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Thread: Broadsword vs Pike Shaft?

  1. #1
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    Broadsword vs Pike Shaft?

    While discussing historical anecdotes with a practice partener we came to the topic of the various tactical situations the sword-armed warrior faced on the early-modern battlefield.

    I mentioned the oft-qouted scenario of the Scottish swordsman hewing off the heads of pikeshafts. That's when skepticism kicked in.

    First off I wondered if there is anything to the anecdote. Pikes, unless of vastly inferior manufacture typically had several feet of steel "sleeves" behind the head presumably to prevent any sort of breakage at the buissness end. Also would there be any real value to hacking off the head of a pike considering the strength of a pike square lies in the integrity of the formation? Even if the front rank man's pike could be so disabled, there are still four or five leveled pikes behind him not to mention just as many pikes ranked behind them to replace the first.
    Lastly there is the question whether a single handed broadsword was able to *cut* (as opposed to break) through a rather thick piece of hardwood (ash in most cases)?
    I can see this sort of damage being inflicted by the earlier greatswords perhaps further down the shaft of a pike behind the sleeve of the pikehead.
    Has anyone ever replicated this feat of cutting with a broadsword against a wooden rod offering the same resistance as a gripped pike?
    Is this an early modern equivalent of the tired WWII apocrypha of Japanese military swords slicing through machine gun barrels?

    Discuss.
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    I can remember offhand an account of a Highland chief killed in a battle who was found with some number of pike heads embedded in his targe. That suggests they weren't just swinging at the heads - which obviously wouldn't work - but taking the thrusts on their shields which, if the point got stuck, would allow a good solid blow on the shaft. If I can find a suitable length of wood I'll give it a go

    Paul

  3. #3
    I can't speak to your specific example, but this is a quote from Book 3 of Marozzo's treatise (the Spada da Due Mani), specifically, this is the second rule from Chapter 177 The method you must use when, with a sword for two hands, you go against a polearm:

    ...and in that he thrusts at you to an upper target, step somewhat forward and diagonally with your right foot and deliver a Mandritto across the shaft [of his polearm], so that your sword will go into porta di ferro larga, and your left foot will follow your right; and if, in the case that you have not cut his shaft, your opponent responds with a high or low attack, step with your right foot to his left...
    Also, here is the plate on the facing page:

    Note the broken (or cut) shafts at the feet of the swordsman. Now this is from 1536, and the sword is a two-handed sword, but at least the possibility of cutting polearm shafts with a sword seemed well within the realms of possibility to Marozzo. However, I don't know about the specifics about cutting a pike with a single-handed sword.

    Steve
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  4. #4
    Just for a reference, there was a similar shaft-breaking upward cut with the plate in Chinese swordsmanship. But for single handed sword, I'm not sure.
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    I wonder if in the tactical situation the band of swordsmen simply loose a few on the way in and then cause utter carnage to the pike block once they are there.
    A pike isnt going to be much use once its stuck in/through somebody and how are you going to pull it back out? its not like you can put your foot against the dead body and pull it back.

    Always considered that if the swordsmen can hold their nerve and accept the casualities on the way in they should be in a pretty good position. Seems to be the case in re-enactment too - longer weapons take out the first rank fairly easily but if they keep coming (ala ignoring hits in re-enactment !) then your in trouble.

    I have had my bill shaft broken in re-enactment a few times, so I think it is perfectly feasible to break the shafts of weapons and perhaps even more likely with sharp weapons.

  6. #6
    I have known intellectually that these tools we train with were the real deal for people at one point.

    But the first moment of sheer terror I felt while practicing WMA was with Eric Myers coming at me with a montante while I was holding a pike. Not that I was the least bit worried about Eric harming me - his control is far too good for that. But something in that moment made it all click in my head, and I understood at a much more fundamental level the idea that people once lived and died using the arts we study.

    None of which has anything to do with the question of whether a broadsword could reasonably be expected to sever a pike's head, but I thought I'd share it anyway.

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    Meyer has a technique to use against pole-arm, which might work against pike. I should reread the passage before posting this, so my apologies if I get it wrong. He says to deflect the shaft with a hanging guard, then grab the shaft with the left hand. You can attempt a disarm, or just control the pole-arm while you advance into sword range.

    I suspect this would work better against a single pole-arm than a formation.
    Last edited by Jim Mearkle; 07-05-2009 at 07:24 AM.
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  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Ian Brackley View Post
    While discussing historical anecdotes with a practice partener we came to the topic of the various tactical situations the sword-armed warrior faced on the early-modern battlefield.

