The Art of Fighting Section 4: Polearms

Copyright Johs. Sondrup © 2011

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"For thousands of years polearms were the main weapon for soldiers on the battlefield."

Editor's Note: The following is the fourth in a series of 13 articles that enhance the combat rules for Rolemaster (RM2). It is our intention to publish another article in this series every month for the next year. This month's article describes polearms from around the world. Next month's article will discuss missile weapons in detail.

Polearms

A polearm is any cutting or thrusting weapon mounted on a long pole. While that sounds simple enough, there are pole axes that are about the same size as a battle axe and pole picks that are the same size as a war mattock. From a rules perspective, this presents a problem in determining to which category a weapon belongs.

The rule used here is that if a polearm is the size of a two-handed weapon and has almost the same function, then it is up to the player to decide which weapon category he or she will use. E.g., the bardiche is about the same size as a battle axe and functions similarly, so if a character finds one, it is up to the player to decide if the character will use it as a polearm or as a two handed weapon.

An often overlooked fact is that for thousands of years polearms were the main weapon for soldiers on the battlefield. In many ancient European armies like the Greek or Roman army, the spear was the main infantry weapon and other weapons like the sword were only used when the spear was broken.

In Rolemaster the one handed spear uses the javelin attack table, while the heavier two-handed spear uses the spear attack table.

Later, other polearms were developed, such as the halberd and glaive. By the middle ages, polearms were the weapon of common foot soldiers, especially peasant levies, which used modified agricultural tools as weapons.

The spear, and later the lance, became the weapons of light, medium and heavy cavalry. To counter a cavalry charge, spears became longer until they evolved into pikes. The idea of putting a weapon on a pole carried over into the era of firearms in the form of the bayonet, which is still in use today.

In the orient, polearms of all kinds were used by both infantry and cavalry and eventually became part of many martial arts. In Japan polearms were mostly used by the mounted samurai or by the Ashigaru infantry, but many others used them as well. One example is the naginata, which was the weapon of choice for many female fighters.

The great strength of polearms is that when standing in a formation, warriors in the second line can strike past friendly combatants (front line) if they are using polearms. This maneuver requires that both the front and second lines have the Formation Fighting skill (described in a future installment).

Polearms

  • Bardiche: The bardiche is a long cutting blade attached to the pole in two places (in the middle and the bottom). The pole of the bardiche is only about five feet long, which makes it one of the shortest polearms around and enables it to be developed as a two-handed weapon skill instead of a polearm skill.
  • Bhuj: The bhuj knife-axe is a weapon native the Sind and to North Western India. It has a short heavy blade mounted directly to the haft. The blade often includes a cast brass likeness of an elephant's head; the weapon is also known as an "elephant knife."
  • Dory: The spear of the Greek Hoplite soldiers. The flat leaf-shaped spearhead was made of iron and its weight was counterbalanced by a bronze butt-spike.
  • Glaive Similar to the Japanese naginata and the Chinese guan dao, the glaive has a single-edged blade on the end of a long pole. The main difference is that the blade of the glaive is mounted with a socket (like a spear) and not with a tang as the naginata.
  • Guan Dao (Kwan Dao) and Bisen-to: The guan dao (also known as a kwan dao) has a heavy blade with a spike at the back and sometimes also a notch at the spike's upper base that can catch an opponent's weapon. The shaft is made of wood or metal. Due to the form of the blade, it is almost exclusively used for sweeping cuts. The Japanese had a weapon called the bisen-to, which is essentially the same weapon.
  • Halberd: The halberd was a mainstay weapon in many armies for a long time and is perhaps one of the best known of all polearms. The halberd consists of an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft. It always has a hook on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants and most versions had strips of metal attached to the head covering the shaft, enabling the weapon to parry other weapons without the risk of breaking.
  • Naginata and Nagimaki: A polearm consisting of a wood shaft with a curved blade on the end. The weapon is likely based off the Chinese pudao or guan dao, but evolved into its own right as the blades became of higher quality. In some instances the quality of the naginata blades rival that of the best katana. The naginata was often used by women in japan. A shortened version of this weapon called the Nagimaki was used by cavalry.
  • Pilum (Heavy): The pilum was a heavy javelin used by the Roman army. It had an iron shank with pyramidal head. Unlike the light pilum, the heavy version did not have a head that bended easily and it was generally not used as a throwing weapon.
  • Pudao: Basically the pudao is a dao mounted on a long shaft, combining the ability to cut and thrust with the reach of a staff. This weapon is also called a horse knife because it was used by infantry to slice the legs out from under a horse during combat. It was also used by cavalry as the long reach of the weapon could be used when mounted. As many other weapons it has been adopted into the martial arts.
  • Qiang: The Chinese spear. Normally it features a leaf shaped blade and a red horse-hair tassel lashed just below. The tassel is not just for show: It stops blood from running down the shaft. The Qiang was used by both infantry and cavalry, though they used two different lengths.
  • Ranseur or Runka: The ranseur is a spear with a hooked cross hilt at the base of the blade. Generally, the hilts did not have a cutting edge, and could be used to block opponents' weapons, and possibly trap the weapon for disarming. The hilt often hooked backwards, so that it could be used as a hook.
  • Viking Spear: The long bladed Viking spear consist of a long spear blade attached to a pole. Due to the long blade it could be used for both cutting and stabbing, much like the African massai spear.
  • Voulge: A polearm with a broad blade similar to that of a meat cleaver, the voulge was also called a pole cleaver. It often had a spike on the top that could be used for stabbing.
  • Yari: A Japanese spear with a straight blade Unlike the Chinese qiang it was the infantry that had the longest spears, which were used like pikes, while the mounted samurai had the shorter spears.
Polearm Weapons Table
Name of weapon Type Wt Len F Table Armor modification Parry mod Special
17-20 13-16 9-12 5-8 1-4
Bardiche PA 3-4 4-5 5 Battleaxe -5 -5 0 +5 +10 -5
Bhuj PA 3-4 3-4 5 Polearm -5 0 0 0 0 0
Dory PA 2-4 6-9 6 Javelin -5 0 0 0 +5 0
Glaive PA 4-7 6-8 6 Polearm 0 0 0 +5 +5 0
Guan Do PA 5-8 6-8 6 Polearm -15 -5 0 +5 +15 +5
Halberd PA 4-5 4-6 6 Polearm 0 0 0 0 0 0
Naginata PA 4-7 6-8 6 Polearm 0 0 0 +5 +10 0
Pilum (Heavy) PA 4-5 8-9 6 Javelin 0 0 0 0 +5 0
Pudao PA 4-7 6-8 6 Polearm 0 0 0 +5 +10 0
Qiang (Infantry) PA 4-5 6-8 5 Spear 0 0 0 0 0 0
Qiang (Cavalry) 5-8 8-12 5 Lance -5 0 0 0 0 0
Viking Spear PA 4-7 6-8 6 Javelin 0 0 0 +5 +10 0
Voulge PA 5-6 6-7 6 Polearm 0 0 0 0 +5 0
Yari PA 6-8 10-12 6 Spear 0 0 0 0 0 0