Sword vs Spear?


May 7, 2009, 08:28 PM
I hope it is okay to start this as a new thread?

John had mentioned in another thread that spear had a real advantage over sword and I was wondering what exactly he ment.

Also wondering if anyone else has any info on this matchup.

Did it matter if it was formation vs formation or 1 on 1?

Did shields matter?

I know at certain points in time sword & buckler units were used to counter pikes, the trick was bridging the gap. Have never seen much about how this might have been done in the field.

Or like a lot of stuff does it come down to who has greater skill or unit coordination?

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May 7, 2009, 08:41 PM
I'd say that the spear is better, unless in a confined space. You would get so much better reach with a spear than you do with a sword. It's also a lot cheaper and easier to train and use. But, if I was in tight little places I'd ditch the spear and get me a sword.

May 7, 2009, 09:03 PM
What would be really spectacular is an 31" Asp with an 8" spear head. That's a weapon I'd take into combat with me anywhere.

Hans Esker
May 8, 2009, 11:14 AM
The extending spear idea has been done. Look up the movie The Deadly Silver Spear

May 8, 2009, 12:19 PM
Spear is:

Has more range
Easier and quicker to learn

Now, I don't have experience with ranks of spear vs. swordsmen, but the historical record seems to show that even in ranks, the spear usually won.

May 8, 2009, 12:50 PM
In the other thread, now locked, J Shirley advocated spear.

Respectfully and without frivolity may I ask our administrator
to suggest where relevant information/technique can be obtained please.

My own background includes Jo, Bo, Bokken and Japanese sword,
[katana (Japanese long swords), wakizashi (Japanese short swords),
and tanto (Japanese daggers)], WWII combatives style stick.
However, I find difficulty getting information regarding other
1:1 spear type techniques i.e. not in ranks regarding medieval spear,
or modern non-'mac dojo' stuff.

My enquiry is genuine. My vote is - it depends where the fight is. :D

May 8, 2009, 01:52 PM
Historically, spearmen were the premier fighting units for most cultures until the advent of firearms when musket+bayonet replaced them. Look at it from the "science" of combat.

Well trained spearmen armed with an 8' spear would stand 18" apart with shields locked as his battle formation. Each subsequent row stood 3' behind and could reach beyond the front line to also fight with their spears. A typical "sword" unit like Roman Legionaries typically stood 36" apart, and received no direct help from lines behind him. Now if you do the math, this means that against every 1 swordsman, you could bring 4+ spears against him.
Alexander the Great's army used 21' spears (sarissa), and could bring 8-12 speartips against the enemy front (see attachment). The Scots employed spear Schiltroms to fight English cavalry. Soldiers of the Renaissance fought with long spears (pikes) to defeat both men and charging cavalry. It was the extra reach of so many spears packed together that defeated other types of units.

As firearms became more efficient, spear use decreased until the early 1700s when they were completely replaced (in Europe) by the bayonet. Typical bayonets were ~2' long because they became the equivalent "spear". "Spear" formations such as the British Square, continued to be used in Europe and elsewhere to defeat Napoleon's cavalry at Waterloo (1815) and against the Zulu at the battle of Roarks Drift (1879).

Very few historical units could regularly defeat spearmen, the most famous were the Roman Legionaries, who used primarily javelins and short swords -but these guys were professionals that fought together for 20-40 year enlistments. They were about as well trained and disciplined as any modern combat unit.

Another example would be Spanish "sword & buckler" men. These were extremely well-trained in the art of fencing and could slip between and under spears to kill the enemy. But they were expensive to train & arm so only a few hundred men were available even in the largest battles.

Lastly are the Japanese Samurai. Contrary to movies, foot Samurai fought with spears and bows, and not swords. Once again, well-ordered spears could defeat swords because of sheer numbers.

May 8, 2009, 06:02 PM
If my life depended on it. I would take a spear anyday. A sword holds more glamor and status, but all training being equal, a spear wins out.

May 8, 2009, 07:42 PM
The sword throughout much of our history was merely a status symbol. It did see use and prominent use by some but nowhere near the use in fiction and fantasy.

Spears as CWL mentions were the primary armament. They have gone by many names, specific to different types of spears intended for different tactics but the spear was the premier weapon until firearms.
Even ranged units like bowmen were protected by spearmen.

When it was not spears it was actualy warhammers and maces more often than swords which punched through medieval plate armor that a sword could not. So when penetration of body armor become more important than delivering damage straight to flesh heavy weapons that concentrated a lot of force and delivered thier momentum on small points or spikes become widespread. The sword was horrible for that, while the spear was still effective.

The sword was primarily a status weapon for many, or a gentleman's weapon when dueling was popular during the renaissance. It was more at home on a noble's hip than on the battlefield. There was some places it was quite useful, like with cavalry, because the momentum of the blade, rider, and horse carry the sword through a target in ways well beyond those of someone on foot.
In general though the spear/pike/halberd prevailed.