    I mentioned the oft-qouted scenario of the Scottish swordsman hewing off the heads of pikeshafts. That's when skepticism kicked in.
    I share your scepticism, and although we have primary evidence that can be read as supporting the claim, I think we need to revisit it.

    Firstly, from the "Trewe Encountre";

    every man for the most part with a keen and sharp spear of 5 yards length, and a target before him. And when their spears failed and were spent, then they fought with great and sharp swords...
    Now, the fact that they were 'failed' and 'spent' does not mean that they were systemically cut down by English bills. The act of using a pike is itself destructive to the weapon, and in intense fighting it would eventually become useless. It's even possible that the wording here may refer to their tactical failure ('spent' meaning to throw away) rather than physical failure, but that's less likely.

    However, we also have an account by Thomas Ruthal, Bishop of Durham;

    ...our bills quitted them very well, and did more good that day than bows, for they shortly disappointed the Scots of their long spears wherein was their greatest trust; and when they came to hand stroke, though the Scots fought sore and valiantly with their swords, yet they could not resist the bills that lighted so thick and sore upon them...
    "Disappointed the Scots of their long spears". This surely means that *once the pike formation lost its cohesion*, the handier bill was able to get amongst the Scots, and they were forced to draw swords. It doesn't by any means imply that they physically cut the pikes to pieces.

    In any case you're right about the subsequent over-emphasis of it, even if it did happen. I've no doubt that, one on one, it's possible to achieve the feat claimed. But we're talking about a battle here. The crucial thing was the failure of the formation (and the training of the pikemen), not the physical properties of the pike itself, which acquitted itself well in other European battles.
    Last edited by Jonathan S Ferguson; 07-05-2009 at 08:11 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Reich View Post

    Note the broken (or cut) shafts at the feet of the swordsman. Now this is from 1536, and the sword is a two-handed sword, but at least the possibility of cutting polearm shafts with a sword seemed well within the realms of possibility to Marozzo. However, I don't know about the specifics about cutting a pike with a single-handed sword.

    Steve
    Very interesting!
    I suspected that this type of cutting was within the destructive capabilities of a two handed sword.
    On this aside, is it implied anyplace if the opposing polearm is a shorter (and less thick-shafted) bill, halberd, spontoon type weapon that was better suited to individual combat or the heavier full pike used en mass as part of a "weapons system"?
    Is Marozzo imparting a technique for the lists or for the battlefield? Or is any such distinctino made?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tyson Wright View Post
    I have known intellectually that these tools we train with were the real deal for people at one point.

    But the first moment of sheer terror I felt while practicing WMA was with Eric Myers coming at me with a montante while I was holding a pike. Not that I was the least bit worried about Eric harming me - his control is far too good for that. But something in that moment made it all click in my head, and I understood at a much more fundamental level the idea that people once lived and died using the arts we study.
    I've often envisioned such a scenario in my mind's eye, seeing a sword & buckler man past one's own pike point, hoping to God that the guys behind you can take him out, else drop the pike and go for one's own sidearm and in doing so compromising your formation's integrity. Similarly there's the "Culloden reverie": trying to ignore the swordman to your front and hoping the man to your left is still there to stab him in time.
    All around nightmarish scenes to contemplate.
    How may I confuse you further?

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Ian Brackley View Post
    Very interesting!
    I suspected that this type of cutting was within the destructive capabilities of a two handed sword.
    On this aside, is it implied anyplace if the opposing polearm is a shorter (and less thick-shafted) bill, halberd, spontoon type weapon that was better suited to individual combat or the heavier full pike used en mass as part of a "weapons system"?
    Is Marozzo imparting a technique for the lists or for the battlefield? Or is any such distinctino made?
    Generally, the Bolognese treatises--and actually, most (but not all) Italian treatises--are targeted to dueling, although many of them say that swordsmanship is one part of the art of being a soldier.

    In these sections (i.e. Two-handed sword against pole arms), Marozzo mentions the Ronca, Partisan, Spiedo, and Lance by name, and generally includes all of the polearms in the techniques, although he sometimes differentiates between those that are used with cuts and those that a predominantly thrusting (i.e. partisan and lance). However, he actually doesn't mention the pike. Were we to ask Marozzo abut cutting the shaft, I suspect his answer would be very mundane and "matter of fact." Some shafts might be cut, and others won't--but since his technique mentions both possibilities, it's covered either way.

    Steve
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steven Reich View Post
    Generally, the Bolognese treatises--and actually, most (but not all) Italian treatises--are targeted to dueling, although many of them say that swordsmanship is one part of the art of being a soldier.

