The Halberd: A Weapons System of the Swiss Guard
By: Jefferson P. Webb
Without question there are a plethora of extremely effective and efficient weapons that were utilized during the Medieval period to defeat one’s enemies. But how many of them are still in military service today, and held by men who know how to use them? One without a doubt is still in service and that weapon is the halberd. The halberd is much more than a single weapon, it is a weapon system. There are a great number of applications for this weapon when in the hands of a skilled soldier.
When taking a look at this weapon, even the novice will immediately imagine many different uses for the weapon rather than one single function. One characteristic of this weapon is its ax blade. This aspect of the weapon lends itself to hacking/chopping and slicing, just as one can imagine an ax head doing. The head of the halberd has yet another feature called the fluke, or hook. The hook was used to hook mounted troops and pull them off of their horses.1 Naturally one was also able to swing halberd and drive the hook into an enemy as well as unseat him from a horse.
Yet another devastating feature of this weapon system was the spike that protruded from the top of the weapon. This spike was used for thrusting actions much as a spear would have been used. One can imagine a formation of medieval period soldiers with halberds’ heads bristling in front of the advancing troops. The other parts of the halberd are the socket, where by the weapon’s head mounted onto a shaft, the shaft itself which was 8 feet in length, and the langet, which was a metal extension of the head itself that ran down a portion of the length of the shaft and fixed into place to give greater stability to the head and greater strength to the shaft itself.2
The devastating consequences of this weapon used efficiently can be exampled when examining the Battle of Morgarten in the year 1315AD. At the Battle of Morgarten, The Austrians and Swiss were pitted against one another. The terrain favored the Swiss in the battle and the Swiss lured the Austrians under the command of Duke Leopold I into a trap, thus constraining the Austrian cavalry from being able to move with the freedom it was use to.3 What followed next was a Swiss attack with halberdiers that decimated the ranks of the Duke’s cavalry. The Austrians were driven back by the Swiss forces of whom had used the halberd with deadly efficiency. To deal with cavalry in open terrain, the Swiss reverted back to using long pikes in a classic phalanx formation with the first few ranks using pikes and the remaining ranks using the halberd.4 This proved extremely troublesome to cavalry units facing the Swiss formations of the Medieval battlefields. And while the phalanx in and of itself was not a maneuverable formation in the Classical period when the Greeks were using it nor when the Swiss were later using it, the middle to rear ranks wielding halberds added a great flank protecting aspect to the formation that phalanx warfare was not exactly well-known for having. Furthermore, these units of Swiss halberdiers and pikemen were supported by ancillary units such as crossbowmen as well as handgunners.5 The supporting forces usually deployed forward as skirmishers and bought time for the Swiss phalanx to maneuver or redeploy into a defensive square if needed.6 A very important part of the Swiss formation aside from its pikes and halberds was the special shock troops within the phalanx center that were heavily armed with morning stars, Lucerne hammers and two-handed swords.7 The purpose of these forces were to charge out of a section of the phalanx and attack enemy forces at close range as a counter punch in defense, or as an added aspect of an assault once a time was deemed suitable for the shock troops to attack.8
Clearly there was more to the Swiss formations and their tactical system than just the halberd, but the halberd played a key role in the fame earned by a professional and well-disciplined Swiss army. These troops were so highly regarded that many of these units gave mercenary service to other states. The men earned such a reputation for themselves that the Swiss Guard are today still in active military service as elite guards of the Vatican. These soldiers, clad in uniforms that would appear to be right out of the Medieval or Renaissance periods, are extremely highly trained professional soldiers. They still maintain the halberd as their weapon while on duty. The halberd weapon system with all of its functions made a deep and lasting impression on the history of warfare. And is one of the few weapons of the Medieval period that are still in active service today, not as a ceremonial weapons, but as a means by which an elite military force stands ready in defense of the Church.
1.Preston, Richard, Roland, Alex, Wise, Sydney F. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships With Western Society 5th ed. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning 2009. 81
2. Preston, Richard, Roland, Alex, Wise, Sydney F. Men in Arms. 81
3. Preston, et al. 80
4. Preston. 80
5. Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Medieval World. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books Ltd. 2009. 180
6. Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Medieval World. 180
7. Carey, Brian Todd, et al. Warfare. 180
8. Carey. 180
Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, John Cairns. Warfare in the Medieval World. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword 2009.
Richard Preston, Alex Roland, Sydney F. Wise. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships With Western Society 5th ed. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning 2009.
Iconis.com. Swiss Guard Photo. http://iaconis.com/italy.htm. Accessed 21 May 2011.