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Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > What are the differences between poleaxes and halberds? Reply to topic
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Nathan M Wuorio




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PostPosted: Mon 08 Mar, 2010 3:14 pm    Post subject: What are the differences between poleaxes and halberds?         Reply with quote

I recently ordered a halberd head from GDFB (arrives on Wednesday!) and I decided to look up some info on halberds to get a better sense of how they were used. I came up with images that looked liked the one I ordered, and some that resembled what I had always considered to be poleaxes. The ones I consider poleaxes were labeled as halberds, but did not seem to fit with the rest.

What are the main differences between poleaxes and halberds? I know MRL and Arms and Armour have poleaxes for sale, and they look like what I see when I imagine a poleaxe.

Did most poleaxes have hammers on the back end or did they have spikes?

Did halberds ever have a hammer?

Thanks!

Nathan.
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Dustin Faulkner




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PostPosted: Mon 08 Mar, 2010 6:49 pm    Post subject: Polearms         Reply with quote

Hello Nathan:

I don't claim to be an expert, but polearms are my main weapons of interest. Polearms were just as prevalent as swords, if not more so. Visit the hafted weapons section of this website. That'll help you get a feel for the differences you inquire about. There was a general evolution which seemed to begin with the ahlspiess and very basic halberds.

http://www.myArmoury.com/albums/thumbnails.php?album=13

Also, There's the medieval poleaxe article: http://www.myArmoury.com/albums/thumbnails.php?album=13

Generally speaking, Halberds usually have a long top spike, an axe blade head, and a rear fluke. Poleaxes usually had a shorter top spike, but could also have a variety of heads. Poleaxes often had a "waffle iron" hammer head to be used as a percussive weapon. Poleaxes often had a hammer and a rear spike. The Swiss made one called a Lucerne hammer that had front prongs, a rear fluke, and a top spike.

I confess your question is harder to answer than I thought because I'm so used to looking at these items. Halberds were often longer than a poleaxe, but not as long as a pike. Halberds seem to have parts for cutting and poking. Poleaxes have parts for cutting, poking, and crushing. Others might have a better explanation for the difference you seek. Trust me when I say you get a very accurate sense of which weapon is which after looking at these for a while. Sort of like identifying different exotic sports cars or fighter planes.

Generally, there were ahlspiesses, bills, glaives, halberds, lucerne hammers, partisans, pikes, poleaxes, and spears. To learn how to use a polearm, I suggest getting David Lindholm's quarterstaff book at Amazon.com and Hugh Knight's poleaxe book from lulu.com. Christian Tobler is coming out maybe this month with a poleaxe DVD. Perhaps he'll respond to you also.

DUSTIN FAULKNER
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Timo Nieminen




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PostPosted: Mon 08 Mar, 2010 7:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Etymologically speaking:

halberd = "staff-axe"
pollaxe = "hammer-axe"

Apparently there's a serious minority opinion that it really should be "poleaxe" as in "pole-axe", which would make the two terms synonyms. But the majority opinion is pollaxe, and hammer-axe.

So, if it has an axe blade, and no hammer, it's a halberd. If it has a hammer head, it's a pollaxe.

This would suggest that "pollaxe" is a subset of "halberd", but weapons with a hammer-head, and no axe blade are also called pollaxes. Also weapons that are obviously halberds, axe blade backed by spike, with thrusting point, are also called pollaxes.

Certainly, they're not mutually-exclusive terms, at least as used these days. Different terms, orginating at different times, in different places, and for different uses.

You could think of "pollaxe" as "knightly halberd", and perhaps even be correct.
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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 8:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Timo Nieminen wrote:
Certainly, they're not mutually-exclusive terms, at least as used these days. Different terms, orginating at different times, in different places, and for different uses.


I think this gets to the heart of it. Functionally, halberds and poleaxes are very similar. There have been many long-hafted axes throughout history. The poleaxe and halberd happen to be the two famous late-medieval European versions. Their use is often stated to have been somewhat different with poleaxes used in single combat by knights and halberds used en masse by Swiss commoners, but even this is a gross simplification and not entirely true. There is evidence that poleaxes were used in large groups, and halberds could certainly be used in one-on-one combat.

