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Pilum ("Roman" spear) Project

Discussion in 'Non-Firearm Weapons' started by Dirty Bob, Jul 22, 2013.

  1. Dirty Bob

    Dirty Bob Well-Known Member

    I've been meaning to do this for years, so this weekend I finally just took a shot at building a simplified Roman pilum for fun. I started with a 36-inch piece of 3/8-inch round stock, along with a 60-inch hardwood tool handle. Total material cost was just under 13 bucks.

    I cold-forged a leaf-shaped point on one end, pounding with a small sledge hammer on a piece of railroad rail that is my "anvil." This took 15-20 minutes. I then cleaned the point up and sharpened it with a file. The forged head is a little under 3/4" in width and lengthened the steel stock by about 1/2".

    I cut ten inches off the butt of the spearhead and drilled one end of the tool handle to the full 4-3/4" depth of my 3/8" spade bit. I roughed up the butt end of the spearhead and coated it with J-B Weld epoxy before seating it in the haft.

    Cutting the haft to 42" at the butt gave me a total spear length of 65". I coated the forward end of the haft with carpenter's wood glue and wrapped it with twine to prevent splitting and to make a grip area. The rearmost part of it is right at the balance point.


    The pilum is a heck of a lot of fun. With a cardboard box as a target, I found that I'm dangerous with my spear out to 10 yards or so at the moment. The point isn't real sharp, but the spear penetrates very well. The classic Roman pilum would have generally been heavier, and I can see how a legionary could launch such a weapon through the shield of an opponent, through his armor, and still have enough length of spearhead and force to make a serious wound.

    Considering how easy it was to make and how fun it is to play with, I wish I'd made a spear a long time ago!

    All my best,
    Dirty Bob

    Attached Files:

  2. Sam Cade

    Sam Cade Member


    Are you gonna try to use a thong?
  3. armoredman

    armoredman Well-Known Member

    Very nice! The original pilum had a soft shank so it would bend, thereby fouling an opponents shield forcing him to discard it.
  4. Dirty Bob

    Dirty Bob Well-Known Member

    I hadn't thought to...I was wearing regular shorts when throwing it. :D

    Seriously, I'm glad you mentioned that! The cord might help me to have a more consistent release and might help me reach out a bit further with this little spear. Thanks, Sam! :)

    There might be some disagreement about that. The shank of the classic Roman pilum is narrow behind the head and would therefore be able to better punch through the opponent's shield and wound the opponent. According to Wikipedia, it's possible that the bending was a side benefit, with the main focus being penetration. It's hard to say for sure. As a legionary, I would certainly have been happy about the pila barrage's ability to break a charge by wounding opponents and making them clumsy. The pilum could even be stepped on when approaching an opponent. Kinda scary to think about what that would be like on the receiving end.

    In any case, I'm enjoying trying my hand with a spear!

    Dirty Bob
  5. glistam

    glistam Well-Known Member

    Very nice! My father recently made one too (he's a history buff) though he formed a four-sided tip instead of leaf. He built his with a steel shoe and spike ferrule, which was apparently to brace against charges by sticking it in the ground. He also confirmed, based on his reading of some Latin texts, that they were well known for penetrating armor of the time.
  6. GCBurner

    GCBurner Well-Known Member

    I believe the heavy pilum was designed to pentrate enemy shields at fairly close range and stick there, dragging down the shield and maybe wounding the shield arm, in order to open the enemy up to being stabbed with the gladius when they closed. The bending after impact also kept the enemy from picking up the spears and throwing them back, as could happen with a regular javelin.
    It was a utilitarian weapon, and the the one you made is very much in the form and spirit of the ones made and maintained by a Legion's smiths and armorers in the field.
  7. Cosmoline

    Cosmoline Well-Known Member

    Very interesting. The idea of intentional bending always seemed a little questionable. I don't think there's very much first-hand information in the surviving descriptions. It would be interesting to recreate some of the combat in sparring and testing. I would expect any piece of iron penetrating a hardwood shield would get stuck fast pretty quickly without the need for a bent end.

