The Weapons

On June 22, 1476, the powerful army of Charles of Burgundy was laying siege to the city of Morat, a small outpost outside Bern, Switzerland. Overconfident in his superior numbers, Charles allowed his men a few hours' respite to receive their pay. Suddenly, from the woods around the French camp emerged the Swiss infantry of Hans Waldemann--hardy and well-trained soldiers hell-bent on defending their homeland. In their hands was the halberd, a weapon equally apt to fight a foot-soldier and a mounted knight. Charles’ army was literally cut to pieces in one of the bloodiest battles of the Renaissance era.

Austrian halberd, circa 1570

The Halberd is Perhaps The Most Recognizable among Polearms.

The halberd falls within the category of late-Renaissance weapons we call polearms. Many of these weapons have their origin in high Middle Ages farmer’s tools, such as the axe, the pruners, the pitchfork, etc. Besides the halberd, the other polearms that saw widespread use in the period were the pike and the half-pike, the ronca or guisarme, the spiedo and the partisan. Our focus is primarily on the halberd and the partisan.

Tom Leoni and Steve Reich Performing Polearm Techniques from Marozzo.

The halberd features an axe-blade, a back-beak and a long spike or thrusting blade. Compared to the medieval pollax, the high-Renaissance halberd is optimized for the thrust: its axe-head is less ponderous and often remains unsharpened, while its thrusting spike is longer. Also, the halberd stands around 2 feet taller than its wielder, as opposed to the shorter pollax. After retiring from the battlefield in the course of the Baroque era, the halberd remained in use as the weapon of choice for guards of important personages. Today, it can still be seen in the Vatican, carried by the Pope’s Swiss guards – evidence of a tradition that goes back uninterrupted to the days of the battle of Morat.

The partisan is a broad-bladed polearm reminiscent of a Venetian cinquadea on top of a long haft. This weapon became popular towards the end of the 15th Century, especially in the Mediterranean countries of Europe. Its use lasted well over two hundred years – in the opening decades of the 1700’s it could still be seen in the hands of guards of honor.

Suggestions for further reading and discussion:

Our Polearm Work

Our material is predominantly from the 1500's Bolognese tradition (Manciolino, 1531 and Marozzo, 1536) and from a very informative treatise written in the 1620’s by a Ferrarese, Bonaventura Pistofilo.

It is surprising to see how precise, thorough and detailed period polearm instruction is. This fact points towards a mature art in its classical apogee.

Because of the polearms’ heft (and the fact that we do not own armor), we pay careful attention to practice only controlled contact between partners. Even a medium-force thrust from a halberd or a partisan can pierce a fencing mask and seriously injure or kill the person wearing it. However, even with controlled contact, all the dynamic and athletic elements of polearm play remain exciting and physically-challenging. In particular, polearms help Western martial artist develop both right-hand and left-hand dexterity, thanks to the frequent hand-switches peculiar to this category of weapons.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11