It would come to no surprise to anyone that melee combat in movies and fantasy is generally inaccurate any more than it would surprise people to learn that hand-to-hand combat rarely resembles a Jet Li film. I wanted to make a few points about melee weapons in general:
The Spear: The spear is probably the most popular weapon ever used in pre-gunpowder combat. The reasons are obvious enough: it has significant reach and, as most of the body is wood, it is rather easier and cheaper to produce than a weapon made mostly of steel or bronze. The spear allows for a two-handed grip Even shortspears can be effectively used with two hands, though they are typically meant to be used in concert with a shield. The spear's narrow point and long body allows for a powerful thrust that can punch through lighter armors and/or find openings in mail. Spears, like swords designed for stabbing, present a very narrow frontage and thus are quicker and harder to evade than the chopping or slashing attack. Also keep in mind that the vital organs are inside the body, not sitting right next to the surface. Impalement is more likely to strike an organ, which is one reason why most modern 'fighting knives' are rather mediocre; a weapon less than a foot long requires you to get rather close to an enemy to actually hit something important.
Many specialized types of spears exist for use on horseback, they are often called lances. and these were the primary weapon of both the European chevaucee and the Japanese and Chinese mounted warriors. The long point allows it to be protruded foreward of the horse's head. Combined with a properly executed charge the spear can be devastating. This is one reason many military historians and medieval enthusiasts rather doubt the scenario of knights crashing together. For one, you can't force a horse to run into something it can't jump over, such as another horse or an infantry formation. Thus for a charge to work the spear has to level the opponent before the horse itself reaches the enemy, something which is practically impossible in a mounted charge. you may instantly kill the man riding the horse, but the horse itself is still there and the man may still be in the saddle.
For these reason actual armed charges likely took place mostly at the rear and flank of an enemy, where a couple of men can be dashed down by the spear, after which the horse would wheel around for another charge. A full-force charge of knight vs. knight, if it were even possible to get the horse to do it, would result in mutual disaster. Against other knights a charge was carried out to the flank of the opponent, the spear being somewhat to the right (or left) of the horse's body. The horse would assent to riding past another horse, but not into. Thus knight v. knight charges mainly occured when formations were already broken up, allowing for room to carry out a lateral charge.
The massed charge itself was rarely of the Total War type, in any case. A charge primarily served to scare and break up infantry units, not to ram through them like a tank. As stated in the initial post, horses won't run themselves into things; but as no one wants to be the guy who meets the lance (especially when he's flanked and not set for a charge) the infantry would scatter like birds before a charge.
Neither the knight nor the samurai (functional equivalents, in many military senses) were supposed to be uber-warriors. This is a Romance theme that reflects political power more than reality. The knight or samurai is equivalent to SWAT. They utilize specialized weapons, armor and mounts to gain tactical and positional advantage. While their killing power should not be underestimated their primary function was to disrupt enemy ranks and serve as multi-purpose, mobile assistants in places where their own lines were weakening.
Spears are fairly ineffective against plate armour unless a tremendous force is behind them, and even then it is more often the blunt trauma than a piercing blow that kills. Steel is tough stuff, after all, and medieval armorers knew what they were doing.
The Pole-Arm: The pole-arm might be thought of as a number of specialized types of spears. These occur in almost infinite varieties, demonstating the importance of spear/pole weapons in European armored warfare. Some have ends that look a bit like a can-opener, and this is just the sense they were intended to be used, to use leverage to break or (more likely) tear off the various plate segments and expose the person inside to injury. Other specialist pole-arms have hooks designed to pull a rider off his horse or pull footman down to the ground.
Aside from the 'can opener' a very popular pole arm was the halberd or poleaxe. Essentially an axe head mounted on a spear, it was probably very rarely used like an axe - the balance is off and the reversal of leverage means it takes quite a bit of power to lift up and smash downward, exhausting work. Likewise the length of the wooden shaft means it might snap if one struck too hard with it, as one would when using it for chopping. Most typically a halberd would be used in a similar manner to a katana, in a circular slashing motion. It is essentially a long-distance cutting weapon.
