Medieval Wall

Aug 13 2013

Categories: Society

Medieval Weaponry


Medieval weapory can be divided into attacking and defensive, and also into cold weapons and firearms. Most popular were cold weapons, although by the end of this period the use of firearms increases, and they subsequently supersede the cold weapons.

Knights armed with spearsBy the downfall of the Roman Empire, so vanished its disciplined military organization, which was replaced in Europe by immigrant armies. Their military campaigns were participated by entire nations, which included all the layers of society. After settling in their newly conquered lands, they gradually lose their belligerence, turning more to a sedentary lifestyle, mainly agriculture. Warfare remains only among the narrow circle of nobility, future knights. Infantry loses its significance, and the primary focus is passed onto the knight’s horsemen. They were mostly armed with cold weapons (spear, sword, battle axe…), and were protected by armour. Infantry was used as a backup and mainly armed with bows. Throughout the entire Middle Ages the cavalry was predominant, only during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) the infantry, armed with bows and arrows, becomes increasingly significant, and sometime later the Swiss footmen equipped with close combat weapons (spears, halberds) will have become extremely efficient soldiers.1

The territories of Europe did not use the same weaponry. The Slavs were in shortage of iron, so they preferred ranged weapons. That is why Charlemagne banned selling weapons to Slavs and Avars. Later, other bans are introduced on a social level as well. I.e. Frederick I Barbarossa (cca. 1122-1190) banned carrying or possession of weapons (spear or sword) to peasants. Travelling merchants were allowed to carry weapons, in order to defend themselves from robbers, but they were not allowed to carry them “in a knightly manner “, on their body, only attached to the saddle or inside the wagon. It was, in any way, harder for the lower classes to get a hold of weapons since they were costly. For example, it is a known fact that in Charlemagne’s time, a sword cost seven cows, and a spear two.2

Cold weapons

David conquer PhilistinesThe most common and well known weapon amongst the warriors of the Middle Ages were swords.3 Swords of the noblemen were especially richly decorated and were also often attributed with supernatural powers. Though swords of other warriors were slightly more modest, they display excellent craftsmanship nevertheless. By a single stroke, they could pierce through metal, but also inflict a deadly wound to the enemy.4

Apart from swords, another important weapon were sabres. This weapon originates from the East, from the equestrian tribes of middle Asia. They were later adopted by the Persians, as well as nations of India and Japan. They were brought to Europe during the Migration and were used by the Huns, Avars and Hungarians. However, with a gradual dominance of the sword as a primary medieval weapon, sabre vanishes from general use. It will reemerge in Europe during the Turkish invasion of this area. Later, many nations that were in contact with the Turks will readopt the sabre, i.e. the Polish will make it their national weapon (“karabela “). Its widespread use is also witnessed by the Hussar army that was assembled of defectors who were skilled in Turkish type of warfare, by the Hungarian king Mattias Corvinus in 1474; this light cavalry’s primary weapon was sabre.5

Knives were a shorter type of weapon, consisting of a handle and a single blade. Since they were cheaper to make, they were most commonly used by peasants. Nowadays, it is hard to differentiate which of them were used as a weapon, or in hunting and everyday household activities.

Somewhat larger than knives were daggers. They were used for quick self-defence, by inflicting stab wounds, and also for putting the wounded out of misery. They were sometimes used in parallel with a sword, in a way that a warrior would hold a sword in one hand, and a dagger in the other. Due to its size, it could have easily been hidden in garments or various objects, which made it a very dangerous weapon. Even though they vanish from use in the early Middle Ages, they reappear throughout entire Europe during the 12th and 13th century. They became useful once more due to the evolution of heavy knights’ armours, which were tough to pierce with a sword or some larger weapon. Thin dagger blades were ideal for this purpose; thus the knights use them increasingly, holding the sword in one hand, and the dagger in the other.7

Both footmen and horsemen used spears, a weapon that consisted of a long pole on top of which was a blade with two, three or four edges. Spears had been used since prehistory, with no major changes in design. During the Middle Ages, spears were used by all European nations, especially Germanic and Norman tribes.8

