In Japan, yaris (spears) seem inferior to katanas. In Shogun: Total War, for example, spear-wielding troops are "cheaper" than samurai. The spear-wielding troops are peasants. The samurai are members of the warrior class.
But it seems that in ancient china, every soldier mainly uses a spear instead of a sword It seems that all cavalry uses spears. It seems that the generals use spears too.
I wonder why the difference?
Spears are cheaper to manufacture; I can't supply a reference (there are a few smiths in H:SE and I wonder if they can provide information) but a good smith can crank out spearheads quickly and attach them to bamboo poles. Techniques for fighting with spears can be taught to formations of peasants quickly and easily, and green troops derive quite a bit of courage from being in formation. Spears require relatively little metal, cheap wood, and green troops. You can replace a spearhead (and the troop to wield the spear) quickly.
@Greg correctly points out that I should use the term tachi below rather than katana; he is correct. OP used katana and I have used katana other than to acknowledge @Greg's point.
A katana however is an expensive weapon. There are ample references (including a good one on YouTube) about the skill, time, and quality of steel required to manufacture a katana. Green troops cannot master a sword; I've been working on sword techniques for years and I am still unable to reliably demonstrate basic skills. Much of the reason for the mystique of the katana is that they were so expensive to make that it wasn't worth making junk katanas. If you're going to spend that much money & time, you're going to make everything as close to perfect as possible. If your weapon costs that much, you're only going to put it in the hands of a very skilled and very well-trained warrior.
@Greg argues that I overestimate the cost of the katana; perhaps. I would welcome anyone who can provide better costs. With due respect to Greg, I believe that a katana is going to be a multiple of the price of a spearhead. @Greg also argues that I overestimate the skill of the warrior; I believe we actually agree on this point, but that I've expressed the concept poorly. A samurai is a professional warrior; they are expected to train at a professional level. Formation spearwork is for militia troops who are not professional warriors.
(Aside: the Chinese have a relevant proverb (hat tip to @lly - apparently the proverb dates back to 1957!)- you can give a man a dao and have a soldier in a 100 days; give a man a jian and it will take one thousand days. Granted a dao is not a spear, but the theory is the same. You can train foot soldiers in simple cut/thrust/parry formation fighting quickly. You train such troops with weapons that are cheap to produce and effective in the hands of people with limited experience.)
(Second aside: I don't have a reference, but my recollection is that a handful of samurai took out entire formations of shinobi troops in a single day. A handful of men victorious against an entire army, because the quality of troops and weapons were totally different.)
Cavalry is a different problem; I sincerely doubt you'll find peasant troops in a cavalry formation. Cavalry requires extensive training for both horse and rider. Cavalry should be a very expensive troupe. I'm not familiar with cavalry tactics at all, and the limited contacts I have in the cavalry world are western cavalry, not Asian cavalry. I freely admit that I'm not competent to discuss the different cavalry tactics with spear, lance, guandao, etc. I am very dubious that anyone could use an 18kg guandao from horseback. But as discussed in the comments, I am skeptical that Guan Yu actually used the Green Dragon Crescent; I think this is a signature endowment to assist with storytelling.
I don't have my book present at the time, but Scott Rodell relates that Chinese warfare was shaped by a different dynamic. The Chinese were able to muster enough low skilled/cheaply armed troops to dominate the battlefield. Japanese warfare was shaped by more elite fighters and less mass formations. There are Chinese swordsmen with astonishing skills and wonderful blades, but they had less influence on the battlefield. The battlefield was dominated by skill as a general, not as a swordsman (because raising mass levies were cheap). (Errors are mine, not those of Laoish Rodell.)
European "medieval" cavalry used spears or lances. That is because they were facing infantry with long weapons such as spears or pikes. But the impact of a "spearman" riding a moving horse was a multiple of a spearman standing on the ground, because of the horse.
In the "early modern" era of musketry, European cavalry switched to using swords or sabers. That's probably because it was easier for a horseman to cut off the arms of gun-toting infantry, even with bayonets, than it was to stab them.
Chinese cavalry used spears because they faced few opponents with guns.
Chinese cavalry, like the cavalry of all modern nations, use tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles.
If you mean in the past, all over the world polearms were used heavily by cavalry forces, as well as curved one-handed swords like sabres.
I seriously doubt Japanese cavalry of the era was inferior to samurai. The idea of the invincible samurai who all alone with his katana can defeat entire armies is pure fiction.
