The Magic of Polearms
by Tom Leoni

As a teenager, there were (many) days when I just did not feel like attending school and, more often than not, when this thought assailed me, I’d remain on the bus, which took me all the way into Milan. By the time I alighted at the Sesto metro station, the early-morning sky invariably affirmed my decision by showing plenty of blue. A good omen? For sure, I would tell my conscience, with an "over-and-out" sort of finality.

After all, I was doing it all for cultural reasons. For on these self-bestowed vacations, my destination never changed: the imposing Sforza Castle - and one room in particular. Built in the height of the Italian Renaissance, this castle has always had a powerful grip on my imagination: its rooms, following one-another with the rhythm of a 15th-Century basse-danse, are in a way the stations to my own soul.

After receiving a reproachful smirk from the concierge (I had the guilty skulk AND the book-bag to prove just what I was doing), I would wind my way past Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s bust, turn left, cast an eye to the amazing, unfinished Pieta’ Rondanini by Michelangelo and walk through what I called the "empty room," which featured intricate frescos by Leonardo. Alone with history - a feeling that surpasses all forms of bliss. I would then know I was close to my destination. The very word "threshold" (in Italian "soglia") reminds me of that door: the door to the armory.

That large, rectangular space contained treasures that, even compared to the masterpieces I had just breezed through, held me in aesthetic arrest. Magnificent Milanese armor, swords, rapiers, schiavonas, daggers - all stood before me as mute witnesses of a better time. Even the lonely Katana, which I always regarded as belonging to a different realm, added to my ecstasy.

And then, smack in the middle of the room, there was the polearm rack.

To me, the polearms raised from the ground like trees in a perfectly-groomed orchard, orderly, beautiful and in double row: on one hand, graceful and unique objects of art, on the other powerful instruments of death. How were they used? Why are they all different? Did their various shapes respond to various functional needs?

The museum plaques indicated that, from left to right, there was a German halberd, an Italian ronca, an European bill, a Bolognese spiedo, a Venetian partisan. In time, I came to know them all like old friends. But the plaques did not tell me what their usage was. I always wished that someone, somewhere would one day give me some answers in this regard. And I would keep staring, in awe, vowing to come back before too long.

The Halberd

This weapon is almost certainly of Germanic or Swiss origin. It was amply used on the battlefield throughout the 15th Century, and by the 16th it had migrated to the civilian field, becoming a favorite weapon for guards of important personages. In its typical form, it features an axe-blade, a rear beak and a spike (or thrusting blade), mounted on a square-section shaft.

Today, the halberd can still be seen in the hands of the Swiss guards in the Vatican.

Fast-forward to twenty years later. When dawn comes in my house in Alexandria, Virginia, the first sight that greets me is my own little "orchard." Resting against the stark white bedroom-wall are an Italian halberd, an Austrian halberd, an Italian partisan and a graceful French halberd - all from the 16th and 17th Centuries. Some things never change. The magic is still there - and the fact that I can touch them and appreciate their lightness and wonderful balance adds to the awe from my younger days.

But some other things do change. Since my youth, I was able to identify, obtain and research most of the extant period treatises on the use of polearms. Martial literature from the 16th and 17th Centuries is rich with information on the usage of halberds, roncas, partisans, spiedi etc. and I have spent the last few years eagerly devouring the principles and techniques presented. My favorite sources in this regard are Manciolino (Bologna, 1531), Marozzo (Bologna, 1536), Agrippa (Milan, 1553), Di Grassi (Modena, 1570) and Pistofilo (Ferrara, 1621).

One of the peculiarities of our Western Martial Arts (WMA) revival community is that this class of weapons has been almost totally overlooked - at least so far. The sword, in all its variations, reigns as the "queen of weapons" today as it did a half-millennium ago. Then, there are the earlier forms of late-medieval polearms such as the lance and the pole-axe, weapon-systems that are being researched very diligently by such individuals as Bob Charron and Brian Price. But as for the true usage of late-Renaissance polearms, the landscape is rather deserted.