Imposing, but rarely used medieval weapons were battle axes. They had been used since Prehistory, and they consisted of a handle and a blade which was shaped either as a parallelogram, a crescent moon or a fan. In medieval Europe, they were mostly used by the Franks (francisca) and the Vikings. However, it should be mentioned that, even though legends often display axes as a most common weapon used by Vikings, this was, in fact, a much more modest weapon. They were mostly used by warriors who could not afford a sword. Most of the preserved battle axes, due to their modesty, cannot be distinguished from the ones that were used by lumberjacks.9 Axe was used by knights in late Middle Ages, and some time later it will have been used, once again, by infantry.10

Similar to axes were halberds, which consisted of a long pole (1.80 – 2.40 m), on top of which there was a spear, an axe or a beak (not until the 16th century). Footmen used them for fighting against armoured knights. Halberds were first used by the Swiss soldiers-footmen fighting against armoured cavalry in the battle at Morgarten in 1315. This weapon was multi-functional since the spear was used for hitting or piercing the horseman, the axe was used for inflicting cut wounds, and the beak for unhorsing the horseman. It had a distinctive form in each country it was used in; thus we can distinguish German, Swiss, Italian and Czech halberd. At the beginning of the 15th century, the halberd was pulled to the centre of the military formation and was replaced entirely by the spear in the next century. Nowadays, it is used only by the papal guard in the Vatican.11

Morning starAlthough having appeared in as early as Prehistory, mace and morning star were characteristical medieval weapons. A mace consists of a short handle and a head split into flanges. Flanges were narrow and long in the 14th and 15th century, thus having been named “gothic “maces. Later, they became more round and triangular, and by the number of flanges, we can distinguish six-flanged, ten-flanged, twelve-flanged etc. By shape, it is similar to the morning star, the difference being that the morning star had a full bronze or iron head covered in spikes or pyramidal bulges. For their decorativity, both mace and morning star became symbols of dignity and honour in the Middle Ages, worn by civilians (town’s judges and noblemen), as well as military commanders.12

Range weapons

Though they were often considered primitive weapon, slings were also used in warfare. They had been used since prehistory, and they were an extremely deadly weapon when used by skilled warriors. During the 15th century, there were entire mercenary fleets armed with slings. Such a fleet, for example, was a part of an army raised by Ivan Kapistran in 1456 for the defence of Belgrade. A large version of the sling was catapult. It was mostly used during the siege. They were made of wood, and they were used for casting rocks.13

Knights and archersDuring the Middle Ages, nevertheless, the most used weapons were bows, which were one of the most efficient range weapons. They were made of wood (larch, ash, elm, maple, birch …), horn (ox, buffalo, goat, antelope), cane (bamboo) or metal (copper, bronze, steel). The tendon was made out of leather, entrails, vegetable fibres, horse hair or silk. Since they were sensitive to humidity, the archers wore spare tendons. Arrows consisted of a pointy top (flint, bone, iron, copper, hardwood), a shaft made of light wood and fletchings made of feathers. An archer carried 24 to 50 arrows in his sac.14

Bows had been used since the Antique (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon), and they first appeared in Europe in Charlemagne’s army in the 8th century. The Hungarian and Tartarian cavalry particularly used bows and the most famous for this skill were the English and the Welsh, who were the most wanted bowmen in the period from the 13th until the 15th century.15 Armoured knights did not use bows; specially trained warrior bowmen were hired in battles. Apart from being trained in using a bow from childhood, bowmen also had to be trained in handling other sorts of weapons, which they would use in a battle after they have run out of arrows. A good bowman was able to fire twelve arrows per minute and hit a target in a range of 225 metres. English bowmen that were captivated by the French were punished severely. Thumbs on both of their hands were amputated, as well as index and middle finger on their right hand. Although it was not a primary weapon in Europe, some nations used bows as weapons almost exclusively. For example, Avars, Bulgarians, Huns, Hungarians and Mongols used them as their primary weapons. They circled the enemy riding fast horses, firing arrows at them.16 From the 16th century onward, bows seized to be used, since they were replaced by firearms.17

An advanced version of bow was crossbow, which is first used in the 11th century by the Normans, and later spread throughout the rest of Europe.18 It was mainly a weapon used by footmen, although it was used by the cavalry as well. It was considered a hazardous weapon that brings certain death. A fact is that in 15th-century crossbow arrows pierced through helmets at a distance of 300 steps, and through a chest armour at 100 up to 125 steps. It is interesting that it had a larger range than the firearms of the same period. Its use was often banned, however, the bans did not hold, since it was used until the 17th century when more advanced firearms replace it.19

Defensive weapons

Armour French styleIn battles, as well as in individual knights’ conflicts, a warrior’s protection was critical. At the beginning, protection was provided by an outfit made out of leather (which will have been used throughout the entire Middle Ages by the lower cast); later, along with the evolution of blacksmith skills, warriors started to use metal protectors, first for some body parts, and later entire armours.

