Medieval Weapons: What Common Weapons Were Used in the Medieval Period?

By the middle ages or medieval period, European blacksmiths could produce high-quality weapons for soldiers at a mass level. The knight class would expect ornately carved pieces that were combat-ready, while foot soldiers were happy for anything sturdy and reliable. Many of the medieval weapons, such as the sword and bow, had been used for thousands of years, while new technology like the crossbow and ballista were behind many decisive victories.

What Weapons Did European Knights Really Use?

medieval-weapons

European knights of the Middle ages used a wide range of medieval weapons. Swords, war hammers, and pikes were common. While maces and clubs were more likely to be used by commoners, some knights would use a flanged mace.

Outside of warfare, knights might also be seen with a lance or spear, but these were used for entertainment or ceremony. While knights knew archery and would sometimes hunt this way, the use of the longbow by them was rarely seen in battle – archers were rarely of the heraldic class.

While knights would use these hand weapons, larger medieval weapons would be constructed and used during warfare under the supervision of engineers. These “siege weapons” would often spell the difference between victory and defeat.

What Was a Knight’s Main Weapon?

The most popular weapon of a knight in warfare was either the “knightly sword” or mace. The decision to use either often came down to the armor the opposing force wore, as metal armor effectively protected against bladed weapons. While maces were as effective against leather and mail, the sword was far more likely to finish a soldier in a single swing.

The Knightly Sword: A Single-Handed Cruciform Sword

Single-Handed-Cruciform-Sword

The knightly sword, or “arming sword,” was a one-handed sword of about 30 inches in length. With a double-edged blade and a cross-formed hilt, these swords were made of steel, with a hilt made of wood or bone. Later hilts were part of the blade themselves.

The knightly sword evolved from Viking swords during the 11th century and was commonly used with a shield on the other hand. Weighing two-to-three pounds, these swords would be swung in great arcs to gain maximum force in battle. While the blade’s tip was not particularly sharp, a forceful stab into a fallen soldier could be a finishing strike.

A knight’s sword would also have an inscription on its blade. These were often prayers or blessings, but many are indecipherable to modern archeologists. A popular technique was to only offer the first letter of each word in the inscription, so some medieval swords found contain markings that read “ERTISSDXCNERTISSDX” or “+IHININIhVILPIDHINIhVILPN+.”

One of the most famous “knightly swords” to exist today is the royal ceremonial sword of England, “Curtana.” “The Sword of Tristan” or “Sword of Mercy,” this knightly sword has a long, legendary history dating back to the time of Arthur. It currently makes up part of the Royal Crown Jewels.

Other Melee Weapons for European Knights

European knights and soldiers would not only rely on their swords. Most walked into warfare with more than one weapon, and against armies with different armor, they would even consider changing weapons to make them more effective.

The Dagger

Dagger

The dagger has a strange history, being popular during ancient times and falling out of favor until halfway through the middle ages. These medieval weapons were designed the same as the knightly sword but smaller, barely a foot long in the blade. They were a secondary weapon in warfare – with a pointed sharp blade, knights used them for a final blow (giving some the name “misericorde” or “mercy blow”). The stiletto dagger, thin and sharp, was also a popular close combat weapon held by messengers, thieves, and spies.

Daggers were also used as everyday tools, a universal knife for hunting, eating, and woodcraft. While a knight might keep a dagger in good condition, and even have the hilt ornamentally carved, ordinary soldiers kept them the same way a modern soldier keeps their knife.

The Roundel dagger is an interesting artifact of the middle ages. It had a round hilt and spherical pummel and was explicitly designed for stabbing. The roundel was very popular in England during the 14th and 15th centuries. During a modern post-mortem of the remains of Richard III, archeologists discovered that he suffered a wound to the head caused by the Roundel, among other killing blows.

The Messer

Messer

The Messer was a long sword with a single-edged, 30-inch blade and no pummel. Popular among the german soldiers, students of the 14th and 15th centuries would be taught to use the Messer in training and to appear in the fighting manuals written by Albrecht Durer.

Maces

Various-Maces

The mace was a natural evolution from ancient weapons, and armies developed different versions in eastern and western Europe. Being simple and inexpensive to make, they were the most common weapon of ordinary soldiers. The flanged mace, which would have thick blades or spikes protruding from the head, was said to have been favored by Russian and Asian fighters.

The Pernach, or Shestoper, was a six-bladed mace popular in Eastern Europe. Unlike the Western maces, this was carried by commanders. It was as much a symbol of authority as a deadly weapon that could slice into armor and chain mail.

A popular myth about the mace is that it was the weapon of European clergy. The story developed that, as it would not cause bloodshed, and was therefore acceptable in the eyes of god. However, there is little evidence that this story is accurate, and it likely stems from the Bishop of Bayeux and his depiction in the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

Today, the mace is still commonly used, but as a ceremonial object in houses of parliament or as part of the royal crown jewels. The same object is often referred to as a Sceptre in these instances.

