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I have a mountainous barbarian tribe that - for cultural and historical reasons - absolutely adores ambushes and surprise attacks. They'll go out of their way to set them up. They also vastly prefer melee combat over ranged.

What melee weapon would be ideal for these barbarians to use?

I'm looking for something that would have additional benefit during a "surprise round" type situation. If necessary they're willing to carry multiple weapons, one to use initially and the other the rest of the fight.

Technology is medieval Europe (~1500s) and the barbarians are on foot. For the purpose of this question, assume they're ambushing units 50-100 well equipped and well trained soldiers from the same tech period. They rarely have numerical superiority and will do hit-and-run attacks in those situations.

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    $\begingroup$ What's the general geography? Mostly mountains with rocky paths and extensive caves? Temperate forest pocked with lakes and rivers? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 25 '15 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre: Similar to the Rockies in the western United States. They aren't super high up, so it's mostly forested slopes, scattered lakes and rivers. Paths are dirt, rock or occasionally boulder scramble/climbs. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Sep 25 '15 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ How about fear? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 25 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon And ruthless efficiency? $\endgroup$ – Caleb Hines Sep 26 '15 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon and a fanatical devotion to the pope? $\endgroup$ – LindaJeanne Sep 26 '15 at 11:24
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Given enough time to prepare, even a small, low-tech group of barbarians can wipe out a heavily armed army of trained soldiers. Surprise is a massively useful weapon; no matter how well armed or how well trained a soldier is, if he is running around screaming and wetting himself, he might as well be a rabbit.

So, you want to make this highly trained army into an army of rabbits. Fear and confusion are your best allies, and the best weapon to cause fear and confusion is fire! Fire is loud, hot, bright, and unpredictable. It's easy to find, and hard to fight. However, you also want plenty of theatrics. The more unexplainable events there are, the harder it will be for reason to overcome uncertainty, and the easier it will be to scare the life out of an army. I know you just wanted melee weapons, but sticking with a motif makes it much easier to plan in the end.

First, costumes. You need three different costumes: Fire, Smoke, and Ash.

  • "Fire" will be the hardest to design. You'll want thick hides, pitch, and your biggest warriors to wear them. Paint the warrior's face and arms with dark mud; not only does it look scary, it also protects from flames. Paint the hide with pitch. Just before battle, light the pitch on fire; the warrior doesn't need to have the hide on long; first impressions are key. A towering warrior wreathed in flames is extra freaky. Pitchforks and tails would be a huge bonus.
  • "Smoke" is easy. Those men should have the same dark mud, but no burning cloak. Instead, they should wear smoke bombs - smoldering rags or lit bottles of saltpeter and sugar. Lots of smoke, no fire.
  • "Ash" is the easiest yet; their faces, armor, and anything else exposed should be painted bone white. Chalk dust is perfect for this, as is real ash.

Second is weapons.

  • Smoke and Fire costumes should have torches and darkened melee weapons, capable of doing a lot of damage in tight quarters. Weapons like axes, short swords, and maces would be the best choice.
  • Ash costumes should have short swords, knives, or other very-close-quarter weapons.

Third, prepare the ambush. Find an area you know the enemy will be marching through. You'll need about four hours to prepare. If you skip the trapdoor holes, you could probably get ready in as little as an hour if you have the materials available. Dig shallow holes in a field, glade, valley, or flat area, enough for approximately half your group; each hole should have a wooden cover and enough dirt and grass to hide it. Place one man in each hole and cover it up. Then, spread a mixture of dry grass, dry leaves, and fuel made from animal fat over the field, careful not to get any near the trap doors. Added bonuses would be "rocks" made from balls of pitch and flour, wax, or even pinecones - anything that burns hot, bright, and/or with lots of smoke.

Fourth... wait. When the army approaches, with just a few well-placed touches from hidden torches, the field becomes a wall of fire. The dry grass burns quickly, lighting the animal fats and pitch; it will also create clouds of smoke. Once the enemy is distracted by the flames, attack with the Fire and Smoke warriors, pushing the enemy back into the flames. Finally, once the flames begin to die down, the Ash warriors under the trapdoors can leap out and join the fight.

Once the fight is over, burn any evidence, including bodies; leave nothing but ash.

"Bored from our long march, we were glad of the soft grass beneath our feet. Suddenly, someone at the edge of the field began shouting - fire! Faster than a thought, the dry grass at our feet burst into flame! At first, we tried to stomp it out, but it spread faster and hotter than we could bear, and the field was soon a burning inferno! I had barely scrambled to the edge of the field when I saw the first of the demons, huge creatures with blackened faces, wreathed in flames, swinging burning brands, and screaming in an unearthly voice! I dove to the ground and lay as one dead as the demons cut through my comrades. The demons drove my countrymen back into the fire, laughing at the screams of the dying. For a brief moment, I found hope as our soldiers pushed the hellspawn back, but suddenly the very earth beneath our feet broke open, and warriors of smoke and ash leaped forth! I ran, somehow escaping in the chaos, but I was the only one; the rest were dragged down to hell. When I returned, hoping to find survivors, there was nothing left but ash and bones..."

