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.)

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