The Weapon Arts
‘Pole-weapon’ (or ‘polearm’) is a general term for any weapon made up of a shaft or pole that usually has an offensive metal head at one end for thrusting, piercing, hacking or snagging. While the spear is the most well-known and most ancient member of this category, many other pole-weapons exist as well. With a remarkable diversity in size, the shape of their heads and martial usage, these pole-weapons include such weapons as the poleaxe (or pollaxe), halberd, bardiche, pike, partisan and bill, amongst many others.
Pole-weapons also include the invaluable quarterstaff, a simple civilian weapon used for self-defence as well as country competitions. The quarterstaff is perhaps best known as the choice weapon of Little John of Robin Hood fame. It is this pole-weapon on which we focus much of our attention at Academie Duello. Not only is the quarterstaff relatively safe with its blunt ends, it is also extensively described in many historical fighting manuals as an excellent way to learn the basics of all pole-weapon techniques.
Studying Polearms at Academie Duello
You can learn about the poleaxe through our longsword fundamentals beginner program. Once you have completed this course you will be eligible to take ongoing polearms classes that include quarterstaff, spear, and poleaxe.
The Anatomy of the Quarterstaff and Pole-Weapons
Quarterstaffs are cylindrical rods about 1.5 to 2.5 inches thick, usually turned from a hardwood like ash, oak or hickory. There are two general sizes of quarterstaff: a short variety, ranging from 6 to 9 feet, and a long, ranging from 12 to 16 feet. Both are studied at Academie Duello. Quarterstaffs of both sorts sometimes have ends that have been sharped to points or fixed with metallic points similar to a spearhead.
Other pole-weapons vary in length considerably, from some just under 5 feet to pikes reaching upwards of 18 feet. The shapes of their heads also vary considerably depending on their function, but most have a blade, point, barb, beak, hammerhead or some combination of any of the above.
The Nature of the Quarterstaff and Pole-Weapons
The quarterstaff is best suited to unarmoured combat, whereas a number of other pole-weapons like the poleaxe are intended for combat in full armour.
The offensive range offered by a pole-weapon, although much greater than that of a sword, also has its disadvantages. Greater distance from an opponent offers protection, but the weapon can only create threat if its head has enough range and space to connect. If an opponent comes close enough, the length of the pole-weapon becomes a liability. Because of the length of their shafts, pole-weapon techniques emphasize both thrusts and sweeps in arcs, as well as coordination of momentum in order to strike effectively with a head (or end, simply, with a quarterstaff). As such, we practise both holding pole-weapons like the staff at one end to emphasize thrusting and powerful blows, as well as in the middle (half-staffing) to facilitate use of both ends of the staff. Using the two ends in coordination is an especially important element of pole-weapon fighting in order to deflect an oncoming attack with one end while garnering momentum for a stroke or thrust with the other.
Specific pole-weapons may emphasize certain thrusts or strokes more than others depending on the shape of their head, if designed for puncturing, snagging or hacking.
The History of the Quarterstaff and Pole-Weapons
Medieval and renaissance pole-weapons combine two separate technologies. One is the spear, one of the oldest weapons (and technologies) in human history and a prominent arsenal in most Western armies throughout Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The other is the assortment everyday tools used by medieval peasants, most of which are designed for agricultural activities, like pruning and reaping, but also boring and hammering. The result is a deadly combination in a range of weapons that comprise blades, barbs and spikes and a long reach that considerably influenced the nature of warfare throughout the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Most pole-weapons did not become common until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but a few date back to the Early Middle Ages, such as some long-shafted axes, or even to Classical Antiquity, like the trident. The development and proliferation of pole-weapons in the High and Late Middle Ages came as a response to the domination of the European battlefield by heavy cavalry in the form of mounted knights. As infantry of the time could not hope to stop a heavy-cavalry charge or pierce heavy armour with shorter melee weapons, they began using pole-weapons in large formations to prevent such tactics. Additionally, the blades and points of their pole-weapons proved extremely effective at stopping mounted knights by impaling them or their horses outright, or by snagging a piece of plate armour and knocking or dragging them to the ground. Even if sharp edges on some pole-weapons could not penetrate high-quality plate armour, the hardened points on others were capable of puncturing some weak spots where the steel was thinner, or inflicting blunt trauma with a hammer-like head.
From at least the latter half of the fourteenth century, even knights had realized the power of pole-weapons, and they, too, began to train in them in addition to common soldiers for battle (still fully armoured) on foot. Pole-weapons also came to be used by knights in tournaments and judicial combats. Most of the combat manuals that we possess today reflect this knightly training in pole-weapons like the poleaxe, which remained a staple of the knight’s arsenal into the sixteenth century alongside swords and the lance. This fact is attested by Italian combat manuals from the early fifteenth century onwards, which include prominent sections on pole-weapon combat as well as on swordplay.
The quarterstaff is mentioned in fighting manuals as early as the fifteenth century, but considering the simplicity of the weapon, it likely dates to a much earlier period. The term quarterstaff is, however, only attested from the late sixteenth century; earlier terms for the weapon include the ‘two-handed staff’ or simply ‘staff’. The English master George Silver (c.1560-c.1620), an author of two treatises on martial arts, describes a ‘short staff’ and a ‘long staff’, corresponding to the two general sizes of quarterstaff.
Pole-weapons remained prominent items in the arsenals of European armies and warriors for centuries. They did not decline as judicial weapons until the early seventeenth century, when the rapier became the choice weapon of duellists. On the battlefield, some pole-weapons remained in use as late as the early nineteenth century (particularly in navies), but most largely declined after the proliferation of the bayonet in the closing years of the seventeenth century.