Poleaxes and halberds are both weapons with long and rich histories. They were used for hundreds of years on battlefields and even stayed relevant for decades after gunpowder and guns came into use. There are good reasons for that – both weapons were versatile and were used for defense, attack, and all sorts of maneuvers in between. Nowadays, the two are popular elements in medieval reenactment circles and there are plenty of hard rubber training poleaxes and halberds for sale on the internet. But many people don’t know the difference between the two and their unique characteristics. Some people mix the two together, thinking that they’re the same thing. They’re not, of course, and this in-depth guide aims to clear up your questions on poleaxes and halberds once and for all. What are their specifications? What are they used for? Read on to find out!
What is a Poleaxe?
A poleaxe is, in its most basic form, a long-handled weapon with an axe or hammer head mounted on its end. They appeared as a counter to the plate armor of men at arms from the 14th to 16th centuries. While the name implies that it is a type of axe, poleaxes could also be crushing weapons – a type of warhammer. That said, the most common forms of poleaxe combined either one or both of these traits – a cutting or crushing edge – with a spike (or fluke) at the tip. Thus, poleaxes were a very versatile weapon and combined up to three weapons in one. A poleaxe with an axe edge could be used for cutting attacks, like a Danish axe, if it had a hammer face on the other side it could be used to crush armored and unarmored opponents, and the spike let the wielder use it as a spear in stabbing motions. Many poleaxes also had more dagger-like forms in place of an axe edge. These could be curved downwards, towards the bottom of the shaft, and were in this sense like hooks – they allowed the user to trip up or sweep an enemy off his feet.
What is a poleaxe used for?
Poleaxes were used for fighting both mounted cavalry units and foot soldiers. Their length, spear-tips, and hammers or curved dagger edges were used to both defend against or deter cavalry charges, or pull a man off his horse if he did charge. Since poleaxes were so versatile, they were effective against both mounted warriors and foot soldiers. The hammer face was used to deliver crushing, disabling blows to the head or body, while the spear tip was used to find gaps in plate armor or pierce thinner armor, dismount a rider, or attack a man on the ground. Finally, the axe cutting edge was effective against unarmored or lightly-armored units, as the long shaft of the poleaxe allowed the wielder to swing and cut from a greater distance than shorter axes did, requiring the user to be less “up close and personal” and thus reducing the risk of injury or death, at least in the initial moments of combat. Poleaxes were also good defensive weapons, as the shaft of the weapon itself was used to block blows. It was an effective counter to many types of units on the battlefield, as was rightly considered a serious threat to mounted knights and foot soldiers alike.
What is a Halberd?
A halberd is a long-handled pole weapon with a steel form mounted on top. It usually combined a spear tip, a long axe edge, and often had a hook or thorn form on the reverse. Unlike the poleaxe, a halberd’s steel head was usually one single piece of metal. Halberds were came into use from the 16th century and were used well into the modern era – where there were horses and cavalry charges, there were also halberds to defend against them. Halberds were used in the American Revolution and even well into the 19th century, such was their versatility and effectiveness.
What is a halberd used for?
Halberds were used to counter both foot soldiers and heavy cavalry alike. The spear tip and curved dagger or hook form, as with the poleaxe, allowed users to pull men off of horses or take them off their feet if on the ground. The long axe edge reflected a change in warfare – from the latter part of the Renaissance in the 16th century and onwards, plate mail armor became rarer and rarer as armies became larger and larger. Many soldiers fought in simple fabric padded jack (gambeson) armor or no armor at all. This made cutting weapons much more effective and viable on the battlefield. Also, dedicated cavalry units and their charges became great threats (in contrast to the earlier Middle Ages, when men-at-arms and knights often could and did dismount to fight), which required some sort of counter. The long, curved axe cutting edge of the halberd allowed its users to swing their halberds at horse’s legs or at their riders and be confident that they would land a blow, either disabling the horse, unmounting the rider (who they could then attack with the spear tip on their halberd or let other infantry take care of), or both.
