Spear vs. Sword? -Historical discussion

I noticed some guys talking about spears and their superiority to swords on @Pandemic’s epic post. I decided to bail his post out by making a separate discussion for the topic.

This is my take on the matter, and obviously it is very complicated. I think we need to discuss at least two mediums, army combat and individual combat.

To start i’m going to debunk two spear related myths. In other similar discussions I see many people say something kinda like rock paper scissor “Sword beats spear spear beats cavalry cavalry beats sword” In single combat spears will almost ALWAYS win, even against two enemies.

The other one is that a sword could shear through the shaft of a spear. Only after the wood was already weakened from previous blows would a sword be able to break the shaft.

With those common myths out of the way I can start making a Venn diagram of sorts. (I probably missed a few points, feel free to add more) Obviously there are tons of varieties of both weapons, for the sake of argument lets assume the simple spear 6-7 feet, and a standard English long sword that all the movies use.

Spear pros
-Extra reach to keep enemies away
-Cheap to produce
-Easy to learn how to use
-Better against a cavalry charge

Spear cons
-Heavy and unwieldy
-Closer combat
-Low resilience (due to damage in combat)
-Less potential for mastery

Sword pros
-High potential mastery
-Closer combat
-Light and agile (provided it is a decently made blade)
-Very high resilience
-Good control

Sword cons
-Very close combat
-Hard to learn
-Bad at stopping cavalry charges

Both weapons are limited after the battle lines begin to merge, spears maybe a little less so then swords but I would think insignificantly.

Once cavalry loses its momentum, swords and spears are about equal against them. Although spears are better at killing the rider.

The spear makes a very effective front line weapon, the sword tends to be better for charging and attacking.

Using a spears on horse back is much less effective then a sword on a horse. Because the spear offers less of an attacking surface and so it requires much more skill. Also crossing the spear over your horses neck is more difficult to do.

Swords have become very popular because there are a ton more stunts you can do with them on movies. Therefore most main characters use swords not spears. Even in sci fi, like star wars, they prefer light sabers as opposed to light spears.

Heavy armor and shields work better against spears. Although swords cannot go through most heavy armors a good stroke to the side of the helm can result in concussions.

I personally prefer using a sword over a spear, but in general a spear is a better weapon for an army to equip its soldiers with.

That’s all for now.


Very true about spears breaking. It takes a lot of force to snap a shaft. They’re not thin little twigs. Even if you do manage to break a spear shaft, there’s still going to be a heavy bludgeoning weapon left in the guy’s hands.

1 Like

In that case the spear holder would have a huge disadvantage but he could still win if he reacts very fast.

Also I forgot a point above, your hands are exposed on spears. They are less exposed on swords.

1 Like

Of course, swords breaking in combat isn’t unheard of either.

1 Like

No doubt, its hard to say exactly how often that would happen since that wasn’t exactly the focus in battles.
But by logic it would seem swords would last in general much longer then spears.


Using spears/staffs are not as difficult as you might think if you employ the right mindset and training to it. :wink: Speaking from experience.

You must not have seen me with a staff :laughing:


I’ll trust your experience @Avairian, I’ve only done minimal spear sparring, sword sparring on the other hand…I’ve done quite a lot.

Part of the beauty of the spear/staff is its ease of use. and the insurance it gives because of the reach you get with it.

I still get hit once too often by straight amateurs when sparring. And you can’t really afford to get hit more then once or twice.


The Yagyu have a very simple and devastating method of mid/close combat with them. Havn’t found an English site about it though that I could share. :frowning:


