Battlefield vs. Personal Combat Weapons (Shadwolf)

One of the considerations of fantasy warfare has to be the specific role of weapons.  Some weapons were designed to be used by the individual while others were designed for use on the battlefield.  The mace, as an example was not a very effective weapon in single combat.  In essence, the mace was an optimized club.  As an individual weapon, clubs and their like were discarded fairly quickly in favor of better weapons.  With the rise of the shield wall and heavier armor types, a new weapon was needed.  The main combat was being conducted by the spearmen on either side of the wall, but this never lead to any great advantage to either side.  If you could break through the wall, however, and your troops had high speed close combat weapons, then you could quickly shatter the enemy phalanx and destroy them.  There were several contenders in this category.  The two most successful were the falchion and the axe.  Another was the mace.  The philosophy was simple:  You had all the weight at one end so a quick swing could deliver maximum force to the target.  This meant you could do enough damage to get through a shield or breastplate, but still be fast enough to get inside of a spear and kill the guy wielding it.

This raises the question as to why the sword was so popular.  The answer is simple.  A sword is almost as fast as an axe or mace and has better range.  It is also faster than a spear and has at least some range.  Spearmen will still kill swordsmen, and axemen can kill them if they can get into a close press, but the sword can fight against both to some extent.  The proper use was to keep a reserve of swordsmen behind your line.  If a breach formed in the shield wall, you could send in the swordsmen as a stopgap until you could reform the line.  If the enemy spear flanked you, they could help there too.  If cavalry got behind you and you couldn’t set spears in time to stop them, the swordsmen charged in.  As a result of this, your swordsmen had to be well trained, well but lightly armored, and fast.  This meant that you were talking about elite wealthy troops.  Thus the swordsmen were the knights, Samurai, Cavaliers and the like.  In effect they were the fighter pilots.  The bombers do all the important work, but the fighters get the credit.  Same thing here – Axe and spear are your best weapons, but the guys in shiny armor with swords running up and down the field to all the hot spots are the ones that catch your eye.

7 Responses to “Battlefield vs. Personal Combat Weapons (Shadwolf)”
  1. valiance says:

    Why were maces such crappy personal combat weapons but so effective in mass combat?
    What makes one use an axe over a mace or vice versa? They seem to have near identical combat roles.
    How does one zero-sum-balance when one weapon is clearly superior to another.

  2. Maces were actually better as a low time investment personal defense weapon as opposed to a formation weapon like a spear or polearm. You use an axe instead of a mace because you can afford one and are adept at striking with one edge of the impact point, and you use a mace when you are likely to be whipping the thing around without concentrating so much on precision, like when you have a ton of strength but little skill or are on a horse, or when you want to be faster. If a weapon is just clearly inferior to another choice you typically just don’t use it unless you are unable to get the better weapon at all due to technology limitations, cost, or legal issues (air rifle vs. light machine gun) or are using it for a specific ceremonial or other social purpose.

  3. Shadwolf says:

    A sword is generally an evenly balanced weapon. This allows it to be swung around easily to parry, thrust or slash. This makes it an ideal single combat weapon, but it requires a degree of skill. A mace, on the other hand, has all of its weight at one end, making it far more awkward to swing. When you swing it one direction, you tend to go off balance and it is awkward to reverse the swing. A mace also requires no real training to use effectively. Because of the weight distribution, when a mace strikes, it does so with far greater force than a sword. You can demonstrate this by driving a nail with a hammer. Then try driving a second nail using a steel pipe. You will notice a big difference in how much energy is imparted to the nail on each blow. In a mass formation you end up with the ability to field a larger group of cheaper troops with a weapon that is more likely to inflict a fatal blow, especially against armoured opponents. A perfect example of this is the battle of Agincourt, where the English destroyed a superior group of more heavily armoured French knights. Though people often give credit to the longbow for that one, it has been discovered that most of the kills were delivered with the clubs that the English bowmen used. An axe is functionally like a mace except that it requires a bit more skill (though less than a sword) and has even more damage capability than a mace.

    The mace (or club), the axe, the kife and the spear were the first weapons developed by humans and have remained in use up to the modern day for a reason. They work. Other close combat weapons that have been invented since were generally designed with a limited purpose and are generally not as effective. (A quick note to all you Japanese schoolgirl obsessed anime fans: the katana is not an exception – first because it doesn’t generate nearly the force of an axe or mace. If you doubt this try chopping down a tree with one. Second because it requires a significant amount of training to wield effectively.)

  4. Shadwolf says:

    As far as balance, the axe or mace would be a higher base damage weapon, whereas the sword would have greater defensive abilities and critical hits to reflect its more versatile nature. The axe and mace would also have greater armour penetration. In a typical MMO an axe or mace would be ideal for characters who want early power and intend to focus on strength for damage and armour for defense. The sword would be better suited for those characters who are going for finesse and are willing to suffer at lower levels to gain a greater range of abilities at higher levels.