Apart from armours, protection was primarily contributed by shields, which had been used since Prehistory. They came in many sizes and shapes, and they were usually larger when used by infantry, while the cavalry used shields of smaller proportions. Shields seized to be used as a defensive weapon by the end of the 17th century but continued to be produced as decorative objects.20

Helmets were also used since the earliest of times, and they were invented with the purpose to protect the nape and the vertex with their rear part, and the forehead, cheeks and ears with their front part. In 14th century, this shape is modified in a way that the cut around the eyes is more emphasized (barbuta, bacinet, beckenhaube). They could also have a moving part for the protection of the face – a visor. During the Middle Ages helmets were designed in different forms, and they were most often shaped like a hat, a bowl or a sphere.21

For the protection of the body, mailed vests and armours were made. A mailed vest comes from the East, and it was brought to Europe through Byzantium in the 6th century. It was made of interwoven iron rings, and it was designed in the shape of a long-sleeved vest that descended to the knees. Later, metal plates were applied additionally on the chest, in order to make it stronger. Metal armour was allowed to be worn only by noblemen, which led to a competition among them in acquiring the most expensive and handsome specimen. It was designed as a stylistic whole, and it consisted of a helmet, a collar, straps, upper arm, elbow, forearm, and gloves. On joints of individual parts, there were movable plates which allowed for easier mobility. Apart from these battle armours, there were also exclusive tournament armors and specially decorated armours for solemn occasions. Medieval armours are divided into two primary types: Gothic and Maximillian. During the 16th century, they become slightly obsolete, due to the broader use of firearms.22


Early example of cannonThere is a great change in medieval armament and warfare with the appearance of firearms. It was preceded by the discovery of gunpowder, which dates back much earlier in history. An Indian document from 5th century BC contains a recipe for making an explosive compound. Apart from the Indians, the Chinese and the Arabs also knew gunpowder. It was the Arabs that first used small wooden hand mortars in the siege of the Spanish city of Alora in 712.23 However, the Arabian wooden thrower from 12th century called madfaa, which fired nut-sized projectiles, is considered an immediate predecessor of firearms.24

It is not known precisely when the Europeans began using gunpowder, but they were familiar with it during the 13th century. We find the first records of formulas in the works of Marco Graecus „Liber Ignium“, and they were also familiar to Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Roger Bacon (1215-1294). The Germans attribute the invention of gunpowder to Berthold Schwartz around 1320.25

At the beginning, casting cold weapons (such as catapults) were much more efficient than firearms. Because of it, as well as religious fanaticism (firearms were considered the Devil’s invention), many countries refused to use it in their armament.26

First cannons were used in the 14th century in the sieges of cities (Cividale, 1338), but they did not pose any serious threat at the time. Their purpose was mainly to scare since they produced much noise. The greater danger was for whoever loaded the barrel, since it often used to explode, thus injuring the person standing next to it. First specialized gun foundries were established in Augsburg in 1370, Venice in 1376, and in Dubrovnik in 1411. By the beginning of the 15th century, they were producing two types of cannons, the ones that cast stone balls, and the ones that cast lead and iron balls. The following data also tells of little strength of 15th-century cannons: their range was, at the time, 200 to 400 meters, and by the end of the century it went up to 600 meters, and the speed of shooting was only one ball per hour. Later, the artillery will have been improved, and finally, become a special branch.27

The siege of OrléansBesides the cannons, along with the gunpowder, handheld firearms developed as well. During the 15th and 16th century, pipes with hooks on them were used, which represented transitional form from cannons to rifles. This weapon was called arquebus (hakenbüchse). Arquebuses were heavy bastion rifles, which had longer or shorter barrels, and were used for fortification defence and for signalling in case of the enemy approach. They were fired using a burning wick that was put against the back of the barrel. Matchlocks appeared around 1500, representing the first type of barrels planted in wood. At the side, there was a hook with a small head into which the wick was drawn, thus firing up the gunpowder charge inside the barrel. However, these guns had a series of flaws, for example, they could not be used in rainy weather, also they were an easy target for the enemy at night while lighting up the wick, and only footmen, and not cavalry, were able to use them. Nevertheless, around the beginning of the 16th century, there is an improved way of firing – by a wheel mechanism, and later by a flint. Pistols were developed in parallel with rifles, following their function mechanism. At first, they fired using a wick, and later, pistols running on the wheels and flint mechanisms were gradually introduced.28


With the new era, new types of warfare are introduced, the knighthood seizes to exist, and hired warriors battle in the battlefield. Although cold weapons remained in use, they were gradually replaced by firearms, which were over time further improved. More extensive use of firearms is accompanied by a gradual discontinuance of the use of metal armour, which lost its purpose.