Of course, poleaxes came in a wide variety of forms, sometimes with no axe head at all (polehammers, some might say), but if we look at a poleaxe with a broad axe head, a rear fluke and a top spike, all attached to the haft with a long socket, how different is it from a halberd? Not much. Visually we can often tell by stylistic differences (again relating to their independent development) but sometimes it might be hard to classify individual weapons as one or the other. Take a look at the poleaxe from the Wallace Collection (A928) in the article on the medieval poleaxe:



From its style and construction, I might have called it a halberd, but clearly others think of it as a poleaxe.
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Hugh Knight




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 10:18 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Michael G. wrote:



From its style and construction, I might have called it a halberd, but clearly others think of it as a poleaxe.


Modern people might be confused about that weapon, Michael, but Fechtbuch sources agree with you--both Mair and Falkner call that weapon a halberd, specifically, not a pollaxe: Hellebarde, not Streitaxt (or just "axt"). To be a pollaxe it has to have a hammer head.

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Hugh
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Daniel Staberg




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 10:33 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Actually the Wallace collection lists that particular polearm as a halberd as well.

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by a thousand unforseen circumstances, even when one has thorougly taken all
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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 11:04 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hugh Knight wrote:

Modern people might be confused about that weapon, Michael, but Fechtbuch sources agree with you--both Mair and Falkner call that weapon a halberd, specifically, not a pollaxe: Hellebarde, not Streitaxt (or just "axt"). To be a pollaxe it has to have a hammer head.


I'm glad I'm not the only one that would call that one a halberd! On the other hand, I'm not sure I entirely agree that a poleaxe has to have a hammer head. Would you call this weapon a halberd, poleaxe, or something else?



I would call it a poleaxe, based on its style and construction. The way the head is attached to the haft, the specific shape of the axe and fluke, and the rondel are all things I associate with the poleaxe, not the halberd. The St. Louis Art Museum, where it resides, calls it a pollaxe.
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Alex Spreier




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 11:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A few years ago, Greg Mele answered a similar question on SwordForum. I hope he won't mind my re-posting it here. IMO this is the best explanation of halberd vs. poleaxe I've heard.

Greg Mele wrote:
The "halbard" replaces the "pollaxe" in name, as we see *printed* works aimed and burgher/merchantile and not noble, clients. But what is a pollaxe and what is a halbard.

It is length of point? Shape of axe head? Looking at what is illustrated in the manuals, iconography and surviving weapons, it doesn't much seem so, even though we know that by the late 16th century, "halbards" tended to have long shafts, curved axe heads and long spikes. But their are poleaxe from the 15th c that fit that description.

Is it length of shaft? Apparently not, as Monte's "three-pronged/toothed axe" (the polehammer) has as recommeded length of eight feet! And Meyer's halbard is no longer than what most texts show as "poleaxes" in the 15th c.

So it's got to be technique, right? Well, sort of, and again, not really. Firstly, most poleaxes shown in the manuals are really polehammers, in modern parlance. And yet, the masters seem to feel that the weapon is largely handled the same way, regardless of hammer or axe head. As an example, the same techniques shown by Paulus Kal in the 15th century with a polehammer are shown in the 16th century with poleaxes.

But here's even more telling proof. Peter Faulkner, a captain of the Marxbruder created a fechtbuch in the 15th c. He begins his section on the poleaxe as follows:

Merck daß ist auch ein leer wie du mit kemph // licher wer solt wartten mordt agst und helle // bartten daß ist auch zu dem kampff gericht schleg stöß ringen macht zů nicht ~
Daß ist auch der text


"Note this is also a lesson of how you should with dueling weapons act with the murder axe and the halberd, which is also in the judicial duel the striking, thrusting and wrestling. Do not reproduce.
This is also the text."


Transcription and translation by Christian Tobler.

