Spotlight: The Medieval Poleaxe
An article by Alexi Goranov
Warhammers are ancient weapons whose origins can be traced back to the Stone Age, when the weapon was a carefully shaped stone attached to a wooden haft. Warhammers are generally a percussive type of weapon designed for delivering crushing blows, although some of them were capable of cutting as described below. This emphasis on crushing made them rather popular tools for combating well-armoured, as well as unarmoured, opponents. During the medieval period three basic types of warhammers were in use: 1) the throwing hammer, a derivative of the short throwing hatchet; 2) the short hammer, a single-handed weapon often used by mounted warriors from the 13th to the 16th century and sometimes called "horseman's hammer"; and 3) the long-handled footman's hammer (poleaxe) which was a longer version of the short hammer and was in use from the 14th to the 16th century. This last weapon required the use of both hands as its length was often over five feet. However, the poleaxe is not entirely a derivative of the warhammer. Indeed it evolved just as much from the Danish axe, and scholars Claude Blair and John Waldman consider the knightly poleaxe to be the most sophisticated form of the Danish axe.
Most of these poleaxes, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, had a spike on the top which allowed them to be potent thrusting weapons as well as being able to attack in both directions (axe or hammer on one side and a hammer or spike on the other). The presence of a spike(s) (or a fluke as it is sometimes called), hammer head and/or an axe head on the same weapons creates problems in classifying these weapons. A single poleaxe may combine the crushing power of the warhammer, the cleaving power of the long-handled (Danish) axe, and the thrusting capability of the spear.
Form and Construction
The axe head on a poleaxe, when present, was generally smaller than that of its predecessor, the Danish axe, with a blade length around 7 inches, though it could be as wide as 11 inches or as narrow as 6 inches. Much like the Danish axe, the edge of a poleaxe's axe head can be found straight or as a convex curve. The shape of the hammer head of a poleaxe varied, with the earlier versions having the corners of the hammer head protrude slightly from the plane of the head. In later hammer heads (especially the 16th century Lucerne hammers) the head corners protrude so much that the hammer head is split into three or four long and sharp prongs. Earlier poleaxes often had a rondel guard at the top part of the usually octagonal haft to protect the hands. This element seemed less popular in the 16th century.
An alternative method of assembly, commonly used on poleaxes from Switzerland such as the Lucerne hammer, utilized the attachment of the hammer head directly to the top spike. In this case the hammer head was slid over the top spike and was attached to it by a pair of side lugs screwed one on another. This method of assembly is best exemplified by the Lucerne type of poleaxes. A later modification of this assembly method involved shaping the top spike like a wedge and sliding the hammer head, not from the top but from the bottom, over the langets and wedging the head over the top spike. Once the haft was inserted between the langets, which had spread, the head was caught in place and could not slide up or down. The head was still firmly secured by a pair of lugs but the overall assembly was more secure than the earlier version in which the head was wedged on only one side.
The third method of assembly was very similar to that of the halberd: The axe, the top and back spikes and the langets were all forged into a single piece with a socket for the haft. The langets offered extra stability. This method may have developed in the 16th century but was used in parallel with the other two methods.
The poleaxes were most often highly ornamented, testifying to their owner's high status. The head often was engraved, inlaid with a soft metal, etched, or gilded. On occasion the axe head was pierced to form a pattern, as exemplified by A926. The heads often were stamped with maker's marks or places of manufacture. On some of the Lucerne hammers one can clearly see an "L" stamped sideways on the top spike just above the hammer head.
Use of the Medieval Poleaxe
A careful examination of 14th-16th century art reveals that warriors were often depicted using poleaxes in mass battle. This suggests that the poleaxe was used more widely than popularly thought. Indeed, the German name for poleaxes fussstreihammer is roughly translated by John Waldman to mean "infantry warhammer," indicating that poleaxes were used by infantry/dismounted forces. Foratio et al. and Blackburn et al. concluded that skull trauma evident on bones from the mass graves of Wisby and Towton are consistent with wounds caused by poleaxes.
Several different treatises, including Hans Talhoffer's fechtbuch of 1467 and the Codex Wallerstein, show the use of poleaxes in the context of judicial duels or tournament fights.
A number of illustrations also show the use of the poleaxe in pitched battle in the 14th and 15th centuries, including depictions of the Battle of Poitiers. The illustrations of Froissart's Chronicles, prepared in the late 15th century, feature a great variety of poleaxes.
