Medieval Blunt Weaponry – A Primer for Writers

morningstarYou can keep your Excaliburs, your Brisingrs, your Glamdrings, and, yes, your lightsabers. I need a weapon that’s going to put some hair on my chest, allow me to converse with bears, send a wet streak down my foe’s leg, and, well, practically speaking, take out that knight in full plate and chain.

Ladies and gentlemen, I require a mace for his face – a hammer for his yammer – a flail for his mail – mauls for his… You get the point.

Every hero nowadays has a big, glowing sword of some sort, and it is true that the sword has become a popular staple with the image of a knight-in-shining-armor. The same knight that your pro/antagonists might be struggling to defeat. I’d like to shed some of that glimmering light on the not-so loved, red-headed stepchild family of medieval weaponry – those that sunder, beat, and break their targets into a beautiful, bloody pulp!

We’re talking blunts. No, not those kind. Blunt weaponry in the middle ages was brutal, and came in many different shapes and alterations. But however crude and simple they may seem, they had their niches on the battlefield. They have also had their many misconceptions. I mean, why even bother to use a hammer when you have a fricken’, sword, man?

They were the feudal bazookas. Medieval tank busters. What made the medieval knight such a formidable opponent was that his armor made him nearly a walking fortress, especially against the many ill-equipped and untrained that were unfortunate enough to cross his path. Plate, scale, and mail were designed to significantly hinder the usefulness of slashing weaponry – mainly swords. Granted, a well-placed thrust of a blade could easily find its way into the tender flesh and bone underneath the knight’s expensive metal hide, but there was something else eager to take on the job.

The Mace

The most simplistic of the family, the mace is a weapon that dates far back into the early beginnings of mankind. With a short shaft from two to three feet consisting of wood and later on metal, and a wide variety of formidable heads at the business end of the weapon, the simple mace was highly effective.

Mace

A common misconception is that maces and war hammers were unwieldy and cumbersome, thus useless and tossed aside in favor of the shiny, pretty sword. This is untrue. Most metal maces were hollow at the shaft, to make the weapon light enough for repetitive, quick strikes. Sorry, Molag’Bal, your thirty-some pound, one handed, soul drinking mace would not have gotten its wielder far. Unless you planned on dropping it on someone.

What makes blunt weaponry effective against metallic armor is that while the weapon does not sever or slice into the flesh, the weight and force of its blows carries through the armor. With enough strength behind it, the strike would stagger and break the bones of the mighty knight. At hard-points of the armor, say elbows and knees, this force would crush the joints, rendering entire limbs useless.

This is especially true with the flanged mace, where its head consisted of a multitude of fearsome metal flanges that would puncture the plate armor, creating vulnerabilities in his defenses. And also crushing a few ribs here and there. No big deal. Not like movement is needed when you’re a big hunk of metal. You’re safe in that metallic coffin, right?

The Morning Star

Nothing says you’re here to kick ass and take names like walking in with a Morning Star.

Typically longer than the mace, the morning star was a slight revision to the basic weapon. The morning star typically had a spike at its tip with a lovely array of similar spikes jutting from around the head of the weapon. Think of this as a bouquet of tetanus roses. The morning star originally was crafted mostly of wood, with metal spikes or wooden knobs adorning the head. As time and technology moved forward, the designs used more metal, sword pommels, and nastier spikes.

morning star

One such weapon was dubbed the Holy Water Sprinkler. It bore an all-metal head with three rows of spikes formed by six flanges. It was longer than the typical mace, some requiring two hands to be wielded appropriately. These would also make perfect Christmas gifts for ogres that need their wart-ridden backs scratched.

Bigger is better, duh!

Not quite. While making the mace larger would yield a much stronger attack, it also makes it heavier and more cumbersome to wield. If you can’t swing it effectively, what use is it?

Now, there have been many longer maces used by horsemen to take advantage of their steed’s speed to deliver the mightiest of blows, but on foot the weapons would be difficult to use. The bigger the weapon, the more impractical it becomes, but at the same time, all the more deadly.