"Murder axe" is a common German term for the poleaxe. Note that he says the techniques are for the poleaxe and halbard - showing that they are distinctive names, but not really distinctive techniques.

What he shows are fully armoured men fighting with weapons that are slightly taller than they are. They have long buttspikes, slightly curved back spikes, short spear points and fairly large, curved-edge axe blades. Is that a halbard or a poleaxe? I think the 15th century answer is "yes"! Especially as the second to last plate has the victor wielding what is fairly clearly an Italian bill!

Speaking of the bill, there's a similar phenomena in Italy. The dei Liberi material is all polehammer (called l'azza - the axe) all the time. But with the Bolognese, the weapon is generally called the halbard (alabarda), with additional material for the Italian bill. The only exception is the Anonymous text, which has a section on "the axe in armour" instead of halbard and bill. But guess what? The plays are really no different! The only difference is that the bill plays include some additional techniques where the horn can be used to rake the opponent's unarmoured hands, and the poleaxe in the Anonymous includes a few more throws (presumably because you have armour to counter). But the material has a good 80 - 90% overlap - add a few specialized plays and you're good to go.

Likewise, when Silver says that the battle axe (by which we don't know if he means a two-handed axe of the 13th - 14th c variety or a poleaxe, just that it's shorter and two-handed) and halbard are one, he lumps all of their play in with the English bill, since the bill can (apparently) do a few things they can't, and they are just subsets of that weapon's repertoire.

The one guy who stands out is Meyer. (BTW, I would not necessarily call his style of axe-play "sportive".) His halbard material is the outlier, looking quite different from the other German material for the two-handed, "hammer/axe on a spear" (although it has interesting overlaps with some techniques of the Italian bill and Silver's English bill). But that doesn't speak to a radical shift in weapons and techniques - only a different school of play at work.

So to sum-up, we have to remember that medieval nomenclature is not like modern nomenclature - it's far more flexible and the same thing can have many names. As a Hauptmann of the Marxbruder includes its use and considers it interchangable with the halbard, I don't think we can say the fechtschules eschewed it.

I think that by and large what we can say is:

1. in the 15th century the primary audience of these books were knights and men-at-arms - those who could afford manuscripts, and the focus was on the poleaxe/polehammer as a way to counter full armour.

2. With the waning of armour and the availability of printed works, the form of that weapon in the texts favors the axe bladed, vs hammer bladed, weapon - which was the form commonly used by townsmen and commoners.

3. By and large the technical repertoire (with the exception of one master) is universal for the two arms within a given tradition, except that, with the waning of armour, we see some additional techniques in the 16th century that are designed to take advantage of this, and thus less reliance on throws and joint locks. But I don't think we can say it is enough to constitute very different methods of play, nor that the masters of this period thought of it as such.

It seems to me that both the "all medieval-all the time" crowd and the "high Renaissance" crowd like to really play up the differences between these two weapons, but it is really just adaptations to how much *armour* is present, not the subtle morphological differences in the weapon that creates the usually minor differences in play.

So I partly agree with your thesis - there was change of audience for the manuals, and it changes what is emphasized (see the growing importance of the messer/dusak) - but not that it was really a new style of play.

I hope that helped!

Greg


For my own $0.02, the differences between the halberd and the pollaxe aren't in the weapons themselves, but in how the person using them is armoured. Most poleaxe techniques require a relatively close measure, while most halberd techniques require a relatively wide measure. A great example is Tom Leoni's halberd article in Western Martial Arts Illustrated - the plays he shows/describes work equally well with a pollaxe, but at a slightly wider measure than normal (i know, I've played those plays with my axe).

So, we have to decide what is really important in terminology. If you are trying to teach someone how to drive a car do you teach them in a Ford but then explain that they will have to learn to do it all over again because they own a Honda? No, they are both automobiles - the basic theory and operation are the same. Similarly with polearms - while there are some differences is design that need to be taken into account (just like a Honda Civic can't tow as much as a Ford F-350), the basic usage is the same.