Related articles:

  • Friedrich I Barbarossa (around 1122-1190) banned the peasants from carrying or possession of weapons (spear or sword). He permitted the carrying of a sword to traveling merchants for the purpose of defense against the robbers, but they were not allowed to carry it in a „knightly manner“, on their body, but only on the saddle or inside the wagon.
  • Weapons were extremely expensive in the Middle Ages. I.e. in Charlemagne’s time, a sword cost up to seven cows, and a spear two.
  • The invention of gunpowder dates back a long time, already in 5th century BC there was an Indian document that contained a recipe for an explosive compound.
  • Tony ALLAN, Vikinzi, Velike civilizacije, život, mit i umjetnost, Liber Novus d.o.o., Zagreb, 2008
  • Tomislav ARALICA, Noževi i bodeži na tlu Hrvatske od prapovijesti do 1945. godine, Gradski muzej Sisak, Sisak, 2008
  • Marilynne LANNG, Castles, A David & Charles Book, UK, 2005
  • Marija ŠERCER, Oružje u prošlosti, Povijesni muzej Hrvatske, Zagreb, 1980
  • Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.), Vojna enciklopedija, Redakcija vojne enciklopedije, Beograd, 1960
    – volume 3, – halberd [Đurđica PETROVIĆ]
    – volume 3, – cold weapon [Dragoslav PILETIĆ]
    – volume 5, – bow and arrow [Vidak VUJNOVIĆ]
    – volume 10, – firearms [Vidak VUJNOVIĆ]
  • 1 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.), Vojna enciklopedija, volume 3, Redakcija vojne enciklopedije, Beograd, 1960, – cold weapons [Dragoslav PILETIĆ], 603-604
  • 2 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ur.) (note 1), 604
  • 3 We shall further discuss swords in a separate article.
  • 4 Marilynne LANNG, Castles, A David & Charles Book, UK, 2005, 146
  • 5 Marija ŠERCER, Oružje u prošlosti, Povijesni muzej Hrvatske, Zagreb, 1980, 15-16
  • 6 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 14-15
  • 7 Tomislav ARALICA, Noževi i bodeži na tlu Hrvatske od prapovijesti do 1945. godine, Gradski muzej Sisak, Sisak, 2008, 11
  • 8 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 9-10
  • 9 Tony ALLAN, Vikinzi, Velike civilizacije, život, mit i umjetnost, Liber Novus d.o.o., Zagreb, 2008, 128
  • 10 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 11
  • 11 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.), Vojna enciklopedija, volume 3, Redakcija vojne enciklopedije, Beograd, 1960, – halberd [Đurđica PETROVIĆ], 535
  • 12 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 12
  • 13 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 20
  • 14 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.), Vojna enciklopedija, volume 5, Redakcija vojne enciklopedije, Beograd, 1960, – bow and arrow [Vidak VUJNOVIĆ], 267
  • 15 Marilynne LANNG (note 4), 146
  • 16 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.) (note 14), 268
  • 17 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 21
  • 18 The opinions on its origin differ. One group of explorers claims Far East as its origin, and it was supposedly used by Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, while others consider that the crossbow was expressly a Western European weapon, unknown to the East. (See: Marija ŠERCER, note 5, 21)
  • 19 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 21
  • 20 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 18
  • 21 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 18-19
  • 22 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 20
  • 23 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 22
  • 24 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ed.), Vojna enciklopedija, volume 10, Redakcija vojne enciklopedije, Beograd, 1960, – firearms [Vidak VUJNOVIĆ], 384
  • 25 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 22
  • 26 Boško ŠILJEGOVIĆ (ur.) (note 24), 384
  • 27 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 22-23
  • 28 Marija ŠERCER (note 5), 24-27


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