The Trajan Tapestry from the Cathedral Treasury in Lausanne, circa 1450, prominently displays Trajan armed with a short poleaxe dispensing military justice while being guarded by a man holding a longer poleaxe. The so-called Caesar Tapestry shows an armed man taking a mighty swing with his short-hafted poleaxe.
Presented here are examples of authentic poleaxes, not shown to scale:
Probably English. Second half of the 15th century
Possibly French, 1400-1450. Blade length: 6 inches. Top spike: 9 inches. Total weight: 6 pounds, 10 ounces
Possibly French, about 1470. Blade length: 7 1/2 inches. Top spike: 7 5/8 inches. Total weight: 5 pounds, 8 ounces
Italian, about 1530. Blade length: 9 1/4 inches. Top spike: 10 3/4 inches. Total weight: 5 pounds, 2 ounces
German, early 16th century. Blade length including socket and top spike: 17 3/8 inches. Total weight: 2 pounds, 11 ounces
15th century. The head has brass inlays and punched and chiseled decorations
Dating from the early 16th century, this poleaxe has gilt and etched ornamentation
Early 16th century poleaxe. Italian martello d'arme or fussstreiaxt
16th century Lucerne hammer
Western Europe, circa 1500. Blade length: 8 7/8 inches. Overall length: 81 7/8 inches. Weight: 5 pounds, 7 ounces
First half of 16th century. Head length: 11 1/4 inches. Overall length: 93 1/5 inches. Weight: 7 pounds, 11 ounces
15th century. Note the similarity in form to A926 from The Wallace Collection
German poleaxe of about 1440. Top spike length: 4 inches. Total length: 41 1/2 inches (possibly shortened). Weight: 3 pounds 8 ounces
Early 16th century with four-pronged beak
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
The following arms represent exeamples of available reproduction poleaxes on the modern market at the time of this writing.
Arms & Armor of Minnesota makes a reproduction of The Wallace Collection poleaxe A926. It is certainly one of the highest quality mass-produced poleaxes currently available.
Arms+Armor Manufacture, another Czech company, offers their rendition of The Wallace Collection's A926 poleaxe (HA001), either sharp or blunt for reenactment purposes.
Museum Replicas Limited has available a rather affordable poleaxe in its lineup (#600640) as well as their #600664 "Bec De Corbin". Their "Foot Soldier's Warhammer" (#600118) may also qualify as a poleaxe though it is on the short side, with a total length of only 32 1/2 inches.
Arma Bohemia of the Czech Republic offers yet another version of the A926 poleaxe.
Poleaxes appear to have been very versatile weapons, with the ability to crush, cut or thrust. Some poleaxes even sported a spike on the butt of the haft, as illustrated in the various works of the famous fencing master Hans Talhoffer. In other words, the poleaxe (or fussstreiaxe, or bec-de-corbin or Lucerne Hammer or whatever the modern enthusiast wants to call these marvels of engineering) was a combination of the best of what several different weapons had to offer. It is worth noting that the poleaxe was very well-suited to deal with heavily armed opponents which seemed to abound after the end of the 14th century. There is little wonder then that poleaxes were employed both on the dueling ring, during knightly bouts and during pitched battles.
The availability of many reproductions, though not in nearly as many varieties as the author would have liked to see, suggests that there is at least some basic understanding and appreciation of the importance of these weapons. We can only hope that this trend will continue.
About the Author
Alexi is a postdoc in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461
European & American Arms, c. 1100-1850, by Claude Blair
Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons between 1200 and 1650 (History of Warfare 31) (History of Warfare), by John Waldman
Head Protection in England Before the First World War, by Blackburn, T. P. D., D. A. Edge, A. R. Williams, and C. B. T. Adams
Wallace Collection Catalogue of European Arms and Armour, by J. G. Mann
I want to thank Cristina Bauer and Jeffrey Forgeng of The Higgins Armory Museum for allowing me access to HAM# 2005.01 and for answering my incessant questions.
Photographs are copyrighted by The Arsenal at Altes Zeughaus, Switzerland; The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma; The Fischer Galleries, Lucerne, Switzerland; The Higgins Armory Museum; The Historisches Museum, Dresden; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Royal Armouries, Leeds; The Tower of London; and The Wallace Collection