Spear and shield—some thoughts

I had the opportunity a while back to experiment with combining spear and shield both in single duels and in larger skirmishes. I wouldn’t say I’ve solved it definitively but I think I’ve got a few points worth adding to the discussion.

Let’s start with one-on-one duels. This is where I think the biggest disagreement is going to be actually. Spears are longer than swords, and the Spartans used them with shields and they were great fighters, and the Vikings used them with shields and they were great fighters, and let’s not forget the great warriors like Achilles. Surely it’s just a better weapon set? Yeah, I’m not convinced. Not for a duel anyway.

Hear me out. Spears are incredibly manoeuvrable. That is, when you’re holding them with two hands. If you’re holding them in one hand, you sacrifice manoeuvrability and the ability to recover quickly for great reach. I’m not saying you can’t be fairly nimble and deft with a spear, merely that you are nowhere near as nimble with it if you’re only holding it with one hand. And from that, what I found from actual sparring was the following. If you had a really good fighter who knew how to cover his lines properly, it was relatively easy for him to bind your spear, close distance and then take you out. If you kept trying to void the blade, you could, but if he’s got a shield and he’s rushing you, your chances of stabbing him safely weren’t so great.

See, I realised that if you try and get maximum length from the spear by holding it further back, one, you had a lot protruding which was fairly easy for them to beat or bind, two, your manoeuvrability of the spear was even worse, so you couldn’t really feint them, and three, your recovery to a displacement was appalling because of the huge disparity between centre of balance and pivot point. But if you held it further forward, closer to the centre of balance, in order to get more control, you sacrifice a lot of reach. I lost about a third of the spear’s length just to have some kind of counter balance. It meant I was relatively manoeuvrable with it and still had greater reach, but against a good fighter who keeps proper distance and only closes when there’s an opening or he can safely bind your weapon, you’re by no means guaranteed to win. Sure, you can play it fairly defensively and you’ll both be fairly safe but if you’re aggressive with it, you’re likely to get a bind, then displaced and rushed, and thereby lose the fight.

In short, one-on-one, I’d rather toss the shield every time and instead keep to distance and footwork and use two hands to maximise the spear’s length and manoeuvrability to win the fight. It’s a much surer bet.

So why did so many people fight spear and shield then? I heard something interesting a while back about 19th Century warfare with muskets. And I think it actually applies fairly well here as well. They said, roughly speaking, that for a small number of combatants, e.g. 20 each, it was better to have 20 horsemen than 20 musket-armed soldiers because the horsemen would probably take them out. But if it was 100 or 200, or even 1000 of each, then the odds start to rapidly increase in favour of the guys with the muskets. In other words, there was an exponential increase in the benefit of that weapon because its value increased when used as a part of a team, relatively more than the other one.

Funnily enough, that’s what happened, even on a small scale, once we tested out spear and shield in group combat. When we had one or two people with a spear and shield in the middle and had other, more agile, weapon sets around them, they dominated. See, the value in having even a few people nearby was that it became relatively suicidal to rush the spearmen in the centre. Even if the opponent could bind their spear, they still couldn’t rush in without getting hit by the people to their left and right. We only had a fairly small number of people fighting and already the benefits were fairly obvious. Just imagine having a large centre of such people, with rows behind who can also held defend those in front. A frightening prospect, to be sure.

Let’s look back at a bit of history then, now we have a bit of experimental knowledge to play with. Turns out the Celts were famous for being bold, individual fighters and often fighting with relatively long shields and swords. That to me makes perfect sense. And though they were often beaten by Greek phalanxes (say when hired by Carthaginians in the Sicilian wars), they also frequently beat Greek phalanxes too, see, I don’t know, Brennos and the Sack of Delphi. We see the same thing with the Romans. Pila aside, they’re able to use the scutum and gladius to beat Macedonian phalanxes, wait, what? How on earth? The scholarship, I would argue has come to the two key reasons these things happen, despite not necessarily having the best practical experience of close-combat warfare. A cohesive unit of spear-armed soldiers, fighting under ideal conditions, is pretty nigh invincible. To beat them you need to find a way strategically to fight them outside of formation or get them to break it, but(!) you also need to have a weapon set that lets you take advantage of them once you’re in close. A short one-handed weapon and a shield is a devastating up close combination if you can get there. There’s no point strategically tricking them into giving you that opportunity if you can’t make the most of it. So how come the Celts and Romans were able to beat phalanxes at times? They optimised the situation for their weapon set. That’s one way of thinking about it. And, I think, not a bad one at that.

Who would have thought it ultimately comes down to measure, distance, the relative lengths and strengths of your weapon set and how that works individually or stacks with a group? Hope this ramble’s been of some interest to you. Keep sparring.