In combat, it’s as much about the combatants as it is about the weapons. Victory usually decided by experience and speed/reflexes. It wasn’t very often where opponents would be matched closely enough for individual combat to last more than a handful of seconds to a minute. A well trained Spearman would fair just as well in most situations as a well trained swordsman. The advantages and disadvantages of either tend to balance out in the long run. In the larger picture of the battle it came down more to endurance. Even with adrenaline pumping, fatigue sets in quickly and most injuries death would be do to reduced reactions or a general inability to defend because of injuries. Broken weapons were discarded and new ones picked up as needed and even helmets would be swapped out if they were damaged. Swords and spears both break with relative ease if struck correctly. In the case of spears, the grain of the wood running perfectly through the shafts of the spear gave it great strength but a hidden flaw in the wood (like a sap pocket hidden inside) meant they could also break by being dropped wrong. With swords, the biggest flaw was in the production of the blade. A higher rank or richer family meant you probably had a nicer, better quality sword forged. The soldiers still used good swords but when they produce 5000 of them individually by Hand there would be flaws in the steel of some blades. Striking the blade near that point would snap it easier than an average spear. Swords would also dull fairly quick due to strikes on the cutting edge so they became less effective the longer the battle lasts. Striking on the flat of the blade to block would risk breaking the blade or bending it.


There’s also the case of needing less metal for spear tips than sword blades, making them more economical to produce in some cases.


@Boulderboy It is the little things that build big victories. The technical skill of a soldier is immaterial on the front lines, hack slash stab, that is all.

True, but the advantaged and disadvantages also meant the DEATH or LIFE of the soldier. So I would argue that armies would quickly adapt the weapons and methods that kept the most people alive.

Either way I am discussing Spear vs. Sword to see which is a better option. Although I don’t agree with all your statements about combat, it is not really the focus of the discussion.

I’m sorry, there is no way this is true. I did a test with pretty cheap spear handle. I put clamps to suspend the shaft in the air and then hacked on it with my MACHETE it took a good dozen blows to break through. I have seen on youtube a guy testing historically accurate blades on historically accurate spears and he had similar results as me. I cannot imagine a spear shaft that can withstand decent abuse from a machete would crack if it fail.

Again I don’t think that is true. If a person’s weapon broke on the front line he would be lucky if he escapes without serious injury. More likely he would be killed then and there.

I am still researching this, it seems (I’m not 100% convinced) that blacksmiths didn’t work as individuals like in all the movies. There is evidence suggesting that many blacksmiths mass produced weapons.

No way…I’m sorry just no way. Unless the blade is ridiculously brittle and you hit it with a club. I would even argue the exact opposite, the closer to the handle that a club would hit the more likely it would snap. I’m forgetting the name of the principle but basically when the club would hit the tip of the blade, it would push it through the air, never giving a solid resistance. Towards the hilt there would be less of this movement and thus it should be more likely to snap it. But even then I doubt it.

Quite controversial on this one, I can’t give a clear answer since the HEMA community can’t and they are a much better and more informed authorities then me.

In general your entire statement is trying to nullify that there is an effective difference between different weapons. On that I strongly disagree. The specific weapons would have a massive impact on the battle.
To make the entire discussion much more complicated, a lot depends on time period and geography.

No doubt, I’m pretty sure I mentioned that point somewhere else.

1 Like

Yes, they usually had large forges in castles bUT the number of smiths employed wasn’t consistent and most common castle forges only had a handful of smith’s . I meant each blade was worked on one at a time, not mass produced in near precision. Not even going to bother with the rest considering you don’t think steel or wood can flaws…later

1 Like

No, you’ve actually got some valid points. From my experience with lumber working with my father in construction, it’s amazing how much a simple knot in a piece of wood can damage the integrity of the board or pole. Though admittedly, those are a little easier to see–if there was a craftsman making shafts with noticeable knot marks in it, I’d be concerned about the quality of their goods…

Actually, this was often a situation in historical battles. Yes, the actual chances of recovering from a broken/shattered weapon were limited in attentive combat, but armies have always been fueled by recycling spoils of combat. This was especially done with armor, but considering the amount of time still involved with making iron or steel weapons, those items were definitely recovered whenever possible. A lot happens in the heat of battle, though–if they kept their head low, a soldier might just have that chance to recover a dropped weapon and rejoin the fight.

Though, one other point to keep in mind regarding this: one famous historical line from war (which was referenced by Shakespeare, notably) was “hold, or cut bow-strings.” Armies on the verge of losing would try to sabotage their own weapons so the enemy couldn’t use them should the defenders be killed or overrun. But this might not be as common with metal gear, since cutting bowstrings is…a lot easier than breaking swords and spears in a limited span of time.

