Pike Fighting - A Review of the Evidence

A Review of the Evidence

A version of this article first appeared in the Hopton's Newsletter in April, 1993. It was re-published in Mercurius Aulicus in June 1996. It has also appeared in the Parliament Scout. It is mostly a review of evidence already published in English Civil War Notes and Queries, issues 14 to 18.

When advancing into combat, 17th century drill manuals state that the front three ranks (the front half-files) should charge their pike and the rear three ranks (the rear half-files) should port their pikes. In 1638, Ward wrote:

The Front Half-files of Pikes are onely to charge their Pikes, the Rere Half-files to port them in time of fight. [1]

Two other drill manuals [2] [3] give essentially the same instructions.

In 1590, Sir John Smythe advised closing ranks and files on approaching the enemy:

a squadron of armed men in the field, being ready to encounter with another squadron, their enemies, ought to straighten and close themselves by front and flanks [8]

Smythe also advised having all pikes the same length, so, when advancing in straight ranks, all the pikes points hit the enemy at the same time:

with their pikes bent against their enemies, may altogether give a great blow and thrust to the repulse either of horsemen or footmen than if they were of divers lengths like pipe organs [8]

The same description of all the pikes points of the front rank hitting the enemy at the same time was given by Sir Thomas Kellie in 1627:

When Battells commeth to push of pike, good commanders say, that your pikemen must not push by advancing and retiring their arm as commonly is done; but onely go jointly on together in a rout without moving their arms [4]

It is obvious from the above that the side with the longer pikes, provided they are all of the same length and the men charge in straight ranks, will win a fight. In fact the defeat of the defeat of the `British' forces at the hands of the Irish at Benburb in 1646 was put down in part to the `British' pikes being shorter than those of the Irish. [10]

In 1667, Lord Orrery gave the impact of pikes points against the enemies' front rank as a reason for reinforcing the heads with four foot cheeks:

The pikes armed at the points with lozenge heads, if the cheeks or sides of the pike, are not armed with thin plates of iron four foot deep are very apt to be broken off near the heads, if the push be vigourous and the resistance considerable [5]

Writing about the battle of Cerisoles, in 1544, in his memoirs, Blaise de Monluc gives a vivid description of pike fighting:

Gentlemen, it may be that there are not many here who have been in battle before, and therefore let me tell you that if we take our pikes by the hinder end and fight at the length of the pike, we shall be defeated; for the Germans are more dexterous at that kind of fight than we are. But you must take your pikes in the middle as the Swiss do and run headlong to force and penetrate into the midst of them, and you shall see how confounded they will be. [14]

The dexterous pike fencing attributed to the German Landsknecks was also familiar to Captian Henry Barrett in 1652:

Such be often times appointed to the skirmish where they meet with the pike, hand to hand. At such times they push and warde, with the one hand bearing their pike, with the other hand travisinge of ground, quickness of foote and hand ys much advisable [6]

The effect of the impact was not as devastating as you may think, the most likely successful outcome was to knock the enemy front rank off their feet, not kill them. Continuing with Monluc's description of Cerisoles:

The Germans came up to us at a very round rate in so much that their battle being very great, they could not possibly follow, so that we saw great windows in their body and several Ensigns a good way behind, and all of a sudden rushed in among them and several Ensigns a good many of us at least, for as well on their side as ours all the first ranks, either with push of pikes or the shock at the encounter, were overturned, neither is it possible among foot to see greater fury. The second rank and the third were the cause of our victory, for the last so pushed them on that they fell in upon the heels of one another, and as ours pressed in the enemy was still driven back [14]

In 1642, Lupton was rather scathing about the ability of pikemen to kill the enemy:

There is not one private soldier of twenty shall by his utmost strength and skill together run through a common corselet, nay, nor through a Buffe-Coat which is good, to wound mortally [7]

Lupton was rather controversial, and his assessment was refuted by both Orrery and Turner later in the century. What is clear is that men were often knocked over by the impact of the pike points without much other damage. Hopton records Sir Beville Grenville's experience at Stratton:

The fight continued doubtful with many countenances of various events till about three of the clock in the afternoon, by which time the ammunition belonging to the Cornish Army was almost spent. It fortunes what avenue where Sir Beville Grenville advanced in the head of his pikes in the way, and Sir John Berkley led on the musketeers on each side of him, Major General Chudleigh with a stand of pikes charged Sir Beville Grenville so smartlie, that there was some disorder, Sir Beville Grenville in person overthrown, being presently relieved [11]