Your thread title doesn't match the question you're asking below it. One is
Did cavalry in China use spears instead of swords?
and the other is, basically,
Why did Chinese generals use polearms when the samurai used swords?
First, China didn't even have cavalry until very late. No archaeological findings have supported the Chinese tradition that the minister Xi Zhong invented chariots for the Xia around the 21st century BC. They seem to have arrived in the 12th century BC during the late Shang, probably from nearby Indo-Europeans like the Tocharians. The Zhou used them to overthrow the Shang and overrun northern China, but the nobles who rode in them wore their full robes and shot arrows. A separate driver would move them into range and out of danger; when trouble was unavoidable, a third guy would ride along with a ge. This was a long pole with a dagger-shaped head, the idea being to reach over the chariot and use the force of a wide swing to puncture anyone who got too close to the chariot.
Chinese cavalry was only fitfully and badly used from the 5th century BC. It wasn't until 307 BC that Zhao Yong, posthumously known as the Wuling King of Zhao, got tired of losing to Qin, overruled his tradition-bound advisors, and forced his soldiers to wear pants and shoot from atop their horses in the style of the steppe barbarians on his northern border.
2nd, early Chinese cavalry were mounted archers, but their development coincided with the invention of crossbows. Chu began using units of crossbowmen in the Warring States Period; a Master Qin even invented a gravity-fed repeating crossbow for them, although it was too weak to kill without poison. Once the crossbow improved and spread, mounted archers (who couldn't possibly reload the devices) became less useful by comparison and were only used for hit-and-run tactics or for swift assaults against soft targets like supply lines.
3rd, the use of Chinese cavalry as shock troops ran into the development of massed pikemen. Cavalry could still be used for charging and slashing opposing light infantry and crossbowmen. (The idea of using continuous rotating fire to pin down cavalry isn't attested before the Song dynasty.) By Zhao Yong's time, though, the use of massed infantry had prompted some ancient Milo Minderbender to put a second point sticking out of the top of the ge's shaft, creating the ji (Chinese halberd), which allowed infantry units to stay closer together and stab their opponents instead of needing to fight loosely or expose their lower body to swing their weapons. Other units just carried plain spears without the ge dagger for the same purpose. (Spears were obviously known to the Chinese from the earliest times, but had previously just been used for hunting.) Ji and spears were both used like Swiss pikes in formations to keep cavalry at bay; the Chinese also started using wooden caltrops to take out the horse's feet.
Fourth, the early cavalry had no stirrups and lousy saddles. Hard blows were hard to do and the recoil from one could easily unhorse a rider. Instead of being able to do a cavalry charge with ji or spear used as lances, they mostly needed to ride up to (or charge into) the enemy line and then start swinging, with the horse more or less stopped in place or used separately to trample infantrymen. The obvious response eventually led to improved barding, especially protecting the horse's exposed neck. There are records of cavalry charges before the appearance of stirrups. They mostly involved the Chinese like Ma Chao or Gongsun Zan hiring steppe nomads who had been on horseback their entire lives. In the 3rd century BC, Chinese horsemen were supposed to be elites: highly trained, very tall, very strong. They fought in five-man units and had a 'general' over as little as 200 men. They were mostly used for recon, shoring up flanks, harrying an enemy's retreat, or cutting supply lines. When they were used as shock troops, they were aiming to scare the peasants into breaking formation. From horseback, they could use ji for reach but they assumed the horse would eventually be taken out. Once dismounted, outside a unit, it was easier for a gang of enemy soldiers to grab the pole's shaft. Dismounted, the cavalrymen used swords and shields from the 2nd century BC onward, as well as spears.
Fifth, China's horses sucked so badly that the Han Empire launched wars to get better mounts and close their cavalry gap with the steppe nomads. By the 4th century, with stirrups, saddles, and better horses, the Jin and subsequent dynasties had well-armored cataphracts and basically treated them like European knights.
In answer to your second question, 1st, China's Three Kingdoms (whose generals you're thinking about) and Japan's Three Kingdoms (whose samurai you're thinking about) were 1000+ years apart. Metallurgy and tactics changed.
2nd, polearms are better than swords most of the time and samurai used their yari as their primary weapon most of the time, once they stopped being used as mounted archers. They used swords when they lost their mounts or spears and needed something for close combat. Japan's lousy iron quality even meant their swords often broke on the armor of the Mongols who made it through the kamakazi typhoons.
