The Paper Armoury: Polearms
An article by Sean A. Flynt, Alexi Goranov, and Bill Grandy
Compiled and edited by Sean A. Flynt

Building a fine, thoughtfully-focused arms and armour library should be as important to the student of these artifacts as building a collection of modern replicas.

Why? Because books and articles:
  • Provide the most convenient and inexpensive means to compare original arms and armour to modern reproductions.
  • Explain the construction and use of arms and armour.
  • Provide the full historical context for the development of arms and armour.
  • Reveal a world of arms and armour dramatically broader in scope and more diverse than that available through reproductions or even through museums or private collections.
Our Paper Armoury series is intended to help readers identify the essential titles for a library on a given subject. This installment of this series offers 11 wonderful titles on polearms, the underappreciated but historically pivotal weapons that dominated the battlefield from the medieval era through the mid-17th century.

Highly specialized, well-illustrated books often command relatively high prices, and the prices of several of the titles described below will give even dedicated bibliophiles pause. Rest assured, though, that these books offer the most up-to-date understanding of how polearms developed and were used. Purchase even half of them and you will learn more about the weapons they describe than even the finest modern reproduction can offer. Then, when you rebuild your arms and armour fund and go shopping for a polearm, you’ll be one of the most informed consumers in the market.

A few of these books are decades-old classics, and are out of print. These should be readily available on the used book market, but prices may vary widely.

Hafted Weapons In Medieval and Renaissance Europe
John Waldman
Brill, 2005

Waldman's is the best single book on the subject. The detailed black and white photos and full-color reproductions of historic artwork are valuable on their own, but the accompanying text, distilled from earlier scholarship and supplemented with new research, makes this an essential reference. His observations about the design and construction of the weapons are especially valuable. Unfortunately, Waldman offers little information on weights of individual items, probably because that data is of concern primarily to those who want accurate replicas either for martial arts training or just for the sake of better understanding the weapons. After all, if you've determined a weapon's date from style, construction, patina, etc., weight is a pretty weak contributor to the overall evidence of authenticity. With a list price of $179, this is not a title to pick up casually. However, imagine how quickly you would pay that amount if it would purchase the best quality reproduction polearm made. And imagine how little you would learn from that reproduction, compared to what you will learn from this book. Suddenly, the price doesn't seem so outrageous. And once this book is out of print and selling used for perhaps twice as much, you'll congratulate yourself for your foresight. There's always a chance it could end its days remaindered for $50, but serious students of the subject ought not take that chance. Sean Flynt

The Halberd and Other European Polearms, 1300-1650
George Snook
Museum Restoration Service, 1998

This slim book, really a monograph, is one of the only English language titles dedicated to the subject. It offers basic information about polearms as well as definitions, photos and diagrams, but is too limited in size and scope to offer great insight. It should be thought of as a primer, and was originally priced accordingly at under $10 US. It may now be out-of-print because, as of this writing, I can't find a copy for less than $70, a ludicrous sum that can't be justified by either the contents or the physical quality of the publication. See what I mean about waiting for prices of new books to drop? If you can find it for the original price, buy it. Otherwise, simply invest in Waldman's book instead. Sean Flynt

Swords and Blades of the American Revolution
George C. Neumann
Scurlock Publishing Co., 1995

Yes, polearms were used well into the 18th century, and this book dedicates an entire chapter to these battlefield anachronisms—spontoons, pikes, etc. Detailed photos and good explanatory text make this an essential reference for students of this period. It will also be of interest to students of earlier periods who want to know how the polearms story ends. Sean Flynt

European Weapons & Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution
Ewart Oakeshott
Boydell Press, 2000

Oakeshott offers an excellent overview of hafted weapons. His chapters on Staff Weapons and Mace, War-Hammer and Horseman's Axe are written in the usual conversational style and illustrated with photos and drawings. Oakeshott's discussion of the development of the halberd is especially interesting. This is a must-have book for many reasons, and I consider it Oakeshott's best work. Sean Flynt