Imagine just lightly tapping one of those flanges or spikes against your bare head. Now picture a full-fledged swing. Like a watermelon hitting the ground. Poof. Splat.

The Flail

Now put yourself in the shoes of Eowyn in her fight against the Witch King. You’d REALLY want to dodge that thing. But that thing was not a mace nor a morningstar, but its evolved form. The flail.

While spreading goblin brains about the place seems like a great way to spend your Saturday night, even the mightiest warriors succumb to exhaustion. The problem with the mace is that your arm would grow weary after bashing your opponents over and over.

flail

The flail, also known as the ball and chain, was a formidable weapon with a rather surprisingly humble background given its glorification in recent fantasy fiction. The flail was originally an agricultural tool that resembled a supersized nunchuk used to thrash grains, weeds, and shrubbery. Peasants, usually lacking in the weaponry department, would grab whatever they could if they were called to arms.

Seeing its practicality in combat, the flail was further developed from its agricultural form to one more practical to the brutality of medieval warfare. The added reach and kinetic energy took the power and threat of the mace and amplified it tremendously. They added thicker chains, and a heavy metal weight at its business end. Sometimes more than one. Sometimes with spikes. Sometimes with BIG spikes.

In skilled hands, the flail is a deadly weapon. But that’s just it. In skilled hands. Most men are more likely to injure themselves than their foes just trying to keep the weapon in motion. Due to this, the flail did not see much of the medieval battlefield.

War Hammers and Mauls

Speaking of glorification, the actual medieval war hammer, not the mighty Mjolnir of Thor or the great orc-smasher Gary Gygax would have you imagine, was actually quite similar to the tool it evolved from.

The war hammer served as a great tool on the battlefield. With a large metal crow’s beak, otherwise known as the bec de corbin, the great pick side of the war hammer was not only a killing instrument, but it could rip horsemen from their steeds, shields from their arms, and find its way into the kinks and plates of its foe’s armor. The “hammer” side could crush foes easily, and stun enemies with its heavy blows. Brutal, man.

War Hammer

One well-placed strike could puncture straight through a greathelm or breastplate. As much as you want to shout “PALLY SMASH!” at every opponent you smite and swing at, retrieval of the weapon, once embedded in its foe, was one of its major downfalls. The war hammer also lacked much of the mace and flail’s range of motion, whereas the hammer can only strike from two sides, the flail and mace can strike effectively from any directional swing. Well, screw it, I’ll just get a bigger hammer!

Mauls, while seen in medieval warfare, were more used as tools to drive stakes into the ground. Whether made from wood, iron, or lead, they weren’t far from modern day sledgehammers. But, again, when it came to it, the soldier would find a way to make it useful in combat. Some mauls were even noted to have a spear tip on the end of it. A heavy enough blow could easily stagger the heavily armored knight. And once he’s on the ground. Well. Remember that watermelon thing? Yeah. Splat.

But you don’t want to use bazookas against normal infantry. While these humble weapons excel at their offensive capabilities, their niche ultimately begins and ends with taking on the knight’s plate and chain. Range also becomes a significant issue against spears, pikes, and halberds. These weapons struggle with the ability to defend their wielder by parrying or deflecting blows, and if you can’t defend yourself in medieval combat, then you, my friend, are already dead. And against the unarmored man, the blade of a sword is much quicker and effective at slaying its foe.

The Reasoning Behind Weapons

When deciding a weapon for your character, you should not base the decision on what would look awesome on them, but what they need to beat their opponents into dust. Whether it’s a mace or a sword, think of who and what your hero is fighting, rather than what they’re fighting with.

What weapons are your characters wielding? What’s the reasoning behind them using these weapons?

Codey is an aspiring fantasy writer and enthusiast who gets lost developing plot points inside of his head instead of paying attention to his factory job. Codey is slowly chipping away on a lifelong project of his, a saga of men and demons, the light and the dark, on a cataclysmic collision course that threatens the existence of both spectrums. In his free time, he enjoys long, romantic walks on Summoner’s Rift and gunning down aliens on Halo rings. Words of encouragement are always welcomed, as he may be contacted via Mythic Scribes or on his Facebook page.