Again, just my $0.02

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Christian Henry Tobler




PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 11:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hugh Knight wrote:
Modern people might be confused about that weapon, Michael, but Fechtbuch sources agree with you--both Mair and Falkner call that weapon a halberd, specifically, not a pollaxe: Hellebarde, not Streitaxt (or just "axt"). To be a pollaxe it has to have a hammer head.


It's unclear what Falkner would call this. It might be a Mordagst. As I've pointed out before, Falkner uses the terms interchangeably, and the accompanying images do the same - sometimes showing a bill, sometimes a hammer-headed axe, sometimes an axe-bladed one. But, in general, I agree Hugh - with the axe/back fluke combo, these are usually reckoned to be halberds.

Strictly speaking, Poll/Poleaxe is an English term that does not directly map to any German period terminology, unlike 'halberd', which definitely does. The terms applying to this family of weapons in late medieval German works are streitaxt (roughly, 'battle axe'), mordaxt ('murder axe'), hellenbarten ('halberd'), occassionally fußstreitaxt ('foot battle axe'). And, often as not, we see simply axt/agst - 'axe' - a general term.

Cheers,

Christian

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Michael G.




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 11:30 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

NIce post, Alex. As Greg mentioned, terminology in the middle ages and Renaissance was used more loosely than we might prefer today. Polearms are an especially confusing bunch (don't even get me started on the gisarme).

When we ask, "what is a halberd, and what is a poleaxe?" there is no clear cut answer. First we have to decide the criteria for defining them, and there are a number of options: style, method of construction, place of origin/evolution, function, method of use, historically attested usage of the terms, etc. Do we pick one or some combination of these elements? Which are more important? Obviously, there is no clear consensus on this even today.

In any case, as long as we have thoroughly confused the OP, we have done our job. Happy
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Hugh Knight




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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 1:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christian Henry Tobler wrote:
It's unclear what Falkner would call this. It might be a Mordagst. As I've pointed out before, Falkner uses the terms interchangeably, and the accompanying images do the same - sometimes showing a bill, sometimes a hammer-headed axe, sometimes an axe-bladed one. But, in general, I agree Hugh - with the axe/back fluke combo, these are usually reckoned to be halberds.

Strictly speaking, Poll/Poleaxe is an English term that does not directly map to any German period terminology, unlike 'halberd', which definitely does. The terms applying to this family of weapons in late medieval German works are streitaxt (roughly, 'battle axe'), mordaxt ('murder axe'), hellenbarten ('halberd'), occassionally fußstreitaxt ('foot battle axe'). And, often as not, we see simply axt/agst - 'axe' - a general term.


There's no doubt that there are some grey areas here; the weapon Michael G. showed, for example, feels more like a pollaxe, but honestly, strictly speaking, it has an axe blade and a spike, so it's an halberd.

I have been noticing that whenever I see the term "Mordaxt", there's no hammer head balancing the blade, instead there's a small wedge-shaped spike-like thing opposite the blade. I can't find a picture of this online right at the moment, but I'm sure you've all seen it (e.g., in Mair; the thing Knight--different Knight--and Hunt call a "poleax" (sic) in their book). Now I don't know what Falkner shows when he uses this term, but I'd be curious about it.

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Hugh
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Christian Henry Tobler




PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 1:47 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Hugh,

Falkner's text doesn't necessarily match up with the particular polearms shown in the plates. To that end, I don't see anything looking like what's usually - at least today - reckoned to be a 'Mordagst'. And, yes, usually that seems, at least from the curatorial view to be what you describe: a (usually relatively large) axe blade, with a short, directly rear-facing spike behind it.

As for halberds v. poleaxes...I think what may be a distinguishing characteristic among curators is the shape of the spike. In (at least most) halberds, this is a flat profiled, downward curving spike. It seems optimized for hooking. On those few arms classified as poleaxes that have back spikes and blades, the spike points a bit more back and is of stouter construction.

I'll have to dig more into this to feel more certain though.

