Info Favorites Register Log in
myArmoury.com Discussion Forums

Forum index Memberlist Usergroups Spotlight Topics Search
Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Gallowglass and Axes??? Reply to topic
This is a standard topic Go to page Previous  1, 2, 3, 4, 5  Next 
Author Message
Henry O.





Joined: 18 Jun 2016

Posts: 81

PostPosted: Wed 19 Apr, 2017 9:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
The word "battle axe" in late medieval English usually referred to the weapon we'd now call a poleaxe/pollaxe -- which sometimes isn't even an axe at all. Silver isn't all that far removed to the last use of the poleaxe on early sixteenth-century battlefields so I'd wager that his "battle axe" was a knightly poleaxe too.


Are you sure the term "battle axe" couldn't refer to weapons like the sparth axe as well? Silver may have been somewhat removed from the knightly poleaxe, but English soldiers during silver's time would have had a lot of experience fighting against axes in ireland. At the very least the sparth axe probably falls under the "and such like weapons of weight" category.

There's also the fact that Silver claimed a halberd was supposed to be 5-6 feet long, which is closer to what we today would probablyt call a poleaxe. So he might be lumping poleaxes in with halberds.
View user's profile Send private message
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Wed 19 Apr, 2017 3:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Here is a summary of a report from 1575, listing the strengths of the Gaelic Chiefs of Ulster.

O'Neills of Tyrone: 200 horse 400 gallowglass 400 Scots 1000 kern
O'Donnells of Tirconnell: 20 horse 600 gallowglass 1000 kern
MacDonnells of the Glens: 72 horse 300 gallowglass 200 Scots 100 kern
O'Neills of Clandeboye: 600 horse 800 kern
McMahons of Dartrey: 100 horse 600 kern
Maguires: 80 horse 600 kern
McGuinnesses: 50 horse 300 kern 40 gunners
McMahons of Oriel: 60 horse 300 kern
McMahons of Farney: 50 horse 200 kern
O'Cahans: 40 horse 200 kern
O'Neill of the Fews: 30 horse 100 kern
MacShane O'Neills: 30 horse 100 kern
McQuillans of the Route: 24 horse 100 kern
O'Hanlons: 12 horse 100 kern

Horse = 1368
Gallowglass = 1300
Scots = 600
Kern = 5500
Gunners = 40
Total number of fighting men in Ulster in 1575 = 8808

These figures line up pretty well with my earlier estimate of 20% cavalry, 20% gallowglass, and 60% kern in larger Gaelic armies.

By this time most "gallowglass" had settled down and weren't really mercenaries anymore. Gaelic mercenaries from the Highlands and Western Isles were still being hired by the Irish. By this time these mercenaries were usually called "redshanks" by English writers, but in this text they are referred to as Scots.

This document also lists the wages of each troop type. The wages of the gallowglass, and "Scots" are said to be the same, whereas the kern received lower wages. This suggests that the "Scots", were similarly equipped to, and performed the same role as, the gallowglass.

This confirms something I said earlier. According to this document, Turlough Luineach O'Neill of Tyrone had 400 Scots, yet we know that when he married Agnes Campbell in 1569, he received 1200 men as a dowry from her father the Earl of Argyll. This only make sense if 400/1200 were heavy infantry, and 800/1200 were light infantry and counted amongst the kern.

The same is true of the 200 "Scots" in service to the MacDonnells of the Glens. After the death of Shane O'Neill in 1567, Sorley Boy MacDonnell travelled to Scotland and returned with 600 men. Again 200 of these men would have heavy infantry, and 400 men would have been light infantry.

Both of these examples back up the 2:1 ratio of light and heavy infantry as first pointed out in Ross Crawford's PHD thesis.

Éirinn go Brách


Last edited by Stephen Curtin on Wed 19 Apr, 2017 3:36 pm; edited 1 time in total
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Wed 19 Apr, 2017 3:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Here is a map showing the territories of the above mentioned clans.