That’s an excellent point a lot of people don’t realize about melee combat–swords can wear out fast. It’s even worse when it’s a softer metal than the opponent, as it can cause huge dents and gashes in the material.

Looks like I might have to throw some pro-sword points out just to even out the discussion (I don’t like doing this, but it’s needed…)

  1. Spears and pikes are long. defending enclosed spaces or indoors could become a nightmare, since the person with a shorter, more maneuverable weapon often had the advantage once you deflected the tip of a spear.
  2. Swords were much easier to transport/carry. Which would you rather carry for a multi-mile march: a piece of metal in a sheath or a giant, heavy pole you have to hold with your hands? Even with supply carts, polearms are just bigger and take up more space.
  3. Spears depend on decent lumber. Despite the aforementioned durability of spear shafts, inevitably you’d have weapons that break, especially from heavy-armored cavalry running at you. With metal, you have more of a chance to reforge the metal into other items, but wood is less forgiving. Since wood was also needed for constructing defenses, maintaining camps and tents and cooking/providing warmth, that necessity cuts into these other needs (and you can’t just use any wood, you need the best kind, which involve finding good, large trees and putting in the effort to cut them down).

A sword with shield will beat a spear with shield at most points, but a line of swords with shield supported by spears will beat two line of swords.

It mostly about formation.

Horse beats sword, spear beats horse and sword beats spear.

Spears are often cheaper though.


Spear vs swords? Personally I choose lazer beam! :wink:

Personally I would prefer a ‘goedendag’ which is a Flemish weapon. It’s a combination of a short spear and a club. It’s very effective against Horse riders.


The swords supperiority is not universal though.

The zweihander will often loose again a spear but it can cause huge amounts of damage if given time.

(Don’t use those if you are not in full plate because people will stab you when you are open)

While the halberd can beat a sword without a shield if given time to react:


@thorbjorn42gbf I should have mentioned that I was going to leave shields out of the discussion since its another variable (we have too many already) I also have done little to no research to halberds yet. (would love to learn more about em btw)

That is initially true, but as the battle lines begin to merge is when the weapon advantages and disadvantages start really showing up.

This is not exactly true, on the individual basis a spear will bear swords, and once cavalry loses momentum swords can be just as effective against them. Its not exactly rock paper scissor.

All the points i didn’t argue I agree with :stuck_out_tongue:

Interesting, I may have been wrong. I was speaking through my weapon testing experience. My particular test is a credit to modern wood crafting not exactly historically accurate. And the test I saw on youtube could have been strong wood.

At the same time I still don’t think it would be often. If a person relied on this thing for life and death they would take it pretty seriously, and then they would realize, hey when there are knots my weapon breaks.

I really should have been more clear on that point. Obviously if someone COULD do it they would. I was really arguing that people were very lucky enough to pull it off.

And also I know that after the battle both armies would scavenge the other side. But not during combat.

Especially cheap weapons, but even partially blunt swords (It would take a long long time for the entire blade to be dulled) could be used. The HEMA people tend to use very good quality swords, that’s why sword dulling didn’t occur to me. Good point (sorry @Boulderboy I somehow missed it originally.)

I want to maintain that this is only in confined places (indoors or when battles lines had merged) From my own weapon testing I know that given a little space a spear man can counter that technique rather easily.

Ok I will keep them out it makes the front somewhat more even.

They are basically spears that allows stronger slashing power. I would at all times pick a halberd over a spear but they require much more metal for the production.

Nah, short swords allows closer combat than spear, if you first can get past the reach the spearman is dead.

Longswords can go up against spears but it requires more training.

If you allow your cavalry to loose momentum you already messed up. Horses are not made for close combat.

no doubt. But I dare you to try it. We tried to do a test like that, longsword vs spearman. Swordsman lost most of the time, we put a second swordsman and again swordsmen lost majority. This was the first time the person had done spear sparring, and the first time of the swordsmen went against him. So while there may be a technique to get into the range of spears, it certainly isn’t a layman maneuver.

Also the spearman can always move backward if the enemy is starting to get into his zone. Another technique the spear guy found was that if he didn’t fully extend the spear and rather held some of its reach in reserve it was effectively impossible to close on him.