Cheers,

CHT

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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 2:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christian Henry Tobler wrote:
Falkner's text doesn't necessarily match up with the particular polearms shown in the plates. To that end, I don't see anything looking like what's usually - at least today - reckoned to be a 'Mordagst'. And, yes, usually that seems, at least from the curatorial view to be what you describe: a (usually relatively large) axe blade, with a short, directly rear-facing spike behind it.


Good. So, then, in reality, although there are *always* going to be exceptions and grey areas, we have the following distinctions:

1.) Streitaxt: Hammer and spike or hammer and blade, but always a hammer
2.) Hellebarde: Blade and spike
3.) Mordaxt: Blade and wedge-shaped point

Strictly speaking, the English term "pollaxe" (not "poleaxe," please; the poll isn't old English for shaft, it's a word for head or hammer) should be limited to the Streitaxt, and the English term Halberd for the Hellebarde. The Mordaxt is too rarely discussed or pictured for me to have a clear understanding of its specific useage.

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Hugh
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Christian Henry Tobler




PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 3:22 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Actually Hugh, poleaxe is documentable in English usage, by most accounts, from at least 1625. Some online sources, including the notes for the Wikipedia article on the subject, attest this:

^ The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following etymology, s.v. Poleaxe:
[ME. pollax, polax, Sc. powax = MDu. polaex, pollaex, MLG. and LG. polexe, pollexe (whence MSw. 15th c. polyxe, pulyxe, MDa. polöxe), f. pol, POLL n.1, Sc. pow, MDu., MLG. polle, pol head + AXE: cf. MDu. polhamer = poll-hammer, also a weapon of war. It does not appear whether the combination denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy. In the 16th c. the word began to be written by some pole-axe (which after 1625 became the usual spelling), as if an axe upon a pole or long handle. This may have been connected with the rise of sense 2. Similarly, mod.Sw. pålyxa and Westphalian dial. pålexe have their first element = pole. Sense 3 may be a substitute for the earlier bole-axe, which was applied to a butcher's axe.]

^ For instance, Eric Partridge gives the following etymology:
L Palus, stake becomes OE pal, whence ME pol, pole, E Pole, the ME cpd pollax, polax becomes poleaxe, AE poleaxe: cf AX (E)


This may be a case of parallel word development, and given an original English word is neither here nor there for a German one anyway, I'm more than content to use poleaxe, which at least means something to a modern audience. In any case, 'poleaxe' or 'pole-axe' is not a modern term, but a Renaissance one.

As for the definitions, I mostly agree, with the proviso that I've yet to see a historic source, rather than a curatorial one, supporting the Mordagst definition. And, beyond that, I think it's a halberd only if it's a fluke, not a spike, per my previous post. A quick online search seems to back this up as the prevailing thinking.

Cheers,

CHT

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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 5:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christian Henry Tobler wrote:
Actually Hugh, poleaxe is documentable in English usage, by most accounts, from at least 1625. Some online sources, including the notes for the Wikipedia article on the subject, attest this:

^ The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following etymology, s.v. Poleaxe:
[ME. pollax, polax, Sc. powax = MDu. polaex, pollaex, MLG. and LG. polexe, pollexe (whence MSw. 15th c. polyxe, pulyxe, MDa. polöxe), f. pol, POLL n.1, Sc. pow, MDu., MLG. polle, pol head + AXE: cf. MDu. polhamer = poll-hammer, also a weapon of war. It does not appear whether the combination denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy. In the 16th c. the word began to be written by some pole-axe (which after 1625 became the usual spelling), as if an axe upon a pole or long handle. This may have been connected with the rise of sense 2. Similarly, mod.Sw. pålyxa and Westphalian dial. pålexe have their first element = pole. Sense 3 may be a substitute for the earlier bole-axe, which was applied to a butcher's axe.]

^ For instance, Eric Partridge gives the following etymology:
L Palus, stake becomes OE pal, whence ME pol, pole, E Pole, the ME cpd pollax, polax becomes poleaxe, AE poleaxe: cf AX (E)


This may be a case of parallel word development, and given an original English word is neither here nor there for a German one anyway, I'm more than content to use poleaxe, which at least means something to a modern audience. In any case, 'poleaxe' or 'pole-axe' is not a modern term, but a Renaissance one.


