Thursday, October 9, 2014


I am most definitely not a historian, though I sometimes portray one on my blog. So it is that I've been spending waaaaay too much time this week researching the evolution of the medieval helmet and poleaxes.

The former is not such a big deal: though I can now tell you the differences between bascinets and pot helms and sallets and armets and barbutas and...well, everything from the 12th century to the 15th...mechanically they don't need much distinct modeling. It is nice to finally figure out what a "great helm" actually is after all these years.

You can blame Charles Taylor's great blog post on the subject of the poleaxe for my week-long obsession with that weapon.  It's led me to videos, blog posts, medieval weapon forums, and downloading all those weapon texts Gary Gygax cites in the bibliography of his Unearthed Arcana: Armour and Weapons in the Middle Ages by Charles Henry Ashdown, Armour & Weapons by Charles Ffoulkes, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages by Charles Oman.

[just by the way...what is it that leads people named "Charles" to put so much time and effort into the study of medieval Europe's martial arts? That's kind of weird, don't you think?]

The poleaxe (no, I am not going to call it a "pollaxe" like the entry in wikipedia...I don't care if some folks believe that it is etymologically derived from the word poll - the Oxford English dictionary has no such word as "pollaxe," but there IS a word "poleaxe." Whatever the etymology, the word is now spelled poleaxe. Deal with it)...

The poleaxe or poleax (as my blogger auto-correct keeps wanting to write) gets incredibly short shrift in AD&D which is pretty surprising given A) its importance to knightly combat and B) Gary's love of pole arms and the attention he places on their distinct differences. There is, in fact, no poleaxe in AD&D...nothing on the equipment list to buy, nothing in the extensive weapon charts detailing its length and weight and space required.  Nada. The only place you find it is in the Unearthed Arcana's appendix on pole arms wherein Gygax writes:
"Strictly speaking, a pole axe is nothing more than an axe head of any sort set upon a long haft in order to deliver an earlier and more forceful blow. It can be double-bitted, backed by a spike, and/or topped off with a dagger (spear) point, but is still recognizable as an axe."
It appears that Gygax considers the poleaxe to be pretty much the same thing as a "battle axe" (of the two-handed variety) even though this isn't really the case. In fact, the weight and lengths for axes in the PHB are a pretty good representation for those distinct weapons (even if the space required might be disputed). A hand axe (1.5' long) is a good representation of the one-handed axe that's good for throwing (think tomahawk) while the battle axe ("circa 4'") can represent everything up to the Danish long axe (which appears to only have exceeded this length for "ceremonial" examples). The poleaxe by definition exceeds 4' and are depicted in medieval art and combat manuals as being close to the same height as the the person wielding 'em (in other words, pretty close to 6').

This is a very short poleaxe.
Putting a small, thin axe-head on the end of a six foot lever gives you a lot of armor-penetrating power...these videos from Cold Steel Knives for their poleaxe are pretty cool (dig them destroying the car), even if they're not using them in a true combat fashion. This video from the AEMMA (the "Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts") is a close approximation of armored combat: something of a hybrid between quarterstaff and baseball, though probably should include more grappling techniques. Of course, the weapons they use are bec de corbins, not true "poleaxes."

At least, not in the English sense of the phrase. The books Gygax uses for his bibliography are pretty clear in their descriptions and illustrations. They're getting their information from the Tower of London Armouries and from private collections both within England and without. However, more recent (Gygax's books are from the early 20th century) articles found on the internet (see here and here) seem to equate "poleaxe" with long-handled war hammers. They appear to be drawing their info from non-English weapon treatises (that I can't read). And, yes, I'd agree the fighting style is the same...but the way the weapon delivers killing damage to an opponent is quite different. Neither a crow-beak nor a hammer are going to sever limbs like an actual axe will.