Monluc had the same experience, being beaten down without other hurt:

above three times ... beaten down to my knees [14]

After the initial impact the pikemen set about the enemy with sword and dagger. In the words of Sir John Smythe:

after they have given their first thrust with their pikes and being come to join with their enemies front to front and face to face, and therefore the use and execution of the pikes of the foremost ranks being past, they must presently betake themselves to the use of their swords and daggers ...the nearness and press being so great. [8]

In his book, published in 1616, Wallhausen [9] suggests that when at less than a pike's length the pikemen are to grasp the pike about the middle in the left hand and jab with the point whilst trying to break their opponents pike with their sword.

In his memoirs, Sir James Melville describes the battle of Langside. He describes the stroaks (cuts?) of spears (pikes) on Lord Hume's legs, pikes getting stuck in jacks (16th century quilted scale mail), and the charged pikes being so dense that thrown pistols were lying on top. He goes on to describe how Grange took men, who could free their pikes from the jacks of the enemy, to reinforce a flank. There they struck the flanks and faces of the enemy, and after much fencing with pikes, forced them to flee:

Where the worthy Lord Hume fought on foot with his pike in his hand very manfully, well assisted by the laird of Cesford his brother-in-law, who helped him up again, when he was strucken to the ground with many stroakes upon his face, by the throwing pistols at him after they had been discharged. He was also wounded with staves, and had many stroaks of spears through his legs; for he and Grange, at the joining, cried to led their adversaries first lay down their spears, to bear up theirs; which spears were so thick fixed in others jacks, that some of the pistols and great staves, that were thrown by them which were behind might be seen lying upon the spears ...

...he found enough willing, as the Lord Lindsay, the laird of Lochlevin, Sir James Balfour and all the regent's servants, who followed him with diligence, and reinforced that wing which was beginning to fly; which fresh men with their loose weapons struck the enemy in their flanks and faces, which forced them incontinent to give place and turn back, after long fighting and pushing others to and fro with their spears. There were not many horsemen to pursue after them; and the regent cried to save and not to kill; and Grange was never cruel, so that there were but few slain and taken. [15]

It is interesting that after this apparently fierce fight there were not many slain. Most of the casualties would have come in the pursuit, which in this case was prevented by a merciful Grange.

A final hint as to what `push of pike' actually means comes from the 18th century. At the battle of Prague (May 6th 1757) the Prussians were ordered to advance by `push of bayonet' [16] . We all know what a bayonet charge is!

It is quite clear from the above that all these contemporary sources are talking about a body of pikemen leveling their pikes at the enemy and thrusting their pike points, in unison, as hard as they could at their enemies. There can be no other reason for the front three ranks to be charged, for all pikes to be the same length, for the front rank to be straight, for them all to thrust together, or for the pikes heads to be reinforced with iron cheeks. There is no other reason for stating that pikemen should be quick in foot and hand, or that they should draw their swords when their pikes are past the front rank of the enemy. Basically `push of pike' means `push your pike through the b*st*rd* guts' and is essentially a `bayonet charge' with a very long `bayonet'!

If you want to be perverse, you could divide these sources into those that explicitly mention, or imply, fighting with the point and those that do not. Then you could try to argue for two methods of fighting, one a `bayonet charge' and one like ours. However all sources are perfectly consistent with the `bayonet charge', so another method is not needed to explain the known facts. Furthermore, fighting our way is an obvious non starter: what could soldiers using that method do against a determined `bayonet charge' pike attack, apart from die?

That these potentially vicious attacks did not actually cause massive slaughter is probably explained by a combination of factors. Firstly, armour probably played a part in reducing casualties. In the 16th century examples the front rank at least were probably armoured, jacks are mentioned at Langside, and there can be little doubt that officers of the rank of Monluc and Grenville were well protected. Lupton said armour was hard to pierce! Secondly, soldiers would need little encouragement to heed Barrett's advice on being quick with foot and hand! And finally, the pikemen might just have refused to press forward as witnessed by the future James II at Edgehill:

