Q&A: Pike Walls, and Minimum Lethal Distance

Is it possible to engage in close quarters fighting with a Pike? What about halberds? How do you deal with weapons that have long handles in combat with somebody armed with a short sword. I vaguely recall that Pikeman typically carried side arms for close combat, but assuming that you couldn’t switch weapons what would be the best strategy?

Before we start, it’s important to remember that the pike and halberd are very different lengths. Your average pike was somewhere between 10 and 25 feet long. The halberd was 5 to 6 feet. You can absolutely use a halberd indoors, in tight quarters, and at close ranges. It’s ideal for use as a close range polearm, because you can easily adjust your grip to deal with a variety if situations.

The pike is a mass infantry weapon. Because of the length, it’s difficult to maneuver regiments of pike wielders in combat. They can advance, or hold position, but turning them without breaking formation can be a real challenge.

The pike’s primary value is a defense against enemy cavalry. You can’t charge directly into pike wielders and expect your cavalry to survive the experience. (You can charge their flanks or from the rear, if those approaches are unguarded, because the pikes are pointed in the wrong direction.) This is still true against charging enemy infantry, as they’ll still get pincushioned if they charge head long into a sea of pikes.

However, if a pike regiment gets overrun, or is attacked from behind, that’s why soldiers are issued sidearms. Their best option at that point would be to switch to their swords.

This leads to something that might sound a little strange at first. The pike is not a particularly good fighting weapon. It has real value on a battlefield, but it’s more about denying options to your foe. It seriously restricts enemy cavalry, and can form an effective barrier to protect artillery and ranged units (such as archers or handgunners) from enemy harassment.

So, it might be slightly more accurate to say, the pike is not a good weapon by itself; it only really shines as part of coordinated battlefield tactics.

I realize this is somewhat subverting, the intention of your question, but it is possible to circumvent pikes and fight the wielder in some situations. A lone pike wielder is not likely to be a significant threat. It’s one weapon and that can be fairly easily bypassed. Once you’re past the pike’s head, you have a foe who is defenseless unless they abandon their weapon and switch to something else. In some cases this might be as easy as simply grabbing the pike shaft and moving it away from your body. This is part of why I’m calling it a battlefield weapon.

For a pike to work, it needs to accompanied by many more pikes, and pike formations create multiple layers of weapons (sometimes five ranks deep) which means even if you neutralize one, you cannot close the gap to attack its user. If you manage to get past the outermost perimeter, there’s still multiple layers of pikes waiting to run you through.

The multiple layers, and massive safe zone around the pike wielder create two significant weaknesses. If a pike regiment has their weapons readied (forming the pike wall) they cannot turn to face enemies coming from a new direction. Similarly, it is very difficult for the unit to do anything other than advance. It is possible for pike users to engage in more complex battlefield maneuvers, but it requires either an extreme level of training and discipline, or for the unit to raise their weapons and reposition, before re-readying for combat.

There is a third weakness with the pike. Pike walls are not ideal for countering heavy infantry front lines. The pike shines when you’re dealing with horses rushing in at speeds where the individual weapons can’t be countered. If pike infantry is up against armored infantry units (particularly shielded ones), the pike wall will (eventually) collapse. At this point, the pike wielders probably hope they have less-specialized infantry behind them, so they can fallback through their own lines. However, because of the pike’s role, that wouldn’t always be the case.

The very short version is, that pike infantry has a real battlefield role, but it is a unit which has limited mobility once it’s readied for combat.

The pike is a really good illustration of something we’ve talked about in the past. Every weapon has a range where it can be used effectively. Very importantly, this is not just a, “maximum range.” It is both a minimum and maximum distance where you can effectively use the weapon. In the case of a 25ft pike, it cannot be used against a foe closer than about 20ft. The pike’s wielder can reduce the minimum lethal range by migrating their grip up the weapon, though there are still limits, because they’ll end up with an ever lengthening shaft behind them, limiting their ability to maneuver the weapon. My suspicion is that you’ll really start losing use of the pike somewhere around the mid-point on the shaft, but I don’t have any experience trying to fight with polearms that long. This also means that a 10ft pike could potentially be useful as close as 4 to 5ft, but you’d still have the back end of the shaft to contend with.

Also, if the shaft of a pike is broken, that also means the new, shorter, weapon may be useful at much closer ranges than the original. In extreme cases, this might even leave the user with an improvised, but effective, thrusting dagger.

The pike was a very important part of the late medieval and early modern battlefield. It has a very real tactical application. However, it’s not a particularly good weapon as a one-on-one dueling tool. A pike formation really is more than the sum of its parts.

-Starke

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