 Attachment: 46.6 KB
Ulster_Late_15th_Century.png


Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
Joined: 29 Nov 2006
Reading list: 7 books

Posts: 2,589

PostPosted: Wed 19 Apr, 2017 11:26 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Henry O. wrote:
Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
The word "battle axe" in late medieval English usually referred to the weapon we'd now call a poleaxe/pollaxe -- which sometimes isn't even an axe at all. Silver isn't all that far removed to the last use of the poleaxe on early sixteenth-century battlefields so I'd wager that his "battle axe" was a knightly poleaxe too.


Are you sure the term "battle axe" couldn't refer to weapons like the sparth axe as well? Silver may have been somewhat removed from the knightly poleaxe, but English soldiers during silver's time would have had a lot of experience fighting against axes in ireland.


I'd be rather skeptical of that. On one hand, we have hundreds of attestations for the term "battle-axe" for the poleaxe in the 14th and 15th centuries, so we know that it was what the English called a "battle axe" historically; on the other hand, Silver couldn't have been more than one generation removed from the use of the poleaxe on the battlefield, and the last tourneys/feats of arms fought with the poleaxe would have been well within his lifetime.


Quote:
At the very least the sparth axe probably falls under the "and such like weapons of weight" category.


This is much more likely.
View user's profile Send private message
Jason O C





Joined: 20 Oct 2012

Posts: 98

PostPosted: Thu 20 Apr, 2017 2:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

On the subject of sparth axes and why/how they were used. The consensus so far seems to be that the most common form of warfare amongst the Gaels was cattle raiding, and that the role of the gallowglass was to form a line of defence against counter attacks, while others drove the stolen cattle. If this was the role of the gallowglass on the side of the raiders, then what was the role of gallowglass on the side in pursuit?

I could be wrong but I imagine that these gallowglass might have either; decided not to wear armour, or rode horses, to enable them to catch up with the raiders. In any case I think that the majority of the time the gallowglass on the defensive side, would be faced with cavalry and/or light infantry.

Against an unarmoured opponent sparth axes would be a devastating (and terrifying) weapon. Now obviously the light infantry were unarmoured, but so were the cavalrymen's horses. Doesn't Gerald of Wales mention a couple of cases where Norman knights were brought down by axe wielding Irishmen?

Also if you look at the weapon of the Irish cavalry. They used spears in the overarm position. At a guess I'd estimate that these spears might have been about 9 or 10 feet long (any longer and they would be too unwieldy for single handed use). Now as these spears were held near the center of the shaft (for balance), perhaps 5 or 6 feet projected forward of the hand. This means that only about 3 or 4 foot of the spear projected forward of the horse's head. This means that to land a blow with a spear, a cavalryman would be well within the range of a blow from an axe mounted on a 6 foot haft.

Just a few thoughts.

Jason
View user's profile Send private message
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Thu 20 Apr, 2017 8:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interesting post Jason.

Jason O C wrote:
In any case I think that the majority of the time the gallowglass on the defensive side, would be faced with cavalry and/or light infantry........ Against an unarmoured opponent sparth axes would be a devastating (and terrifying) weapon. Now obviously the light infantry were unarmoured, but so were the cavalrymen's horses.


I agree that the sparth would have been a devastating weapon against unarmoured men and horses, but spears would have probably been just as effective, and halberds combined the best of both worlds.

Jason O C wrote:
Also if you look at the weapon of the Irish cavalry. They used spears in the overarm position. At a guess I'd estimate that these spears might have been about 9 or 10 feet long (any longer and they would be too unwieldy for single handed use). Now as these spears were held near the center of the shaft (for balance), perhaps 5 or 6 feet projected forward of the hand. This means that only about 3 or 4 foot of the spear projected forward of the horse's head. This means that to land a blow with a spear, a cavalryman would be well within the range of a blow from an axe mounted on a 6 foot haft.


