Mad About Science: Spears

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Aside from the wooden club, so-called “cavemen” are often depicted with wooden spears. While it’s true that the spear is among the most primitive weapons used by humans, spears were also used regularly in combat as recently as 56 years ago.

The origins of the spear as a hominid technology likely date to between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, used primarily as throwing weapons for taking down large and lumbering megafauna of the neolithic period. Think about it: Would you want to go toe-to-toe with a wooly mammoth or a megasloth when you could throw a pointy stick at it and run away?

A throwing spear. Courtesy photo.

The basis of the spear is extremely simple while also being highly versatile. As a melee weapon, a spear provides greater reach than what your arms can achieve on their own. Additionally, the sharpened point acts as a force multiplier, focusing the kinetic energy applied into a small area — that makes it more likely to damage flesh and vital organs than if you were to use an object with a larger surface area like a blunted stick. This force is further increased when the weapon is thrown, as all of the energy that is making the weapon travel is applied the moment it impacts a target.

Due to the nature of how force is applied with a spear, it is also capable of becoming a powerful lever. As you likely remember from high school physics, the way a lever works is by distributing the force on either end across its total surface when leveraged against a fulcrum. The longer your lever, the lighter the object you’re trying to lift on the other end is perceived to be. This trait has been utilized to devastating effect for its most pivotal purpose in warfare: as an anti-cavalry weapon.

The strength of a cavalry unit in warfare is its speed and the amount of force it can exert against a target by transferring a tremendous amount of kinetic energy from the horse to an infantry target. When that level of force is transferred to a human body, the bones and organs are destroyed and death ensues. This can be flipped when a line of infantry utilizes spears to intercept the horse. Instead of transferring all of that energy to a soft and squishy human body, the force of the horse’s impact is spread through a very small area, the tip of the spear, which will then impale the poor beast and potentially deliver catastrophic damage to both the horse and its rider.

Now this might sound insane if you imagine yourself holding a slim piece of pointed wood at a thousand-pound animal rushing straight at you, and you’re right. If you were simply holding the weapon, the force being delivered by the horse’s momentum would transfer to you, potentially knocking the weapon out of your hands and trampling you in the process. To counteract this, the front line of spearmen would wedge the back of the spear into the ground in a tactic called bracing, which would transfer the shock of the impact into the ground, safely dispersing it away from the soldiers — provided the spear didn’t break.

The spear was a common weapon throughout the Bronze Age, employed by the hoplites of Greece and eventually the legionaries of Rome. The spear gave tremendous reach to organized formations that could effectively poke the weapon’s point through gaps in enemy armor and shield formations. It was a weapon used extensively by the vikings who invaded England from 793 CE to 1066 CE for the same reasons it was so favored during the Bronze Age: It was an effective tool that was inexpensive to mass produce — traits that were favorable enough to keep the weapon in common use through the Medieval period and all the way into the age of gunpowder. Even though swords were highly romanticized during the Middle Ages, they were difficult for most people to use and very expensive to produce while the tip of a spear required only a fraction of the amount of metal required to forge.

As for its modern uses, spears have largely fallen out of favor, but it may surprise you to know that a rifle fashioned with a bayonet fulfills all of the roles utilized by spears throughout the history of warfare. Bayonets were used often during the American Revolutionary War as well as the American Civil War, and they were employed with tactics used by the Swiss pikemen of the late-Medieval period: form a line and stab the bad guys before they could shoot you.

Bayonets were last in regular use during the Vietnam War, where they were well suited for vicious close-range combat in the dense jungle foliage. Bayonets are seldom used today, having been pushed away in favor of automatic weapons and devastatingly powerful sidearms used alongside cutting-edge combat optics and military tactics, but they did see very brief usage in Afghanistan after a unit of British soldiers led a surprise bayonet charge in 2004.

Outside of the military, spears are now primarily used for ocean harpoon fishing and Olympic javelin throwing — the world record being a throw of 323 feet, nearly the length of a football field.

If you’re curious about the history of the spear or warfare in general, stop by the library. I’m sure the librarians will be happy to point you in the right direction.

Stay curious, 7B.

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