    In these sections (i.e. Two-handed sword against pole arms), Marozzo mentions the Ronca, Partisan, Spiedo, and Lance by name, and generally includes all of the polearms in the techniques, although he sometimes differentiates between those that are used with cuts and those that a predominantly thrusting (i.e. partisan and lance). However, he actually doesn't mention the pike. Were we to ask Marozzo abut cutting the shaft, I suspect his answer would be very mundane and "matter of fact." Some shafts might be cut, and others won't--but since his technique mentions both possibilities, it's covered either way.

    Steve
    The Iberian texts deal with both polearms that are hand held and thrown as well. Steve

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    There are also other Italian treatises that deal with 2-handed swords being used to crash into pike formations and break the shafts.

    Please notice that the pikes in the Marozzo illustration are broken at a point that would be well behind the length of the "side-straps" or langets. I normally don't put 100% trust in this kind of iconography, but this addresses one of Ian's very valid points.

    Tom

  14. #14
    A slightly earlier period than the one under discussion, and probably more in the context of duelling, but Fiore gives a technique for breaking off spear heads with linked hands (once they are stuck in or on one's armour/breastplate, if I understand it correctly). One of his technique for breaking the thrust also involves standing on the opponent's sword blade, presumably to trap it or break or bend it. I don't think cutting through a spear or pike shaft is particularly practical (not that I've done any particularly scientific testing of this), but beating it to the ground and stomping on it might work better(or breaking one that's stuck against something hard in some other way, like the targes someone mentioned earlier).
    Last edited by Andrew Gill; 07-06-2009 at 04:21 AM.

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    There is a 19th century treatise in English detailing broadsword party tricks. One example in this treatise is a man cutting through a broom handle that is resting on two wine glasses without disturbing the glasses. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of things going on on the battlefield, but if the swordsman has the same level of control and grace as a trained, classical fencer, the mechanics of cutting through a pike shaft with a broadsword are very possible.

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Wagner View Post
    I can remember offhand an account of a Highland chief killed in a battle who was found with some number of pike heads embedded in his targe. That suggests they weren't just swinging at the heads - which obviously wouldn't work - but taking the thrusts on their shields which, if the point got stuck, would allow a good solid blow on the shaft. If I can find a suitable length of wood I'll give it a go

    Paul
    Paul, I've found your highland chief reference, and at the same time, what must be the source of the Flodden claim. In "The Secret of Flodden", Mackenzie interprets the exact same primary sources that I posted earlier as meaning that "The English halberds must have sheared through them." His only evidence is by way of comparison;

    1) the experience of Alastair MacDonald at Auldearn in 1645, exactly as you describe.

    2) quoting from 'The Warre-like Treatise of the Pike' (1642) he gives us;

    Hath it not been seen that three or four good resolute soldiers with their swords and buff-coats only have cut off ten or twelve pike-heads, and come off safe without wounds?
    To which I might reply 'I don't know, hath it?'

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan S Ferguson View Post
    'I don't know, hath it?'
    Verrily, forsooth!

  18. #18
    Both those sources are talking about one-handed 2-3lb swords shearing off unsupported and moving hardwood hafts of several inches diameter. Again, as a feat of arms, no doubt it's possible. But as an effective anti-pike tactic? I can't see it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan S Ferguson View Post
    Both those sources are talking about one-handed 2-3lb swords shearing off unsupported and moving hardwood hafts of several inches diameter. Again, as a feat of arms, no doubt it's possible. But as an effective anti-pike tactic? I can't see it.
    I think you've hit upon the underlying truth of these reports, the pike treatise quoted clearly places the feat in the realm not only of possibility but seems to suggest it was not all that uncommon.

    The more I ponder the Alastair MacDonald account the more it seems that the breaking of pike shafts with swords was the sort of thing that happened in desperate combats (i.e. on the way in towards the pikemen) without it being any sort of doctrine.

    It would still be very interesting to hear from anyone in a position to field-test this. Mind, such a test may be quite stressful on a blade.....
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peter Nelson View Post
    There is a 19th century treatise in English detailing broadsword party tricks. One example in this treatise is a man cutting through a broom handle that is resting on two wine glasses without disturbing the glasses. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of things going on on the battlefield, but if the swordsman has the same level of control and grace as a trained, classical fencer, the mechanics of cutting through a pike shaft with a broadsword are very possible.
    I wondered about bringing up the broomhandle trick (I was first made aware of this through reading Terry Brown's English Martial Arts).
    I didn't really think it had overly much relevance to the question of cutting (or breaking) pikeshafts given the difference in diameter and even wood type - broomhandles can be made from say, pine or other soft woods for cost reasons.