One advantage of the sword over the spear is that it could be carried informaly. That meant it could be present when necessary for defense or LEO purposes. A spear was large and akward and while better in battle not convenient to carry around just in case.
So in that context the sword was the handgun, while the spear was the rifle in much of history. Guards patroling a city or town could have a sheathed sword while attending to non-combat related activities. A large spear would be less practical. Just as police today are better served with a handgun than a rifle even though the rifle would be better once actualy in a gunfight.

Lastly are the Japanese Samurai. Contrary to movies, foot Samurai fought with spears and bows
As well as other chain or rope based weapons with weights or blades on the end like the manrikigusari, kusarigama or sickle on a chain, and later things like the shoge which were used against them by insurgents or ninjas. They were quite effective at wounding and disabling or entangling weapons or limbs before closing for the kill.
Chain weapons while not always doing a lot of damage directly could entangle a horse, dismount a rider, or deliver a moderate injury while entangling the target and rendering them unable to use superior skill or fight as well while entangled and killed.

Quite simply the sword is a relatively poor weapon against armored opponents, and most professional soldiers used armor for much of history. Though when suppressing the peasants/insurgents where armor was not worn by the enemy they could be more effective.
The sword is also relatively limited in formation, and a formation of trained soldiers defeated a group of men who fought out of formation like they do in most medieval fantasy movies or works of fiction.
Successful conquering armies before firearms used tight formations. Formations where the shield of one man protected another, rendering the formation of soldiers much more capable than the sum of thier parts. They had drills and they could switch formation in combat to suite battle strategies. They drilled and practiced on thier tactics just as modern soldiers practice modern tactics.
The best trained did not break rank under pressure, stress or fear, and thier shield continued to protect the man next to them while moving, attacking and countering.
Of course it is easier to speak of such things than to do them. Stopping a mass of cavalry with pikes is effective and will stop them dead in thier tracks, but being one of the men with large massive horses crashing into them as horses and riders are impaled on the spears is certainly not glorious or safe.

Days after most battles men would continue to die from infections, even small superficial wounds from things like tetanus.

May 9, 2009, 09:07 AM
Tactical spear:


May 9, 2009, 10:17 AM

Depending on where you live, good spear instruction can be hard to find. Kukishin Ryu (http://www.japan-101.com/culture/kukishin_ryu.htm) is the most famous Japanese stick and spear fighting lineage. You could look for a Bujinkan, Jinenkan, or Genbukan dojo.

At least some Bujinkan dojos will teach spear, but they do vary in quality from decent to excellent. Jinenkan dojos should be uniformly exemplary, but they are much harder to find. I can't really speak about Genbukan.

The Kashima-Shinryu is another organization that has an excellent reputation for kobudo, and whose curriculum includes sojutsu. I hope to begin training with Dr. Karl Friday next year in this system. Kashima-ShinryŻ Federation of North America's information follows:

* University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Chapter
Supervised by: William Bodiford

* University of Georgia Chapter
Supervised by: Karl Friday

* Northern California Chapter
Supervised by: Richard Pietrelli

* Montana State University Chapter
Supervised by: Mark Taper

May 9, 2009, 03:19 PM
The "typical" Roman Legionary normally carried 2 pilum, or spears / javelin, (depending on translation), which had a dual purpose and were thrown before gladius (short sword) range:

1. Inflict damage to enemy soldiers
2. Lodge into enemy shields, rendering them pretty much useless

Cursory info here:


Buy your own pilum here:


May 9, 2009, 09:24 PM
In my younger geekier days I messed around in the SCA a little. In my experience, a lone spearman is going to have a tough row to hoe against a lone swordsman, if the swordsman has a shield. If the swordsman can block the intitial spear thrust on his shield and get inside the spearman is dead. That's assuming both are of equal skill levels, of course. A good spearman will use the blunt end as well as the tip, and won't let the swordsman inside. The trick here is the swordsman has to be extremely quick and aggressive. He can't let the spearman use his greater reach to advantage, and has to close faster than the spearman can react.

In a battle situation, it would be reversed. A rank of spearmen, backed up by more ranks behind them, can cover each other and prevent the enemy from closing.

May 10, 2009, 01:54 AM
Thanks JShirley Depending on where you live, good spear instruction can be hard to find. Kukishin Ryu is the most famous Japanese stick and spear fighting lineage. You could look for a Bujinkan, Jinenkan, or Genbukan dojo.

Recently whilst practicing with a partner, both fairly experienced with
short & long staff, and sword we thought we had found a way to counter
the 'get inside' problem with spear -v- sword, as per
If the swordsman can block the initial spear thrust on his shield and get inside the spearman is dead.