The Axe: As a chopping weapon the axe is unparalleled. It is, quite simply, designed to chop things. The smashing power of an axe-stroke is one of the few things that might break through maille (especially iron maille), but penetration of armor is not the primary purpose of an axe. Its smashing power does allow it, however, to function somewhat against maille and plate via blunt force trauma. Against opponents in light or no armor the axe is obviously brutally powerful, capable of rending limbs with ease. While many kinds of axes and styles probably existed one central feature of an axe is that it is heavily weighted towards the end. It is slow to engage and change direction as compared to a weapon like a sword or spear, so it is probable that circular motions utilizing the momentum of the axe predominated, at least with short-axes. This creates a 'zone of death' which is difficult to get through.
The Military Pick: The military pick is a long head, narrowly tapered and often with a hammer on the reverse. It is quite a terrible weapon; it delivers small wounds, is slower and less versatile than an axe and generally awkward to use. It's sole upside is that it can punch through plate and maille very well. The military pick was not used, as far as I know, anywhere outside of high medieval Europe.
The Mace: After the spear, the mace is the footman's best friend. A mace is essentially a heavy chunk of metal, little more than a refined club. In later times the mace usually had some protrusions or flanges to focus the blow. The mace has the advantage of being very simple to use (even simpler than the spear). While footwork and target selection are important in the use of the mace almost anyone can use it to deadly effect. The smashing-power of a mace is it's primary utility. Against a mace maille armor is practically useless, and repeated blows can begin to crumple or rend apart plate armor.
The horseman's hammer or warhammer is essentially a mace with the exception that its striking surfaces tend to be fore and aft instead of omnidirectional. The warhammer is very popular for use from horseback, with a haft around four-feet long. Used with the weight of a horse behind it it can crumple armor, and often had a spiked reverse to allow penetration of plate armor.
The morningstar and similar weapons are similar to a mace, but they are often less weighted at the head and have a longer, spiked body. The utility of the spikes is obvious, they allow for stabbing opponents with a blow, and possibly penetrating armor. The disadvantage is the same as any spiked weapon, it can take time and effort to withdraw it from the opponents body; only more so since a morningstar usually has multiple points along the striking surface.
The flail principle is probably derived from threshing implements (nunchaku are a kind of flail that are a direct descendent from threshing tools). The hinging action of a flail acts in a similar way as the leverage-stroke of an axe (sliding the fore-hand forward as the axe chop descends), and the ability to spin-up momentum allows for more powerful blows that would be possible using a solid warhammer or mace. One can also strike around an opponent's weapon or shield. The disadvantages of a flail are that one can hit oneself (even experts do this all the time with nunchaku), the feeble parrying capacity and the ability to get tangled up by an enemy's weapon or shield. The last reason is why the flail's chain was usually rather short, and also why chain weapons never became as popular in Europe as they were in the more peasant-oriented warfare of east Asia (another reason being that the unweighted chain weapons of East Asia would be pretty mediocre against heavier armors).
Compare the force of a flail to a mace, though, and you'll see why it was in use. A heavy morningstar, such as the 30+ lb. Japanese Kanabo, has an impact force of under 500 psi. A spun-up flail can strike with well over 1000 PSI, two to three times the impact of a heavier morningstar and all concentrate in the ball (as opposed to the broader face of a morningstar). Impact force is not as important against unarmored foes, but against a man in armor can decide the fight. The weighted flail is probably the most lethal weapon stroke-for-stroke against armored foes, but its numerous functional difficulties kept it from supplanting the standard mace.
The Sword: Undoubtedly the most popular weapon in film and fantasy, the sword is a very multi-purpose weapon. But this very versatility is its weakness. A double-edged longsword with a thin tip (i.e. the 'Black Prince' type) is capable of chopping or slashing like an axe as well as stabbing like a spear, but without the specialized efficacy of either. This is why most elite horsemen will carry a sword, but as a secondary weapon. As with swords the stab-attack is generally harder to evade and defend against and concentrates more force at a single point, of great use against armor.
Swords, of course, come in thousands of varieties. The katana is an excellent draw-cutting weapon, but not designed for parry or stabbing in particular, and it would probably be next to useless against a man in full plate and mediocre against a fully mailled opponent. The 'longsword' is designed for stabbing primarily, though it often has one or two sharpened edges which allow for sixteen different directions of attack. The scimitar is essentially half-axe and half-katana, excelling as a slashing and chopping weapon for those in light gear, but not particularly well suited against armor. Curved swords of the scimitar and sabre design are often meant to be used from horseback, and this is a major reason they are curved: to allow for a shorter weapon with as much edge as possible. The 'broadsword' design is designed primarily for chopping, having a single well honed edge but being awkwardly shaped for stabbing or the circular motion of a cut/slash attack.
