- For other uses see Pike (disambiguation)
A pike is a pole weapon, a very long thrusting spear used two-handed and used extensively by infantry both for attacks on enemy foot soldiers and as a counter-measure against cavalry assaults. Unlike many similar weapons, the pike is not intended to be thrown. Pikes were used by European troops from the early Middle Ages until around 1700, wielded by foot soldiers deployed in close order. While the soldiers using such spears may not have called them "pikes", their tactical employment of these weapons ran along broadly similar lines.
The pike as a weaponThe pike was an extremely long weapon, usually 10 to 14 feet (3 to 4 meters) long. It had a wooden shaft with an iron or steel spearhead affixed. The shaft near the head was often reinforced with metal strips called "cheeks" or langets. When the troops of opposing armies both carried the pike, it often grew in a sort of arms race, getting longer in both shaft and head length to give one side's pikemen an edge in the combat; the longest pikes could exceed 22 feet (6 meters) in length. The extreme length of such weapons required a strong wood such as well-seasoned ash for the pole, which was tapered towards the point to prevent the pike sagging on the ends, although this was always a problem in pike handling.
The great length of the pikes allowed a great concentration of spearheads to be presented to the enemy, with their wielders at a greater distance, but also made pikes unwieldy in a confused close combat. This meant that pikemen had to be equipped with a shorter weapon such as a sword, mace, or dagger in order to defend themselves should the fighting degenerate into a melee. In general, however, pikemen attempted to avoid such disorganized combat, at which they were at a disadvantage. To compound their difficulties in such melee, the pikeman often did not have a shield or had only a small shield of limited use in close-quarters fighting.
TacticsIn operation on the battlefield pikes were often used in "hedgehog" formations, particularly by troops such as rebel peasants and militias who had not received a great deal of training in tactical maneuvers with the weapon. In these, the troops simply stood and held their pikes out in the direction of the enemy, sometimes standing in great circles or squares with the men facing out in all directions so that the enemy was confronted by a forest of bristling pikeheads, and could not attack the formation from the sides or rear.
Better-trained troops were capable of using the pike in an aggressive attack, each rank of pikemen being specially trained to hold their pikes so that they presented enemy infantry with four or five layers of spearheads bristling from the front of the formation.
As long as it kept good order, such a formation could roll right over enemy infantry, but had its own weaknesses – as the men were all moving forward, they were all facing in a single direction and could not easily turn to protect the vulnerable flanks or rear of the formation, and the huge block of men carrying such unwieldy spears could be difficult to maneuver, other than for straight-forward movement.
As a result, such mobile pike formations sought to have supporting troops protect their flanks, or would maneuver to smash the enemy before they could themselves be outflanked. There was also the risk that the formation would become disordered, leading to a confused melee in which pikemen had the vulnerabilities mentioned above.
Ancient useAlthough very long spears had been used since the dawn of organized warfare, the earliest recorded use of a pike-like weapon in the tactical method described above involved the Macedonian sarissa, used by the troops of Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, and successive Hellenistic dynasties, which dominated warfare for several centuries in many countries. The formidable wall of spearpoints gave pause even to the legionaries of Rome, but after several fierce contests the legionary style of warfare overthrew the Macedonian phalanx, and the pike faded from use in European warfare until the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, the first use of the pike was by urban militia troops such as the Flemings or the peasant array of the lowland Scots, formed in large masses to defeat the cavalry superiority of their royal foes. For example, the Scots used a spear formation called a schiltron in mostly defensive fashion to defeat English knights at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and the Flemings used their geldon long spear to absorb the attack of French knights at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, before other troops in the Flemish formation counterattacked the stalled knights with plancons. Both battles were seen by contemporaries as stunning victories of commoners over superbly equipped, mounted, military professionals, where victory was owed to the usage of the pike and the brave resistance of the commoners who wielded them.
These largely defensive formations were essentially immune to knightly attack as long as the knights obligingly threw themselves on the spear wall, but the passive nature of pike formations when used by such troops with little armour and rudimentary training made them very vulnerable to enemy archers and crossbowmen, who could shoot them down with impunity. Many defeats, such as at Roosebeke and Halidon Hill, were suffered by the militia pike armies when faced by cunning foes who employed their archers and crossbowmen to thin the ranks of the pike blocks before charging in with the knights.
The Swiss solved these problems and brought a renaissance to pike warfare in the 15th century, establishing strong training regimens to ensure they were masters of handling of the Spiess (the German term for the long pike) on maneuvers and in combat, the Swiss having also introduced marching to drums for this purpose. This meant that the pike blocks could rise to the attack, making them less passive and more aggressive formations, but sufficiently well trained that they could go on the defensive when attacked by cavalry. German soldiers known as Landsknechts later adopted Swiss methods of pike handling. Such Swiss and Landsknecht phalanxes also contained two-handed swordsmen and halberdiers for close action against both infantry and attacking cavalry.
Confronted with the German Landsknecht who used similar tactics as the Swiss, but more pikes in the more difficult deutschen Stoss(holding a pike that had its weight in the lower 1/3 at the end with two hands) utilized in a more flexible attacking column. This meant that the pike blocks could rise to the attack, making them less passive and more aggressive formations, but sufficiently well trained that they could go on the defensive when attacked by cavalry.
The high military reputation of the Swiss and the Landsknecht again led to the employment of mercenary units across Europe in order to train other armies in their tactics. These two and others, who had adopted their tactics, faced off in several wars leading to a series of developments as a result of these confrontations.
