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Axes and Knives and Bows, Oh, My!

Of course, swords were not the only option on hand if somebody needed killing. As I mentioned in my last blog, Swords, swords were not all that common, and required years of training to master. The average footman was more expendable than a knight and cheaper to train and outfit. While the noble knights went into battle in full suits of plate, sitting atop their armored chargers and swinging a shining sword, the common soldier was lucky to be behind a spear.

Viking ax


The ax was a common weapon on the battlefield for thousands of years, from a sharp rock tied to a stick to the finest steel specimen. Axes were popular primarily for their ease of production and ease of use. Some axes could also serve multi-purpose roles, from cutting flesh to cutting trees. As a result, the ax was one of the most widely used weapons, and is still used today by some elite services in the form of the tomahawk.

Gimli, medieval axe

Double bit (blade) axes were not all that common. While there are historical examples of double bit axes, from India to Persia and other mostly Eastern cultures, double bit axes were not common place in the West, and relegated to mostly art and symbols. Axes retained their single blade, or would have a spike or hammer on one end, as the logic was often such that there was no need to have two of the same blade where two different heads would provide more utility. Double bit axes, however, did become common place in forestry, where each blade could be tasked for a different purpose, one for felling and the other for finer work such as debarking. Double bit axes became common in our modern fantasy mythos as well, perhaps due to the sheer cool factor. Sorry, Gimli!

Pole arm

Pole arms were perhaps one of the most common weapons in the Dark Ages. They were generally easier to produce, requiring only a moderate amount of metal and a wooden haft. Pole arms varied greatly in design and function, from the single, narrow thrusting end of the spear, to the multi-use platform of the halberd. Pole arms were primarily used for lethality at distance, to counter mounted charges, and for pulling men off horses. Halberds are regarded as the most efficient pole arm, typically featuring a cutting edge, a hook for plucking men from saddles and/or a thrusting end, as well as a spike or hammer for crushing plate armor.

medieval polearms


Knives have been an important part of the battlefield for millennia. From a sharpened rock, knives have evolved to take on many forms and functions. In the Dark Ages, knives were a common place item, used primarily as a day-to-day tool. Soldiers carried them as secondary weapons, but longer ones were used as primary weapons such as the grosse messer and the dirk with targe.

Damascus knife


Bows! Man, were there different types of bows! The first bows appeared in the transition between Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic eras. The first arrows were commonly made from flint and obsidian, until the Bronze Age, where metals became fairly common place.

There are many different types of bows, but the common ones are longbow, recurve, crossbow, and the modern day compound. While the compound features modern materials like fiberglass and aluminum and highly-engineered wheels to assist with drawback, the longbow and recurve are much older designs.

Longbows were the powerhouse weapons of their time. They were popular in use from the 14th century to the introduction of firearms. Longbows were usually as long as a man's arm span (around 6 ft.) and could reach draw weights of well over one hundred pounds. The draw weights of medieval bows have been long debated, many agree they were around one hundred pounds, but some experts suggest many may have reached closer to two hundred pounds or more. Because of their immense draw weight and incredible length, longbows were shot with a full-body motion, using force from the hips and legs to help draw and aim. Longbows could be shot with deadly precision, but they were often used in volleys to suppress enemy forces and inflict greater damage.

These bows were usually used on foot and in one spot; archers would loose a few volleys and move forward for another if they were given an order to advance. However, longbows did see some use on horseback, specifically by the Chinese. The tradition Chinese archery is still in practice as a sport today, but for centuries, it was used as a lethal hit-and-run tactic.

mounted archer

Longbows were usually one single piece of wood, strong yet flexible. Yew was the preferred wood and the main material used in English longbows. Longbows were difficult to make, and bow makers were celebrated and respected for their expertise in the craft.

Longbows took years of practice to learn how to shoot well. Because of this, archers were very important and protected fiercely in combat. However, this learning curve would be the downfall of the longbow, as the crossbow would come to dominate.

English longbowman

The crossbow originated from ancient China and the surrounding regions around the 6th century BC. Crossbows are essentially a wooded stock with horizontal limbs, using a winding mechanism or trigger to pull back the string. Crossbows are relatively easy to make and simple to use. Because of their ease of use, crossbows eventually expanded to other parts of the world and saw significant use in war. Crossbows came to largely replace longbows due to their small learning curve; a man could be trained to use a crossbow in hours, compared to the years it took to learn the longbow.

Crossbows were also deadly. They often boasted draw weight as much or well over that of a standard longbow. Crossbows could punch through armor from great distances, and even pierce through multiple men. As such, medieval knights thought the crossbow to be cowardly and against their chivalry code, as an untrained man could kill a knight who spent his life training in warfare.

Joffrey, medieval crossbow

Recurves were another popular type of bow used throughout the world and by many cultures like the Mongols, Chinese, Turks, and Persians. Recurves are simply shorter bows that have limbs that curve away from the user to gain greater power in a smaller package. These bows are made of varying materials like wood and bone that are then glued together in strips. Because of this, recurves have to be maintained and kept dry, as well as unstrung when not in use to ensure it maintains its flexibility and strength.

Horseback archer

The recurve seems to have originated around the 6th century BC, but scholars aren't sure where it originated. Recurves perhaps saw their greatest use and subsequent fame in the hands of the Mongols and Huns. Both were great empires that conquered much of the known world, using horseback archers armed with recurves as the backbone of their armies. Due to the brutal and efficient hit-and-run tactics employed by these horseback archers, the recurve has been cemented in history as one of the most lethal and efficient weapons.

Mongolian archer

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