Use of the spelling "poleaxe" is misleading because then people who read it think pole as in shaft. It is better to educate the ignorant than to change terminology to cater to them because doing so has, in large part, ruined our language; look how few people now understand the difference between "done" and "finished." It doesn't matter when the word changed, the fact of the change is enough. Still, it's not worth arguing about--Streitaxt or even Axt is an even better term for our purposes anyway, just as you say.

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Hugh
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Christian Henry Tobler




PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 5:49 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Hugh,

I'll let this be my last word on pole/poll then: if you read what I included above, you'll see I don't believe it to *necessarily* be wrong or misleading. A noted linguist actually believes it comes from 'pole', as in 'shaft', and not the flat face of mallet ('head' is really wrong, and doesn't make logical sense). It's likely that we'll never know for sure.

Authorities are split on these usages (one can fine poleaxe, pole-axe, polaxe, pollax, pollaxe - just from British authorities alone), so I really don't think one can make an ironclad case on either side. And, I'm ok with that.

I'll let you know if I dig up more on 'mordagst'.

Cheers,

CHT

Christian Henry Tobler
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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 6:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christian Henry Tobler wrote:
I'll let you know if I dig up more on 'mordagst'.CHT


Please do. I've only been seeing it as a different form unique unto itself for a relatively brief time. I keep meaning to do a careful analysis between it and the halberd in Mair, but I have so many other projects going, and that material is really so far from my preferred field of study, that I just haven't given it the attention I'd like to.

One question I'm sure you already have the answer to: Is the haft of the Mordaxt in Falkner shorter than the other poll weapons shown there? Not that I set too much store by that, but I am curious. Thanks.

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Hugh
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PostPosted: Tue 09 Mar, 2010 11:59 pm    Post subject: Re: What are the differences between poleaxes and halberds?         Reply with quote

Nathan M Wuorio wrote:

What are the main differences between poleaxes and halberds? I know MRL and Arms and Armour have poleaxes for sale, and they look like what I see when I imagine a poleaxe.

Did most poleaxes have hammers on the back end or did they have spikes?

Did halberds ever have a hammer?


If I remember rite, I remember that I asked John Clements this same question personally at the ARMA gathering. He told me the number one difference is that a Halberd was more for a formation weapon rather then personal weapon. A poleaxes was much more of an personal weapon rather then for formation.

And if I am not wrong, both can have hammers or an small axe in the back of them and both have spikes almost all the time. But poleaxes have hammers much more often then a smaller axe in the back.


Main differences in fast way:

Poleaxes = sorter

Halberd = longer

Both can have hammers in back. More so on Poleaxes.

Both can have small axes in back. More so on Halberd.

Both almost always have a blade or more so a spike on top.
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Christian Henry Tobler




PostPosted: Wed 10 Mar, 2010 7:56 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Hugh,

Falkner mentions the Mordagst, but I don't see a differentiated weapon in illustrations that leads me to believe he's showing one - unless the weapon is different from what modern authorities think it is.

My sense is that because Falkner is applying general techniques across of a spectrum of related weapons, that the artist isn't too worried about what precisely is in the image.

Certainly, no image has the stubby backward spike we've been discussing.

Cheers,

CHT

Christian Henry Tobler
Order of Selohaar

Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

Author, In Saint George's Name: An Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts
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Hugh Knight




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PostPosted: Wed 10 Mar, 2010 9:33 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Christian Henry Tobler wrote:
Falkner mentions the Mordagst, but I don't see a differentiated weapon in illustrations that leads me to believe he's showing one - unless the weapon is different from what modern authorities think it is.

My sense is that because Falkner is applying general techniques across of a spectrum of related weapons, that the artist isn't too worried about what precisely is in the image.

Certainly, no image has the stubby backward spike we've been discussing.


Interesting. Thanks.

Regards,
Hugh
www.schlachtschule.org
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