    Nevertheless, there seems to be a general consensus that cutting pikeshafts with broadswords *is* within the realm of possibility. The question could now be rephrased to be "how difficult is this?"
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  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan S Ferguson
    Both those sources are talking about one-handed 2-3lb swords shearing off unsupported and moving hardwood hafts of several inches diameter.
    Several inches in diameter? I strongly doubt that. Such a pike would be impossible to wield. More like a single inch, perhaps a bit more or less.

    Fourquevaux considered targetiers cutting pikes a valid and useful military tactic. Swetnam recounted an example of a man with sword and shield taking off the head of a staff. It seems to have been reasonably common.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Gill View Post
    A slightly earlier period than the one under discussion, and probably more in the context of duelling, but Fiore gives a technique for breaking off spear heads with linked hands (once they are stuck in or on one's armour/breastplate, if I understand it correctly).
    Would you care to give a reference for this? I don't think I see it in the spear sections of any of the manuscripts.

    For that matter, "rompere di punta", I believe, refers to the breaking of the thrust - that is, the structure of the thrust, rather than the weapon that is being used.

    Just a request for clarification!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Benjamin H. Abbott View Post
    Several inches in diameter? I strongly doubt that. Such a pike would be impossible to wield. More like a single inch, perhaps a bit more or less.

    Fourquevaux considered targetiers cutting pikes a valid and useful military tactic. Swetnam recounted an example of a man with sword and shield taking off the head of a staff. It seems to have been reasonably common.

    I'm not famliar with Fourquevaux, but the existence of this source is enough to make me rethink my earlier statement that cutting pikeheads was incidental rather than doctrinal. At least in the opinions of some writers. Can you tell us more about this work?

    I think you may be underestimating the heaftiness of the pike, not by much but then I tend to think of inches being very large degrees (this comes from studying tailoring and pattern drafting, an inch comes to be thought of as HUGE)
    A single inch or less in diameter is far too thin for a full sized pike of 14-18 feet in length. Such a thing would be frail in the extreme regardless of the type of wood it was made from. Perhaps a shorter polearm may approach this thiness. From images of exant historical weapons, reproductions and plates from manuals I'd say that 1.5 inches was the smaller end with 2 1/4 inches being the very upper limit (a 1/4" more and it's hard to get one's hand around it unless one has very large hands).
    Keeping in mind as well that a "full pike" (as opposed to a half-pike or spontoon) is not exactly a "weildly" weapon to start with. Not the sort of thing the pikeman is expected to "fence" with. A pike alone is beyond useless until deployed with numbers of its fellows.

    I've attached a few pictures of modern recreations (the latter two from the Sealed Knot Society). While I take these recreations with a grain of salt (being modern recreationists with differing requirments i.e. safety) the images are useful as a visual aid in imagining what is proposed being cut through or broken.

    First is the shorter "boarding pike" from the USS Constitution. In spite of the thickness of the shaft, the weapon's shorter length makes it entirely suitable for solo fighting.




    Last edited by Ian Brackley; 07-07-2009 at 01:09 AM.
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  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by Benjamin H. Abbott View Post
    Several inches in diameter? I strongly doubt that. Such a pike would be impossible to wield. More like a single inch, perhaps a bit more or less.

    Fourquevaux considered targetiers cutting pikes a valid and useful military tactic. Swetnam recounted an example of a man with sword and shield taking off the head of a staff. It seems to have been reasonably common.
    Gah, *circumference*, not diameter. What can I say, I scraped through my high school math...

  25. #25
    Hi Ken
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Quek View Post
    Would you care to give a reference for this? I don't think I see it in the spear sections of any of the manuscripts.
    The two techniques I was referring to are in Novati's facsimile on the bottom of the page marked "Carta 16B, page 150, just after the three players who want to throw spears and swords at the master with the sword, and before the diagram with the four animals. It is a few pages after the spear techniques, which is a little confusing, and my interpretation is based on a 2nd or 3rd-hand explanation (I can't read medieval italian), so I could be very wrong in the exact purpose of the technique. Can you help me here?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Quek View Post
    For that matter, "rompere di punta", I believe, refers to the breaking of the thrust - that is, the structure of the thrust, rather than the weapon that is being used.
    I put this slightly badly: I did not mean to imply that the technique was so named because it breaks the opponent's blade; rather I was speculating that the blade might break as a possible outcome of standing on it as shown in in the followup techniques, that doing something similar against a spear-wielding opponent might be a better way of damaging the spear than trying to chop through it. (If it doesn't break, at least it's pinned to the ground and can't be used on you) Fiore doesn't show this in his spear section, though. What do you think?

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