If faced with a cavalry charge, I'd prefer to simply point a spear or halberd in the right direction and brace myself, rather than try to time my axe blow to hit the horse's head before his spear reached me.

Not that I think that Gaelic cavalry typically charged into a battalion of gallowglass. In fact I think that Gaelic cavalry and light infantry mostly resorted to showering gallowglass with javelins and darts.

So if Gaelic cavalry and light infantry rarely engaged in close combat with gallowglass, what exactly did gallowglass do? I'm starting to think that most of the time they just stood there, doing nothing other than acting as barrier between the pursuing cavalry and the fleeing kern. The cavalry wouldn't want to charge them, so they would just harass them with javelins and darts. On the other hand the cavalry wouldn't get close enough for the gallowglass to use their axes, so all they could do was throw darts back at the cavalry.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Wed 02 Aug, 2017 4:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The more I think about this, the more I think that gallowglass really weren't very well suited to taking on a formation of English billmen in a head on fight. How I imagine a formation of billmen operating is; with men standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, using their weapons primarily to thrust with, but also cutting and hooking when an opportunity presented itself. On the other side of things, I doubt that the sparth axe could be effectively wielded by men standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. I'd say that each gallowglass probably needed about 5 feet of empty space to either side of him. This means that in two lines of battle, of equal length, you would have at least double the amount of billmen compared to gallowglass. Also as bills were generally longer than sparths, and were definitely better thrusters, means that billmen had a reach advantage over gallowglass. So to have a chance at winning a gallowglass would have to bypass the points of their opponents bills, get in close, and then fight twice their own numbers. Not an easy task.

The only way I can think that battalion of gallowglass could beat a battalion of billmen in a head on fight is; if they lured the billmen into rough terrain making it hard for the billmen to keep cohesion, then pepper the billmen with javelins, darts, and arrows before going in with their axes.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Jason O C





Joined: 20 Oct 2012

Posts: 98

PostPosted: Wed 02 Aug, 2017 6:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Stephen. By the sounds of it sparth axes were used in much the same way as two handed swords, and two handed swords were known to be a good choice of weapon for facing multiple opponents. Given what you said about gallowglass vs billmen, I reckon that a gallowglass often had to face multiple opponents on the battlefield.

Jason
View user's profile Send private message
Dashiell Harrison




Location: California
Joined: 14 Jun 2014

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Wed 02 Aug, 2017 9:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Stephen, why are we assuming that the gallowglass line is the same length as the line of billmen (assuming that we are talking about lines of men at all, as I understand it, Ireland is made almost entirely of rough terrain)? It seems like if two or three gallowglass can cover the frontage that five billmen can, then that leaves an extra two or three axemen to run around the flanks and start chopping people up.

As I see it, an axe has the advantage of potentially dealing more immediately lethal wounds, being less likely to get stuck in somebody, and maybe being good for swinging in front of you to keep adversaries at bay in a manner similar to a two-handed sword. Axes might inflict wounds that are more demoralizing to the fallen man's friends, since they would probably bleed more, involve loss of the head or limbs, etc. Consensus seems to be that thrusts are harder to recover from than cuts, but I have a hard time imagining anyone recovering from a direct hit from a spar axe.

In short, an axe seems like a good weapon for scattering a bunch of Kerns. Run in, swinging the thing around in front of you, cut down anyone who stands in your path, and you don't have to focus in on one opponent or stop to pull it out of somebody that you'd already killed.

A spar might also have an advantage against shields, Highlanders with sword and targe make short work of government pike and bayonet armed troops in the late 17th century, I imagine billmen a century earlier might run into similar difficulties. It's hard to know for sure, but I think an axe might over better options against a targeteer than a bill.

I'd say its a bit of a toss up what's better at dealing with an adversary in mail, an axe or a bill.

