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I hope this isn't too general, but I am talking about any warfare before the invention of firearms. In a one vs one duel between sword and pole arm, it seems like the pole arm has significant advantages; a pole arm can reach the sword wielder, while the sword wielder. Sure if the sword wielder gets close he can do a lot of damage, but getting close is extremely risky and tricky. A few advantages of the sword that I could think of is being able to use a shield and being more mobile, but do these advantages really outweigh the advantages of the pole arm? I believe sword users are also much more vulnerable to cavalry than pole arms.

  • "Pole arm" can mean anything from a 1 meter spear to a 7 meter pike. Could you narrow it down? – Schwern May 8 '16 at 22:09
  • I think you mean "from a 2 meter spear ...". Only hobbits could use a one meter spear. – Pieter Geerkens May 8 '16 at 22:15
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    @PieterGeerkens Tell that to the Zulu. The an iklwa could be as short as 1 meter, typically about 1.5m. – Schwern May 8 '16 at 22:28
  • The photograph at that link shows a Zulu warrior holding a spear at least 4.5 feet long - significantly longer than one meter - and frankly resembling a sword as much as a traditional pole-arm. – Pieter Geerkens May 8 '16 at 22:32
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    @PieterGeerkens You just missed my finding an example of a 1m iklwa. :) There's examples of them in ranges from 36" to 60". It's clearly a polearm, it's a blade on a pole for thrusting. It illustrates the problem of asking a question about "polearms" which covers everything from a 1m iklwa to a 7m pike. They're used very differently. – Schwern May 8 '16 at 22:36
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Pole arms vary greatly in length and purpose. Everything from a Zulu iklwa, a short 1 to 2 meter personal thrusting weapon...

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Source: Therion Arms International

...to the 7 meter pike favored by everyone from Philip of Macedonia to Charles the XII of Sweden.

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Source

Swords also vary greatly from the Roman gladius, a short thrusting weapon meant to be used in a tight formation...

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Source

...to the massive Zweihänder, the German two-handed sword up to 2 meters long.

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Source

The iklwa, a pole arm, has more in common with the gladius, a sword, than it does with the pike. Similarly a Zweihänder, a sword, being so long had some of the characteristics of a pole arm.

Then there's "any warfare before the invention of firearms" which is everything from ancient Greeks to Shaka Zulu (firearms did not have an important role in the wars between South African natives during the Zulu Expansion).

It's hard to make sense out of such broad categories and 2000 years of warfare, but I'll give it a shot.

Why were swords used in battle?

Very broadly speaking because in well trained hands they're good at close, individual combat and can be worn conveniently hung on a belt or slung over the shoulder. Polearms must be carried in the hands making them inconvenient. Swords are the medieval equivalent of a sidearm like a pistol.

However, battles are not won by close, individual combat. They're won by groups. This is why the sword was a secondary weapon. The primary melee weapon was the polearm.

A short spear has many of the advantages you list, and this video goes through them in some detail, but that's for a short spear one-on-one. It would be very different if he were wielding a pike.

Pole arms got longer and longer to make them more effective as a group, and less one-on-one. Everything from the Macedonian phalanx to the medieval pike wall exploits a tight formation of men bristling with pole arms. Attacking this formation means fighting not one-on-one, but attacking the group as a whole. Because the work of the individual soldier is fairly simple, stay in formation and hold your pole arm, they don't need to be particularly well trained or physically fit. They were particularly effective against cavalry, so long as the cavalry attacked from the front.

Where swords remained particularly effective is as a cavalry weapon, particularly the sabre. Light and one-handed, you could slash at your enemies from above while still controlling your horse.

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    The Greek hoplites defeated much more numerous Persian opponents because of the extreme skill and coordination of their phalanxes. Similarly later for the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander. Holding ground before a cavalry charge is an extremely nerve wracking experience that was regularly failed by green troops. Claiming that "the work of the individual soldier is fairly simple" is simply false. – Pieter Geerkens May 8 '16 at 22:35
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    @PieterGeerkens I think you've mistaken "simple" for "easy". I'll clarify. A tight formation can be drilled to work as a group. The group can make complex maneuvers, but the individual just has to follow their drill. So long as everyone remains calm, remembers their training, and follows orders they'll do well. Even if an individual loses their cool they can't go anywhere, they're packed in. In contrast, an individual swordsman must be skilled with their sword and make complex tactical decisions on their own. – Schwern May 8 '16 at 22:44
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    @PieterGeerkens To put it another way, if you need to turn a bunch of peasants into soldiers you don't hand them swords, it will take too long to make them effective. You give them pole arms and drill them to take orders and fight as a unit. This isn't a slight on the skill of professionals, but a comment on the brutal effectiveness of the phalanx in the realities of trying to keep unit cohesion on the battlefield. In the hands of professionals the phalanx becomes something which can conquer the world! – Schwern May 8 '16 at 22:53
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    @Thomo Polybus, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32. "Of these sixteen ranks, all above the fifth are unable to reach with their sarissae far enough to take actual part in the fighting. They, therefore, do not lower them, but hold them with the points inclined upwards over the shoulders of the ranks in front of them, to shield the heads of the whole phalanx; for the sarissae are so closely serried, that they repel missiles which have carried over the front ranks and might fall upon the heads of those in the rear." – Schwern May 9 '16 at 5:14
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    Roman maniples only used their spears as missile weapons - hand-to-hand, they relied on their gladius and scutum, and they seemed to have a good deal of success with this arrangement. – RI Swamp Yankee May 9 '16 at 13:27
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The Romans developed tactics that involved both swords and spears.

