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According to Wikipedia:

With their famed discipline and in combination with heavy cavalry like the gendarme, the Swiss pike squares were almost invincible on the late medieval battlefield.

Is there a medieval way (without gunpowder technology) to beat this combo? Why are they so powerful anyway? A man is just holding a long pike, has little of armor and no shield. The way I see it, sprinkle them a little with the longbow rain and their fabled invincibility is gone. Or perhaps there is something else I do not know?

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closed as off-topic by Frostfyre, sphennings, Josh King, Vincent, JBH Sep 6 '17 at 14:44

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – Frostfyre, sphennings, Josh King
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Pike squares but no gunpowder weapons? Was there any such period? Now regarding the tactical question, yes, obviously, pike squares are not the ideal force against massed longbowmen or crossbowmen; the idea is combined arms: both sides have crossbows, (rather inefficient) cannon, cavalry and infantry; the ranged weapons will balance each other, the pike formations are supposed to resist cavalry charges, and in the end it comes to numbers, resilience, the ability of the commanding officers. Cavalry did occasionally defeat pike formations. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 4 '17 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ This question seems like it'd fit into the history.stackexchange.com much better than world building $\endgroup$ – Liam Sep 5 '17 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ What about using a caber against a pike formation? $\endgroup$ – nijineko Sep 5 '17 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ It might be more appropriate to History SE. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Sep 6 '17 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ No gunpowder? How about flameable liquids? A molotov would like tight formations if you know what I mean)) $\endgroup$ – Nick Dzink Sep 16 '17 at 11:09
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Yes, this formation is vulnerable to ranged fire. Light but strong steel armor that became relatively cheap at the time was important, because it improved protection against arrows for pikemen who didn't use shields. Still, it was not enough and a pike square could be well defeated by archers as happened at the battle of Falkirk. Firearms had way better projectile energy, so were even more effective than bows, as the battles of Marignano and Bicocca showed.

If pikemen broke formation then they become vulnerable to swordsmen and cavalry, see the battle of Ravenna.

But the Swiss had good discipline, unheard of for the feudal and mercenary armies of the time, and used flexible formations and aggressive manoeuvres. They knew their weaknesses and compensated for them.

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Short answer: Yes, you can defeat pike formation. The longer answer is a bit more complex.

As anything in warfare, pike squares or pike formation was conceived and deployed to counter a very specific threat: Namely the cavalry charge. A disciplined body of troops in a shield wall with spears, and later a pike square, can take and repel a cavalry charge.

The problem is, a pike wall is only good against a cavalry charge. Granted, armored cav was like the tanks of the day, and it represented a major threat on the battlefield, but smart commanders could - and did - manage to find ways to destroy them.

A classic example would be the Battle of Cynoscephalae fought in 197BC between a Macedonian army made up mainly of phalangites and the modernized Roman Republic army of legionnaires and their allies. While a full discussion of the battle itself is outside the purview of this answer (and is available at the link), the battle demonstrated the pike square/shield wall's major weakness: They were almost impossible to maneuver. A phalanx is oriented forward and can advance only forward. It depends on light infantry and cavalry to protect its flanks are rear. Any commander that manages to drive off the cavalry and light infantry can basically attack the flanks and rear with impunity because that phalanx isn't going to turn to defend itself. In Cynoscephalae, the Roman legion also managed to take the Macedonian spears on their scutums and closed with the phalanx into gladius range - which the Macedonian phalangites with their small shields and tight formation weren't able to counter.

A medieval pike square was a little better because it was a square. It could repel attacks from four directions. The problem with them was that they didn't move. They couldn't. The strength of the square depended on its ability to ground their spears. Again, this was a formation that was dependent on combined arms to succeed: They needed the cavalry to drive off enemy infantry and archers. The example above from the battle of Falkirk is a good starting point. By the late 15th century, however, plate armor made an appearance and was developed well enough that pikemen in Munition armor could shrug off arrow hits. (Yes, contrary to popular myth, longbow arrows didn't really penetrate plate armor - which was designed specifically to counter this threat. Thus longbowmen fired at close against armored targets and the shots were taken mostly for their blunt concussive hits more than anything else).

Thus without gunpowder, the easiest way to break apart a pike square is to hit it with artillery. Ballistas and catapults could be quickly assembled in in the field, and pike squares are fat, juicy targets for them. Of course, then you'd have to protect your artillery with your own infantry and cavalry, and also engage their cavalry and light infantry. Once they break and run, you slaughter them.

Also, disciplined cavalry sometimes did manage to penetrate and disrupt enemy squares. Trained warhorses/destriers will charge a pike wall. If your heavy cavalry is disciplined and skilled enough, and the enemy pike square isn't as disciplined and skilled, you can charge your cavalry in and destroy them.

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The tactics, competence of leadership and the training and experience of the troops can often be more important than the equipment type alone.

To illustrate it, I present an extreme real historical example of a tercio being defeated by a frontal assault of light cavalry. (the tercio was the successor of the pike square, equipped with musketeers to give it ranged capability, and it was the most successful formation of the battlefields until muskets became advanced enough in the 18th century to make pikes obsolete)

A tercio would normally be easily capable of defeating a heavy cavalry assault even when being outnumbered by them. How could it then be defeated by an assault of light cavalry, where the cavalry had numbers approximately four times smaller than them?