War Hammers

War-Hammer

The War hammer, or Maul, has a history dating back to the 2nd century BCE and the rebel Judah Maccabees. However, there wasn’t widespread use of these medieval weapons until the late middle ages.

Long-handled hammers were designed for the infantry, while mounted cavalry used shorter-handled weapons. English long-bowmen often carried a maul to deliver a coup-de-grace on a wounded enemy.

The handle of the War hammer could be between two and six feet long, while the heavy head would be approximately three pounds in mass. Unlike the “hammer of Thor,” the medieval weapon looked like a modern carpenter’s hammer – on one side was a sharpened, curved “pick” that could be used to catch on the enemy’s armor or trip over their horse. On the other side was the flat or balled side, which would be used to strike the enemy.

A well-swung, long-handled hammer could hit with enough force to inflict blunt trauma through an iron helmet or pierce through plate armor.

Pikes and Poleaxes

Pikes-and-Poleaxes

While throwing spears go back to the earliest moments of human civilization, ranged pole weapons quickly fell out of favor outside of sporting events. However, pole and staff weapons remained an important part of defensive tactics, as well as being used in anti-calvary charges.

During the middle ages, there was a resurgence of the ancient spear-like weapon of the Pike. 10 to 25 feet in length, they were made from wood with metal spearheads. While previous iterations of the pike were used as defensive weapons against cavalry, medieval pikemen were often far more aggressive. Bernese pikemen at the Battle of Laupen could charge forward as a cohesive group, overwhelming infantry forces while remaining out of reach. Using pikes for offensive purposes could only be successful when archers were out of play.

The poleaxe (or pollaxe) is one of the more unusual weapons of the middle ages. Approximately six feet long, with a large axe head on one end, it was used for both large swinging blows and close-up quarter-staff-like fighting. The design of the head could be very different between armies, with some heads utilizing a hammer or spike on the reverse side of the axe, while some used a smaller axe blade. The cap of the poleaxe would be its own spike.

The Poleaxe should not be confused with the Halberd – a more modern weapon with a larger axe head, long spike, and shorter shaft. The Halberd was popular among many soldiers of the 17th century and was used defensively. Unlike the poleaxe, trained soldiers would use it like a two-handed axe rather than a staff.

Pole weapons are still commonly seen today during ceremonies and marches. The company of Pikemen and Musketeers could be seen as part of the parade during King Charles’ recent coronation. A fun little bit of etymological history – “pole” or “poll” in the poleaxe refers not to the staff, but the prefix “poll-” which means “head.”

What Was the Deadliest Medieval Weapon Held by a Knight?

By far, the deadliest weapon was the flanged mace. It could both crush metal armor and cut through leather and flesh. It is its effectiveness in medieval warfare that lead to it being the weapon of choice for commanders and eventually the ceremonial item it is today.

What Were the Siege Weapons Used During the Middle Ages?

Solid stone walls were a castle or town’s best protection during the early middle ages. Of course, invading armies soon found ways to deal with this defense in a way that caused considerable damage while protecting their own troops. Ballistic weapons, which included the Ballista, Trebuchet, and Catapult, would through massive projectiles, while the battering ram could be used to knock down the heavy wood entrances to the castle. Instead of going through, some armies would go over the walls using complex Seige Towers.

Trebuchets and Catapults

Trebuchets-and-Catapults

While the catapult was used as early as 400 BCE, its importance as a siege weapon was not fully realized until the middle ages. During this time, it was used both to breach walls but also to attack the people behind them, sending over balls of fire, dead animals, and assorted rubbish.

Trebuchets were a new design of catapult that used a counterweight that could send missiles further than ever before and with much greater force. The first counter-weight trebuchets appeared in the early 12th century, under the employ of the great general Saladin.

The most famous use of the trebuchet was in the siege of Stirling Castle in 1304. The “Warwolf”, constructed by Edward I, would require 30 wagons full of parts to build and could throw a rock weighing nearly three hundred pounds. According to accounts at the time, it knocked down the castle’s wall in a single shot.

Ballistas and Battering Rams

Ballistas and Battering Rams

The ballista sometimes called the “bolt thrower,” was essentially a giant crossbow. It could fire a large “arrow” twice the distance of a long bow and pierce a tree. During the 6th century, the Greek scholar Procopius wrote of an unfortunate soldier who was,

“by some chance was hit by a missile from an engine that was on a tower at his left. And passing through the corselet and the body of the man, the missile sank more than half its length into the tree, and pinning him to the spot where it entered the tree, it suspended him there a corpse.”

READ MORE: Ancient Greece Timeline: Pre-Mycenaean to the Roman Conquest

Battering rams were ancient siege weapons still in use during medieval times. These large heavy logs (or stones carved to such a shape) could splinter open castle doors. The ram would either be supported by rollers or swung on ropes, and later versions would include wooden coverings so soldiers could not be attacked by soldiers on the wall.

Records state that battering rams were used during the sack of Rome, the siege of Constantinople, and battles during the Crusades. While the larger siege weapons fell out of fashion with the invention of the trebuchet and then the canon, modern police forces still use small battering rams to breach buildings today.

