Back to Basics: The Pointy Stick

The pointy stick is a surprisingly complex tool. Sharp rocks or wooden clubs can be found lying on the ground, but a spear must be planned and fashioned. A cutting edge such as a stone handaxe is required to fashion the point, and fire hardening both strengthens and preserves it.

Once a hard point has been put on a stick, it can be used as a highly effective food gathering tool - but not necessarily for hunting. The use of a pointed stick not as a spear but for digging can provide the bulk of the food for hunter-gatherer societies in arid climates, such as the African Kung and Australian aborigines.


A simple pointed wooden stick can be used for hunting small prey, making an effective fishing spear, for example. However, it was the addition of a separate piercing or cutting point or head that transformed the pointed wooden stick into the spear proper as we understand it today.

Spear heads can be made from anything sharp. Animal teeth, bone and even shell all make points that pierce better than bare wood, but it was the stone spearpoint made of obsidian, flint or chert that gained widespread use as a general purpose hunting weapon, because of its ability to not only pierce but to cut, severing blood vessels and causing more lethal wounds.

Trying to lash a stone point on to the side of a spear shaft is an optimistic endeavour, and so early stone spearheads were generally tanged, with the spear shaft being split to accomodate the tang then lashed round it to secure it and stop the shaft from splitting.

This arrangement lasted well for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, we even date stone age cultures by the distinctive type of spearheads that they used.

After the transition from hunting/gathering to settled lifestyles and the first great industrial revolution of the bronze age, the stone spearhead slowly gave way to bronze, probably more from conspicious adoption of the newest technology than for practical reasons. Bronze does not hold an edge well, as discovered by a team using both bronze and obsidian knives to cut human flesh.

Bronze does have one advantage over stone. It can be made with a longer tang, or as a socketed head which fits over the end of the spear shaft and gives a very secure fit.

As bronze in its turn gave way to iron and then steel, the form of the hunting spear remained largely unchanged. One peculiar form was the boar spear, with lugs or a bar behind the head to prevent a charging boar from running right up the spear shaft and goring the hunter.


Used as a weapon, the spear is a very intuitive. You point, and you thrust. The advantage of keeping your target at a distance is obvious, and there is little chance of forgetting which end is the dangerous one.

Some modern martial artists and self styled medieval weapon experts perform displays using the spear in a half staff (usually inaccurately described as quarter staff) style, spinning, parrying and bludgeoning with it. This is an affectation, unsupported by historical evidence. The spear has one dangerous end. You point with that end, and you thrust.

Even within the limitation of pointing and thrusting, spears are extremely flexible weapons; they can be used in one or two hands, with an underhand or overhand grip, and can be thrown.

The most versatile grip is the overhand, with the spear held balanced in one hand, palm facing up, with the fingers curled over the spear shaft. The spear is held high with the point stabbing downwards, as shown on sources as diverse as Greek amphora and the Bayeux tapestry. From this position, the spear can be used to stab or can be thrown with equal ease. This gives great flexibility in hunting or in warfare. Specialised throwing spears such as the javelin or pilum developed from the throwing action of the basic spear, with the atlatl being the ultimate evolution of the thrown spear.

Some of the mounted knights on the Bayeux can be seen holding their spears underhand, palm down and fingers curled under the shaft. This was an innovation at the time; it gives a stronger grip when held tight against the body, and is particularly effective when used from horseback, when the momentum of the horse rather than the strength of the arm is being used. It became increasingly popular with mounted knights when used with the specialised jousting lance. As there is a tendency for your target to defend his head and face in combat, a short spear like an assegai can be used usefully with a low, underhand grip.

When used in two hands, a stronger thrust can be imparted, and much longer spears can be used. This becomes important in warfare, when trying to penetrate armour or to hold enemies at a distance.


The spear in one form or another has been the most widely used weapon of warfare for most of human history. Swords are luxuries, bows came and went, but the spear endured, for several reasons.

First, spears are cheap, being basically a knife on a stick. Anglo saxon records show a spear costing approximately 33 pence, or about the price of three sheep. Contrast with a helmet at 265 pence or a sword and scabbard at 1542 pence. You can arm a lot of spearmen for the price of one armoured knight.

Second, the spear is an equaliser. The most skillful swordsman in the world can't kill you if you can keep him six feet away - and he can't close the distance if you have lots of friends armed with cheap spears beside and behind you. A solid spear thrust is easily capable of penetrating the mail armour that was the best protection available in Europe until the late 14th century.

So spears have a long and bloody history in warfare. Look at images of armed men from almost anywhere in the world and you will find the spear being used, in Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Japan and Africa, among others.

It was in Europe that the spear saw the most use, by all ranks of fighting men. Greek Peltast and Hoplite troops both used the spear as their primary weapon, in the versatile overhand manner, throwing spears as they closed to contact, then retaining their last spear for use in the hand. The early Roman infantry was armed with a spear much like the Greek hoplites that they defeated and replaced, and the enduring image of the Roman Legionnary is of a pilum armed soldier.

When the Roman Empire finally fell, it was to the Germanic tribes of North West Europe, many of whom worshipped Odin (or Woden or Wotan), who's weapon of choice was the spear. The spear continued to be popular as a weapon of war among even the highest ranks of Anglo Saxon society: in 991, the Earl of Maldon lead his men into battle armed with a spear and slew three men with it before drawing his sword.

After the Norman success at the battle of Hastings, the mounted knight armed with the lance became the basic army component all across Europe, and jousting with the lance steadily overtook melee combat as a tournament event. The arms race looked like becoming one of mounted knight versus archer.

The Scottish Wars of Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries reversed that, as armies of foot soldiers armed with long two handed spears defeated cavalry armies at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. For the next four hundred years across Europe, the spear vied with the bow, then the musket, for preeminence, with the knight becoming increasingly irrelevant. By the time of the English Civil War, the 5 metre long infantry pike outreached anything that could be carried by a cavalry soldier, and represented the ultimate development of the spear as a thrusting weapon.

The pike was eventually retired in favour of the musket and artillery. Across the Atlantic, American abolitionist John Brown's abortive plan to arm free slaves with spears in 1859 was thwarted before it could be put to the test, but the cavalry spear did enjoy a brief European rennaissance in the form of a shortened spear carried by 19th century lancers. When that too finally disappeared, the use of the spear died out in Europe, but its direct descendant, the bayonet lives on across the world to this day.

However, even that last vestige is now on the way out, and with fewer people leading subsistence hunter gatherer lifestyles every year, it appears that after tens of thousands of years, we may soon be saying farewell to the trusty pointy stick.