    My guess is that long shaft was calculated to deal with an enemy using Roman tactics, and would represent the length of penetration needed to skewer a man through the shield wall. If you imagine a wounded or dead man with a big shield and a long spear sticking both of them together, getting that mess out of the way could become an added problem for a unit trying to stay very closely linked. I don't really buy the idea that they were trying to get bent spears into cruder barbaric shields.
  8. hso

    hso Moderator Staff Member

    Cold forging might make your tip brittle or cause cracking. Have you checked the temper with a file to see if you need to draw it back?
  9. Unistat

    Unistat Well-Known Member

  10. Dirty Bob

    Dirty Bob Well-Known Member

    It's hot-rolled steel, which is fairly ductile. When I sharpened it, the file cut it readily. There might be some work-hardening, but I don't think it's brittle. If it is, maybe I'll find out the first time I hit a rock. There are plenty of them here on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. :uhoh:

    I suspect that the pyramid point with a narrow shaft behind it would almost be like a barbed point in a shield. I'm surprised the Romans didn't barb the points. It wouldn't be difficult to do for just about any 'smith.

    A spear stuck in an opponent or his shield can be used as a handle. It would also make an opponent clumsy, even with a minor wound or a spear that just penetrated the shield or a piece of armor without wounding the soldier. Imagine trying to climb a hill or go through a grove of trees with a spear haft sticking out of you or your gear.

    If I were making this as a hunting spear, I would use 1/2-inch stock, so that I could probably get a broader point, as well as the benefits of a heavier spearhead, in terms of penetration.

    Thank you for the encouragement,
    Dirty Bob
  11. Sam Cade

    Sam Cade Member

    They often did.


  12. Billy Shears

    Billy Shears Well-Known Member

    I've read about the shanks supposedly bending on the pilum, and as someone here observed, it's a somewhat controversial idea, and a lot of historians reject it. What there seems to be better evidence for is the idea that the shank did not bend, but was attached to the wooden spear shaft with two pins, or rivets, one of which was weaker, and would usually break on impact, so now the shank would flop about like it was attached to the spear shaft by a hinge, and it would be useless to the enemy for a return throw at the Romans -- the same effect as if the shank itself bent. And when you think about it, a breakable pin makes a lot more sense if your goal is to make the weapon useless for the enemy to throw back at you. Pila would be collected and reissued after a battle, and if they all had to be hammered out straight again, that would mean not only a lot more work for the legionary armorers, but the likelihood is that they'd be never be straightened quite perfectly, and they'd be harder to throw accurately. On the other hand, if fixing them for reuse means simply replacing a wooden pin, it not only takes far less time and effort to repair them for reuse, it doesn't change the balance or dynamics of the weapon by having the shank hammered into a slightly different shape each time.

    It is, of course, entirely possible that both methods were used at various times. To be sure, archaeologists have found pila with shanks that were attached with tangs or sockets fitted into or over the spear shaft, so the breaking pin method would obviously not apply to them. It's possible they were designed to bend on impact, and it's quite possible they weren't. Or that some were, and some weren't. Roman military equipment was not really standardized like ours is today. Partly this is because it was made in various workshops, in various parts of the empire, and involved a lot of hand labor. And it's partly because the Romans kept reissuing any given piece of equipment until it was no longer serviceable, no matter how old it was, or what newer types had come into service. As a result, the legions never really looked uniform like modern armies. It's thought that some mail shirts (lorica hamata) were probably reused for more than a century, and would have served alongside the newer lorica segmentata after those appeared in the reign of Augustus, even in the same units. In fact you'd see legionaries in the same unit with different patterns of helmet, lorica, gladius, etc.. It would be like seeing a modern U.S. army unit standing in formation, with most of the soldiers wearing modern kevlar helments, but a lot of them with old M1 steel pots, and even the odd M1917 tin hat, and some with M16A2s, some with M16A1s, etc.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2013
  13. 4v50 Gary

    4v50 Gary Moderator Staff Member

    Ave Cesare! Senatus Populusquo Roma!

    Now I want to make one. :)
  14. Unistat

    Unistat Well-Known Member

    Ad canum cum Ceasar! Vivo Republicae!
  15. Cosmoline

    Cosmoline Well-Known Member

    No civil wars gentlemen! But wouldn't it be ad canes?
  16. Unistat

    Unistat Well-Known Member

    Possibly. My Latin classes were many, many years ago.
  17. Dave Markowitz

    Dave Markowitz Well-Known Member

    Cum pila proscriptae erunt tum soli proscripti pila habebunt.

  18. Dirty Bob

    Dirty Bob Well-Known Member

    Any translation available for Dave's Latin? Puedo hablar en una lengua latina, pero no entiendo esas palabras de David. Ayudame!

    Not understanding much,
  19. rcmodel

    rcmodel Member in memoriam

    I think it means, one Roman solder says to another:

    "I got a bad case of the running trots from that green water we drank at the last sewer aqueduct the column stopped at."

    I could be wrong though. :confused:

  20. Potatohead

    Potatohead Well-Known Member

    hahahahahahahahahha....a thong

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