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Partisan Weapon: A 15th-Century Spear of the Humanists

The partisan weapon, used primarily for impaling the adversary, entered into use in the 15th century as a more controllable and “powerful” form of the pike.

Partisan Weapon at a Glance

What is a partisan weapon?

A partisan is a type of polearm weapon with a long wooden handle and a metal spire. It has two symmetrical cutting edges that are straight and terminate in two curved fins at the base.

What is the history of the partisan weapon?

The partisan emerged in the 15th century in Italy and was used as a more controllable and powerful form of the pike. During the Middle Ages, it was a common polearm in Europe. The Germans called it the winged spear. It was mostly employed as an aesthetic weapon in ceremonial settings as time went on since it was ineffective on the battlefield. The partisan weapon was utilized ceremonially for a long time, even after it became obsolete when firearms became more widely available and usable.

How was the partisan weapon used?

Infantrymen often used the partisan to fight off cavalry attacks. The spearhead’s protrusions had a second purpose: They could be used to catch and trap an opponent’s sword, enabling the user to disable them.

What is the origin of the partisan weapon?

The partisan, like the halberd and the ox-tongue spear, is a polearm weapon with its roots in Italy. The currently accepted theory is that the partisan developed from the boar spear used by the milites and the laboratores in the High Middle Ages. Artistic depictions from ancient Rome (bas-reliefs of the Consulate of Rome) that date back to the 1st century provide clues to the origin of this weapon or its earlier forms.

The partisan is a spear-like poled weapon with a long wooden handle and a metal spire that is made up of two symmetrical cutting edges that are straight and terminate in two curved fins (or wings) at the base. The Renaissance saw widespread usage of this edged weapon in Italian warfare, but by the end of the 16th century, it had mostly been abandoned on European battlefields. As a symbol of authority or a place to display a department insignia, the partisan (or partizan) remained in use far into the 19th century as a popular cold weapon.

History of the Partisan Weapon

Various types of partisan spears.
Various types of partisan spears.

The partisan, which was smaller than most polearm weapons, resembled an axe blade and paired a spearhead with two razor-sharp fins to look like a cut-piercing weapon with no possibility for throwing.

The “partisan” melee spear, a sort of spear used primarily for impaling the adversary, entered late medieval European infantry armament in the 15th century as a more controllable and “powerful” form of the pike.

During the Middle Ages, partisan was a common polearm in Europe. Claus von Ahlefeldt (1614–1674), a Danish commander, used this specific one in February 1659, when the Swedes attacked Copenhagen.
During the Middle Ages, the partisan was a common polearm in Europe. Claus von Ahlefeldt (1614–1674), a Danish commander, used this specific one in February 1659, when the Swedes attacked Copenhagen. (Image: Knud Winckelmann)

The spontoon and the ranseur (a cross between a partisan and a spetum) probably took their cue from this polearm weapon. The Germans called it the winged spear.

The partisan, like the halberd and the ox-tongue spear, is a polearm weapon with its roots in Italy. It first emerged in the 15th century.

Infantrymen often made use of the partisan to fight off horse attacks. The spearhead’s protrusions had a second purpose: They could be used to snag and trap an opponent’s sword, enabling the user to disable them.

A Yeoman guard depicted holding a partisan weapon.
The Yeomen of the Guard, a play by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842–1909) A 1992 postage stamp in the UK. (Image: Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo)

The partisan was mostly employed as an aesthetic weapon in ceremonial settings as time went on since it was ineffective on the battlefield. In fact, the partisans began to leave the battlefield in the second half of the 16th century.

The partisan and other polearms became obsolete when firearms became more widely available and usable. Despite this, the partisan weapon was utilized ceremonially for a long time. Guards protecting significant buildings or events may still be seen carrying ceremonial partisans today, such as the Yeomen of the Guard, the ceremonial bodyguards of the British monarch.

Ceremonial Moscow guard clothing with a partisan from the 17th century, Kremlin Museum.
Ceremonial Moscow guard clothing with a partisan from the 17th century, Kremlin Museum.

The guard corps in charge of protecting the sovereign’s person, such as the specialized Swiss guards present in almost all Western monarchies, had reduced the partisan to a purely ceremonial role by the late 16th century. To this day, the partisan is a staple of the equipment of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

Beginning in 1700, all fusilier company chiefs and infantry regiment staff officers in Russia were required to wield a partisan. Infantry officers were not permitted to have partisans in the ranks during peacetime by the decision of Peter I in 1711.

A partisan weapon from the first half of the 16th century.
A partisan weapon from the first half of the 16th century. (Image: ArsValue)

Under the False Dmitry I in the 17th century, partisan was introduced to Russia for the first time.

There were strict rules in place by 1719–1720 about the colors of brushes used in the partisan’s handle. The brush that ornamented the top of the shaft indicated the officer’s rank by its color and substance. Only musketeer officers in 1730 had access to partisans. In 1731, the weapons were phased out in favor of spontoons for officers.

The rank of an officer of the Russian army, 1720sThe color of the silk brush on the partisan
ColonelGolden
Lieutenant colonelSilver
MajorSilver with gold threads
CaptainWhite
Lieutenant CaptainBlue
LieutenantRed
Second LieutenantGreen
Russian partisans.
Russian partisans.

Origin of the Partisan

The partisan, like the halberd and the ox-tongue spear, is a polearm weapon with its roots in Italy. The weapon first emerged in the 15th century.

According to the currently accepted theory, the partisan developed from the boar spear used by the milites (footsoldiers) and the laboratores (a social rank) in the High Middle Ages.