The bill has the advantage of being quicker, nimbler (probably easier to use for hooking), and better reach. I'd expect that bill would be a good weapon for fighting a gallowglass with a spar (you can stab him before he can axe you, and a good bill can probably pierce his armor), but maybe not so good for fighting the traditional opponents the gallowglass faced (while you're sticking one Kern in guts, the others are surrounding you and tossing javelins at you, and a mail coat might be a better defense against javelins than a helmet and buff coat or breastplate.) So maybe we're looking at a billman beats gallowglass, gallowglass beats kern, kern can take on billmen sort of situation? That seems like it would be tally with the historical record of how things played out in the end.
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Henry O.





Joined: 18 Jun 2016

Posts: 81

PostPosted: Wed 02 Aug, 2017 10:10 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Keep in mind that the "Black Bill" was probably a bit more axe-like than some continental bills. Both Silver and John Smythe thought it was ideally only 5-6 feet long to make it easier to handle in tight quarters. Smythe even says that he typically just calls English bills "battle axes".



I don't think either the bill or the sparth axe needs to be swung side to side an a pell mell, rather they seem to be focused mainly on the use of their weight and wide blades to deliver powerful overhead blows to whatever is right in front of them. According to Barwick the black bill is a pretty simple, straight-forward weapon that just about any common man can figure out how to use. Especially compared to long-staved, and long-spiked halberds designed for thrusting in use on the continent.
View user's profile Send private message
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 6:51 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jason O C wrote:
by the sounds of it sparth axes were used in much the same way as two handed swords, and two handed swords were known to be a good choice of weapon for facing multiple opponents.


Yes I agree. I meant to say something similar in my last post but forgot to.

Henry O. wrote:
Keep in mind that the "Black Bill" was probably a bit more axe-like than some continental bills. Both Silver and John Smythe thought it was ideally only 5-6 feet long to make it easier to handle in tight quarters. Smythe even says that he typically just calls English bills "battle axes".


Ok but how common were these shorter bills and halberds used by whole lines of billmen? Silver and Smythe both wrote in the 1590s where men armed with short weapons (halberds, bills, two handed swords, sword and targets etc) only made up about 10% of the infantry, with pikes, arquebuses, and muskets making up the other 90%. As I'm sure you already know, these men were used for specific tasks such as; protecting the standard, or leading the offensive through a breach in a siege etc.

When I spoke about gallowglass fighting against formations of billmen, I was referring to the sort used during the 15th century and through the reign of Henry VIII. As far as I know (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) the type of halberds and bills used at this time were mostly weapons of about 8 feet long, like Silver's "forest bill".

Henry O. wrote:
I don't think either the bill or the sparth axe needs to be swung side to side an a pell mell, rather they seem to be focused mainly on the use of their weight and wide blades to deliver powerful overhead blows to whatever is right in front of them. According to Barwick the black bill is a pretty simple, straight-forward weapon that just about any common man can figure out how to use. Especially compared to long-staved, and long-spiked halberds designed for thrusting in use on the continent.


I respectfully disagree. Unlike halberds and bills, the sparth typically did not have any point to thrust with.


Let's say you are standing in a line armed with a halberd or bill, there are a variety of ways you can attack. You can feint high or low with your point, then get past your opponent's guard with a quick thrust to the opposite height. If you lead off with a cut or a hook, you usually end up in a good position to make a thrust. Indeed alternating between cuts/hooks and high or low thrusts is a good tactic. If your opponent parries, you can bind his weapon with your blade or back-spike, try to gain a dominant position and then thrust. If you were to hook your opponents leg and trip him, it's far quicker and easier to just thrust at his exposed thigh or crotch than it is to raise your weapon for a downward blow.

