Irish Single Handed Spear Fighting Combat Guide

  The single handed spear is quite different to the double handed spear. In your stronger hand, you can hold a spear between 120 and 165cm long, depending on preference. In your 'off-hand', you can hold a large shield (Greek, Viking) or a small shield & light spare spear (Irish, Roman Hastati). You should be very familar with the double handed spear before attempting to use the single handed spear, as it requires considerably more wrist and forearm strength.
7thC Irish Spearman, spear held couched between arm
Choosing the right spear is quite important; it needs to be stiff, yet flexible, light yet strong. New fighters should likely start out with a very short spear, perhaps 120cm, until they are used to the weight. The closer the spear is to your height, the more unwieldy it is with one hand. The shield will also be a matter of preference; vikings tended to use shields with 55cm to 75cm diameter, Irish may have used smaller ones, perhaps 20 to 30cm across.

The primary difference between single and double handed spear is footwork. Where double-handed spear has the wielder side-on to their
Normans at Hastings holding spears overarm
target, single handed spearmen should stand square on, so they can use both spear and shield. To a limited extent, a single handed spear is similar to a longsword, and a lot of the same moves can be made if you are willing to slash with the spear. A good initial attack might be to approach with the spear-leg back and the spear in "nebenhut" - pointing back to the right. Swinging the spear in tandem with the lead leg starts a devestating attack that has to be countered by the other party.
Spears can be held loose, around the midpoint, or couched. Couching the spear can give extra range and power, though flexibility is considerably reduced. Spears should be held around the balance point. It is tempting to hold it further back to get extra range, but this will put a lot of strain on the wrist. If you need the range, couch the spear briefly.

When held at the midpoint, the spearman can attack and block with both the tip and back end of the spear shaft. this sort of twirling motion is not easy to acheive, but is well worth practicing. You can try make use of an attackers momentum by rotating the back end into an attack, then using the bounce to power a stab with the head. [TODO: include video clip].

Learning the single handed spear

Initially, the hardest part is being able to control the momentum with a single hand. Practice calibrating your thrusts by repeatedly tapping a small target, like a fence post. Try not to lock your elbow when thrusting; you will lose the ability to pull the shot.

The next thing to practice is maintaining control of the tip of the spear when a stronger weapon is trying to bat it away. The best way to work on this is against an opponent with a double handed spear. It's really really difficult until you build up the required forearm and wrist muscles to block or stab-knock a double handed spear. Have your opponent try to catch your spear with theirs, and toss it to either side. They will have momentum and leverage, and should force you to learn speed and accuracy very quickly. Any thrusts will usually be significantly deflected away from the target - expect this when planning your thrusts, especially in line fighting.

Getting started with combat

Once you move on to actually sparring with someone, make heavy use of your shield initially. Don't try block with your spear until you get comfortable with it. Initially, you should target the chest, stomach and thighs, if the target is armoured or padded. If they are naked, all shots should slide past the target, then be dragged back to look like a kill shot. Keep the spear and the spearhead low. You can also often use slashing shots, to the lower arms, hips etc. as with a large heavy sword. Most people will not take such chops as a kill shot, but they look good and can be distracting; so telegraph them well.

As you get comfortable, start practicing overarm (like the Normans above). This is really dangerous; over arm is intended to make it easy to stab someone in the face or neck. It should only be done with the permission of person you are attacking. Be especially careful of high stabs to a shield - the other person may deflect or bring the spearhead up into their face. Try be aware of your total body footprint; with a single-handed spear, your spear can stick out a meter or more behind you, and up to half a meter to each side with deflections. Don't let your line-men crowd you - you require more room to work than sword and axe men.

Advanced moves & tips

After a while, you will notice that your thrusts are being deflected to the left or right in a predictable manner, depending on which side of the attacker you thrust toward. Use that momentum to block the countershot. When attacked, you can use the back end of the spear to block, and use the resulting momentum to power a nice thrust. With practice, shots can be blocked repeatedly like a one-handed quarterstaff. [TODO: INCLUDE VIDEO OF AWESOMENESS]

Before you field with the single handed spear, you need to practice in a 'crush'. The single handed spear is very awkward in a melee environment; it can be almost as tall as its owner. Your primary aim should be to be safe.

New Additions to be made;
  • Thigh, arm, head slashes from both sides
  • Horse stance
  • Fight almost square
  • Three ways to hold the spear
    • Couched
    • Spear dropped low
    • Spear overhead
  • Couching;
    • Circling enemy shield (video?)
    • Can step forward with right foot
    • Able to spin swords etc.
    • Couch outside arm to block/sweep in
    • Good for blocking low stabs
  • Dropping spear;
    • Stab from below
    • Whip back end at waist or thigh
  • Overhand
    • Double-down-smash on long spear (video!)
    • Shoulder or face smash from above
    • Tuck spear tip down along forearm, to force an opening
    • Keep thumb on spear shaft, pointing back to stop spear tip rising
    • From overhand, slash right-left-right
  • Practice moving between stances without opening guard
  • Practice via polearm; glaive or halberd
  • Second spear;
    • Can protect leg, too slow for main attack
    • Cover guard-changes with shield/spear
  • Be careful in a line
  • Don't try blocking with both spears in a cross - too slow
  • Watch out for people whipping your spear-tip around
    • Practice getting out of that situation without pain

Copyright 2008, John Looney.
Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Single handed spear examples

Two Short Spears vs. Double Handed Spear