The Spontoon at a Glance
What is a spontoon?
The spontoon is a pole weapon that was commonly used in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It was a long polearm, often exceeding 80 inches in length, with a sharp tip and an inverted crossguard. Originally derived from the French term “Esponton,” it was primarily utilized by infantry officers and had both ceremonial and battlefield applications.
How did the spontoon differ from other weapons like the ranseur and partisan?
This weapon had some similarities to the ranseur and partisan, leading to confusion in the nomenclature. However, the distinct features of the real spontoon included a quadrangular or spherical spearhead with no lateral blades and an inverted crossguard at the tip. In contrast, the ranseur had three teeth coming from a single point, while the partisan had an elongated blade with lateral projections.
What was the role of the spontoon in military history?
This polearm served as a defensive weapon during sieges and was used in infantry formations during battles. It played a crucial role in maintaining straight lines and enforcing formations, particularly during the linear tactics of the 17th century. Additionally, the weapon had ceremonial significance and symbolized military prestige. Over time, its usage declined with the advent of newer firearms and changes in warfare strategies.
How did the spontoon find its place in American history?
The weapon made its way into American history during the Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States. Commissioned officers were required to carry a spontoon, and it became a symbol of power and leadership on the battlefield. It was also utilized ceremonially and had significance within the American armed forces. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition even included the use of these polearms during their travels.
What is the status of the spontoon today?
This weapon is now considered obsolete in modern warfare and is primarily of interest to militaria collectors and military history enthusiasts. However, it still holds ceremonial value in certain contexts. For example, the US Army’s Fife and Drum Corps use these spears as ceremonial weapons. Its historical significance and unique design continue to captivate those interested in studying and preserving military weaponry from the past.
The spontoon (or “half-pike”) was a pole weapon that often exceeded 80 inches (2 m) in length and sported a sharp tip with an inverted crossguard. In certain variations, the spontoon looks just like a partisan, which is an entirely different type of weapon in terms of its shape and design. The second part of the 17th century saw the introduction of spontoons and newer infantry combat tactics. This cold weapon gained popularity and widespread use throughout Europe in the subsequent centuries, remaining in use until the 19th century as one of the most commonly used pike weapons.
|Type of weapon:||Polearm|
|Other names:||Half-pike, Ceremonial spear|
|Origin:||Italy, Middle Ages|
|Utilization||Infantry and ceremonial|
|Total length:||80–100 inches (2–2.5 m)|
|Weight:||2.2–2.65 lb (1–1.2 kg)|
Initially, this weapon was always less than a cubit (18 inches) from the height of its user, although when it entered the official position, its measurement changed to 7 feet (2.10 m).
There are specimens from 72 to 95 inches (184 to 240 cm). The military spontoons were often 85 inches (215 cm) long and weighed 2.65 lb (1.2 kg), with a blade length of 15 inches (37 cm).
Spontoon vs. Ranseur vs. Partisan
Some alleged spontoons with their thick, triangular spearheads bear a striking resemblance to partisans. It seems that throughout history, there has been a perplexing mix-up in the nomenclature of these weapons.
The actual spontoons (the first one in the above image) sported a quadrangular or spherical spearhead with no lateral blades, and they look nothing like that aforementioned variant.
The aforementioned spontoons also look similar to the ranseur because of the blade’s tricuspid leaf. However, the distinctive feature of the ranseur’s three teeth coming from a single point makes it simple to distinguish between them.
According to the Italian Military Dictionary (1833) by Giuseppe Grassi:
Spontoon, derived from the French term “Esponton,” refers to rod weapons featuring a long quadrangular or round iron head that is relatively small but sharp at the tip. While it had some usage during chivalrous times [11th–15th centuries], it was not primarily employed as a battlefield weapon. However, modern armies reintroduced it in the 17th century, where it served as the weapon of choice for infantry officers until the late 18th century. Known as a half-pike in French, it measured eight feet in length. The spontoon gradually fell out of favor during the French Revolution. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the spontoon, along with other polearm weapons, occasionally played a role in the defensive tactics employed during sieges.Italian Military Dictionary, Volumes 1–2 by Giuseppe Grassi, 1833.
A blade of iron or steel was fastened to a sturdy wooden shaft (pikestaff) to create the spontoon. All spontoons were built from durable and sturdy hardwoods.
This double-edged infantry weapon was pointed at one end with a thin but long iron blade that could be either square or rounded.
Almost all spontoons adorned a crossguard that was inverted at its tip. While the other variant with lateral blades usually had no crossguards and therefore looked more like a partisan.
In contrast to the pike, the spontoon was a weapon of more manageable proportions. At its longest, this polearm still measured less than 100 inches (250 cm).
Confusion with the partisan weapon: Throughout history, there have been two distinct variations of the spontoon.
One variation resembles a partisan weapon (seen in the center of the above image), characterized by its elongated blade with lateral projections, while the actual spontoon (seen in the below image) bears a closer resemblance to a traditional spear.
The real spontoon (above) has a broad and spherical spearhead with a crossguard inverted at the tips. The other “alleged” spontoon with lateral blades does not have a crossguard.
In this lateral-bladed version, the blade begins as a metal cone and gradually flattens into a half-disc shape. The blade’s central, thick portion and its two lateral blades emerge from this disc.
The lateral blades, which may take the form of arched prongs, are noticeably shorter than the central blade. The main blade is pointed and lanceolate in cross-section and tapered on both sides.
In certain variations, the central flat portion of the blade is ingeniously designed to incorporate an axe blade, creating a hybrid structure that combines the functionalities of both a spontoon and an axe, making this weapon ideal for chopping (see: Bec de Corbin).