When the Royalist army was advanced within musket shot of the enemy, the foot on both sides began to give fire, the King's coming on and the Rebells continuing only to keep their ground, so that they came so near one another than some of the battalions were at push of pike, particularly the regiments of the Guards ...The foot thus being engaged in such warm and close service, it were reasonable to suppose that one side should run and be disordered; but it happened otherwise, for each as if by mutual consent retired some few paces, and then struck down their colours, continued to fire at each other even until the night, a thing so extraordinary as nothing less than so many witnesses as were present could make it credible. [12]

No doubt the disappearance of armour during the 17th century reduced enthusiasm for a rigorous push. By the 1654-55 Jamaica campaign the New Model Army seemed to have forgotten the art:

...the Spaniards also (by often use and practice) become more expert and ready in the use of these weapons than Englishmen, who (although perhaps old soldiers) never made use of pike or lance, except against horses. [17]

We know what happened in battle, but it is there that men get killed for real, so it would be useful to know what a 17th century re-enactor would present to a 17th century audience. Again, that answer can be provided. On the 18th October 1638 eighty members of the Society of the Artillery Garden presented a drill display and skirmish in the Merchant Taylors Hall in London. The two sides were the Christians, armed with pikes and muskets, and the Scaracens, armed with scimitar and shield or scimitar and carbine.

Again we have very clear evidence that pikes points were levelled at the `enemy':

Mulley Aben seeing his people begin to waver, meant to do something in person, so to re-enforce his battle; and therewithal casting away his pole-axe, betook himself to his battle-axe and target; and therewith working wonders, forcing the heads of the best armed pikes to give him way, that so he might encounter the Christian captain. [18]

It is also clear that this display was not just posing, they were laying into each other, even if in a tightly scripted and controlled manner:

Now the Christians charged both in front and rear; the Turcoman lieutenant with an undaunted courage faced his half-files about and with unparalleled resolution singled out the Christian lieutenant, with his well tempered scymiter laying about him like a Turk. Insomuch that Lieutenant Sheppard with his partizan had mush ado with all his skill and dexterity to keep him at the point. The other striving to hew out away before him, even through steel, fire, and flame; with his well-cutting fauchion slicing and paring the Christian lieutenants partizan, as if it had been a wooden dagger, and not a composure of steel. [18]

The above sources not only tell us how pikemen fought for real but how a `17th century R.I.E.' would have presented pikemen fighting.


  1. Duthie, Richard, Pike Point I, English Civil War Notes and Queries, No.14, Partizan Press, pp.16-17. cites Directions for Musters, Cambridge 1638, Reprinted by Partizan Press, 1990.
  2. as above, cites Military Orders and Articles, Oxford, 1643.
  3. as above, cites Elton, Richard, Complete Body of the Art Military, 1649.
  4. as above, cites Kellie, Sir Thomas, Pallas Armata or Militarie Instructions, Edinburgh, 1627.
  5. as above, cites Lord Orrery, Art of War, 1667.
  6. as above, cites Captain Henry Barrett, 1652.
  7. as above, cites Lupton, D., Warre-like treatise of the pike, 1642.
  8. Grey, Neal, Push of Pike, English Civil War Notes and Queries, No.18, p.27, cites Smythe, Sir John, Certain Discourses Military, 1590.
  9. as above, cites Wallhausen, J., Ritterkunst, Frankfurt, 1616.
  10. Reid, Stuart, Gunpowder Triumphant, Partizan Press, 1987, p.12, cites The History of the Warr in Ireland, from 1641 to 1651.
  11. as above, p.25, cites Hopton.
  12. as above, p.25, cites James II.
  13. as above, p.21, cites Elton, Richard, Complete Body of the Art Military, 1649.
  14. Head, Duncan, More Pike Fighting, English Civil War Notes and Queries, No.16, p.23, cites the memoirs of Blaise de Monluc, English translation edited by Roy, I., Longmans, 1971, pp.107-108.
  15. Reid, Stuart, Pike Points II, English Civil War Notes and Queries, No.14, Partizan Press, p.18, cites Melville, Sir James, Memoirs of his own life, 1927 ed, pp.101-102.
  16. Nosworth, Brent, The Anatomy of Victory: Battle tactics 1689-1763, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1992, p.191.
  17. Sutton. Paul, Cromwell's Jamaica Campaign: The attack on the West Indies, 1654-55, Partizan Press, 1990, p.57, cites Firth, Narrative, App.E, p.155.
  18. Barriffe, William, Militarie Discipline of the Young Artillery-man, London, 1661, Reprinted by Partizan Press, 1988, containing Mars his triumph, p.22.
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