(Photo of modern re-enactor taken by Antony McCallum. Photo of Greek phalanx is from the famous Chigi Vase. Both accessed online at Wikimedia Commons.)

15 thoughts on “Spear and shield—some thoughts

  1. Well said. These days everyone is saying the spear is superior to sword which is nonsense. Sword and shield is one of the best combinations you could ever get and in one and one with light armor the sword and shield is king. When we start talking about heavy armor though the swords advantages drastically decreases and the spear might have the upper hand

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  2. Dude. There’s a video coming out(I’m not sure if it’s out already). It’s called sword and shield vs spear and shield. Schologladiatoria (a YouTube channel is making it) I just thought you’d be interested

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    1. Cheers! I’ve been watching Scholagladiatoria for years. He’s what first got me into medieval swordsmanship to be honest. Haven’t seen that video yet but definitely will.

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      1. Do you think the spear man will have the advantage if he uses it two hands and his opponent is armed with a sword/axe and shield?

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  3. Good to meet you. I just wanted to share a trick of physics that allows you to quickly recover a spear that is held behind the point of balance wheen it is knocked off line. Don’t try to rotate it back on line by torquing the wrist. Instead, just pull your hand back. The mass asymmetry results in the spear coming back on line. You still don’t want to hold it very far back from the POB though.

    The ancient Greeks overcame the problem of loss of reach due the need for balance by moving the POB back to about 1/3 from the butt. This is not a universal solution because doing so renders the spear unable to be thrown effectively, and most historic spears retained the possibility of being thrown.

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  4. But sword and shield is still much better than spear and shield. I wish it wasn’t though. The spear is my one of my favorite weapons if not my favorite.

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  5. @ Hosea – In my experience, assuming equal skill, I’d say 1 on 1 the person holding a spear in 2 hands has a distinct advantage over someone with a shield and 1h weapon like a sword or an axe. Even in a shieldwall it’s still incredibly hard to close on the person holding the spear.

    @Paul – really interesting point about pulling the spear back. I totally agree that would get you on-line again quickly and is probably one of the best things you can do if that’s your only goal. The catch I’d say is it means you’re no longer keeping the bind on their weapon so they have a tempo to attack you while you’re effectively retreating (even if it’s just retreating the weapon). If you have a shield, sure you’re probably well protected, and if you have the option of stepping back too, you’ll probably be fine, but it does come with some disadvantages too.

    Your point about the weight distribution on Greek spears is really interesting. I’ve never heard of that before but it seems like a really interesting solution to the problem/way of optimising the spear for what you want to do (ie stab with slightly more reach at the cost of sacrificing its throwing potential).

    Great conversation guys, keep it up.

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    1. That would make sense. This is an extract from a site

      “When the line broke, stories say that people would sling their shields over their shoulders and use the spear two-handed, something that Þórolfr did in chapter 53 of Egils saga. Used this way, the spear has even more reach, since the fighter can bring his hands way back towards the butt end of the spear.

      Atli killed by spear
      This technique works well in single combat, as well. In chapter 45 of Grettis saga, Þorbjörn knocked loudly on the door at Atli’s farm, then hid. When Atli went to the door, Þorbjörn rushed up holding his spear in two hands and ran Atli through. When he took the blow, Atli said, “Broad spears are in fashion these days,” and fell dead.”

      I always thought the sword/axe and shield had the advantage after all the YouTube videos I watched. I think it’s possible that in all these videos,the swords man was more skilled.

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  6. Great source material! Yeah I think there’s a problem with longer weapons on many youtube channels – often the person with the weapon they’re more comfortable with/they use more often says well the longer weapon will attack like this and then I’ll parry/do this etc. It’s often an instructional video telling you how to beat the longer weapon with the shorter one and it’s stacked in the shorter weapon’s favour. I’ve rarely seen people free spar with a spear or montante vs a smaller weapon and come off worse.

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    1. Finally got around to watching it. I think he gives the best defense of spear and shield that I’ve come across for duels. He’s opened my mind to a few things but this would be my summary:
      -he seems to agree that the spear and shield is amazing in a line and worse off in a duel
      -but he says there are things you can do to be less worse off (& he has obviously trained them quite well and I can imagine people who have trained them quite well would reduce the disadvantage significantly)
      -so it looks a lot more viable *if you know what you’re doing* but the inherent disadvantage is still probably there

      bottom line is, I think my points still basically stand but he’s encouraged me to give it another serious crack. His methods take out many of the things I found really frustrating – namely lack of control at the bind, etc.

      Thanks again for posting.

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  7. Quick reply – yep a kite shield would definitely help against the spear but it’s still not foolproof. A scutum is about the only shield that presents huge problems to the spear wielder.

    As for the video – haven’t checked it out yet but I’ll definitely give it a shot.

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