  5. Great stuff guys, thanks a lot. I’m reading and digesting what you’ve said, and I may have some comments (not just questions) in the near future. Any books or sources about medieval warfare/personal combat/arms and armor that you guys recommend?

  6. Great stuff guys, thanks a lot. I’m reading and digesting what you’ve said, and I may have some comments (not just questions and responses to your answers) in the near future. Any books or sources about medieval warfare/personal combat/arms and armor that you guys recommend?

    re Mu: It seems to me in MMO terms an axe is simply better than a mace–perhaps the mace has the edge in speed and effectiveness against armor–but the axe does more damage nearly as quickly (and at better range?).The mace’s ease of use, cheap price, and broad effectiveness against all armor types don’t recommend it to an adventurer who is high level (thus wants a weapon like a sword or an axe with a high skill ceiling), rich (thus doesn’t care about price) and discerning (wants the right weapon for the job–and likely has an inventory large enough to hold a weapon for every armor type) which is going to be every adventurer by endgame. Perhaps it could work as a secondary weapon that takes up a different kind of slot, or a good cavalry weapon…

    re Shadwolf 1: The superior balance of a sword is an advantage that completely eluded me, thanks! Swords can parry very easily, other weapons not so much. OTOH maces do more damage and are easier to use (though as per above this last is hardly an advantage in an MMO)

    I recently read the same thing about the clubs at Agincourt. Blew my mind since that factor went unmentioned when I studied that battle a decade ago.

    re Shadwolf 2: you sort of have to assume everyone makes it to max level anyway–at least among the hardcore people you balance for, so a weapon like a mace starts to lose out in that sense. Maybe there’s something to forcing sword wielders to invest in intelligence points, or training, or dexterity, leaving the unglamorous mace-user with somewhat of an advantage in other statistics like strength. Your axe/mace user is then your lumbering berzerker, with high strength/damage and low dexterity/intelligence while the sword user is more like a fencer, using his weapon’s superior balance to parry blows and strike at weak point in armor. This deserves a bit more thought since I’m writing off the cuff here…

    and where does all this leave the poor spear, which excels in group formation (like the mace but moreso) but suffers in individual combat? (Or does it?) Can a spearman take a swordsman one on one? I imagine it’d be too easy to get inside the spear’s effective minimum range as long as one can parry or block the spear, but I defer to your expertise in the matter. (and why does 1 on 1 matter? well if we aren’t talking about an RTS, in an MMORPG most combat will be 1 on 1 or at best small group tactics, hardly the same as a mass combat/battlefield environment with proper room for arrows that arc, and formations and flanking and masses of men with spears.)

  7. I would have to go back through my books to find references, but a few starting points might be:

    interesting links on how a sword works from a scientific standpoint:

    Wikipedia’s brief explanation of the physics of a hammer (which applies to maces and axes as well):

    Note that the same rules apply to a sword, but the weight of the “head” would be much smaller (being comprised of only the tip of the blade). A sword could be thought of as a hammer with a very small head and a very heavy handle. Additionally, the sword can be thrust against unarmoured opponents (and, with more difficulty, at armoured ones). Thrusts would be potentially far more devastating, but require exponentially greater skill.

    As far as the MMO application, the axe or mace would still be viable at high levels, having greater damage than a sword, but based on strength, whereas swords might be more agility based. The sword would rely on higher skill to produce more frequent criticals while the axe or mace would rely more on raw strength.

    As for the spear, historically it is the all or nothing weapon. It has a reach advantage over other melee weapons and is very fast. This has traditionally been represented by giving it a variety of special rules, but in modern computer games it can be accurately be represented by having a quick animation, short recharge time and a longer range. This will make it effective for all the reasons it was in real life. In real life it was always one of the most effective weapons. The only shortcomings it had are somewhat more tricky to simulate. First, it was not as effective at shorter ranges, which could, I guess, be represented by a longer recharge time vs targets closer than a certain range. Second, certain melee weapons (most notably axes) could be used to break off the the tip of the spear, rendering it useless.

    One important thing to understand about mass combat vs single combat is the number of combatants who can attack. A man with an axe takes a fair bit of room to be able to swing it without hitting his buddies. A man with a bastard sword suffers the same problem. A man with a thrusting sword, however, can stand shoulder to shoulder with his allies, allowing several to attack a single enemy. The greater range of a spear allows even more people to attack a single target. In on idea I had for a tabletop game, I thought this could be represented by having different units have different size bases. Thus a group of Romans armed with gladius’s might have 1″ bases, allowing them to be placed so three could simultaneously touch an opponents base ans attack him, while a Saxon armed with a bearded axe might have a one and a half inch base, limiting them to one attacker per target.

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