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In ancient and late medieval combat, the pike emerged as a supreme weapon, an evolution of the spear. The pike being longer than any other melee weapon, a phalanx of pikemen would skewer the front ranks of an enemy formation before the enemy formation could bring their weapons to bear. Naturally, longer pikes beat shorter ones, and this was seen through the medieval period as pikes often became longer and longer when both sides were using them.

However, there is a limit on the practical length of the pike. Beyond a certain length a pike would be too heavy for one man to handle. But a pike that is too heavy for one man, might not be too heavy for two or three men working together.

So my question is this. Could it have been practical for a military with medieval technology to use a few "crewed" polearms carried by several people, as part of a normal pike formation, to be the first strike? We might imagine a 50 foot stout pole carried horizontally by three or four people like a battering ram, with a crossbar or fork on the end so it could knock over several enemies and break their formation, after which the enemies would be finished off by more conventional weapons.

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No.

The strength of the pike in ancient warfare was in part due to its length - which kept opponents at a distance. But the secret to its success lay in the density of the formations using it.

Take 1000 men and form a traditional phalanx. This gives you a formation that's aprox. 100 paces wide and 10 deep (as an example). Inside that space are 1000 spear points all deployed at once that the enemy has to fight through. In a force 10 spear points deep.

So take you suggestion and use the same 1000 men, only now there are teams of 4 men operating every one of your 'mega-pikes'. But that only give you 250 spear points. And you cant stack them as densely because there are 4 men lined up in a row behind each one. So you end up with a formation that's something like 60+ wide and 4 deep.

Not only are you not covering anywhere near the same width of the battlefield with the same number of men but now those are only 4 spear points deep.

And because they are longer & heavier than normal pikes they are going to be no faster/agile in combat as an individual weapon than the normal version. Likewise the phalanx as a unit wont be any faster in maneuver because each weapon in it has to be moved by a team of men working together.

So you end up with a formation that;

  • covers less of the battle line;
  • deploys a far smaller 'weight' of spear heads against the enemy thus posing less of a threat;
  • won't be any faster to maneuver (and will probably be slower); And finally (one I forgot)
  • far more brittle (likely to fail) in combat because the loss of any one man (2 at most) in a team loses you .4% (one pike) of your hitting power whereas losing a single pikeman from a normal phalanx only costs you .1% !
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  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking not of a formation entirely composed of crewed polearms, but a few crewed polearms within a normal pike formation. Say take 100 men and form 25 teams of 4, and place these teams among the other 900 who have normal pikes. The crewed polearms do not have normal pike points; they have forks or crossbars enabling them to ram multiple enemies (and probably just knock them over, not kill them, but that's still useful). $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the crewed polearm would be much less maneuverable than a normal pike, and that's a major downside. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 4:06
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    $\begingroup$ That only gives you a mere 25 extra long weapons that an advancing enemy can doge around. there's only 25 of them after all and they're presumably spread along the length of the front line. What made pike wall effective was that you couldn't doge the points any one enemy soldier at he font line of his rank had to fight through 10 spear points) in the example I gave. Easiest way of dealing with you extra long pike? Deploy a squad of men to run forward just before contact to step on/fall over the pike shaft, forcing it to the ground. (That's if you cant chop the head of with an axe). $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Jul 1 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ It's really hard to dodge something if you are in a close pike formation. You might be almost shoulder to shoulder with your squad mates. Now there's a 6 foot wide crossbar coming at you and your buddies at waist height, with four guys putting their weight into it - where do you go? If you do get out of the way, or just get knocked over, you've broken formation so you're in trouble when the main pike line hits a few seconds later. I wouldn't want to be the guys volunteering to run out ahead and force the giant pike to the ground, either, not when there are 50 normal pikes charging behind it $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, if you take a 50:1 ratio of normal pikes to giant ones, that would be 10 deep 5 wide normal pikes. So there'd be a crossbar for every 5 guys in the front line - crossbars everywhere along the line. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 4:48
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There is a German fairy tale of the Seven Swabians, who fought this way. They are depicted as bumblers whose monster opponent turns out to be a harmless rabbit. A fairy tale is a fairy tale, but this should tell you that it wasn't considered a very practical notion.

Pikes or a phalanx depend on a formation for mutual protection. They also depend on mass to replace casualties from missile weapons. What you describe is a small team maneuvering on the battlefield in a tactical manner, supported by other maneuvering teams -- this sounds impractical.

A mounted knight with a lance, fighting against infantry, would have much of the effect you envision, yet the knight uses the help of a horse to carry a longer lance, not the help of other knights.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking that the small team would be placed within a normal pike formation to be the first strike before the normal pikes come to bear. They'd be supported by normal pikemen. Upvoted for the Seven Swabians story. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ A mounted knight's lance was shorter than a pike; pikes could be 10 to 25 feet, and lances were around 6 to 12 feet. Spear/pike infantry tended to prevent a horse charge. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ @causative, the couched lance represents the best solution to increased spear striking power that was historical -- using the horse's power rather than the lancer's power. Regarding the extra pikes in a normal formation, pike blocks were very unwieldly. If you make the first line less maneuverable, how do the other units flow around that? I'm still convinced that your solution is impractical. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jul 1 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ I don't imagine them as the first line - say you have a block of pikemen 5 columns wide, 10 ranks deep. In the middle column, from ranks say 3-6, you have the four guys in the crewed polearm crew. They aren't in front, but they do hit first - with a wide crossbar instead of a spear point, to disrupt the enemy line - because their weapon is longer. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 5:18
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It is pratical and it happened.

Google the Chinese Duck Formation, it was a squad of soldiers holding a giant Wolf Brush (a long bamboo spear with branches covered in blades and poison and a halberd like head) there were soldiers using nothing but a shield defending the wolf brush, then shielders with a small spear and shielders with a long spear and it also had archers on the back.

The spear itself looked more like a bladed tree than a spear or halberd, but I think it still counts.

The reason it was used, was because there was no way to attack the squad without getting shot by the archers or running into the poison branches, and if chavalry ran to the side of the formation, there were smaller and faster spears to change direction and protect the squad from all angles.

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  • $\begingroup$ The langxian was a different weapon, apparently no longer than a conventional long spear, operated by one man and shorter than the standard Macedonian pike. (Unlike the weapon being described which is more than twice as long as the pike.) It had branch-like attachments with blades on them (that yes these could supposedly be poisoned) but it did not have a heavy solid cross pieces fully 10 foot from side to side attached, as described above. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Jul 1 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon I suggested 6 ft for the crosspieces $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Jul 1 at 6:37
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Attacking a pike formation with a broad, slow weapon plays directly to its strengths. In a large formation, the pikes mesh into a big spiky fence with dozens of soldiers behind each point. You may have four or five guys pushing on each of your super-pikes, but they can easily be blocked by far more troops. If you're going to use a chopping weapon against pikes, it needs to be precise enough to target one specific pike at a time, like a zweihander. Otherwise it will get caught up in the general "push of pike" and will be no more effective than regular weapons.

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