So many possibilities.
A true poleaxe is a devastating weapon. It can hook, trip, and grapple just like other similar weapons. It can pierce with its spear head just like the others (see the Lucerne hammer for the more extreme form). It can batter and concuss just like a "polehammer" if backed with a hammer, or hook and tear mail when backed by a spike. But the axe head gives vicious cutting power that (at the end of a 6' staff) may be unmatched by any other weapon.
"The War-hammer and Battle-axe need but little description. They were generally used by horsemen, and their general form only varies in detail from implements in use at the present day. The Pole-axe was a weapon in great request for jousting on foot, in the 'champ clos'. The blade is much like the halbard, but at the back is a hammer-shaped projection with a roughened surface."
(from Armour & Weapons by Charles Ffoulkes, 1909)

This is the weapon that knights wanted to use when they were in champ clos (combat on foot). Not sword and board. Give me the longest axe you can find; back it with a hammer, top it with a hard spike. Now that's knightly combat, folks. Dig it.

Who says cavaliers won't use pole arms? Crap on that!


  1. Interestingly the Pole-Axe mad it into 3.0 and 3.5 D&D and later Pathfinder though they call it a halberd. It works pretty much as historical and as a trip weapon which is as close to the hook as D&D offers

    Its also got its own weapon style feat which works a bit like Half Sword granting an AC bonus and an extra (at -5) bashing attack

    I do suspect Daffy Duck came up with the name though, , spin parry bash ah-ha that s not a surprise, those editions are fully of daffy stuff and half sword technique is pretty boring as a name.

  2. I would also recommend checking out the YouTube channel of a gent named Matt Easton ( He both studies the original texts and is an instructor in Historical European Martial Arts. His stuff is fantastic and he has a wealth of information.

    Historically speaking, by the middle of the Medieval Age, swords were largely a civilian self-defense weapon or your last ditch weapon in war. Poleaxes, warhammers, battleaxes, spears, bows and maces were the primary weapons of war. Similar to modern armies where soldiers go into battle with an assault rifle and might carry a pistol as a sidearm, medieval soldiers went into battle with a weapon like a poleaxe or spear and might carry a sword for backup.

    1. @ Monk:

      Some swords were still useful (and used) on the battlefield. But even after they became secondary considerations, the sword was still considered a "knight's weapon" and the one associated with the other.

  3. one thing keeping me oldschool is polearm damage - RQ post 3rd ed as well as late DnD weakened them to simular to swords which is BS - one thing has made me not change editions since which is a bit touchy of me - in BX has been nice to have generic polearm which could include a nagimaki, a poleaxe, a halberd, maul, huge spear blade, etc

    1. @ Konsumt:

      Yes, especially if you like the variable weapon damage rule. Interestingly, the zwiehander (six foot two-handed sword) was used much the same as the many pole-arms and giving them both D10 damage...while not a great model (without damage reduction) nice in that it puts them in the same category.

      More on this point later.
      ; )

  4. Hey there! Glad to see poleaxes finally getting their due.

    I was writing a response in this tiny box, but it got rather long, so it is on my blog here:


    1. As an example of the weirdness and poor scholarship in those older books, from the 1909 Ffoulks quote - "and their general form only varies in detail from implements in use at the present day".

      That's simply incorrect. The only thing I've ever seen these days that's anything close to a medieval one-handed battleaxe is a shingle hatchet - hardly an everyday implement. The typical axe or hatchet is totally different from the weapon of war in weight, balance, blade shape...

      Similarly with a warhammer. It may be a little more similar to a framing clawhammer than a battleaxe is to an axe, but it's still a specialized weapon with thought put into its design that deserves more description than "it's a hammer".

      I'd call that a perfect example of poor scholarship on Ffoulks' part, and typical of the level of scholarship of his era and earlier.

    2. @ Charles:

      I *think* what Ffoulkes is saying is that a person looking at a war hammer or battle axe will have no trouble distinguishing it as a "hammer" or "axe" based on its appearance and similarity to modern day tools. He's talking about form, not function, in describing these's not a treatise on combat.

      However, I definitely see how using a descriptive text as a basis for modeling combat mechanics in a game is pretty shaky ground. And I think that's part of the reason so many other designers that came after Gygax (C&S, RQ, DQ, etc.) made it such a point of emphasis.