On the other hand if you were to stand in the same line armed with a sparth, you are basically limited to downward blows. This makes feinting a lot less effective as your attacks are more predictable. After making a downward cut you have two options to get your axe back into position to make another; you can simply lift your axe-head back up the way it came, or you can follow through taking your axe-head behind you and back overhead in a circular manner. The first option is not very good because it is slow and would allow your opponent time to attack you, and the second option needs a good bit of space to execute safely. In my opinion thrusting is better than both of these options. If your opponent parties your blow and you get into a bind, you can thrust to escape the bind, but without a point you won't do as much damage. Sure a blunt axe-head to the face could break teeth and facial bones, and possibly knock out or kill your opponent, but the point of a halberd or bill would be more a certain kill. And a thrust to the face is the best case scenario, the point of a halberd or bill has an unquestionable advantage in thrusting through mail, or even to un-armoured limbs.

I'm far from an expert, but to my mind thrusts seem like an essential part of fighting with a halberd or bill. I imagine halberds and bills held near the butt end of the haft, and used pretty much like two handed spears with the added benefit of cutting and hooking. Even if we are talking about black bills and short halberds, they still have the advantages of speed and reach over sparths, as thrusts are both faster and out-reach cuts.

As the only thing that sparths are good at is cutting, if a battalion of gallowglass chose to fight in a close formation, I imagine that they would probably hold their sparths in the middle of the haft, using the butt end to feint and parry setting up for cuts with the head.

To me the sparth seems unnecessarily limited in useable techniques compared to halberds and bills when used in close formations. This to me suggests that gallowglass did not typically fight in close formations. On the other hand if gallowglass fought in a loose formation, with plenty of room between men, they could use their sparths for wide sweeping cuts like those used with the two handed sword.

Sadly we will never know for sure how gallowglass fought.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Henry O.





Joined: 18 Jun 2016

Posts: 81

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 10:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It still looks like it would hurt if someone thrust that into your face. In addition a lot of the axes in Derricke's The Image of Irelande do seem to have much more of a point than that example does.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Image_of_Irelande,_with_a_Discoverie_of_Woodkarne

You may have already come across it but here's a recent thread where me and Benjamin posted a couple brief descriptions that discuss halberd or bill design: http://myArmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=35533

Note that a number of them mention the risk of the halberd's spike breaking off while cutting, and some writers actually specify that they would prefer the spike be made wider with sharp edges so that you can cut with the spike as well as the blade. Even though this would have made it heavier and less efficient at thrusting through mail or armor than a thin, square spike.

Keep in mind that the halberd or bill is not optimal in all situations either. As the swiss found out a well formed phalanx of halberds only is no match against a wall of long lances or pikes. And silver believes his "weapons of weight" are at a disadvantage in one-on one combat against a pike or a long spear. However there apparently are situations where a shorter, heavier weapon that can cut well gains the upper hand such as on broken terrain or when the formation becomes disordered, such as when the english infantry defeated scottish pikemen at the battle of Flodden.

While I admit that my focus is more on the late 16th century and that these sorts of weapons had a fairly niche use by this point, given that there was still some debate about the proper size and shape of these polearms I suspect that there was far more variation in the past as well. And that rather than soldiers armed with uniform weapons "billmen" came to refer to a mass of troops armed with a wide variety of polearms shorter than a pike; some 6 ft., some, 7 ft., some 8 ft., with a variety of head designs all with different advantages and disadvantages. When Thomas Digges describes it he just says that ". . . it hath bene among our men of warre a custom to have the bodie of our battails, halberdes, billes, battleaxes, or such short weapons. . ."

In the same way, I suspect that rather than all being armed identically, a formation of gallowglasses in the 15th century would fight more like typical mixed infantry, some with various designs of axes, some with spears, and some with two-handed swords all working together.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
As I see it, an axe has the advantage of potentially dealing more immediately lethal wounds, being less likely to get stuck in somebody, and maybe being good for swinging in front of you to keep adversaries at bay in a manner similar to a two-handed sword. Axes might inflict wounds that are more demoralizing to the fallen man's friends, since they would probably bleed more, involve loss of the head or limbs, etc. Consensus seems to be that thrusts are harder to recover from than cuts, but I have a hard time imagining anyone recovering from a direct hit from a spar axe.