Siege Towers

Siege-Towers

Unlike other engines, the siege tower was designed not to break down the walls but move soldiers over them. A siege tower would be made of wood and would be made to be slightly higher than the castle walls. Moved on wheels, archers would sit on top of the tower, firing at soldiers on the wall to keep them distracted while it moved forward. When near enough, it would drop a gangplank when near enough, and soldiers would rush up its ladders and over the wall.

Later siege towers would incorporate battering rams to attack the doors simultaneously, offering angles of attack.

Siege towers were developed in the 11th century BCE and were used in Egypt and Assyria. Their popularity soon spread across Europe and the Middle East, while Chinese siege towers were independently invented around the 6th century BCE. During the medieval period, siege towers became complex engines. At the Siege of Kenilworth in 1266, a single tower contained 200 archers and 11 catapults.

READ MORE: Ancient Egyptian Weapons: Spears, Bows, Axes, and More!

What Was the Deadliest Medieval Siege Weapon?

The trebuchet was the most dangerous siege weapon for both brutal force and distance. Even small trebuchets had what it took to break down a castle wall, and incendiary missiles were just as effective against large groups of combatants.

Archery, Longbows, and Crossbows

crossbow

The bow and arrow is one of the oldest weapons known to man, with arrowheads from 64 millennia ago found in a cave in South Africa. Ancient Egyptians referred to Nubia as “the land of the bow,” and the Sanskrit term for archery was also used for all other martial arts.

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline: Predynastic Period Until the Persian Conquest

During medieval times, the bow was used singularly as a hunting weapon. However, masses of archers could still cause considerable damage as they “rained arrows” down upon armies three hundred yards away. These groups of archers played the most significant role in the success of the Battle of Crecy and The Battle of Agincourt.

Archery was not only confined to footsoldiers. Those skilled at firing from horseback were also considered deadly against small groups of infantry. Soldiers from Asia and South America had performed these feats for centuries before the Turkish cavalry introduced it to Europe during the first crusade. While Western European nations never successfully used bows in this fashion, Scandinavian armies found mounted crossbowmen to be effective. The Norwegian educational text, Konungs skuggsjá, describes calvary using winch-controlled, small crossbows during medieval warfare. They would rush into battle firing before either drawing swords to finish the remaining infantry, or retreating to reload in a “hit-and-run” maneuver.

Crossbows were complex mechanical weapons intended to replace the traditional bow and arrow. While Chinese and European crossbows differed in how they were released, they also used different materials.

Crossbows originally had to be drawn back by hand, with archers having to sit or stand and use brute manual force to draw back the string. Later medieval versions used a winch, making it less tiresome.

The crossbow would shoot a shorter, thicker arrow, sometimes made of metal, called a “bolt”. Most bolts could pass through European mail armor quite easily, and specialized heads were sometimes used to slice through ropes.

While crossbows were much more powerful than longbows and could often shoot far further, they were unwieldy, took a long time to reload, and were inaccurate. While devastating in groups, cross-bowmen were otherwise unpopular. The Chinese did use a “bedded crossbow”, somewhat smaller than the European ballista, but it is unknown how effective they were. In medieval warfare, these medieval weapons had a short lifespan. Most popular during the 14th and 15th centuries, they were quickly replaced with gunpowder weapons, which were just as slow to reload but far deadlier to shoot.

How Was Medieval China’s Weaponry Different from European?

The middle ages in Asian history were just as bloodthirsty as it was in Europe. Chinese family-states were at constant war, as their borders constantly changed with Mongolia and southern countries. Millions of men would die in the battle over the centuries, as soldiers were considered lower-class and dispensable. While all men would be skilled in some form of warfare, China’s upper class, or scholar-gentlemen, were more likely to be taught strategy and communication.

It was during the Ming Chinese Dynasty (1368 to 1644) that the most significant changes in military weaponry and tactics occurred. Archery and Equestrianism were added to the four arts, with all Imperial scholars expected to pass examinations in these skills. Soldiers were expected to be proficient at bow and arrow on horseback, not just as footmen, and winning an archery contest could be a way to increase your standing in society.

Historians today tend to agree that it was the tactics that made Chinese military units so deadly. While every “knight” knew archery and calvary skills, the commoner’s use of the spear and the saber would make all the difference at the end of the day. The Chinese also had their own forms of cross-bow, using a different firing mechanism to European devices.

Due to early advances in gunpowder technology, Chinese trebuchets and catapults were also far more deadly compared to their European counterparts. Explosives were launched using siege weapons and then exploded within the walls of castles. The Chinese also developed the gunpowder canon centuries before Europeans had access to this technology.

What Medieval Weapons are Used by the Military Today?

It might be surprising to learn that many of the weapons of the medieval era are still used in modern armed forces. Crossbows are still used today to fire grappling hooks and “less than lethal” anti-riot missiles, while special forces are still using modern bow-and-arrow technology as a silent but powerful weapon. Today, many of the world’s soldiers are issued with their own close combat knives, whether it is the double-bladed Fairbairn-Sykes dagger of the British or the US Ka-Bar.

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