European and American Arms
Claude Blair
B.T. Batsford, 1962

Even Oakeshott turned to Blair for enlightenment on this subject, and this inexpensive, out-of-print book is a wonderful introduction to Blair's work. An introduction to polearms and glossary of eleven large-format pages are supplemented by eight photographs and a four-page appendix featuring detailed line drawings and notes on documented weapons. An excellent chapter on the decoration of arms is of special interest to students of later polearms. Sean Flynt

Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.
Diagram Group
St. Martin's Press, 1991

This is a nice, inexpensive reference for all arms. Although its chapters are necessarily brief, they are packed with valuable visual information. In addition to showing the heads of various polearms from many cultures, the book reproduces historical artwork depicting the weapons in use. Inexplicably alone among arms references, it also offers measurement scales. Although it's a mile wide and an inch deep, I consider this to be one of the most helpful books in my library. Sean Flynt

Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat
Hans Talhoffer (Translated and edited by Mark Rector)
Greenhill Books, 2004

This reprint of Hans Talhoffer's famous fechtbuch offers a vivid contemporary record of specific poleaxe techniques-with all their grisly consequences-in the context of 15th century German judicial duels. The text does only a little to describe the techniques shown, but the images alone can help instruct modern students in the proper use of these weapons. Sean Flynt

Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe
Sydney Anglo
Yale University Press, 2000

Anglo's book is an exceptionally thorough history of western martial arts instruction in the period. His thorough research illuminates many aspects of the subject, including the use of polearms. Sean Flynt

English Martial Arts
Terry Brown
Anglo-Saxon Books, 2002

A chapter on fighting with the English bill is essential reading for western martial arts (WMA) students working with late polearms. Black and white photographs, accompanied by detailed captions, clearly illustrate how the weapon is used. Sean Flynt

Le Jeu de la Hache: A 15th century Treatise on the Technique of Chivalric Axe Combat
Sydney Anglo

Le Jeu de la Hache, a 15th century French manuscript, is one of the few widely-available treatises illustrating the use of the poleaxe and the only one dedicated exclusively to the weapon. Although it is not yet available in printed form, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) offers online an illustrated translation that includes an authoritative introduction and commentary by Sidney Anglo. Sean Flynt

The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms & Weapons
Edited by Leonid Tarassuk and Claude Blair
Batsford, 1982

This is a fairly large volume (544 pages) which is meant to touch upon as many different types of weapons as possible. It covers weapons from all continents and all ages, from the Bronze Age to modern submachine guns. The strength of this book is not in its devotion to a specific topic but in its vastness in topics covered. It features 250 color illustrations (drawings) and 1021 monochromatic illustrations. The book, of course, covers most types of polearms in various degrees of detail. It illustrates the general types used and often discusses general classifications and characteristics. It often discusses the names of the parts of various pole weapons in addition to illustrating the various types. For example the book deals with halberds in four pages, including illustrations. While this is not nearly enough detail when compared to other works dedicated specifically to polearms, this book contains enough information to give the reader an idea about the general properties of most polearms. One potential drawback of the book is that there are no photographs. However, the nearly perfect illustrations of historical examples make up for that. This book should be on the shelves of any serious students of arms and armour, not only the ones interested in polearms. Alexi Goranov

Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi
Translated by Luca Porzio and Gregerory Mele
Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002

This translation of the 15th century Italian fencing master Filippo Vadi contains sections on the use of both poleax and spear. These sections alone are small, but combined with the sections depicting half-sword usage, the reader can piece together a fairly strong basis for understanding the usage of these polearms. Vadi's poetic language can be slightly cryptic at first, but combined with the illustrations and the helpful footnotes of translators, this is actually a very valuable source on the material Bill Grandy

About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.

Each cover image is copyrighted by the respective publisher of the book.

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