I think this might be part of it. Kind of like how one of the appeals of the musket was that it caused far more severe wounds than other missile weapons.

Again I don't know as much about the sources from this period and there seems to be differences in opinion, however I did come across this passage from Jacopo di Porcia's the Preceptes of Warre, originally written some time in the early Italian wars. He seems to suggest that most infantry should be thrusting most of the time at the enemy's face, but that those using swords in two hands should instead focus on making powerful cuts due to the cleaving and dismembering it causes

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A09851.0001....w=fulltext

Quote:

187. ¶ Of the maner of fyghtynge.

Cause thy souldyours to foyne conty∣nually, and not lay on downryght, which force of fyghtynge is moche dreaded of thyne enemyes, cheifelye yf the foynes be cast at the face. These woundes ben vncu∣rable, and the wounded haue more nede of a preeste then of a surgyon. But yf thy men haue bastarde swordes, or twohan∣ded swordes, vsed in the ast partyes, lette them gyue downryght strokes. For those swordes be so deedlye, that lyghtlye they wyll stryke of the heed, cleaue the bodye, and dismembre all partes.


Perhaps the psychological effect of cutting someone in half is partly why the landsknecht Black band in 1515 included 2000 two-handed swordsmen and only 1000 halberdiers.

A two-handed axe with a broad blade and no pesky spike to get caught on things would presumably be pretty good at cleaving as well.
View user's profile Send private message
Richard Worthington





Joined: 07 Jun 2017
Reading list: 8 books

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 12:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Anyone care to comment on the Lochaber axe? There seem to be two types: the town guard type we are most familiar with, from places like Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the the Highland type, shown by the Penicuik artist, and like these at Inveraray...



The town guard type has the familiar bridle hook, whereas the Highland type has a small sickle-like blade instead of the hook.
View user's profile Send private message
Richard Worthington





Joined: 07 Jun 2017
Reading list: 8 books

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 12:17 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Make that Penicuik.

Here is the Lochaber axe:

View user's profile Send private message
Richard Worthington





Joined: 07 Jun 2017
Reading list: 8 books

Posts: 79

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 12:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

P.S. This is less off-topic:

ANTIQUITIES FROM THE RIVER BLACKWATER III, IRON AXE-HEADS

http://www.academia.edu/12451431/Antiquities_..._axe-heads

Quote:
One hundred and forty iron axe-heads from Cos Armagh and Tyrone are catalogued and for the most part illustrated. The material is largely of medieval date
View user's profile Send private message
Dashiell Harrison




Location: California
Joined: 14 Jun 2014

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 12:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think Richard is right to look at the Highlands of Scotland. Late 17th and early 18th warfare in Scotland has a number of important differences from 16th century Irish warfare (more cannon, less armor) but I think the Scottish example remains instructive on how soldiers with axes and swords could take on troops armed with two-handed thrust-centric polearms. The key seems to be avoiding a toe-to-toe grinding fencing match against an enemy phalanx and instead rely on high morale and momentum to blast through the enemy line and scatter their troops. I suspect gallowglass fought in a similar manner to the famed Highland charge that their cousins would perfect a century or so later.

Battles such as Killiecrankie and Prestonpans demonstrated the ability of highly aggressive warriors with shorter cutting weapons to route bodies of men armed with longer thrusting weapons, provided they were able to attack under the right conditions, such as when the enemy had been disrupted by missile fire or were still forming their battle lines.