During the Middle Ages, the spontoon was invented in Italy, just like many infantry spears and staff weapons. It was used to describe a type of spear in Italy during the 16th century and later referred to as a “half-pike” in France in the 17th century. These weapons, often adorned with coats of arms or monograms, were used as symbols of military prestige.
Swords with lances, spikes, or halberds were standard issues for officers, noncommissioned officers, and corporals in the 17th century. This gave rise to the spontoon, a weapon that was originally more for show than defense.
The linear tactics of the period necessitated that the infantry be kept in a straight line, and this polearm was used primarily to enforce this. Soldiers of the banner guard were commonly armed with such weapons because of their utility in repelling enemy cavalry.
During the time of Louis XIV (1638–1715), it was exclusively reserved for officers, serving as a military-grade weapon until the French Revolution in 1789. In Spain, the spontoon, along with other polearms, was utilized by infantry in the 16th century. Eventually, it became the exclusive weapon of officers, following the fashion set by Philip IV of Spain. The halberd was used by sergeants, while higher-ranking officers wielded the spontoon.
In most armies, noncommissioned officers and corporals no longer carried lances, spikes, or halberds by the end of the 18th century. After the Napoleonic Wars, the majority of armies only carried swords and sabers, with some commanders also carrying pistols if necessary or desired.
In Poland, it was used in the military under Saxon rule until the army reform by the Great Sejm in the late 18th century. In England, officers used it until 1786, and sergeants used it from 1792 to 1830. Sergeants in several different armies kept their spontoons around 1850, long after they had been phased out elsewhere.
The Functionality of the Spontoon
It served first as a defensive weapon during sieges to defend city walls and then as a ceremonial object. Infantry troops used it as a half-pike in the pikemen formations (“Pike and Shot”) that were the standard battlefield model at the time in the 17th century.
Pikemen with spontoons in square formations became the standard for city defense in this century, expanding the capabilities of infantry units. While their fellow soldiers transitioned from a column formation to a line formation, it was crucial that the men holding their posts did it successfully.
In situations when forces had to change formations while under attack from the enemy, the spontoon proved vital, as its carriers in the rear lines were able to shield the troops in the front from the oncoming attacks.
The spontoon also gained popularity as a weapon for use on the high seas while approaching ships. Similar to the halberd and its variants in the British Army, this polearm remained in use as a weapon for infantry company commanders until almost the end of the 18th century.
This weapon was a characteristic weapon of noncommissioned officers that persisted until the 18th century, even as the bayonet superseded other bladed weapons on European battlefields.
The spontoon was first used in Prussia by King Frederick I (r. 1701–1713). However, its usage had been outlawed in some European countries, including Prussia, since 1806.
They were outlawed during the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia, reinstated under the reign of Paul I, then outlawed once again in 1807. The elimination of all polearms in the Prussian army marked the end of their usage. However, it actually fell into disuse during the Napoleonic Wars.
Several English noncommissioned officers utilized the spontoons at the Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746). Even during the Napoleonic Wars, sergeants relied primarily on this weapon to protect the battalion or regimental insignia against assaults by horsemen.
Spontoon in American History
The spontoon lasted in use long enough to make it into American history and join the Revolutionary War arms. During the Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States, this weapon was an important ceremonial and symbolic weapon. In the 1890s, active American troops were still using this polearm.
Commissioned officers were required to carry a spontoon, per the American Militia Acts of 1792. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery voyage included the use of this weapon. The polearm served the Corps throughout their travels into bear territory.
- The American officers in infantry units in the 18th century made extensive use of this two-handed spear. Officers carried these symbols of power to lead their men on the battlefield. Despite their lack of regular employment in battle, they were sometimes put to use in intense hand-to-hand combat.
- This weapon had great symbolic and ceremonial significance in the American armed forces. On the battlefield, it served as a visible marker for troops to identify their superiors and as a symbol of the officer’s power and leadership.
- The European military traditions, especially those of the British Army, affected the development of the American spontoon’s design. The American military later adopted and modified the weapon after first using it by British commanders stationed in the American colonies.
- The polearm rose to prominence in history as a weapon used by commanders on both sides of the American Revolutionary War. Early American military forces like the Continental Army and state militias also made extensive use of it.
Today, the US Army’s Fife and Drum Corps use spontoons, one of the colonial military weapons, as a ceremonial weapon (also known as an espontoon).
Later, as warfare strategies and technology advanced, the weapon became obsolete in Europe and the United States. Its role on the battlefield shifted from that of a primary weapon to a more ceremonial one when guns (like muskets) and other innovations were introduced.
It was no longer issued to officers as a matter of course by the late 18th century, having given way to newer firearms.
Historical polearms like this hold great appeal for militaria collectors and military history enthusiasts alike, who find intrigue in acquiring and studying polearm replicas, gaining a deeper understanding of the weaponry used in historical conflicts.
Originally intended for close-range combat, the spontoon became primarily a rank badge for infantry officers. It was prominently used during battles to guide soldiers in maintaining lines, distances, and formations. Additionally, it served ceremonial purposes during parades and salutes, and even some palace guards wielded this polearm.
- Spontoon Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster – Accessed 22 May. 2023.
- Lewis & Clark, Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery – Google Books
- Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-quarter Combat – Hans Talhoffer, 1467 – Google Books
- Uniforms of Russian army during the Napoleonic war vol.1: The Infantry Fusiliers, Grenadiers and Musketeers (Soldiers, Weapons & Uniforms) – Viskovatov, A.V., Cristini, Luca Stefano, Conrad, Mark: – Amazon.com: Books