A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a sharpened head. The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with bamboo spears, or it may be of another material fastened to the shaft, such as obsidian, iron or bronze. The most common design is of a metal spearhead, shaped like a triangle or a leaf.

Spears were one of the most common personal weapons from the Stone Age until the advent of firearms. They may be seen as the ancestor of such weapons as the lance, the halberd, the naginata, the bill and the pike. One of the earliest weapons fashioned by human beings and their ancestors, it is still used for hunting and fishing, and its influences can still be seen in contemporary military arsenals as the rifle-mounted bayonet.

Spears can be used as both melee and ballistic weapons. Spears used primarily for thrusting may be used with either one or two hands and tend to have heavier and sturdier designs than those intended exclusively for throwing. Those designed for throwing, often referred to as javelins, tend to be lighter and have a more streamlined head, and can be thrown either by hand or with the assistance of a spear thrower such as the atalatl or woomera.


Animal use

Spear manufacture and use is also practiced by the Pan troglodytes verus subspecies of the Common Chimpanzee. Chimpanzees near Kédougou, Senegal were observed to create spears by breaking straight limbs off of trees, stripping them of their bark and side branches, and sharpening one end with their teeth. They then used the weapons to hunt galagos sleeping in hollows.[1]. Orangutans have also used spears to fish after observing humans fishing in a similar manner.


Hupa man with spear, 1923

Archeological evidence documents that wooden spears were used for hunting at least 400,000 years ago.[3] However, wood does not preserve well. Craig Stanford, a primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, has suggested that the discovery of spear use by chimpanzees probably means that early humans used wooden spears as well, perhaps five million years ago.[4]

Neanderthals were constructing stone spear heads from as early as 300,000 BP. By 250,000 years ago wooden spears were made with fire-hardened points. From 200,000 BP Middle Paleolithic humans began to make complex stone blades which were used as spear heads. At these times there was still a clear difference between spears designed to be thrown and those designed to be used in hand to hand combat.

Ancient history

Re-enactor outfitted as a Roman legionnaire of the northern Roman provinces from circa 175 AD

Short one handed spears used with a shield were used by the earliest Bronze Age cultures for either single combat or in large formations. This tradition continued from the first Mesopotamian cultures through the Egyptian dynasties to the Ancient Greek city states. The Greek doru was used in large battle formations, called phalanges (sg. phalanx), to maximize its effectiveness. Both Phillip of Macedon and Alexander the Great continued this tradition using the very long two handed Sarissa to great effect. The use of the spear with two hands dropped out of European fashion from the Roman period until development of the pike in the Middle Ages. The Roman legions contained soldiers who used the shield and spear, known as the Triarii, and originally the Principes were armed with a short spear called a hasta, but these gradually fell out of use to be eventually replaced by the Gladius. However even these troops carried the pilum, which was specifically designed to be thrown at an enemy to pierce and foul a target's shield.

During this time the spear was also used by cavalry, usually with two hands, partly due to the lack of stirrups. The use of a spear by a heavily armored soldier from horseback (known as Cataphracts) was first developed by nomadic eastern Iranian tribes and spread throughout the ancient world.

European Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the spear and shield continued to be used by almost all Western European cultures. Since a medieval spear required only a small amount of steel along the sharpened edges (most of the spear-tip was wrought iron), it was an economical weapon. Quick to manufacture, and needing less smithing skill than a sword, it remained the main weapon of the common soldier. The Vikings, for instance, though often portrayed with axe or sword in hand, were armed mostly with spears[5], as were their Saxon, Irish, or continental foes.

Infantry Spears

Broadly speaking, spears were either designed to be kept in hand (thrusting spears), or to be thrown (throwing spears). Within this simple classification, there were a remarkable range of types. For example, M.J. Swanton identified 30 different spearhead categories and sub-categories in Early Saxon England [6]. Most medieval spearheads were, however, broadly speaking, leaf shaped. Notable types of Early medieval spears include the Angon, a throwing spear with a long head like a Roman pilum used by the Franks and Anglo-Saxons and the winged (or lugged) spear, which had two prominent wings at the base of the spearhead, either to prevent the spear penetrating too far into an enemy or to aid in spear fencing [7]. Originally a Frankish weapon, the winged spear was also popular with the Vikings[8]. It would become the ancestor of later medieval polearms, such as the partisan and spetum

The thrusting spear also has the advantage of reach — being considerably longer than other weapon types. Exact spear lengths are hard to deduce as few spear shafts survive archaeologically but 6ft - 8ft (1.8m - 2.5m) would seem to be the norm. Some nations were noted for their long spears, including the Scots and the Flemish. Spears were usually used in tightly ordered formations, like the shieldwall or the schiltron To resist cavalry, spear shafts could be planted against the ground[9]. William Wallace drew up his schiltrons in a circle at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 to deter charging cavalry[10], but it was a widespread tactic, sometimes known as the "crown" formation[11].