I think the utility of an armored axeman is that he can cover ground a bit faster than troops who have to stay in close order, shrug off missile attacks on the way, and then do terrible damage very quickly once he gets there. This seems to be a very useful ability in a world where kerns throwing javelins are one of the primary adversaries one is liable to face, and where terrain makes fighting in close order a relative rarity. As I mentioned before, I think the axe might have an advantage as a shock weapon over a bill, because you don't have to stop to line up your thrust on an opponent, stick them, and then get your bill out. I think it's easier to cut someone down as you run by them and then keep running onto the next opponent (perhaps keeping your weapon in motion the entire time, then it is to skewer them. The weight and power of the axe might even allow you to blast through a parry, negating the need to slow down and create an opening in an adversary's defenses. If you're trying to ambush an enemy or quickly route a disordered unit, the ability to maintain momentum strikes me as paramount. Billmen strike me as more likely to get bogged down than axemen.

In conclusion, I think a bill would be a better weapon for fighting in a phalanx-like formation than an axe, which is why I think gallowglass would have avoided going up against a well formed phalanx of billmen and instead relied on missile troops to disorder them and then charged in, perhaps on the flanks, once the billmen faltered, or else withdrawn completely and then ambushed the billmen when the were crossing a river or marching through a dense wood.
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 2:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Dashiell thanks for joining the discussion.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
Stephen, why are we assuming that the gallowglass line is the same length as the line of billmen


Sorry I worded my point poorly. What I meant was, as one line was loose and the other line close, each gallowglass would be facing two or three billmen, and that's only in the front rank, the second rank also needs to be considered.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
In short, an axe seems like a good weapon for scattering a bunch of Kerns. Run in, swinging the thing around in front of you, cut down anyone who stands in your path, and you don't have to focus in on one opponent or stop to pull it out of somebody that you'd already killed.


Yes this is true. In a melee, against multiple un-armoured opponents, a sparth would be a devastating weapon. However this isn't what I was talking about in my last post. I was talking about gallowglass vs billmen.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
I'd say its a bit of a toss up what's better at dealing with an adversary in mail, an axe or a bill.


I wouldn't say it's a toss up at all. IMO most halberd or bill designs would cut just as well as a sparth. The point gives a clear advantage to halberds and bills at penetrating mail.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
The bill has the advantage of being quicker, nimbler (probably easier to use for hooking), and better reach. I'd expect that bill would be a good weapon for fighting a gallowglass with a spar (you can stab him before he can axe you, and a good bill can probably pierce his armor)


I agree.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
while you're sticking one Kern in guts, the others are surrounding you and tossing javelins at you


Well the English and French writers who commented on Irish javelins generally weren't very impressed, so the armour of the day seems to have effective against them.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
a mail coat might be a better defense against javelins than a helmet and buff coat or breastplate.


Billmen of the 15th and early 16th century typically wore different combinations of padded jacks, mail, brigandines, jacks of plate, "munitions grade" plate etc. I don't see how mail would be a superior protection against javelins than these pieces of armour.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Dashiell Harrison




Location: California
Joined: 14 Jun 2014

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 3:33 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Stephen,

I think my second post lays out my thoughts a bit more clearly than my first one does, but basically, I think gallowglass were optimized for fighting Kern, the main troop type in Ireland for most of the time period in which they were in use. I think they would have avoided a toe-to-toe melee with well-ordered formations of billmen, and instead limited themselves to fighting in loose ordered skirmishes and ambushes, where I think an axe's ability to be used as a shock/momentum weapon gives it some advantages over a bill, similar to advantages that Highland Scots with swords and axes enjoyed when fighting pike and musket armed troops at killiecrankie.
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 4:09 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Henry O. wrote:
It still looks like it would hurt if someone thrust that into your face. In addition a lot of the axes in Derricke's The Image of Irelande do seem to have much more of a point than that example does.


Yes some sparths had pointier blades than others, and a thrust to the face would not be a pleasant experience, but I still don't think that this point can compare to that of a halberd or bill. Other than the face I don't see the point of a sparth being very effective.

