Medieval Weapons: From Archery to Armour

When we think of weapons, we might think of things like missiles, drones, and perhaps firearms. It's not always easy to hit the target with guns, but it's much easier than people had it back in the medieval era. The medieval period, also called the Middle Ages, lasted from about 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. and included dozens of major armed conflicts. This period of strife was kicked off by the fall of the western Roman Empire and came to an end as a result of the Italian Renaissance. Between those events, warriors all across Europe fought with heavy, crude weapons in dangerous battles under uncertain conditions.


When thinking about medieval weapons, swords spring immediately to mind. Swords have been used for thousands of years, vastly predating medieval times. However, during this time, many cultures developed some of the finest swords they would ever produce. Common "bastard swords" such as those wielded by medieval knights weighed about ten pounds or so, adding little to the weight of their armor. However, most swords were not intended to parry a foe's weapons or clash against a shield: They would rapidly develop ruts and pits if used this way.

Instead of the Hollywood depiction, many forms of medieval swordsmanship involved forcefully pushing or trying to unbalance the enemy while positioning for a "hacking" strike that would produce a long, shallow wound. It was very difficult to treat this kind of injury at the time, and the risk of infection was extraordinarily high. Rather than dying on the battlefield from a clean, deep cut, most of those injured in battle would return to camp, or potentially back home, and would either be crippled for life or would die within a few weeks thereafter.

Horses and Lances

During most of history, elite aristocratic warriors were the ones most likely to ride into battle astride mighty steeds. These horses were difficult to breed and train, and relatively few steeds could carry the heavy steel "barding" (horse armor) that Arthurian knights are often shown using. However, the way lances are often depicted is a bit more true to form. Mounted knights would charge at their mounted foes, attempting to unseat them. Although some lances were made from quality steel, there was still a good chance that the tip would shatter when used at full speed.

After an enemy was knocked down, the noble knight would typically get off of his own horse and continue the battle on foot, sword to sword. While the chivalric code that many European knights followed banned them from killing a fallen enemy outright, the foe would often be shaken up from the fall and would quickly capitulate. In times of peace, mounted warriors in England, France, and Spain would participate in jousting tournaments where wooden lances were used instead. Each joust usually involved just one "pass" between the two competitors.


In the medieval era, daggers were carried by warriors of aristocratic and common background alike. Although there were many kinds of medieval daggers, they're distinct from modern knives because of their double-edged blades. Daggers were used for common activities, such as shaving and eating, and were the "go-to" weapon in the event that one's sword was lost or damaged. A dagger was typically six to ten inches long; a weapon longer than this was considered a short sword and was used by squires and those of more humble birth. In some cultures, especially in Asia, women were permitted to practice with and conceal a dagger on their person for protection.


In cartoons and comics, medieval knights are most often depicted wearing plate armor. A full suit of this armor weighed between 35 and 50 pounds and was made of large, beaten plates of steel or iron. This form of armor was used by both the French and English during the Hundred Years' War of 1337-1453. It was very expensive and difficult to maintain at the time, but as blacksmithing techniques grew more advanced, mercenaries throughout Europe adopted it. No contemporary form of archery and few other weapons could penetrate it. However, it took a major toll on the users' stamina and increased the risk of heat stroke and other conditions.

Mail armor was a much less expensive and more common form of armor that was accessible to less-wealthy warriors. Mail is essentially a fabric of metal rings that are woven together in the form of a strong, yet highly flexible mesh. Compared to ring mail, chain mail was a tighter and more complete garment that offered fuller protection. It was much lighter and easier to use, yet still provided some defense against archery and fair protection against the most common weapons. Militia officers and others who were not in the elite ranks of society were much more likely to own and maintain ring mail rather than plate armor; these soldiers could walk on foot in their ring mail, while hefty plate armor was usually used only by mounted knights.

Leather armor was developed before the medieval period and was not as common during this time. However, as cities became more sophisticated and adopted a formal system of non-military law enforcement, leather protective garments were frequently used. This gave watch officers the flexibility to walk the streets or ride on horseback at will. It also provided protection from the small blades that were more likely to be used in "fly by night" crimes.


Peasants armed with pikes were often effective in fending off smaller formations of well-trained horsemen while mounted commanders on their own side plotted to outmaneuver the enemy. The pike was extremely long, with a shaft up to 14 feet long topped by a blade that could be up to three feet tall itself. The main purpose of the pike was to knock mounted soldiers from their horses. Although it was difficult for pikemen to fight enemies up close, they could trample or, in some cases, capture their fallen foes. It was also possible to strike horses directly until their riders were thrown, which could easily kill a fully armored knight.


In the Hundred Years' War, tension between France and England came to a head. Although England has traditionally had a mighty navy, France had a larger land army and could, if left unchecked, occupy English territory. The creation of the first English longbow was a decisive factor in fending off French incursions. Made from flexible yew, these bows were about six feet tall. They were first developed for hunting in Wales but quickly spread throughout England. Archers had to be strong and practice regularly to be effective; however, the longbow was capable of firing an arrow up to 400 yards and could penetrate many types of armor.

The crossbow made its first appearance in ancient China and Japan and was already making a major impact on history while Rome was in collapse. Although the ancient Greeks also had crossbows, they were not used for hunting and did not see wide use in Europe until the 1200s, somewhat before the heyday of the English longbow. Crossbows required less training to use but were heavy and ungainly. In some areas, including Flanders, knights who used crossbows had servants to load and maneuver the crossbow and foot soldiers to defend those servants! It was the Renaissance before the crossbow's killing power superseded that of traditional bows.

Siege Weapons and Firearms

There were no guns for most of the medieval period, but the hand cannon, which literally resembled a small, hand-held cannon to be filled with black powder and lit with a long fuse, was perhaps the first sign that traditional medieval warfare was coming to an end. Relatively few hand cannons were ever produced, but ordinary, full-sized cannons gained widespread use in Spain and England by 1325. Early cannons were difficult to aim, but as designs became more refined and cannoneers grew in experience, they could easily scatter mounted formations.

Despite the lack of conventional firearms, there were many siege weapons that fired projectiles. Siege weapons were necessary to destroy the walls of medieval fortresses, which were mostly made of local stone and could otherwise endure indefinitely. By the Middle Ages, the common catapult had developed into many different forms. These included the ballista, essentially a giant crossbow; the trebuchet, the popular depiction of a catapult, capable of hurling stones of up to 200 pounds; and the mangonel, which launched smaller munitions from a bucket at the end of a long arm. Needless to say, there was no conception of gun safety back then!