In medieval Japan and Europe the sword was, as indicated above, a multi-purpose backup weapon. It's most common use was probably finishing off opponents already routed by spear and macemen. This was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. The Roman soldier's fighting technique is debated hotly, but the one I find most plausible is that the pilum was primarily used as a javelin or to set against a charge. Once the battle closed to hand-to-hand the short sword of the Roman soldier was used into conjunction with the shield to bear an opponent down and slay him with stabs to the face. Short swords along the gladius type excel in both stabbing and chopping, but their limited range obviously leads something to desire.
It has been proposed by some (such as the writer Maddox) that the two-handed sword was used primarily to clear a pike wedge, and not for use against opponents. I find this unlikely, and so does Arma's Hank Reinhardt. I suspect they were used with a specialized style but essentially as they appear to be: great chopping blades of extraordinary range.
One often neglected point of European sword fighting is what is called 'half-swording', grasping the upper portion of the blade for use in defence (like a short staff) and offence (to trap an opponent's weapon and overrun him). Keep in mind that a knight's hands were covered in full plate or mail, thus he was not likely to cut himself in the process. Likewise, stabbing is almost always a preferred mode of attack over chopping, it is faster, delivers more concentrated force and requires less energy.
A point about the sabre and other swords in the Renaissance and Napoleonic+ times: once body armor was abandoned, swords ceased to be sharpened for the most part. A dull blade is easier to manufacture and physically hardier, better for parrying, too. And against someone with no armor a dull sabre will kill just as easily as a razor sharp katana. Metal > flesh.
This, however, is not specific to the Renaissance period. One of the most cited advantages of a well-made Katana is its sharp edge. This is true, as it is a slicing weapon. However, swords do not need to be sharp. They never have, and the practice of sharpening a heavy sword was more out of ignorance than utility - especially against armored foes. Swords cut and stab because they are made of steel.
While a Katana might be more impressive for chopping watermelons in half, in the actual killing-use a blunt-faced sabre will do just as well and is also more flexible and longer. Japanese warfare and metallurgy was extremely insular and their iron is very poor in quality. The reason for the famous folding process was that it was necessary to make a sword usable at all. The high-carbon iron of Japan makes for very brittle weapons. Even after much folding and refinement the Katana is still less flexible and more brittle than an equivalent European or Near Eastern weapon.
The Katana is a fine secondary weapon if you're fighting unarmored peasants, but against a fully armored warrior they are less than desirable. The Samurai themselves recognized this, which is why the pole-weapon, spear and bow were their favored armament. In the later periods a Samurai's Katana was just about as much for show as anything else, even if it was a well made blade. Much like the Japanese swords issued in WW2 or the costume sword of the 19th century nobility it was a status marker and not typically used in combat. Sadly, this has been lost under a flood of Asian uberweapon mythology, something the Japanese themselves are only to keen to promote as it sells a lot of knock-off katanas.
Another issue is that one does not want to parry with the cutting edge of a weapon (which is why Katanas are not designed for parrying at all). The flat or backblade is where the parrying stroke should land. The edge is the weakest part of the sword, and if there is any way to use a sword most likely to break it is edge-to-edge BS like you see in movies. Not only are katanas not designed for parrying, parrying with a European sword does not resemble the methods used in movie. This sword-to-sword combat is taken over from sports like fencing and kendo, where you are fighting with your oppoent's sword rather than your opponent. The objective of a European parry was not to block an attack but to draw the enemy's weapon away from you and open his guard for a counter-cut. Standing as far back as possible and bashing your swords into one another might impress the slack-jawed populace, but it is an idiotic waste of energy and damaging to a real sword.
