The superiority of pole arms and spears in particular has become a pretty common meme across multiple online communities, so that got me thinking; what if you had a fighting force in which the only weapons were some sort of spear. No swords, no axes, no maces, no picks, no bows, no slings.

By “some sort of spear” I mean everything from pikes to javelins to the Iklwa. If it’s a stick with a sharp point then it’s game. The army can use different types in tandem and can have infantry and cavalry using them.

By effective I mean able to hold up against another medieval army of comparable size and discipline without being hideously routed, and maybe winning now and again.


•Arrows do not count as spears in this scenario, that’s too easy.

•Weapons (knives, saws etc) used in foraging, food preparation and engineering are exempt, this is a question about combat.

So how effective would a spear only army be?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you also have shields? Because this ends up in a simple scissors paper rocks scenario. Spear > Horse > Bow > Spear. A specific medieval army composition is extremely easy to counter no matter how effective the weapon itself is. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ Are shields allowed? $\endgroup$
    – Dakkaron
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Depends- How effective are they at protecting their supply lines? $\endgroup$
    – Jammin4CO
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ See the (Aiel)[wot.fandom.com/wiki/Aiel] from Robert Jordans Wheel of time $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ You don't specify what the opposing army (armies) have by way of arms. If both sides have comparable weapons and are of comparable training and numbers, it comes down to battlefield terrain, skill of the leaders, courage and reason to be fighting. If one side is defending their women and children from attack they may be more determined in their defense even if otherwise perfectly matched. $\endgroup$
    – houninym
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 16:39

7 Answers 7


Worked for the Zulu

Shaka was credited for the invention of the Iklwa which was a short stabbing spear

The Zulu would start combat by throwing a traditional spear before engaging in hand to hand combat with the Iklwa.

The Zulu army armed with spears was a credible threat against the English army armed with guns. See Anglo-Zulu War

Spears don't need to be thrown and don't need to be long.

Add something like the Woomera or the atlatl to increase the range of spear throwers you could replace archers (more or less)

Between lances for your horsemen, pikemen, spear throwers and infantry with stabbing spears, you can replicate the function of most medieval armies

The key is not so much the weapons but the skills, armour, numbers and the strategy of the army.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ "The Zulu army armed with spears was a credible threat against the English army armed with guns. " Were they really, though? They got one major victory, where they outnumbered 10 to 1. In later battles they were absolutely decimated despite their numbers advantage. That doesn't mean the spear isn't a good weapon, but clearly don't bring a spear to a gunfight. $\endgroup$
    – Theik
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Theik, you can bring a spear to a gunfight, just make sure you bring a gun as well $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ I know that guy from Civilization V! He's not that good though, I've beaten him with stealth bombers. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ When the other guys pull out spears, start singing Men of Harlech. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ "The Zulu army armed with spears was a credible threat against the English army armed with guns." Yeahhhhh no. Unless by "credible" you mean "very minor". $\endgroup$
    – user91988
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 23:06

Yes, it's called the Macedonian Phalanx

Their main weapon was a giant spear 18ft long, which took them special training to be able to use. The rest of their normal kit was a shortsword and shield, so swap out the shortsword for a short-spear, and you're good. Add in some heavy cavalry on the side in armor and lances. These soldiers were how Alexander the Great (and his father, Philip of Macedonia) murdered basically everyone around them in the ancient world.

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    $\begingroup$ Phalangites also had a short sword, because it's a minimal amount of weight to add which grants you significant protection and versatility outside the scope of the pike. $\endgroup$
    – Nanban Jim
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ It's called a plain phalanx. The Macedonians were very good at it, so the Macedonian phalanges obtained several important victories; but they did not invent the tactical concept and they were in no way the only ones to practice it. Everybody in the Greek (and later, Hellenistic) world used phalanges. Even the Romans did, in the beginning, before they learned the hard way that third-rate phalanges are no good, and they invented the manipular legion. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Also known as the Pike Square, a formation that was effective in the XVth century en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pike_square $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ The effectiveness of the Macedonian Phalanx under Alexander came because he used it as part of a combined arms force. A phalanx in close formation is unassailable from the front, giving you an anvil. Then you take mobile forces as hammer to drive the enemy army against that anvil until defeated. But if the phalanx lacks mobile support to protect its flanks, it gets outmanoeuvred and defeated quickly: This was what happened when the mobile Roman legions attacked Macedon, which had only experience in phalanx vs. phalanx fights. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ I would check out the wikipedia article on the Macedonian Army as used by Alexander. Most of the troops are in fact equipped with spears and javelins. Replace the few sword-wielders with Zulus (see other answer) and you're basically there. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 17:40


From the Macedonian phalanx to the Pikemen these kind of armies have been very effective for almost 2000 years. Provided their flanks were protected by more mobile units. Moving a huge number of soldier with their pikes requires a lot of coordination, every single turn must be done on the order of a commander who might be 100 meters away, otherwise they would clash with each other. So an army composed only of pikemen could be outmaneuvered.

There's another point. Not only they lack agility, but they also require extensive training which in medieval time is very difficult to impart since the population did not provide a lot of resources to support many professional soldiers. It would be very difficult to put together such an army.

