Crudely, a polearm is a melee weapon that includes a pole and a head in its construction. How long the pole has to be to qualify is a matter of debate, but you're unlikely to impress anyone with a polearm that's less than four feet in the haft.
Unfortunately the breadth of this definition means that there are (literally) hundreds of possible polearms, many of them overly complicated and their identity obfuscated by having different names in different languages for virtually the same weapon. Here are some of the more prominent ones:
- Spetum: Like a spear, with side spikes. Similar to the partisan and other mutant spears.
- Awl Pike: Like a spear, but with a much longer head - up to half its length - in the shape of a long metal spike. Also called the awl spear or ahlspiess.
- Bardiche: A large axe head on a long pole. Similar to the bearded axe and Dane axe.
- Poll axe: A small axe head on a long pole, often with a counter-weight to improve the swing.
- Halberd: An axe head, on a pole with a hook or spike on the back and a spear point on the top.
- Sword staff: Basically a double edged sword blade on a long handle.
- Glaive: Basically a single edged sword blade on a long handle. The voulge looks and works much the same but is differently constructed.
- Ranseur: Like a glaive, but curved and sharpened on the outside of the curve. The Japanese naginata is similar.
- Fauchard: Like a ranseur, but sharpened on the inside of the curve. The war scythe is a pretty similar bit of kit and nothing like the reaper's scythe that it was forged from.
- Bill: A hooked blade, sharpened on the inside and derived from a pruning tool - military versions often had a spike on the back and a spear point on the tip but the original forestry tool remained pretty deadly1.
- Lucern Hammer: Basically a warhammer on a long handle, usually with a spear point on the tip. Sometimes called a bec de corbin or "crow's beak", although this can imply a shorter weapon.
These are a sample only - and are mostly medieval European names. Other parts of the world built similar things with different names.
The polearm is generally an artifact of the mid to late middle ages and generally owes its wierd shape to some specialised role in overcoming horsemen and/or armour. They were often stockpiled as militia weapons, being relatively effective in semi-trained hands, relatively cheap to produce and, in many cases, capable of generating a decent "spear hedge" if needed. Many of the more peculiar shapes start to die out as the pike-and-shot era takes hold, although halberds in particular remain popular, especially in the hands of picked units deployed to support the flanks of pike phalanxes. Indeed not a few European armies kept halberds into the era of the musket, usually in the hands of colour parties and/or senior NCOs.
Despite being primarily an infantry weapon, suprising amounts of space in contemporay martial arts manuals is dedicated to sparring with polearms, implying that they were taken seriously as individual arms as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Japanese take much the same approach to the naginata.
Game and Story Use
- Give your campaign nation a signature polearm for flavour - the medieval English did very well with Bills (and indeed billmen and longbowmen were amongst the troops levied to face the Armada), the French seem to have loved the voulge, the Swedes the sword-staff and the Germans the halberd. The Swiss, of course, loved the pike, but used elite halberdiers as flankers - and halberd armed Swiss still serve as the Pope's ceremonial guard.
- Something that is surprising about the Japanese approach to the naginata is that it seems to be considered a woman's weapon - or at least a suitable weapon for a woman to learn. some sources suggest that this springs from a time when the naginata became unfashionable and tended to be left at home, at which point the wives of the absent samurai took to training with them for home defence. This may - or may not - be true.