An additional point about parrying in movies is why it is possible for them to go edge to edge so much without significant damage. This is because prop and sport swords are made blunt-edged and out of a more flexible steel, such as spring steel. You can tell this on occasion, such as in the Lord of the Rings films when Aragorn's sword will visibly 'jiggle' on a parrying stroke. While later European swords were flexible, they were far more rigid than that. A stabbing sword must have some rigidity to maintain its structure when punching through a difficult surface so that it acts as a spear instead of bowing outward and dissipating the force of the stroke through the blade. There is a very fine line between too rigid and too flexible, and European smiths experimented for hundreds of years trying to get just the right mix. One reason the Renaissance and later blades are so much more flexible (aside from more advanced metallurgy) is that the lack of armor meant that there was less of a solid obstruction that would force the blade to bow out. This meant that a tougher, springier sword could be made without sacrificing killing power.
One of the largest downsides to any sword is that it requires a lot of technique to wield properly. Swords require intensive training and mobility exercises, as compared with the simpler mace and spear weapons. This is also probably why swords and fencing were the mark of nobility; only the elite could afford to become true swordsmen. This is not to say that poor and irregular troops did not use swords, only that they did not use swords very well.
The Dagger: The dagger was a very common weapon around the world and throughout most of history. Easy to manufacture, its short-size means it is relatively strong (there is less leverage available to break it as compared to a sword). Its shortness is an obvious disadvantage, and daggers were rarely used alone. Contrary to the sports of knife fighting as seen in the modern world, the dagger does not seem to to have been used much for slashing or body attacks. Fencing manuals indicate that the most popular use of the dagger against armored opponents was to stab into the crevices of armor. Against unarmored opponent the most popular dagger stroke seems to have been the downward thrust into the hollow of the collarbone, which can be quite fatal. Modern 'fighting' knives and daggers are quite small compared to historical daggers, which were more like narrow short swords.
A cousin to the dagger is the true fighting knife. The knife is a short blade, often relatively heavy and thick. Fighting knives were usually for slashing and chopping, though many of them had a pointed tip also. The knife sees relatively little use in European warfare, probably because the dagger was more useful against heavily armored foes. Outside of Europe, though, it was well known. The kukri and machete are excellent examples. The essence of the design is like a scimitar short-sword: a heavy, deeply curved blade with a sharp edge. This kind of weapon can sheer through lighter armors such as leather or bamboo and easily take off limbs. The disadvantages of the fighting knife is its shortness, relatively high weight and (like all cutting weapons) its limited modes of attack. Knives like the kukri can be thrown to great effect, somewhat like a boomerang. The true throwing knife, however, was not really a fighting knife; more of a weapon of surprise and assassination.
Modern 'fighting' knives, such as the Kabar, SOG Seal or various Cold Steel shortblades are not really fighting knives. They are so short that one would have difficulty dismembering or striking the internal organs. They are actually tools (and this reflects their primary usage on the modern battlefield) which can in an emergency be used to fight. The combat inefficacy of the Kabar has made the Kukri a popular supplementary weapon among combat troops in modern armies.
The Shield: The shield is not only a defensive device, it is also a weapon. Defensively it allows to put distance between oneself and the opponent as well as block incoming blows. Offensively it is used to trap weapons and/or bear an opponent to the ground. Shields were usually made of wood, and are as variegated as the sword. Many shields had metal trim, but others intentionally did not: an opponent's weapon might well become trapped if it lodged itself into the edge of a shield, and as wooden shields were somewhat disposable this was an intelligent tactic.
Shields provide excellent defence against arrows. A special fencing shield, called a buckler, was a small piece of wood and/or metal used to deflect attacks and protect certain areas of the body.
This being said, the shield is more a feature of classical warfare than it is of the later medieval periods. By the high medieval period the sword-and-shield combination was rather rare among footmen or knights. Armor technology had made maille and plate armor so effective against weapons that it was less necessary to block enemy blows and more important to have a lot of power or agility to your attack. The medieval knight or footsoldier would therefore be equipped with a two-handed weapon which was more effective against armor (thus the great axe or zweihunder) or a second weapon, such as an axe or a mace; or possibly a dagger. This gave him added versatility and striking power or, in the case of the dagger, a manueverable weapon with which to seek out holes in the enemy's defence and armor. Two weapon fighting little resembled movie or D&D akimbo. It does not allow you to strike faster, because a proper weapon blow requires you to shift your mass and hips and the power comes from the legs (just like boxing). This means you can only effectively strike with one side of your body at a time. The exception would be the offhand dagger, which derives its power from a stabbing speed and not so much from mass.
Edited by RJMooreII, 09 July 2012 - 09:32 AM.