In Cannae the Romans attacked Hannibal with an army made up by a huge number of Legionaries in tight square formations. Hannibal simply avoided direct head to head battle. The central units retreated while the cavalry and other mobile units encircled them. Eventually the Romans were slaughtered by an army that was half the size of their army.

  • $\begingroup$ You say that "the population did not provide a lot of resources to support many professional soldiers", but the Romans had many pro soldiers, right? What were they doing differently, and why couldn't people after them do the same? Btw, not arguing, just trying to learn $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ The Romans didn't have so many legions compared to the size of the empire. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ You certainly could have mobile cavalry units armed with spear-like weapons, from early cataphracts (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataphract#/media/…) to medieval lancers. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AllInOne You're right. I misspelled the name. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ It is not clear to me why spear armed troops cannot be mobile. Historically there were light and heavy cavalry, skirmishers, etc, all armed with spears, weren't there? The phalanx itself was supported by spear wielding troops: prodromoi, sarissophoroi, Paeonian and Thracian cavalry, hypaspists, hoplites, peltasts, etc. Apart from archers, spear troops fulfilled every role, albeit many troops also wielded swords (including the phalanx themselves). $\endgroup$
    – user72572
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 1:23


In fact, i would like to state that in real life, throughout history before usage of firearms becoming common in battlefields, using spears was far more common than most people realize, The idea that spears are in many ways superior weapon compared to swords, mace and other non-spear weapons was no secret to historical generals and warriors.

Spears are very effective and cheap weapons that have been most common weapon of choice among many armies throughout history as mentioned by historical accounts and depictions of armies and battles. For instance look at some of Persian relief or Egyptian relief where you see spears as dominant weapon of choice among most well equpied soldiers in world at that time, despite the fact that we know some variation of swords, mace or club have already existed at the time.

And use of spears contuine well until guns becoming common around the world. For instance look at accounts of Battle of Grunwald, 100 year wars and Siege of Constantinople where we still see mass usage of spears close to popularization of guns.

And even after infantrymen around world start training and relying primarily on guns, armies don't completely stop using spears for quite sometime. For instance take a look at Lances(which i think we can consider as a kind of spear) begin used by cavalierly forces such as Dragoons or Hussars.

So in short, Yes. There is nothing too fictional about an army using only spears to not only hold against but even win against a medieval army of equal discipline and size.

Swords and maces were a popular weapon mostly among cavalry, For instance while most foot soldiers during late antiquity were using only spears as main weapon for battle, Immortals and Azadan of Sasanid Empire were master of using a very wide variety of weapons such as swords, maces, axes, scythes and even chains.

Also, this is my personal opinion without any solid reference: I think because short weapons were better weapons for fighting and self defense in cities where most people lived, people saw swords and maces more often as a combat weapon which is why, such weapon received so much more attention.



And the biggest point why is the lack of ranged weapons. If my opponent only uses melee weapons in slow and tight formations, countering that with ranged weapons seems rather intuitive.

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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spear-thrower $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ Roman legions did quite well while having javeling-throwing velites as their only ranged troops; if there were some allied auxiliary archers then they used them, but if not, they weren't considered a necessity. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Peteris This also probably depends heavily upon the terrain/environment. $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 20:04

Absolutely Yes. (Assuming you can accept that a pike is a very long spear).

Armies of/with Swiss Pikemen proved to be effective during the Renaissance.

Fighting mainly as pikemen, the Swiss of the 15th Century used their iconic 10-foot pikes in an offensive capacity. Each pikeman carried a short sword and dagger but wore comparatively little armor. Helmets and breastplates were rare, although leather jerkins and gloves enjoyed more widespread use.

Ref: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2018/10/19/the-history-of-swiss-pikemen/

At this time they faced bows and crossbows too. The question does not specify against what they should be effective, but during their service time, certainly.

Swiss Pikemen in the 16th Century

  • $\begingroup$ Note though, that all pikemen, be they Swiss mercenaries, German Landsknechte or others, were armed with side arms that were crucial to solve push of pike deadlocks. There were even special weapons units such as halberdiers and 2-handed-sword-wielding Doppelsöldner for exactly that purpose. So if your army was the only one just using pikes, that would go badly for you... See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push_of_pike $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also what about armor? Can't they wear armor that prevents arrow fatalities? $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 20:05


I took reference from Chinese civilization, from dynasty to dynasty. When they got low on soldiers, farmers are equipped with spear to join the war. It's super easy and cheap to make, just combine farming tool handle with some sharp point object.

I might be cheating because Chinese got huge population, so equipping large amount of farmer with spear is their best bet. Farmers typically want long range weapon as they can't / don't have proper combat training.

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    $\begingroup$ One of the first achievement of Alexander the great was persuading his soldiers to endure a lot of training to learn to move together with the required coordination. So, I don't think untrained farmers would make a very effective army. They might end like the Romans defeated at Cannes by Hannibal with an army half the size of the Roman one. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ By looking at Chinese dynasty, I prefer 100.000 - 200.000 human with spear made by farming tool rather than 10.000 trained equipped soldiers, numbers + easy to make weapon is more effective. By the time you already made 10.000 full equipped weapon and armor soldier, they already made twice the population.. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 4:08

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