Throwing spears became rarer as the Middle Ages drew on but survived in the hands of specialists such as the Catalan Almogavars[12]. They were commonly used in Ireland until the end of the 16th. century[13].

Spears began to lose fashion among the infantry in the 14th. century, being replaced by pole weapons which combined the thrusting properties of the spear with the cutting properties of the axe, such as the halberd Where spears were retained they grew in length, eventually evolving into pikes which would be a dominant infantry weapon in he 16th. and 17th. centuries[14].

Cavalry Spears

Cavalry spears were originally the same as infantry spears and were often used with two hands or held with one hand overhead. In the 11th. century, after the adoption of stirrups and a high-cantled saddle, the spear became a decidedly more powerful weapon. A mounted knight would secure the lance by holding with one hand and tucking it under the armpit (the couched lance technique)[15]. This allowed all the momentum of the horse and knight to be focused on the weapon's tip whilst still retaining accuracy and control. This use of the spear spurred the development of the lance as a distinct weapon which was perfected in the medieval sport of jousting.

In the 14th century, tactical developments meant that knights and men-at-arms often fought on foot. This led to the practice of shortening the lance to about 5ft. (1.5m.) to make it more manageable[16]. As dismounting became commonplace, specialist pole weapons such as the pollaxe were adopted by knights and this practice ceased[17].


German reenactors of pikemen

The development of both the long, two handed pike and gunpowder in renaissance Europe saw an ever increasing focus on infantry over lance-armed cavalry. During this period many different variations on the pole-arm were developed including the halberd and the bill, again used in a similar way to a spear and designed to break through the heavy armor then worn by knights. Ultimately, the spear proper was rendered obsolete on the battlefield. As muskets became more accurate and reliable, the bayonet was devised to provide musket-men with an ersatz spear capability.

Modern Usage

Surprisingly spear hunting is still practiced, notably by retired US Air Force Colonel Gene Morris, and "Motor City Madman" Ted Nugent. Animals taken are primarily wild boar and deer, though trophy animals such as cats and big game as large as a Cape Buffalo are hunted with spears. Alligator are hunted in Florida with a type of harpoon.

Spear handling

A yari (left) in mock combat

Spears, although apparently simple weapons, have a remarkable variety of wielding methods. Some are listed here from most passive to most active motions.

  1. Holding the spear or bracing it against the ground, a charging enemy impales themselves.
  2. The spear is thrust out with the arms alone.
  3. The spear is held stiffly, and the thrust is delivered by stepping forward.
  4. The spear is thrust out with the arms while stepping forward with one or both feet.
  5. The front hand releases as the back hand and back foot move forward to perform a long thrust.
  6. The spear is slid through the front hand, propelled by the back hand (a similar action to using a Billiards Cue).
  7. The spear is thrown, often at a run, releasing when the opposite foot to the throwing arm is forward.
  8. The spear is held couched under one arm, allowing a swinging motion as well as a powerful thrust.
  9. The spear is swung rather than thrust, causing the tip of the blade to slice open the foe's flesh. The sheer momentum built up by swinging can be enough to cause serious injury even with the blunt end. The spear can then be brought around in a stabbing motion.

This versatility led to the continued use of spears, in the form of pikes, for many years even after the invention of firearms.


The Japanese ronin killing a giant Miyamoto Musashinue. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 19th century.

More than a weapon, a spear may be a symbol of power. In the Chinese martial arts community, the Chinese spear (Qiang 槍) is popularly known as the "king of weapons". In ancient Greece it was a yoke of spears that had to be borne when submitting to an enemy. The Celts would symbolically destroy a dead warrior's spear to prevent its use by another.

Livy records that the Romans and their early enemies would force prisoners to walk underneath a 'yoke of spears', which humiliated them. It has been surmised that this was because such a ritual involved the prisoners' warrior status being taken away. In the early Roman armies the first two lines of battle, the hastati and principes, fought with swords, while the elite triarii who formed the final line fought with spears.

Odin's spear (called Gungnir) was made by the sons of Ivaldi. It had the special property that it never missed its mark. . During the War with the Vanir, Odin symbolically throws Gungnir into the Vanir host. This practice of symbolically casting a spear into the enemy ranks at the start of a fight was sometimes used in historic clashes, to seek Odin's support in the coming battle.[18] In Wagner's opera Siegfried, the haft of Gungnir is said to be from the "World-Tree" Yggdrasil[19]

Chiron's wedding-gift to Peleus when he married the nymph Thetis, was also an ashen spear as the nature of ashwood with its straight grain made it an ideal choice of wood for a spear.

