5 Key Medieval Infantry Weapons | History Hit

5 Key Medieval Infantry Weapons

Laura Mackenzie

05 Jun 2023
Depiction of a half-sword thrust against a two-handed sword in the Codex Wallerstein.
Image Credit: Public Domain

It goes without saying that medieval weapons were very different from those used in battle today. But although medieval armies may not have had access to modern technology, they were still capable of inflicting serious damage. Here are five of the most important infantry weapons used between the 5th and 15th centuries.

1. Sword

Merovingian sword, 6th century; Carolingian sword, 8th century; Knightly Sword, probably French, from early 15th century.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were three main types of swords used in the European medieval period. The first, the Merovingian sword, was popular among the Germanic peoples in the 4th to 7th centuries and derived from the Roman-era spatha – a straight and long sword used in wars and gladiatorial fights.

The blades of Merovingian swords had very little taper and, unlike the weapons we would recognise as swords today, were usually rounded at the ends. They also often had sections that had been pattern-welded, a process whereby metal pieces of varying composition were forge-welded together.

Merovingian swords developed into the Carolingian or “Viking” variety in the 8th century when sword smiths increasingly gained access to high quality steel imported from Central Asia. This meant that pattern-welding was no longer necessary and that blades could be narrower and more tapered. These weapons combined both weight and maneuverability.

The 11th to 12th centuries gave rise to the so-called “knightly” sword, the variety that best fits our image of a sword today. The most obvious development is the appearance of a crossguard – the bar of metal that sits at right angles to the blade, separating it from the hilt – though these were also seen in late versions of the Carolingian sword.

2. Axe

Battles axes are most commonly associated today with the Vikings but they were in fact used throughout the medieval era. They even feature on the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

At the start of the medieval era, battle axes were made of wrought iron with a carbon steel edge. Like swords, however, they gradually came to be made of steel as the metal alloy became more accessible.

With the advent of steel plate armour, additional weapons for penetration were sometimes added to battle axes, including sharp picks on the rear of the blades.

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3. Pike

Swiss and Landsknecht pikemen fight during the Italian Wars.

Image Credit: Public Domain

These pole weapons were incredibly long, ranging from 3 to 7.5 metres in length, and consisted of a wooden shaft with a metal spearhead attached at one end.

Pikes were used by foot soldiers in close formation from the early medieval period until the turn of the 18th century. Though popular, their length made them unwieldy, especially in close combat. As a result, pikemen usually carried an additional shorter weapon with them, such as a sword or mace.

With pikemen all moving forward in a single direction, their formations were vulnerable to enemy attack at the rear, leading to catastrophes for some forces. Swiss mercenaries solved this problem in the 15th century, however, employing more discipline and aggression to overcome this vulnerability.

4. Mace

Italian mace, circa 1550–1600.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Maces – blunt weapons with heavy heads on the end of a handle – were developed in the Upper Paleolithic area but really came into their own during the medieval era when knights wore metal armour that was difficult to pierce.

Not only were solid metal maces capable of inflicting damage on fighters without needing to penetrate their armour, but one variety – the flanged mace – was even capable of denting or piercing thick armour. The flanged mace, which was developed in the 12th century, had vertical metal sections called “flanges” protruding from the head of the weapon.

These qualities, combined with the fact that maces were cheap and easy to make, meant they were quite common weapons at this time.

5. Halberd

Consisting of an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long pole, this two-handed weapon came into common use in the latter part of the medieval period.

It was both cheap to produce and versatile, with the spike useful for pushing back approaching horsemen and dealing with other pole weapons such as spears and pikes, while a hook on the back of the axe blade could be used for pulling cavalry from their horses.

Some accounts of the Battle of Bosworth Field suggest that Richard III was killed with a halberd, the blows proving so heavy that his helmet was driven into his skull.

Laura Mackenzie