We found that sword -v- spear the spear won nearly every time, unless the swordsman 'got inside'.
To counter this we found that a dagger/knife/spike/etc worn in the belt ( or instantly available sheath)
could be used to stab the swordsman when using the spear shaft to block i.e. 'getting inside the sword range'.
A sort of counter to the counter.
This made the spear win most - but not all - of the time when the swordsman got inside the spear range.
However! We found that if the swordsman had a shield, this changed things a lot,
and getting inside the spear range and blocking the stab from the spearman made the swordsman win more often against the spear IF
the swordsman got inside e.g. using the handle/pommel of the sword to bludgeon the spearman (with no other weapon) at close range.

Obviously we wanted to practice again, so the blows were touch and score
rather than full force :), but that is what we found in our experience on that day, at that session.

So to clarify.
Spear -v- sword = spear win.
Spear -v- sword + shield = spear win most of the time (say 70:30).
Spear + long knife -v- sword = spear win.
Spear + long knife -v- sword + shield = spear win unless the sword got inside, then (say 60:40).

Somebody elses results may be different. Our experience may change next time!

Side note.
Wives were not amused at the length of time we spent 'playing around' (3 hours),
and fighting skills do not work in the kitchen against angry peed off wives!

May 10, 2009, 08:53 AM
That's a very good point on the spearman having a backup weapon.

A shield makes a huge difference. It allows you to be aggressive while still maintaining defensive capability. In fact, a good swordsman would also use the shield as an offensive weapon.

One thing that needs to be taken into account with my experience is that in a real life scenario there wouldn't have been any rules. Both sides would have fought dirty, and that could definitely change the outcome. In SCA combat you're not allowed to whip the spear shaft around and trip or brain your opponent. The most you can do is have a buttspike as a backup. I've seen a skilled fighter use that very well when the swordsman closed, though.

May 10, 2009, 02:18 PM
I've only played with shield just a little, with an SCA buddy. I still think I'd kill most swordsmen even with shield, but it does change the dynamic some.

May 11, 2009, 01:57 AM
Well, no weapon is going to be 100% effective all the time in a given scenario. Much like there have been guys that brought knives to gunfights, and won, there will be cases where a swordsman will be able to defeat a spearman. I suspect that as with anything, it boils down to training: In other words, two dudes of roughly equivalent skill fighting with these weapons is going to end up being pretty easy to draw odds on. Two dudes of vastly different skill? Luck aside, I suspect the more skilled person would be the one to bet on regardless of weapon/shield. Probably a pretty elementary statement to make, but it seems to me like that is how it would shake out.

As a guy with a degree in history and an abiding interest in weapons of all sorts, I can tell you that from my perspective, I would take the spear about 100% of the time. It isn't just the weapon when looked at narrowly against a sword, it's the adaptability and depth of the weapon in any number of situations.

With all that being said, I still am a club/bat guy...

May 11, 2009, 08:49 AM
The explorer Richard Francis Burton, in his book <i>First Footsteps in East Africa,</i> describes sword vs. spear tests he engaged in with natives in Somalia, in which Burton (a highly skilled swordsman and writer on the subject) easily defeated all comers.

Later, of course, his expedition was attacked in a nighttime ambush and Burton had to flee with a spear transfixed through his face (the scar can be seen in his portraits, including the one at Wikipedia).

4v50 Gary
May 11, 2009, 09:03 AM
In the pre-firearms days, the Swiss pikemen were pretty tough to beat and one "solution" was to have swordsmen with two handed swords to chop their way through the pikes - that is, if they didn't get impaled first.

I really don't know what the answer is if there is an one-to-one confrontation. It depends on the skill of each opponent. I've seen Chinese Wu-shu martial artists and what the spearman and swordman can do is amazing.

Dr. Tad Hussein Winslow
May 11, 2009, 09:11 AM
Stickwhistler, now THAT is good information, as is much info in this thread.

May 11, 2009, 11:25 PM
Interesting comments.

Has anyone worked with short spears (3 or 4 feet)?

I have a little seem much faster than similar lenght swords.

May 12, 2009, 04:17 AM
The use of spears in ancient combat was equivalent to the use of semi-automatic rifles in modern battlefields.

The spear was the primary weapon until formations were broken and the enemy came too close for clumsy pole-arms. At this point, swords were drawn for the melee. Swords were a sidearm.

Today, in the USA, we use M16A2's and other long-barreled guns as our primary armament and issue the M9 as a short-ranged sidearm... and all for the very same reasons.

It is likely that when ancient armies ambushed enemy camps and cities that they left their spears outside and switched to weapons more suited for close-range encounters. The same holds true for urban combat today, where the long-ranged accuracy of the M16A2 rifle is slowly being replaced by the improved maneuverability of the M4 carbine as a standard issue weapon.

May 12, 2009, 05:04 AM
I love the Roman era, that linked website has some GREAT stuff, like the Lorica Segmenta and Legionary Shield, plus a number of differing Gladius...too bad I haven't won the lottery!

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