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  • $\begingroup$ pitfalls, use pitfalls, thousands of em, you dont need weapons, just pitfalls!!!!!!! $\endgroup$ – Spacemonkey Sep 29 '15 at 14:34
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Physical weapons are pretty irrelevant in this case, as your barbarians aren't fond of ranged weapons, though I do include specific weapon concepts as a portion of my answer.

The best weapons here will be fear/mystery/legend.

To do this you need to do a couple things.

  1. Get costumes. Animal carcasses of vicious beasts making the men appear half man half animal could work. Black or white body paint could make them appear as ghosts/spirits.

  2. Always win. Winning means not being found out. Your band must remain mysterious and feared. This is not to say you always massacre everyone but you should do some savage and significant damage before fading into the trees/mountains. A few crazed survivors help spread the legend and fear.

  3. Strange weapons and technology. This supports the fear and mystery concept as well. If you are in a land of long swords use scimitars, or something else that is otherwise foreign, it adds to the exotic nature and mystery of the group. Big weapons (2H axes, swords, hammers etc) are and option as well, they can be downright intimidating before they are even swung. If you have some sort of tech, Greek fire as a historic example, that can help set the group apart.

  4. Let time pass between events. Don't attack every caravan that rolls through your territory. If you can manage it you could let a couple years roll by so people start thinking its just a story or that the menace is gone. Then slaughter something...its good to have a calling card. Maybe stacking corpses a certain way or something otherwise brutal.

If your group is so inclined (maybe they are rebels under an evil overlord) have them only strike at imperial targets...then your myth could even be celebrated by the local population as spirit guardians/protectors.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, you can't leave bodies behind. An enemy that can provably be killed is a less scary threat than one that leaves behind no evidence of its presence $\endgroup$ – nzaman Jul 19 '16 at 8:23
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If they're going against equal sized groups of trained soldiers, their main weapon concern is that it will pierce the opposing soldier's armor. They probably expect professional soldiers to rally from a surprise given a chance, and you don't want to give them time to get their wits about them. If leaders start dying, rallying is much less likely to happen.

As far as "surprise round" weapons, maybe some kind of flail would fit the bill. You can get a weight spinning on a chain or rope and build up a lot of energy to smash through a shield wall. They're also relatively cheap to make, which barbarians have to appreciate. Maybe the warrior elite would have something like a Chinese ball and chain weapon they would spin it up to build up speed and make for a really damaging first strike. They might fit whistles or something to the chain to make a creepy sound as the ball and chain built up speed just before the ambush was launched.

Other than that, you could take an old trick from the Bible. Have each man carry a hidden torch (usually just a group leader had a torch) and suddenly reveal it in sight of the enemy. It makes it look like a much bigger group is attacking than in actuality, and can sow panic.

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First, both mountains and ambush tactics heavily favour missile weapons. The traditional type would be slingers. Mountain folk have traditionally used slings to defend their herds against predators and to hunt small game. I'd suggest only having the warriors charge in for melee, and have the rest of the people use slings to soften the target and keep them disorganized. Since slings are cheap and efficient and useful during peacetime there is really no reason not to use them.

Similarly rock slides are a traditional and effective ambush opener in mountainous terrain. No real reason people fighting for their lives would skip using them.

As for the "honor demands face-to-face combat" I'd copy the Roman legionnaires. The equipment was not really that much better than what the "barbarians" used, but tactically the legions were suberb in both defense and assault. The assault part being the one you are interested in.

Carry throwing spears (pila) or darts (plumbata), throw the missiles on assault to break the enemy formation. Then lead with your large shields and smash the enemy defense apart. Then kill the enemy with repeated stabs of your trusty short sword while keeping more or less in formation.

I doubt your tribe could match the discipline and training of professional soldiers, but both the tactics and the equipment go back to the time when the Romans were just one tribe fighting other tribes on a mountainous area (grossly misleading; read comments). So you should be able to copy them pretty much as is. And copying the Romans on matters of warfare rarely gets you too much wrong.

You could also copy actual mountain tribes, but like I said the terrain and tactics favors rock slides, traps, and missile weapons, which doesn't seem to be what you want.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just a nitpick, but your reference to the Roman tribal fighting days is wrong. When Rome was fighting the tribes of the Apennines they fought in formation and with weaponry more similar to the Hoplites of Greece than the later use of the Gladius (adopted during the Roman invasion of Hispania) and the Pilum. $\endgroup$ – FiringSquadWitness Sep 28 '15 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JustAnotherDotNetDev True, probably should edit to make clear that "goes back to" does not actually mean the Romans used such weapons and tactics at the time, just that they come from the actual experience with such tribes... Then again you are also right about it being something of a nitpick since it isn't actually important to the question... I guess I'll just add "(read comments)" there for now. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Sep 28 '15 at 11:05
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Sometimes the classics are the best: spears and javelins. Cheap, easy to make, disposable as needed. Both work well with shields, which are also relatively easy to make compared to better armor.