The spears ("pilum") were used first, and were throwing spears (not "polearms").

After the "shock and awe" administered by the throwing spears, Roman soldiers would close in with short, thrusting swords to finish the job. These tactics were similar to those used by men armed with (one shot) muskets, and bayonets, centuries later.

Such tactics required strong, well-drilled formations such as legions. It wasn't until the late Middle Ages that non-Romans could produce (and utilize) such formations and tactics.

Roman soldiers could also use their pilum as "polearms" against cavalry if necessary. That is to say that they were a lot more flexible than other infantry until those of a much later time.

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    Good answer. Further to it, It's also important to note the difference in type of sword used. The Romans used a short bladed sword designed for thrusting, not the longer slashing variety more popular in medieval times. The advantage of having the short thrusting sword was that they could keep a tight formation, making penetrating the unit difficult for the opposition. It also allowed them to effectively fight in under the effective range of spears/polearms, not to mention being a lot quicker to readjust with – Thomo May 9 '16 at 3:21
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    @Thomo: Incorporated your excellent comment into my post. – Tom Au May 9 '16 at 13:30
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    It might be instructive here to look at what happened when the Roman legions conquered Greece, since that would have been pilum/sword against phalanx. My understanding was the the Romans just used the pilums to get rid of opposing shields, so that they could have the hand-to-hand swordfight they were trained for. You probably know more about this though. – T.E.D. May 9 '16 at 16:06
  • @T.E.D.:"Romans just used the pilums to get rid of opposing shields, so that they could have the hand-to-hand swordfight they were trained for." That was part of the "shock and awe" of the pilums. – Tom Au May 9 '16 at 16:08
  • Also, the later Greek phalanxes were both less well trained and less well protected on the flanks than earlier. – Pieter Geerkens May 9 '16 at 17:50
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Swords are Flexible

Polearms generally work well when you can keep a tight formation. The first several lines are all able to engage the enemy, making it difficult for enemies to close within striking distance. But if the enemy comes at you from the side, its very hard to turn your formation to face them.

On the other hand, a sword is a light weapon that does not extend far beyond your body. It is easy to change position - or move in an unexpected direction as a unit.

As an example - the Battle of Pydna (168BC) was a battle between the Roman Legions (armed with the gladius short sword) and the Greek Phalanx (armed with long spears). It initially went well for the Greeks, and the Romans were forced retreat to nearby foothills. However, as the Phalanx advanced over the rough terrain, their lines became disorderly. The more maneuverable Romans were able to quickly concentrate their forces at the places where the Greeks were weakest.

The result is that the Romans defeated a larger force, even after an initial setback.

Swords Pair with Shields

A large polearm generally precludes the use of a shield - you need both hands to wield a halberd or a dagger-ax. This leaves you more exposed to missile fire, such as from archers. A swordsmen is often (though not always) equipped with a shield.

Polearms are Heavy

I'm not sure that a polearm beats a sword one-on-one, as the OP suggests. In a dual the swordsman is in definite danger while at range - the polearm can strike while the sword cannot. But if the initial strike misses, or is blocked by a shield, then the heavy polearm may not be able to "reset" for a second strike before swordsman closes the distance. It would depend a lot on the fighters, their weapons, and, I suspect, luck.

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The problem with a pole arm is that you can only kill one guy with it. If the unit with the spears outnumbers the enemy, fine, but if the enemy outnumbers you, then things will go bad.

For this reason elite units always fought with sword and shield because you may need to kill many people. With a spear you can stick one of them, but if you are facing five or six enemies, you need a sword.

Another issue with a spear is that it can take a long time to kill somebody because the wound is relatively minor. You could stick somebody with a spear and he might just keep going like the energizer bunny. With a sword you can cause massive wounds that put the enemy into shock and disables them almost immediately.

  • Are you confusing thrown spears with polearms? – Schwern May 9 '16 at 19:18
  • @Schwern No. If you are referring to my "one guy" remark, that is the reality. Maybe your idea of a spear is from watching "300" or something, but in real battles, once a spear pierces an enemy it is often damaged, broken or entangled in the enemy equipment. In real battles a spear is difficult to use repeatedly. – Tyler Durden May 9 '16 at 19:44
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    That pole arms can only be used once needs a citation. That it doesn't make a major wound needs a citation. The whole idea doesn't make sense because pre-modern battles are not won because you killed more guys, they're won because you break their morale and formation and cause them to flee the field. If what you say is true, victories involving pole arms, everyone from Phillip of Macedonia to Charles XII, won because they had more men which is demonstrably false. Such an extraordinary claim needs a citation. – Schwern May 9 '16 at 20:46

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