14 Responses to Medieval Blunt Weaponry – A Primer for Writers

    • http://youtu.be/Rngul46pJQY – This video shows how the peasant/agricultural version of the flail in a one on one sparring setting.

      http://youtu.be/-S87kkS5m5Y – This is an older History Channel video on blunt weaponry in the medieval ages. It covers a majority of what was said in the article, and while it may not be 100% accurate, it gives you a decent idea of how the weapons were used.

      There was a video of a man demonstrating some really amazing techniques with a flail in the tight confines of his dining room (he managed not to hit a single thing, either) that I had seen perhaps about a year ago, but I’ve searched for it for an hour or so and I cannot find it. If I do, I’ll update the post with the link.

      Unfortuneatly there isn’t much – video wise – on these weapons that accurately depicts their ability. Mostly because there aren’t too many people willing to be on the receiving end of a hefty mace swing or flail strike. Most videos on the weapons are rubbish, and more of commentaries on what the video uploaded thinks of them. I went through a handful of them where the speaker of the video did not know the right terminology or even the correct names of the weapons he was wielding.

       
  1. In my world of giant intelligent termites, the Warriors grow their own weapons on their faces, of course, and they have only recently discovered extra-body weapons, which consist mostly of wooden spears or the hafted mandibles of their deceased comrades. Their own chitinous exoskeleton forms built-in armor. Some of the Shshi species have very long, spearlike mandibles that make great extra-body weapons. The Great Spear of Shi’kwi’thu stands in the place of Excalibur or any of the great named swords of legend. But one of my characters has invented the bow and arrow.
    Lorinda J. Taylor recently posted…Two Weeks’ Worth of FREE Books!My Profile

     
  2. This was an awesome article. Thank you so much for all the time you put into it. I’ve been doing some research for my YA fantasy and this research will definitely be a super big help.

     
  3. Thanks for the article, I found it quite enlightening. I’ve been giving a lot more characters spears in one of my novels, especially the organised mercenary types. I’ve been setting it in a more pre-medieval, iron age sort of time.

    My main issue is always armour. Never can decide what kind/how much is appropriate for the different characters.
    Adam H recently posted…The Talent TrilogyMy Profile

     
  4. Ah, we do tend to glamorize the sword, don’t we. It seems magical and almost romantic — until one sees a film where its use is depicted historically accurate. UGH! But honestly, I don’t think we were the first. For centuries (maybe longer?) monarchs and emperors encrusted them with pearls and jewels. Even early pirates fancied them up.

    The image of the mace in the article is actually pretty cool, but that war hammer is downright wicked. I’d be afraid my characters might clobber themselves with a flail or a morningstar.

    Come to think of it, I’ve got some barbarians carrying clubs in my latest novel. Maybe I’ll fancy them up with a few spikes. ;P

    Thanks for a great article.

     
  5. Great article! I do fully admit that I tend to be a fan of the blades — I love swashbucklers, and I’m almost always a fan of any character who’s a knife thrower. But that being said, there really is a certain tone that you get from battles featuring blunt weapons that you don’t get from blades. Especially if you’re looking for a darker/grittier tone.

    I loved your watermelon comparison, because that is exactly what I think of when picturing some poor warrior taking a mace to the head. And that I think is the big difference (from a writing perspective at least) between the two categories of weapons. Blades give you that nice clean kill, that quick decapitation. But a mace or hammer, on the other hand, is just as lethal, but instead you get blood and brains splattered everywhere.
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  6. As a medieval history major and fantasy author, I thank you so much for this article!! Flails and maces are such brutal weapons and too often overlooked in the realms of fantasy fiction. I plan to equip one of the lead characters of my next fantasy novel with a war hammer/maul because I envision him as somewhat of a brute and those weapons will do nicely against some plate-armored foes 😉 Now you must write an article on medieval siege works like ballistas, petards, and onagers!
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    • I’m glad I’m not the only one freaturing characters with those weapons! An article on siege weaponry does sound quite enticing, I may have to look into that. 🙂

       

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