Such Swiss and Landsknecht phalanxes also contained two-handed swordsmen and halberdiers for close action against both infantry and attacking cavalry.
These formations had great successes on the battlefield, starting with the astonishing battlefield victories of the Swiss cantons against Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the Burgundian Wars, in which the Swiss participated in 1476 and 1477. In the battles of Grandson, Morat and Nancy, the Swiss not only successfully resisted the attacks of knightly foes, as the relatively passive Scottish and Flemish infantry squares had done in the earlier Middle Ages, but also marched to the attack with great speed and in good formation, their attack columns steamrolling the Burgundian forces, sometimes with great massacre.
The deep pike attack column remained the primary form of effective infantry combat for the next forty years, and the Swabian War saw the first conflict in which both sides had large formations of well-trained pikemen. After that war, its combatants – the Swiss (thereafter generally serving as mercenaries) and their Landsknecht imitators – would often face each other again in the Italian Wars, which would become in many ways the military proving ground of the Renaissance.
Finally, the rise of firearms and artillery in the sixteenth century made the big pike columns vulnerable to being shot down despite their awesome close-combat power. The decline of the combat column of pikemen was starkly displayed at the terrible Battle of Bicocca in 1522, for instance, where arquebusiers contributed to the heavy defeat of a force of Swiss pikemen.
Pike and shot
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish sought to develop a balance between the close-combat power of the pike and the shooting power of the firearm. They developed the Tercio formation, in which arquebusier or musketeer formations (or even longbowmen, in an English variation) fought on the flanks of the pikemen, in formations sometimes resembling a checkerboard.
These formations, eventually referred to as "pike and shot", used a mixture of men, each with a different tactical role – the shooters dealt out casualties to the enemy, while the pikemen protected the shooters from enemy cavalry and fought if the Tercio closed in hand-to-hand combat. As a result, the tercio deployed smaller numbers of pikemen than the huge Swiss and Landsknecht columns.
The Tercio proved more flexible and eventually prevailed over the grand pike block, its mixed formation became the norm for European infantrymen, and the percentage of men who were armed with firearms in Tercio-like formations steadily increased as firearms advanced in technology. In the late sixteenth into the seventeenth century, smaller pike formations were used, invariably defending attached musketeers, often as a central block with two sub-units of shooters, called "sleeves of shot", on either side of the pikes.
End of the pike eraAfter the mid-seventeenth century, armies that adopted the flintlock musket began to abandon the pike altogether, or to greatly decrease their numbers. The invention of the bayonet provided an anti-cavalry solution, and the musket's firepower was now so deadly that combat was often decided by shooting alone.
In such an environment, pikemen grew to intensely dislike their own weapon, as they were forced to stand inactive as the combat went on around them as the opposing musketeers duelled, feeling that they were mere targets rather than soldiers, and that they were adding nothing to the battle raging around them. There are examples of pikemen throwing their weapons down and seizing muskets from fallen comrades, a sign that the pike was on the wane as a weapon.
A common end date for the use of the pike in infantry formations is 1700, although such armies as the Prussian and Austrian had already abandoned the pike by that date, whereas others such as the Swedish and the Russian continued to use it for several decades afterward – the Swedes of King Charles XII in particular using it to great effect until the 1720s.
Even later, the obsolete pike would still find a use in such countries as Ireland, Russia and China, generally in the hands of desperate peasant rebels who did not have access to firearms. John Brown planned to arm a rebel slave army in America largely with pikes.
One attempt to resurrect the pike as a primary infantry weapon occurred during the American Civil War when the Confederate States of America planned to recruit twenty regiments of pikemen in 1862. In April 1862 it was authorised that every Confederate infantry regiment would include two companies of pikemen, a plan supported by Robert E. Lee. Many pikes were produced but were never used in battle and the plan to include pikemen in the army was abandoned.
Shorter versions of pikes called boarding pikes were also used on warships – typically to repel boarding parties – as late as the third quarter of the 19th century.
It is to be noted that the great Hawaiian warrior king Kamehameha I had an elite force of men armed with very long spears who seem to have fought in a manner identical to European pikemen, despite the usual conception of his people's general disposition for individualistic duelling as their method of close combat. It is not known whether Kamehameha himself introduced this tactic, or if it was a traditional Hawaiian weapons-usage.
The pike was issued as a Home Guard weapon in 1942 after the War Office misinterpreted a letter from Winston Churchill saying ""every man must have a weapon of some kind, be it only a mace or pike". However, the pikes never left the stores after it was realized they were demoralising.
Pikes live on today only in traditional roles, being used to carry the colours of an infantry regiment.
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pikeman in Asturian: Pica (arma)
pikeman in Danish: Pike
pikeman in German: Spieß
pikeman in Spanish: Pica (arma)
pikeman in French: Pique (arme)
pikeman in Hebrew: רומח רגלים
pikeman in Lithuanian: Pika
pikeman in Hungarian: Pika
pikeman in Latin: Contus
pikeman in Dutch: Piek (wapen)
pikeman in Japanese: パイク
pikeman in Norwegian: Pik
pikeman in Polish: Pika
pikeman in Portuguese: Pique
pikeman in Serbian: Копље
pikeman in Swedish: Pik (vapen)
pikeman in Turkish: Kargı (silah)
pikeman in Ukrainian: Піка