The other week I saw a photo of a model of an ancient warrior holding a spear. A familiar image but this time something about it got me thinking. I don’t have the particular picture but the drawing below shows the same pose in the left figure.
What occurred to me was this. Why is the warrior holding the spear in the middle? Why carry a spear eight or nine feet long and only use four foot of its reach? Some of you will have said “for balance” and I will deal with that in a moment. Note that when the fighter holds his spear single handed in this way about a metre projects behind him. Ancient warriors often fought in close formations so the length of spear behind a warrior is going to be a hindrance to the rank behind. Often the butt of a spear was fitted with a spike such as the “sauroter”i> (lizard killer) used on some Greek spears and this would prove a real hazard to the ranks behind.
My favourite way to use a fighting staff is for my rear hand to grip it about a foot from the butt. This gives me a length of material below my hand to defend or attack with which is not so long that it cannot be moved past my torso in certain movements. Since the staff is a long homogenous cylinder this grip point is nowhere near the balance point. The staff is mainly used two-handed but some moves just use the rear hand. This is practical because when I make such moves the bottom part of the staff presses up against my forearm above, counterbalancing the greater length of the forward part.
I don’t know any ancient spearman but I do have a friend who was a pikeman in English Civil War re-enactments. I ran some ideas past him. One thing I learnt was the balance point of a Civil War era 16 foot pike was a third of the way up from the butt. Grasping at this point it should be possible to hold the pike single-handed at chin level. Given how pikes were used it is logical their balance point should be more towards the user. My friend also observed that my five foot fighting staff was actually heavier than many longer spears. He also observed that pikes and indeed many spears had their shafts tapered towards the head.
Unless the head fitted was very heavy, tapering a spear shaft would shift its balance point rearward. We know that some spears such as those of the Persians were fitted with counterweights at the butt. Fittings such as the sauroter may have had an additional role in adjusting the spear’s balance. There are therefore a number of techniques a spear maker could use to construct a spear that could be wielded while gripped closer to the butt end. In Cowper’s book “The Art of Attack” he mentions spears with a swelling or other arrest near their butt and describes that these were so the spear was not lost when darted through the hand to provide more reach. It is obvious from this that spears were sometimes gripped below their middle.
Gripping a spear about a cubit from its butt would give more reach and allow comrades behind to fight with less hindrance and hazard. Rearward ranks could also move closer to the forward ranks so be able to offer more support to the forward warriors.
Here is a video on the single handed use of spears.