About ancient combat and weapons

Armor and weapons - 6

Iron age helmet reconstruction – with fear inducing eyebrows 😉

After many years of wargaming, some years of experimental history study, construction and combat practice with various close quarter weapons I have started to wonder why melee simulations have tendency to focus on the instrument.

It is easy to construct theories of how each individual weapon performs in one-to-one combat, but importance of men wielding the weapon is often forgotten.

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Two handed axe

During ancient era, it was common man levied into service during campaigning season. Paid, trained and disciplined professionals were rare commodity. Considering the everyday occupations of Hellens, there are craftsmen of sorts, farmers and such. They are perhaps somewhat seasoned in war, but still having gained their basic strength and skills in the fields and farms, wielding perhaps axes, scythes, spears, javelins and bow & arrow for hunting.

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Two small battle axes

It has always troubled me that some (if not most) game systems pay significant attention to detail of melee weapons. There is of course difference between long spear or sarissa that keeps the enemy in decent distance, or short knife but once treating the units as whole, the difference becomes a whole less important for the overall performance.

Sword for example is notoriously difficult weapon to wield for ill trained (I would almost at any time opt either spear, or small, sharp, well formed axe instead). When unit operates as group, it is important to wield weapon that one finds familiar and which allows unit to co-operate as unit. Morale of the levied troops, as often seen, depends on keeping the enemy some distance away.

So, what counts then in the reality? Experience, and exposure to combat counts probably more than anything else. Even the best of drills do not give sufficient exposure to the rigors of campaign. Consider that the part time trooper is really only a farmer, or a craftsman. He has no intention to become casualty during the campaign, yet it is likely that he understands that fleeing spells nearly certain doom to all.

Armor and weapons - 1

2/3 sleeved mail shirt

For the whole, if one can establish that the unit is disciplined, able to run through the drills with sufficient precision under pressure, then the actual weapon counts only little. Close combat is more akin to 18th and 19th century naval combat where the weight of the broadside counted, and not the specific weapon type used – balls or kitchen utensils, made no real difference at the end.

When two disciplined units meet in close quarters (Gallic war bands aside, where the point was impetuosity and individual prowess to kill as much enemies as possible in the progress of being killed), what decides the victory is really not decided upon weapon type, but the ability to intimidate and awe the opposition. Second, if and when it becomes melee, ability to sustain losses. More often than not, the victor is decided by the previous exposure to the rigors of war. Roman legions were not victorious because they used short cutting and stabbing sword. When they won, they did so, because the unit as a whole did not start to crumble, and the cohesion outlasted the enemy.

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Seaxe, good melee weapon of it’s own right

There are two distinct possible ways for unit cohesion to crumble. Uncontrolled pursuit of retreating troops – cavalry is notoriously difficult to control and many great victories are result of the cavalry wing running off the field in pursuit. When lines break, and breaches form, it it becomes easy to exploit and cause rout of the whole unit.

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Casualties – imaginary, or real may push the unit beyond, and cause mass panic. One of the reasons why controlled retreat was difficult to pull off was due to communication problem, but also because ordered retreat is easily interpreted by ordinary farmer in the line as imminent defeat. Many times orderly retreat has turned into uncontrolled rout.

I have heard several times an argument that supposedly gives sword like weapons superior status in melee. It has to do with very theoretical aspect of the wounds they produce. For example it is often quoted that Roman swords caused fearful injuries. Probably true to an extend, but anyone that has been in melee (simulated, or real) knows that there is really no time to observe the injuries of fallen comrades, fearful or not. Those, on the other hand, who possessed the field at the end had ample opportunities to see their hands work. In the same token, one could say that axe or spear wounds are not pleasant either. Many samples of all types of bone fractures, and wounds can be found in various museum exhibits.

That said, I understand the ranged weapon differences. Light arrow is certainly different than heavy javelin from the receivers perspective, not to mention range. But then, it may not have been trivial to make troops fire enemy troops. Consider the inexperienced soldiers in Seven Years War or Napoleonic wars. Troops were reported to have strong tendency to fire high, and officers had to repeatedly force the muzzles lower to hit the target. These were men, who had some hunting experience.




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