At the Order of the Seven Hearts, we have decided to change this situation by setting up a serious and structured polearm curriculum based exclusively on period source-material. Among the primary benefits that the study of polearms brings to overall martial-roundedness is the fact that it develops the right and left sides of the body in perfect symmetry. Although most static guards feature the left foot forward and the weapon held on the right, the frequent hand-switches, passes and posture changes ensure that all thrusts, cuts, parries and steps are learned and performed ambidextrously.

The Partisan

The origins of this weapons are unknown, although it is undoubtedly a variant of the traditional spear. It was in vogue between the 16th and 17th Centuries, used alone or in conjunction with the large round shield, or rotella. In this last guise, it was a Renaissance reincarnation of the classical hoplite weapon-combination. The partisan could be either wielded firmly in the hands or cast from a single-handed grip. Typically, it features a rather long triangular thrusting blade with a more or less pronounced center-ridge. At the base of the blade, there are usually two small projections or lugs. The partisan should be mounted on an octagonal-section shaft.

Polearms are also a great way to increase the athletic level of WMA studies. One of my favorite warm-up routines, which my Senior Provost Steve calls "Polearm Pilates" consists of executing some actions with the accompanying footwork at an extremely slow speed, thus greatly improving strength, balance, flexibility and exactness of motion. Naturally, when the actions are performed in tempo and with the necessary intent, polearms are an ideal medium to add a strong aerobic component to WMA practice.

The first thing we had to do was to narrow down the scope of our study to two weapons. For practical purposes, I chose the partisan and the halberd as the ones on which the period masters give us the most information. Also, while the partisan is predominantly a thrusting weapon, the halberd is ideal to incorporate the study of cuts as well as "inforcature" - a fascinating and idiosyncratic aspect of this type of arm. Next, I asked my friend David Baker of California to craft a few aluminum-headed weapons with a collapsible shaft, so that we could easily transport them in our sword-cases if necessity requires. For this purpose, I traced the outline of two of my original pieces, and the result was very good. Our practice weapons are light, easy-handling, perfectly-balanced and come apart by simply unscrewing an aluminum cylinder at the shaft’s mid-section. The edges that are sharp on my originals are judiciously rounded off in the practice-version, and David used a thick enough aluminum stock to further reduce the possibility of serious accidents.

Halberd nomenclature
A: Spike
B: Axe-blade
C: Back Beak
D: Side-straps
E: Shaft

The aspect that beginners find the most frustrating is learning hand-switches. These switches are different depending on the actions being performed, but they are never random and they have to be executed precisely as the period masters describe them. Naturally, the switches are almost always accompanied by the appropriate footwork, which adds another dimension to the action’s complexity. But becoming fast and accurate in these strokes is the main key to mastering polearms, and consequently time spent practicing them is always a prelude to great rewards.

As with the longsword, one of the puzzling aspects of polearms is how to contact-fence with them. After careful consideration, we have come to the conclusion that doing so in armor is the only way to combine the necessary accuracy in feel and balance with safety. Even chainmail would in fact be insufficient to absorb the momentum of a good thrust delivered with a polearm, with its high weight-diameter ratio, while I have always found "boffers" to be unrealistic as far as feel and balance (besides being rather unsightly).

The reason why I like polearms just as much from the martial standpoint now as I liked them twenty years ago for their fascinating aesthetics is that their usage helps develop skills that would otherwise remain latent. By their nature, polearms are conducive to learning how to use one’s natural body-weight to transmit force to the weapon - a factor often overlooked in WMAs. Also, while polearms share many of the principles such as tempo, measure and cavazioni with the art of the rapier, they maintain their uniqueness through their many peculiar techniques and their imposing heft. Lastly, they are ideal tools to help refining the balance between intent, accuracy and control, which I believe to be the center-point of martial skill. We are therefore planning to continue our study of polearms and to make them our official second weapon-system after that of the rapier.

And who knows... my "orchard" may even grow.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11