Javelins make a good initial attack and also a deterrent to keep away pursuers. Tactics might be throwing first in silence, or, having one group yell and shout to draw attention before the second group throws their javelins at all the soldiers standing up to see what the commotion is. After the hit and run, the retreat is uphill with a reserve group throwing javelins to cover them.

Spears make good reach advantage, and also allow you to push opponents downslope. If there's any narrow areas you can hold it well with the reach advantage. Spears can allow you to target mounted soldiers or deliver nasty wounds to the mounts themselves. Spears also don't require a lot of metal.

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You say the barbarian tribes are at the same tech level as the groups of soldiers, but smelting and working ore is hard. Not just hard to physically perform, but hard for a small community (like that conjured up by "barbarian tribe") to support. Therefore, scavenged weapons and tools repurposed as weapons (or at least materials) will be very attractive. The swords carried by the heavily armored soldiers will likely be nearly-useless against them, as has been mentioned, but they can be reforged much more easily than fresh ore can be smelted and made into a weapon.

Some of this is mentioned in other answers, but I think particularly attractive weapons would be the mace, the hammer, and the military pick. These weapons are all likely to do well against armored opponents. Surprise renders less-valuable the key advantage of polearms (like the spear, but there are better variants incorporating hammers, axes, or hooks against armor), which is reach.

A spiked shield would be an excellent ambush weapon, though fewer spikes (1-3) would be much better for defeating armor than a shield-of-nails approach. A single, tapered central spike is probably optimal because it is easiest to withdraw from a defeated foe's plate, and minimizes risk of losing your shield at first contact.

For a ranged weapon, though you didn't mention it, the atlatl is a fantastic choice for defeating armor. The ranged armor penetrating potential isn't matched technologically until the advent of the crossbow, and the chief disadvantage compared with the pullbow (the weight of ammunition) is actually an advantage in the case of armored foes.

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The following, which are variations on the theme of tangling up and distracting opponents, and sowing more confusion.

  • Nets with weighted hooks on the edges
  • Bolas
  • Jars of some kind of oil & hot pepper combination that breaks when thrown and splashes everywhere, gets into eye holes and crevasses of armor. I.e., medieval tear gas.
  • Arrows that scream through the air - Kaburi-Ya

Edit: Ok, right, you said they prefer melee to range. They can throw any of these ahead of them as they charge in; where, naturally, they will use their favored Hammers of Doom :D :D

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Bolas.

Previously used in hunting, bolas can entangle a surprised enemy and extend the length of time they're caught helpless.

In a situation where you have only a few seconds to decimate an enemy, extending the time by immobilizing them increases the chances of succeeding.

For melee style weapons, consider weapons that extend when swung. For an idea, see the League of Legends character Jarvan IV. His lance, when swung, extends outwards roughly two feet allowing him to puncture his target from a farther distance than usual. Similar weapons would be great for chasing or initiating an attack on a surprised enemy.

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  • $\begingroup$ You can't make an extensible lance that won't break in the first encounter with medieval technology. In fact, I doubt you can't make a reliable one with modern technology. $\endgroup$ – Davidmh Oct 15 '15 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ Google; "Extendable Baton". An extendable lance would simply be that, albeit much larger and sharper. $\endgroup$ – Psychrom Oct 16 '15 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ an extendable baton is lightweight. Put 1 kg of metal at the tip and whack it at your enemies' metal and won't last its first battle. $\endgroup$ – Davidmh Oct 16 '15 at 16:31
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Hammers or other concussion weapons will be preferred melee weapon as hammers are capable of concussing an enemy soldier through plate, mail or leather armor. Unlike piercing weapons where the point can be wedged into enemy armor thus unavailable for defense or attack till it can be worked free, a hammer just hits really really hard either breaking bone, deforming armor or causing severe bruising to muscle and flesh.

Perhaps a dual wield approach, with a hammer in one hand and a short blade in the other. The hammer provides the armor-defeat capabilities while the short blade can be used to exploit openings in enemy armor.

It's a shame that this is only about melee weapons since building ambush traps can get pretty terrifying.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like traps and they'd use them, I just feel that that's a fairly explored area that I could research myself (deadfalls, pit traps, dropping rocks, etc). Whereas an ideal weapon for an ambush is something I wanted outside opinions on. And I couldn't resist the MP reference. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Sep 29 '15 at 14:48

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