelin throwers, or especially for archers. But an armored phalanx was more than a match for a larger number of archers, as the Greeks demonstrated at Marathon in 490 B.C. Greek phalangists became the most sought‑after mercenaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Philip II of Macedon incorporated the phalanx into his military machine, and his son, Alexander, took that machine and conquered the world between Greece and India.

The Romans then modified the phalanx by organizing their troops into companies called maniples, which took the field in a checkerboard formation.

Instead of a long thrusting spear, the first two lines of maniples had two new types of throwing spear, called pila. One pilum was lighter than the other. The Roman legionary threw that first, then, after he advanced a few steps more, they threw the heavy one. A pilum was about 6 feet long. About half of that length was wooden shaft, the rest was a long iron rod tipped with a small spear head. The Roman soldier’s target, of course, was an enemy soldier, but he wasn’t discouraged if the enemy caught his pilum on his shield. The long iron head made it impossible to chop the spear off, so the pilum, especially if it was the heavy one, tended to drag down the enemy’s shield. The Roman then ran up to his enemy, stepped on the trailing spear shaft to pull the shield down entirely, then finished off the enemy with his sword.

The spear developed into a wide variety of weapons called pole arms. There were winged spears, with two projections on the blade to keep the spear from penetrating farther than necessary for a kill. (A spear that penetrated an enemy too far to permit its withdrawal could be a severe embarrassment in combat.) Some spears, such as the Japanese naginata and the European glaive, were cutting weapons – short, single‑edged swords mounted on poles. A spear with an ax blade and a hook added became a halberd, and an extra‑long spear was called a pike.

The Swiss phalanxes of renaissance times used pikemen to stop enemy cavalry so the phalanx’s halberdiers could close in and chop them up.

Those were infantry weapons. When horsemen carried a thrusting spear, it was called a lance. Alexander the Great relied on his lance‑armed heavy cavalry to deliver the knock‑out blow after his phalanx succeeded in holding enemy forces in place. The lance was the principal weapon of European cavalry from the Dark Ages through the 16th century. The use of the cavalry lance declined in western Europe after muskets became common, but Napoleon was so impressed by the Polish cavalry lancers he saw that he reintroduced the lance to his armies. The Poles and the Russians were still using lances in World War II.

Cavalry also used throwing spears at times. Greek cavalry in the Peloponnesian War used javelins instead of lances. They did not have stirrups, and without stirrups only the most skillful rider could use a lance without having his own weapon push him off his mount. The Libyan horsemen in Hannibal’s army used short iron javelins, which they threw with both hands, while the Gaulish cavalry in the same army used a javelin that looked like the Roman pilum. In more modern times, the descendants of those Libyan cavalrymen, the Spanish jinetes, used javelins as their basic weapons.

In Europe, in China, and in Africa, the spear was the most common, most basic weapon of fighting men from the earliest times until the widespread use of gunpowder. In central and western Asia, another weapon was supreme for almost as long a time. For a very short time, it was also supreme in England. We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.


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