Henry O. wrote:
You may have already come across it but here's a recent thread where me and Benjamin posted a couple brief descriptions that discuss halberd or bill design...... Note that a number of them mention the risk of the halberd's spike breaking off while cutting, and some writers actually specify that they would prefer the spike be made wider with sharp edges so that you can cut with the spike as well as the blade. Even though this would have made it heavier and less efficient at thrusting through mail or armor than a thin, square spike.


Interesting I'll be sure to check out that thread, thank you.

Henry O. wrote:
Keep in mind that the halberd or bill is not optimal in all situations either. As the swiss found out a well formed phalanx of halberds only is no match against a wall of long lances or pikes. And silver believes his "weapons of weight" are at a disadvantage in one-on one combat against a pike or a long spear. However there apparently are situations where a shorter, heavier weapon that can cut well gains the upper hand such as on broken terrain or when the formation becomes disordered, such as when the english infantry defeated scottish pikemen at the battle of Flodden.


This is what I was saying. On open ground, an orderly formation of English billmen would have a big advantage against a battalion of gallowglass. For the gallowglass to tip the odds in their favour, they would have to use rough ground and try to disrupt the billmen with missile weapons.

Henry O. wrote:
While I admit that my focus is more on the late 16th century and that these sorts of weapons had a fairly niche use by this point, given that there was still some debate about the proper size and shape of these polearms I suspect that there was far more variation in the past as well. And that rather than soldiers armed with uniform weapons "billmen" came to refer to a mass of troops armed with a wide variety of polearms shorter than a pike; some 6 ft., some, 7 ft., some 8 ft., with a variety of head designs all with different advantages and disadvantages. When Thomas Digges describes it he just says that ". . . it hath bene among our men of warre a custom to have the bodie of our battails, halberdes, billes, battleaxes, or such short weapons. . ."


When I say billmen, this is what I mean.

Henry O. wrote:
In the same way, I suspect that rather than all being armed identically, a formation of gallowglasses in the 15th century would fight more like typical mixed infantry, some with various designs of axes, some with spears, and some with two-handed swords all working together.


I'd love to see evidence of this. I've looked and so far the evidence I've seen suggests that gallowglass were uniformly axe-men before the 16th century, by which time some adopted the two handed sword.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Stephen Curtin




Location: Cork, Ireland
Joined: 17 Nov 2007
Likes: 110 pages
Reading list: 17 books

Spotlight topics: 1
Posts: 1,082

PostPosted: Thu 03 Aug, 2017 4:59 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Richard Worthington wrote:
Anyone care to comment on the Lochaber axe?


My only comment at this point is, that's a nice display at Inveraray, thanks for sharing the pic. Also thanks for sharing the article on axe-heads.

Dashiell Harrison wrote:
I think gallowglass were optimized for fighting Kern, the main troop type in Ireland for most of the time period in which they were in use. I think they would have avoided a toe-to-toe melee with well-ordered formations of billmen, and instead limited themselves to fighting in loose ordered skirmishes and ambushes, where I think an axe's ability to be used as a shock/momentum weapon gives it some advantages over a bill, similar to advantages that Highland Scots with swords and axes enjoyed when fighting pike and musket armed troops at killiecrankie.


You could well be right Dashiell, but let me ask you a question. Would adding an adequate thrusting point make a sparth any less effective in the context in which you suggest it was used? I don't think that it would. To my mind adding a point has the benefit of making the sparth a more versatile weapon, with no drawbacks that I can think of.

Éirinn go Brách
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail


Display posts from previous:   
Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Gallowglass and Axes???
Page 4 of 5 Reply to topic
Go to page Previous  1, 2, 3, 4, 5  Next All times are GMT - 8 Hours

View previous topic :: View next topic
Jump to:  
You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot vote in polls in this forum
You cannot attach files in this forum
You can download files in this forum






All contents © Copyright 2003-2017 myArmoury.com — All rights reserved
Discussion forums powered by phpBB © The phpBB Group
Switch to the Basic Low-bandwidth Version of the forum