Dutch officers armed with partisans and halberds. Painter Frans Hals, 1633.
Dutch officers armed with partisans and halberds. Painter Frans Hals, 1633.

However, artistic depictions from ancient Rome (bas-reliefs of the Consulate of Rome) that date back to the 1st century provide clues to the origin of this weapon or its earlier forms.

3D illustration of a partisan weapon.
3D illustration of a partisan weapon. (Image: 123rf)

Partisans have several names. It is called pertuisane in French or partigiana and “spiedo alla Bolognese” in Italian. The latter name is the most common in the country since it attributes the Renaissance pole weapon’s genesis to Italian Bologna through the boar spear.

Between the latter half of the 15th century and the early 16th century, the partisan was widely considered a nobleman’s weapon.

The guards of King Louis XIV of France, armed with partisans. Painter Jacques Lamonier, late 17th century.
The guards of King Louis XIV of France, armed with partisans. Painter Jacques Lamonier, late 17th century.

During its heyday (around 1450–1505), the partisan was seen as an essential element of any gentleman’s military training. It is one of the few polearms discussed in depth by traditional fencing experts of the 15th and 16th centuries, particularly in Italy.

In his great martial compilation Opera Nova (1536), the Bolognese fencing master Achille Marozzo discusses the usage of the partisan weapon, either on its own or in conjunction with a tiny shield of the Rotella type (a round shield).

Partisan in the Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 1888.
Partisan in the Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 1888.

Partisan is mentioned in many of Shakespeare’s plays as a typical weapon of the guards or townspeople.

Design of the Partisan Weapon

the partisan weapon
Partisan of the Swiss Guard of Friedrich August of Saxony (reigned 1694–1733), ca. 1725. (Image: Metmuseum)

The partisan is a very sturdy spear; however, it can only be used in close combat and cannot be thrown.

  • The rod of a partisan often had a solid wooden handle anywhere from 63 to 110 inches (160 to 280 cm) in length. However, this varied by nation and time period.
  • All partisans were typically between 63 and 80 inches (160 and 200 cm) in height before they became decorative weapons.
  • More than 12 inches in length (30 cm), the partisan’s blade is triangular in cross-section and forged from one piece of metal.
  • When seen from the side, the two, pointed ears resemble a crescent, and they are thinner than the main blade.
A Polish partisan with iron blade
A Polish partisan with an iron blade.

The blade of a partisan was longer than 12 inches (30 cm), and it was sharply triangular and rhomboidal in cross-section. A long, pyramidal gorge fastened it to the shaft. The spontoon, like the boar spear, corseque, and ranseur, had two fins at the point where the blade met the gorge.

Flamboyant blade of a partisan weapon similar to a flamberge sword, with an octagonal ferrule damascened, c. 1640.
Flamboyant blade of a partisan weapon similar to a flamberge sword, with an octagonal ferrule damascened, c. 1640. (Image: GRANGER – Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

These fins resembled the lugs (knobs) on an early medieval boar spear, but they grew outward from the blade rather than the gorge. A “flamber” form, similar to that of the flamberge-type two-handed broadsword, may be seen on the blade of certain examples.

Like the infantry spears of ancient times (see sauroter), the hardwood shaft (63–87 in; 160–220 cm in length) of this weapon featured a metal counterweight (wedge) at the opposite end of the blade.

Decorations on the gorge, inlays on the shaft, and other kinds of damascening on the blade of a partisan were commonplace in the examples used by the elite guardhouses.

The Etymology of the Partisan

A man with a partisan weapon. the English Civil War Society commemorates the execution of King Charles I.
A man with a partisan weapon. The English Civil War Society commemorates the execution of King Charles I. (Image: G Scammell / Alamy Stock Photo)

The partisan was a common weapon in southern Europe, although it was less common in northern Europe. The partisan and the spontoon are quite similar types of weapons in the Germanic realm. The partisan, together with the corseque, is classified as a ranseur in the Anglo-Saxon cultural basin.

The partisan gained great literary success in Italy during the Renaissance, alongside the more developed period of Renaissance humanism. Writers in the 15th and 16th centuries started using the term “partisan” to refer to the melee spear, as opposed to the extremely long pike, and “lance” to refer to the cavalry spear (for instance, the word “lance” actually comes from Latin for spear).

A rare partisan of the yeomen guard of Queen Anne.
A rare partisan of the yeomen guard of Queen Anne.

Even better, the term “partisan” began to be used by the Renaissance humanists to refer to ancient infantry spears that could be used in combat but could be thrown if required (for example, the dory or hasta spear), unlike the extremely long pike.

As the partisan became more common among the infantry forces, some countries were able to fill a major void in their military lexicons, as the word “lance” could sometimes refer to both melee weapons and horse weapons, and even polearms thrown from a distance.

Types of the Partisan Spear

A partisan in a museum, along with a few spontoons in the right background.
A partisan in a museum, along with a few spontoons in the right background.

There are two most popular partisan variants, and one is smaller, lighter, and throwable with an iron blade between 9 and 12 inches (22 and 30 cm) in length. The other version of the partisan is a longer and heavier form of the ranseur that can have an iron blade as long as 24 inches (60 cm), and it is mostly not throwable.

References

  1. Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor – Roger Ford, R.G. Grant, – Google Books
  2. The Use of Medieval Weaponry by Eric Lowe – Goodreads
  3. Partisan of the Swiss Guard of Friedrich August of Saxony (reigned 1694–1733) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Alby Butler

Alby Butler is a writer for Malevus who specializes in historical weaponry. He obtained an undergraduate degree in history and went on to pursue a graduate degree in military history, during which he extensively researched the evolution and utilization of weapons throughout history.