Here is what happened: In 1631 in the Principality of Transylvania, Apafi was elected Prince, but the previous Prince, Kemény, didn't acknowledge the results, which led to a brief civil war.

Apafi, heavily outnumbered, barricaded himself in a city, and Kemény proceeded to besiege him. Before the siege could have been started, an army composed of light cavalry came out of the city (why Apafi's infantry didn't participate, is an interesting story in itself, but would be off topic here).

The besiegers didn't take them seriously ("what could such a small band of light cavalry do against proper tercio infantry?"), and thought they were only out for harassing them, a tactic not uncommon for light cavalry. They expected they will exchange some fire with each other from afar and then retreat (the whole thing being done only to slow down the perparation of the siege), as was common for that troop type, so they sent their musketeers forward. The light cavalry started to get closer. The musketeers fired from afar, obviously causing next to no damage, expecting the light cavalry to be skirmishers and doing the same. However, this is when the light cavalry rushed them without firing a single shot. Surprised, and not having enough time to reload, the musketeers ran back, and got intermingled with their own pikemen when the horsemen crashed into them. The pikemen couldn't hold the line due to the swarm of their own musketeers fleeing through their ranks, and they broke. Thus, most of the army started routing, and in such a case, troops standing in the back don't see what's happening in the front, don't see that they alone would be enough to win the battle, they only see their own comrades panicking, throwing away their weapons and fleeing, so they join the rout instead of staying there. Kemény's heavy cavalry was nearby and tried to intervene, but couldn't reach the position, having to plow through their own fleeing infantry. Some of them got stuck in them, others trampled down their own infantry, and that situation was no longer salvageable, the army routed from a force less then one fourth its size.

This example was meant to illustrate, that there are situations, where even an army which would otherwise be "invincible" against its opponent, can lose due to incompetent leadership, a surprise attack, or just a combination of good timing and good luck from their opponent's perspective.

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If you hold high ground above them, you can roll heavy boulders or burning barrels of tar to a pike square without any form of artillery. On a plain you'd need something like a Trebuchet but even a small one could deliver incendiary projectiles.

Fire has the ability to break even a disciplined formation, and penetrates in ways simple projectiles don't (hence flamethrowers against fixed fortifications in the 20th century). Of course Greek fire projectors could be similarly employed.

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The interesting thing about Pikes is that they're only really effective against two things, Light/Medium Cavalry and Light/Medium Infantry. Cavalry Archers peck pike formations to death from range. Heavy Cavalry will get badly messed up doing it but full armoured knights on barded horses can actually charge home over the top of a pike formation due to shear momentum. Ranged Infantry whether with bows or muskets goes about the same as the horse archers only slower. Heavy Infantry wearing full armour and carrying swords and shields can grind through a pike phalanx, it hurts but given equal numbers the heavies tend to win, there are specialised formations for doing it faster as well. Against less than full armour pikes have a serious advantage; light/medium horse can't take the hurt and charge home anyway so they're neutralised while the formation holds together, light/medium infantry is at most only as heavily armoured as the pikemen and can be held at bay by the longer pikes taking losses without inflicting them.

That's all when you take pikes as a solo field force, when they're part of a mixed arms force with reactive cavalry and are being used to shield artillery and other ranged elements they can be next to impossible to deal with.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer is not quite right. Pretend you are a soldier in armor and told to charge a bunch of people carrying 18ft, pikes, you're weapon as a traditional heavy is a macr/warhammer. You cannot get close because you ( the front line man) are fighting against the first three ranks of pikes. The Spanish invented rodeleros (men in light armor with daggers who literally crawled along the ground between two pike formations to break the formation) Germans had doppelsoldiers who used huge two handed swords to bat pikes aside so that the German pike could kill the other pike. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Sep 5 '17 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ There have been exception when non-counter pikes defeated pike regiments but those are the exception. A disciplined group of pikes is to scary to attack if their pikes are pointed at you. Of course for pike to be effective they have to be in a close formation, break the formation and the pike die, or run $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Sep 5 '17 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ @GarretGang Their flanks have also historically seemed a softer target than those of other foot soldiers, I think its an issue of individual soldier agility, pikes are awkward weapons. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 5 '17 at 16:53
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Aside from mixed crossbow formations, I think pike square formation is vulnerable to pike square formations. I'm pretty sure Landsknechte did something similar to handle things. If I recall correctly it wasn't really a good solution either. Someone referred to it as bad war. There's also another tactic that Landsknechte employed involving knocking the pikes out of the way with Zweihanders. Really the hardest non-gunpowder counter to a square pike formation is good armor - I'm fairly certain Landsknechte also had this. Pikes are good at relatively fleshy targets. They're not so great for hard targets. I don't think this is a great solution either in all honesty.

Of course, someone could just beat this formation by being better at war. I fail to see how square pike formation holds up to lighting most of the area the pikemen occupy on fire.

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