Also in Greek Mythology Zeus' bolts of lightning can be interpreted as a symbolic spear, and some would carry that into the spear that is frequently associated with Athena, interpreting her spear as a symbolic connection to some of Zeus' power beyond the Aegis.

Another spear of religious significance was the Spear of Destiny, an artifact believed by some to have vast mystical powers.

Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough noted the phallic nature of the spear and suggested that in the Arthurian Legends the spear or lance functioned as a symbol of male fertility, paired with the Grail (as a symbol of female fertility).

Types of spears

Spears which are not usually thrown

  • Arbir
  • Aunurgith
  • Awl pike
  • Barchi
  • Boar spear
  • Bohemian ear spoon
  • Brandistock
  • Chimbane
  • Contus
  • Doru
  • Dung
  • Fauchard
  • Guandao
  • Halberd
  • Half pike
  • Hasta
  • Ji
  • Jousting lance
  • Kadji
  • Kamayari
  • Katakamayari
  • Kontos
  • Lance
  • Magari yari
  • Military fork
  • Mon-Gil Mon-Gil
  • Ox tongue
  • Partisan
  • Pike
  • Plançon a picot
  • Qiāng (槍)
  • Ranseur
  • Rifle-and-bayonet
  • Rummh
  • Sangu
  • Sarissa
  • Sibat
  • Spetum
  • Spontoon
  • Sudis
  • Su yari
  • Taru
  • Tepoztopilli
  • Trident
  • Trishula
  • To-ono
  • Xyston
  • Yari

Spears usually thrown

  • Angon
  • Assegai
  • Ballam
  • Bandang
  • Bhala
  • Bilari
  • Budiak
  • Cateia
  • Chimbane
  • Cirit
  • Do-War
  • Egchos
  • Enhero
  • Fal-feg
  • Falarica
  • Framea
  • Gravo
  • Golo
  • Granggang
  • Hak
  • Hinyan
  • Hoko
  • Huata
  • Irpull
  • Ja-Mandehi
  • Jaculum
  • Jarid
  • Javelin
  • Jiboru
  • Kasita
  • Kan-Shoka
  • Kannai
  • Koyuan
  • Kujolio
  • Kuyan
  • Laange
  • Lance-Ague
  • Lanza
  • Lama-pe
  • Leister
  • Mahee
  • Makrigga
  • Makura Yari
  • Mandehi liguje
  • Máo (矛)
  • Mkukt
  • Mongile
  • Mongoli
  • Mu-Rongal
  • Nage-Yari
  • Nandum
  • Nerau
  • One flue harpoon
  • Paralyser
  • Patisthanaya
  • Pelta
  • Pill
  • Pillara
  • Pilum
  • Plumbata
  • Sang
  • Sangkoh
  • Sanokat
  • Saunion
  • Shail
  • Shanen kopaton
  • Siligis
  • Short spear
  • Simbilan
  • Sinan
  • Sligi
  • Soliferrum
  • Spiculum
  • Sudanese lance
  • Tahr Ruan
  • Tao
  • Tawok
  • Telempang
  • Vel
  • Te yari
  • Tirrer
  • Tjunkuletti
  • Toggling harpoon
  • Tombak
  • Tschehouta
  • Tumpuling
  • Two flue harpoon
  • Wainian
  • Wallunka
  • Wi-Valli
  • Zagaye

Famous spears

  • Spear of Destiny or Lance of Longinus; Spear that pierced the side of Jesus.
  • Gungnir Spear of Odin, famous god in Norse mythology.
  • Amenonuhoko Spear of Izanagi and Izanami, creator gods in Japanese mythology.
  • Spear of Lugh or Spear of Lúin named after Lugh, a god in Irish mythology.
  • Gáe Bulg Spear of Cúchulainn, hero in Irish mythology.
  • Trishula Spear of Shiva, a Hindu god.
  • Octane Serpent Spear of Zhang Fei (Yide) from the Three Kingdoms period in China.
  • Spear of Fuchai, the spear used by Goujian's arch-rival, King Fuchai of Wu, in China.
  • Posiden's Trident Greek sea god's three pronged spear given to him by the undersea Cyclops, also a Roman god Neptune.
  • Hokenavaloha Spear or Nine Metal Spear,the spear that Gaithong the siameses hero use to kill Chalawan the Giant Werecrocodile.
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