Types of Halberds
There are several weapons or weapon types from across the world that are called “halberds” in English. Here are a few of them:
- European halberd
The European halberd is what most of us think of when we read the word. It first appeared in Switzerland and was used by early Swiss armies to cement their fearsome reputation on the battlefield. The halberd was truly a game-changing weapon – because of its versatility it could be used by large masses of men in different roles. A Swiss peasant killed Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, with one stroke of his halberd and thus ended the Burgundian Wars that had raged for three years, threatening the existence of the Swiss states.
- Japanese halberd
The Japanese halberd is known as the naginata. They were used by samurai, foot soldiers (ashigaru) and warrior monks (sōhei). Naginatas were also used by the famous female warriors of the nobility, the onna-bugeisha. Naginatas are more similar to glaives than they are to European halberds, in that their head consists of a single forward-pointing, curved blade that is anywhere from 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 inches) long. The shaft was anywhere from 120 to 240 cm (47 to 94 inches) long. Despite being unlike the European halberd in form, the naginata was used for similar purposes. For example, during the Genpei War (1180-1185, a national civil war that was a turning point in Japan’s history), naginatas rose to be highly esteemed by warriors as they allowed wielders to unmount cavalry and disable riders, much as European halberds were used.
- Chinese halberd
The Chinese halberd is known as the ji in China, and is a type of polearm that started as a cross between a spear and a dagger-axe. The dagger-axe was a shaft with a blade attached at a perpendicular, 90-degree angle. The use of the ji dates back thousands of years, although it is not clear when it got its name. In modern days, the use of the ji is still widespread in Chinese martial arts training.
What is the difference between a poleaxe and a halberd?
While poleaxes and halberds are similar weapons in form and function, there are several main differences between them. The first is that the halberd usually has a larger, longer axe cutting edge than the poleaxe.
Poleaxes were generally shorter than halberds – while pole weapons, they were rarely taller than the wielder and in fact were designed to be carried “across the body” and both ends used – like a pugil (or fighting stick). The bottom could be used to attack shins and crush feet, also swung to strike an opponent’s neck or jaw, while the top with the axe edge or hammer face, hook, and spear did the serious work. It was a weapon for one-on-one fighting between dismounted knights and men-at-arms.
The halberd, however, was a larger weapon (often taller than its wielder) used as a mass weapon in large formations, by trained foot soldiers, mercenaries, or even commoners. It was used in conjunction with pikes to defend against cavalry charges and as a supporting weapon. While it could be used in individual combat, the way of war had changed by then, mass cavalry charges became more commonplace, and so did the defensive weapons and formations needed to defend against them become more popular – the halberd was one of these weapons.
The spike on the halberd was generally much longer than a poleaxe’s spike – a feature of it being used as a spear against mounted cavalry.
Halberds were in active use starting from a (slightly) later time period – whereas poleaxes were used from the 14th to 16th centuries, halberds were in wide use from the 15th up until the 19th century. There were also construction differences – while the head of the poleaxe was modular (several parts fastened together), the halberd was usually one piece of forged steel.
Finally, the two types of weapons had a difference in status. The poleaxe was a weapon of knights and men-at-arms, who were of higher rank in society. The halberd, due to advances in forging and manufacturing as much as changes in warfighting, was a more “democratic” and widely-available weapon, used by both peasants and nobles. For that reason it didn’t say as much about the wielder’s social status as the poleaxe would have.
Halberd and Poleaxe fighting style
The fighting style of poleaxes and halberds, but poleaxes especially, was based on quarterstaff fighting. It was, despite what many people might think at first, quite complex. It was not just swinging the weapon in wide arcs towards the opponent or jabbing with the spear end. The poleaxe and halberd weren’t slow weapons that you delivered large, overhead blows with. In fact, poleaxe fighting used both high and low guards, as with longswords, and both the top and bottom end of the poleaxe – as well as the shaft itself – were used to block and parry the enemy’s blows, attack and counterattack.
Check out the videos below for explanations and demonstrations of poleaxe and halberd fighting styles and techniques!
Full Armour Poleaxe Combat with intro explanation:
Halberd Fighting “Plays” from Medieval Manual with move-by-move explanation:
Medieval Poleaxe Combat Demonstration at the 2015 International Medieval Congress: