Irish Two-Handed Spear Fighting Combat Guide

The spear - good for beginners, fun for the experienced.

The spear is a good basic weapon, and is recommended as the first weapon anyone learns with. Its sheer weight helps to build upper body stamina and strength. Its length keeps beginners back from the heat of the battle. It is also cheap and effective. The basic concepts of combat, once learned safely on the spear, can be transferred to the sword and the other pole-arms (quarter-staff, glaive, pole-axe). This guide is still in development as of November 15th, 2008; I still have the new "Fiore" spear-fighting manuscripts, the Ottawa reenactors spear tutorials and some classical greek sources to digest. Feel free to discuss this tutorial on

Kill shots, in real life

Dangerous Attacks

The spear was primarily a stabbing weapon. True kill shots would be to the face, the throat and groin. Against enemies with shields, often only the top of the head and shins are exposed.

Against mounted enemies, the spear could also be dug into the ground, and supported their with an instep, to try and break a cavalry charge. A six to nine foot spear has considerable momentum, so can also be used like a quarterstaff to the upper body & head. Slashing or chopping moves would rely on the momentum of the spear to deliver a crushing blow, rather than trying to cut like a sword.

Kill shots, in re-enactment

Combat re-enactment is not like the real thing. We don't recommend stabbing people in the face, throat, groin or shins. Until you are very competent with the spear, we recommend against stabbing anywhere except muscular parts of the arm and legs. Where possible, you should stab *past* your opponent, and drag the spear back along their body, so they know you could have killed them.

People in armour will rarely consider such 'soft' attacks as kills, and may ignore the hit. In that case, try stab at weak points in armour: elbows, underarms etc. Experience is the best teacher. As usual, if someone doesn't acknowledge a shot (they may be armoured), try hitting a little harder next time. Almost no one will take a kill from a chopping shot, though it can look well in a show fight.


You can still get hurt when fighting with a spear. You'll get your knuckles of your lead arm smashed, your forearm and your shoulder bruised. Head, hands and body are the important areas to protect. Start with a heavy wool hat or arming cap; it can turn a bruise into a quickly forgotten knock, a cut into a bruise, and fractured skull into concussion. Helmets with brims offer extra protection to the fact and eyes.
The bare minimum hand protection is heavy leather welding gloves. Don't get brightly coloured ones, and try dye them with scuff kote - go shopping, and get natural coloured ones. Gloves will turn a graze into a bruise, but won't stop you having fingers broken. Depending on your budget, sew leather off-cuts to the back of your soft gauntlets, make a cheap pair of stiff leather over-gauntlets, or proper metal ones. It is always cheaper to buy the natural coloured ones than to dye the wrong coloured ones.
Body protection starts with a heavy woolen jumper. Don't train in a t-shirt because you are too will eventually be asked to do two hour long battles in 35C heat, in a gambeson and armour. Get used to heat, sweating, panting and energy control as soon as possible. The basic body protection an aketon or gambeson that goes down to mid-thigh. For Vikings, see about making one of the fabled reindeer-skin jackets, if you can't afford mail. If you want to start adding better armour, try make a coat of plates.

A blunt spear is still dangerous

 Just in case you didn't notice, one to three kilos of pole with a blunt metal spearhead is still lethal. Every time you pick up your spear, remember this. When thinking of how you are going to attack, be aware of what may go wrong - the other person may block your shot up, and into their face. They may be pushed forward onto your spear. You might be pushed forward into theirs.
  • Keep your spearhead below neck level.
  • Never stab or block up; you can risk pushing a body-shot into your face
  • If you feel exhausted, back down - tired people make mistakes
  • When turning about, always start to lift the spear tip vertical before you start to turn. 
  • You can accidentally hit someone behind you with the "blunt" end of the spear; if you leave a lot of spear behind you, be watchful.
  If you find your neighbours in the line are getting sloppy, tired, or excited don't feel bad about asking them to step down for a moment, and don't feel the need to excuse it. Explain it later, off the field. When someone's adrenaline is up, they are more likely to argue than be sensible.

Where a spear is effective

 The spear is a very cheap weapon. Everyone should have their own spear, no excuses. In battles in England its easy to pick one up for £30 - after all its a stick with a piece of metal on the end. Its also cheap to employ - unlike the sword or axe, you don't need to spend a fortune on armour, as you are back from the heat of the battle. A spear without a head is a quarterstaff; it is not suitable for training or fielding with. People who train with unheaded quarterstaffs  are more likely to have trouble with stamina and pulling shots when they finally get a headed spear.

 As mentioned before, the spear is good against cavalry - hopefully something you won't have to worry about often. Its also good against lightly armoured troops: they can be taken out before they get to you. In a line, or a block, the spear can even hold its own against heavily armoured knights, if employed as an impromptu fence by some spear-men, while someone else pulls the hapless knight to the ground.

Get a decent pair of gauntlets, and vambraces that cover to the elbow. Nothing can ruin your day quicker than a ten kilo thrust to the funny bone, and your elbow is always sticking out when using the spear. Where possible, keep vambraces under a tunic when doing pre-1300 combat, so they aren't visible.

Positioning & footwork

  • The first thing to learn in any martial arts is footwork. If your feet aren't in the right position, you can be slow to move, easy to push over and find it hard to attack - or all of the above.

  • Stand perpendicular to your opponent, with your feet shoulder width apart. Turn your body - not your hips - and your "leading foot" (the foot near your opponent) more toward your opponent. You are aiming to provide a narrow target to your opponent. Think of how hard it is to kick a closed door, compared to one that is open, and just presenting its edge to you. A 'back foot' perpendicular to your opponent gives great strength, and can be used as a spring to attack suddenly.

  •  Bend your knees, to lower your centre of gravity. This will make you harder to push over. Move your weight to the balls of your feet. The extra concentration will keep you alert, and the change in weight distribution will allow you to move more suddenly. During training, exaggerate the act of dropping low, until you can feel the burn in your leg muscles. A low stance makes for a harder target. When you bend your knees to stay low, your hamstrings become a spring, your weight is automatically moved to the balls of your feet.

    Only now, think of your spear. With your back hand, leave an inch or two of pole sticking out behind your hand, in case someone tries to pull it from your grip. Have your lead hand a shoulder-width apart from the back hand. If the distance between the two is increased, the spear is easier to move, but not as long. You would be better off using a smaller spear. If the distance between the two is decreased, the spear is no longer possible to wield safely, as people can push it out of their way with on sharp smack.

    You want the spear to protect your whole body. By pointing at their rear shoulder, the spear is canted in all three axes - forward, toward the opponent in a threatening manner. From their shoulder to your waist, protecting you from shoulder to waist. From your rear hand, to their rear shoulder, protecting you from one side to the other.

    After any movement - defensive, attack or just positioning, return to this sideways crouch with a neatly positioned spear; the Default Position. Keep your knees bent, and keep weight on the balls of your feet does not mean you should lean forward when attacking. This is an excellent way to get a face full of spear. You are also off-balance when you lean forward - the opponent can grab you and pull you off your feet. You will also find it very difficult to step back, if you are counter-attacked. Keep your back straight. If you are wondering about your position - at any time, you should find it as easy to stand solely on your back or front leg.

  • Use your whole body with every shot, not just the arms, or you will tire yourself out. Never lean forward to get extra range, when thrusting; you put yourself off balance, and make your face the nearest body part to the enemy spearhead.
  • Basic training usually incorporates some form of drill instruction. It's important to be able to move in formations without being ahead or behind the line. A spear-man on his own is soon dispatched. Keep close to the rest of your army.

    Basic Gaelic Commands

    The basic commands your commander will give you are:
    • Glac Scíth (rest weapons)
    • Suas Airm (raise weapons)
    • Ina Sheasaigh (port weapons)
    Glac Scíth means put the tip of your spear to the ground, while maintaining your shoulder width grip on the weapon. You can lean into the weapon for support. However, you should be ready, to swivel from that resting position into your Default Position, with the call of "Suas Airm". Never dig a steel weapon into the ground; burred and rusty steel can pickup the tetanus virus from soil. A burred spear is an excellent way to give it to a person.

    When marching, you'll be asked to port your spear. This means bring it straight up into the air, rear hand about a foot from the bottom of the spear, the lead arm a shoulder width apart. The spear should be vertical, in the center of your body, almost touching your nose. Keep alert. Don't jerk your head around like you think someone is stalking you: coolly look around, ready to deploy your vertical spear in the direction of any threat.

    Holding the spear

    Picasa Web Slideshow

    Many people will offer advice on how to hold your spear. There is no One True Way. Anyone that tells you otherwise is selling something or is just too rigid in their beliefs. There are some general tips; after that, choose whatever makes you comfortable. Your rear hand is always above the spear. Your front hand can be either under, or over the spear. Hence, you can hold it 'underhand' or 'overhand'.

    'Underhand' is a defensive posture. The attacker cannot knock it from your hand with a strong down-stroke. Your forehand can be left loose, so your spear can swivel freely. 'Overhand' allows much more control while attacking, and allows for strong downward stabs. However, 'overhand' allows 10cm less range than underhand. Practice with both, and practice transitioning from one hold to the other while still fighting. Some other tips;
    • Try and keep your lead arm steady. If it swings, even a little, your spear tip will swing wide. Your spear is supposed to be pointed at your enemy - not off in the distance!
    • Keep the tip up, around chest level. Never let it come over neck level. Beginners can leave the spear point lower, but though it is slightly safer for your opponent, it is more dangerous for you. Ever seen an olympic fencer point their sword at the opponents knee ? As a guide. push your rear arm all the way down, and straight. It should feel more comfortable.
    • When starting, keep your lead hand under the spear. The reason is that your grip will not be very strong, and it's harder for someone to knock your spear down out of your hand when you support it. Feel free to switch from hands-under to hands-over as you see fit. Some blocks and shots are easier with hands-over. [TODO: Need photo of over and under hand grip]
    • Don't grip a spear too tightly.  This will tire the small muscles in your hand and forearm more quickly and actually slows down your responses in both attack and defence. Grab tightly just before moment of impact, and relax as soon as you can. This will require practice; initially you'll either have the spear batted from your hand, or will tired out.
    Try different weights and lengths of spear pole, until you get one that suits your physique and style of fighting; short, heavy spears are often slower, but allow for some interesting power moves. They also provide an interesting training path to polearms like the glaive. Lighter, longer spears can be safely mastered with less training, and less armour though are not as effective against charging swordsmen. It may also be worth training with a long, heavy spear to build up stamina and strength. A light, short spear can be used one-handed.

    Don't leave your spear above chest level; you can be pushed into an the line in front, they can be unexpectedly pushed from behind, and teeth don't grow back. Keep the spear head moving, especially when fighting skirmishers. The second it is stationary, it gives the short-weapons opponent a chance to bind your spear and slip past your spear-tip. Don't let your movements become predictable by repeating yourself - unless you do it on purpose, like a 'feint' to make someone attack in a manner you want!

    A spear can be heavy, so can have a lot of momentum when swung. If your grip is weak, your opponent can strike your spear and knock it out of your hand. Be ready for this, by building up your grip, or being ready to move the spear away when they attack your spear. Get used to relaxing your grip when you aren't threatened, to rest your fingers.

    Defending with the spear

    There are three common blocks with the double handed spear (assuming a right handed spearman). Once blocked, you should either "bind" the enemy spear [video] (trap it, so they can't do anything), stab-knock (the block uses the impact momentum to initiate an immediate attack) [video], or step into the attack [video].    
    1. The "Right Tap" block is the simplest block [slideshow]. This defends against attacks to the right of the body. Rather than swinging the spear (which would put it's point away from your opponent), move it parallel to its current position, into the path of the attacking spear. Keep the spear pointed it toward your opponent.
    2. The most important block a spearman has is the 'Oar Block' [video]. The front hand remains steady, held like an oar lock. The rear hand starts low, then makes a tight C shape. This should result in the spear tip making a mirror C shape infront of the spearman. This will catch any stab to the 'lead arm' side of the body. With practice, a stab can be blocked, and then safely bound [video].
    3. Last (and least) of the common blocks is the 'Iron Gate' [video]. 'Full Iron Gate' means your spear is almost vertical, with the tip in the ground. Middle Iron Gate means your spear is held out from your body at 45 degrees, with the tip toward the ground. This is most effective when your enemy's spear tip is inside the 'safe zone'; closer than three quarters the length of your spear away. If you find yourself using this block, you need to take a step back! You are too close and will be unable to attack effectively.
     More advanced blocks will be covered later. Try not to move your forearm much when blocking, it's doing enough work holding the spear. Don't concentrate all your attention on the enemy's spear tip when fighting; that is called 'target fixation'. Look at the person, and others around you - everything in your field of vision; practice 'taking everything in' rather than focusing on one thing and ignoring all else. If you concentrate on just the tip of a spear, you can forget it has two ends! [video]

     Don’t get into a 'test of strength' with your opponents. The big guys will almost always win the first one or two, until they get tired too. Use speed and skill to overcome brute strength. If you are smaller than your opponent, try get into a test of strength. As soon as they commit, pull your spear out, let them fumble, then strike!

    If you move your spear into the blow, it can also help your grip, by weakening that of your opponent's.

    Attacking with the spear

    The double-handed spear is very similar to a modern fencing sword; the object is to keep the weapon pointed at the enemy. The perfect time to attack is as soon as a block, bind or parry has been made. Any attack can only succeed if after the attack, you have planned to have the spear pointed at the enemy.

    Don't stab directly at someone, stab slightly to the side so an over-powered thrust slides by, rather than impales them. Initially, a lot of your concentration should be about choosing where to put your spearhead in advance, and then being exact about where it goes. This will mean your body language "telegraphs" your movements to your opponent in advance, but that is not a bad thing for a beginner. As time progresses, the amount of time need to place a shot will shrink, and you won't be telegraphing your shots anymore.

      Keep your movements quick and sharp, block and immediately attack, then get out of range and rest; he who hesitates is lost. Remember economy of movement - too little and you are a sitting duck, too much and you will get tired. Try work out tricks - like feints - to make them move more than you, and make them tire quickly.

     Don't be too frenzied in your attacks:  It expends too much energy too quickly.  This may work for real combat (which lasts seconds) but is not good for sustaining a fight for minutes. Some fighters try to make their opponent work hard, to tire them out. This is especially useful when fighting someone with a heavy spear or a top-heavy pole-arm like a glaive.

    Don't attack the opponents weapon; attack the opponent. A skilled fighter won't bother blocking unless you take a shot they think will count. Attacking the weapon is ineffective in a competition fight, and looks dumb during a show fight. A skilled fighter will slowly and irregularly move their spear point around, to entice an opponent into trying to bat their spear away. This can tire and distract a inexperienced opponent.

    Despite people thinking it looks cool, don't smash your spear into the enemy's shield. if you try hit a shield hard repeatedly, they can use your momentum against you. It's also unsafe, stupid and rude to damage someone else's kit. If you want to make them use their shield, throw in light taps to test them.

    Dangerous Behaviour

    Please ensure you have a firm grip on the spear at all times. Don't let go with one hand, just to get extra range. This is called a slip shot, and can get you banned or beaten, depending on how it ends [slideshow]. You can lose your spear or injure someone. A skilled opponent can flip a weakly held spear down your spear line [TODO: VIDEO OF BLOCKING A SLIPSHOT]. Similarly, 'snooker shots' [slideshow] where you slip the spear through your hands so they are almost touching is also banned and considered dangerous, due to the loss of control.

    Advanced users are advised to practice blocking slip-shots and snooker-shots; people tend to use them - intentionally, as well as accidentally - when they are outclassed. Given the extreme danger involved, consider wearing strong face, neck and chest protection during such training. Expect the worst from someone, if you've never fought with them before. Every group's training is different, if someone is dangerous, warn them that you haven't trained like that, and the second time it happens, walk away without turning your back or dropping your weapon.

    Martial arts breathing

    It sounds stupid, but an easy way to let the other person beat you is through bad breathing. Breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Attack as you exhale. As you exhale, your body is strong; the muscles are tense and you are better able to withstand a blow. While inhaling, your body is at its most vulnerable. If you take a hit while inhaling, especially in the belly, you can be winded. Spear fighting is very physical; keeping your blood full of oxygen will keep fatigue at bay for longer. When you are not immediately engaged with an opponent, stay alert, but take the opportunity to rest and breathe. Breathe deeply, but keep it controlled, don’t pant. Open your chest muscles wide and inhale deeply though the nose. Then exhale slowly through the mouth. 5 deep breaths in this manner should restore energy to the body. Martial arts breathing is a skill that can be practised almost anywhere.

    Advanced Attacks

    Try and work out how much range your opponent has. Sometimes, they will "shorten their grip" by moving their hands closer together, and feed the spear out behind them, or 'lengthen their grip' by increasing the gap between their hands, to speed up their spear or compensate for lack of stamina. Use the extra range this gives you. You can also "shorten your grip" to give people the confidence to approach closer. Quickly 'shorten' your grip when you want to surprise them with extra range. Never allow your hands to get closer than the width of your shoulders, or you will lose control [TODO: rephrase sensibly]


    Attacking the inner triangle


    Reversing a spear, to parry, low stab

     An amusingly easy attack can be done when your attacker raises their arm, so you can see a triangle formed from their spear, their fore-arm and their rear-arm. If you can 'place' a spear tip into this triangle, you can lock up a spearman without actually getting in range. This is very useful when fighting beginners who have started to tire, and are using their lead-arm's bicep to carry the weight of the spear.

    Gael blocks a spear thrust from the Viking by reversing his spear, stepping into the Viking's low stab and binding it to the right.


    Reversing the spear to parry


    Reversing the spear to parry, II

    Gael probes the Viking, when the Viking blocks a low shot, the Gael reverses the spear, steps forward and knocks the Viking's spear to the side.
     Same shot, different angle



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


    Right Tap Block

    Oar Blocks

    Last Ditch Blocks

    Garden Gate

    Oar Blocks

    Dave Mooney,
    Nov 7, 2008, 6:33 AM
    Dave Mooney,
    Nov 7, 2008, 6:33 AM