3rd, the idea that the katana was the soul of the samurai developed first from how much work went into folding the steel to deal with the lousy quality of the metal but more because it could be worn daily as a mark of status, all the more important when the wars left plenty of samurai as broke ronin, homeless and horseless. Their katanas (and the training required by masters to close the distance with spearwielders) were romanticized by the Japanese and then got fetishized by Westerners who dug the Spartan appeal of bushido.
tl;dr: Your game isn't realistic. Everyone used spears/bows as primary weapons, and swords as close-in backups. The Chinese have just been more honest and mindful of it.
Military history of China before 1911
The recorded military history of China extends from about 2200 BC to the present day. Although traditional Chinese Confucian philosophy favored peaceful political solutions and showed contempt for brute military force, the military was influential in most Chinese states. Chinese pioneered the use of crossbows, advanced metallurgical standardization for arms and armor, early gunpowder weapons, and other advanced weapons, but also adopted nomadic cavalry  and Western military technology.  China's armies also benefited from an advanced logistics system as well as a rich strategic tradition, beginning with Sun Tzu's The Art of War, that deeply influenced military thought. 
Ancient Chinese Weapons
The civilization of ancient China has developed renowned martial arts and battle techniques. A predominant example of such arts is Kung-Fu. The Chinese army was a very successful force commanded by the Chinese emperor in the Asian continent. It checked the power of many other nations in Southeast Asia. The weapons used by the ancient Chinese army were masterpieces of engineering, which evolved throughout the history of China.
The Chinese army predominantly used four classes of weapons, which were the Dao, Qiang, Jian and Ji.
In ancient China, the Dao was one of the most widely used weapons. ‘Dao’ was a term that referred to any kind of long weapon. As a result, the Dao could be classified into many different weapons. A common Dao appeared like a short spear that was used in hand-to-hand combat and was not thrown at the opponent like a normal spear. Most of the Dao were long weapons that had blades mounted on their long shafts. Sometimes the Dao were similar to long swords they had blades attached directly to their handles. The Dao was in many ways similar to the ‘saber’. The blades of these weapons, even today, are considered as masterpieces by the iron smiths of the Chinese civilization.
Usage by the Chinese Army: The Dao was basically used by the army of ancient China in hand-to-hand combat. The weapon was put to use in combat to cut, slice, chop and even hack. The evolution of the Dao started in the Bronze age. It was regularly used by the troops until it was replaced, temporarily, by the Jian during the Zhou dynasty of Western China (11th century BC – 771 BC). However, the Chinese started realizing the importance of the cavalry during the end of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) and the Jian did not meet the requirements of the cavalry. The Dao, thus, regained its importance in the beginning of the Western Han Dynasty. The Chinese cavalry started using a long Dao, that had a single sided blade mounted on its long shaft, while the infantry started using the broadsword which was also a type of the Dao. The Dao class weapons remained an important part of the Chinese arsenal till the 20th Century AD.
The Qiang, which was a type of spear, was another important weapon of the Chinese army. The Qiang class of spears were believed to have evolved from the prehistoric spear that was known as the ‘Mao’. The common Qiang could be described as a spear that had a long staff, and had a steel, iron, or bronze mounted tip.
Usage by the Chinese Army: The ‘Mao’ was a weapon that was used since prehistoric times. It was upgraded, according to the need, into many types of Qiang class spears during the Shang Dynasty (17th century BC – 11th century BC). At that time, the Qiang had a bronze tip. By the end of the Zhou Dynasty of Eastern China (770 BC – 256 BC), it was replaced with a steel tip. This weapon was so effective, that by the end of the Western Han Dynasty, the Qiang had replaced the Chinese halberd known as the ji. The Qiang was used by the Chinese army for long distance combat that involved throwing these spears, even after firearms were introduced by the Qin Dynasty.
The Jian was the king of weapons in ancient China. Not only was this sword used for a very long time, but, it was also one of the greatest masterpieces of Chinese craftsmanship. It was also often known as the ‘sovereign of blades’. The Jian was used by all, including the cavalry and the infantry, irrespective of the functions that the regiment performed. It was often considered as the primary weapon of the ancient Chinese civilization.
Usage by the Chinese Army: The Jian was popularized during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty that ended in 256 BC. Some of the greatest Jians were said to have been crafted during this period. Some of the greatest literatures of the warfare of swords, Yue Nu Jian and Jian Dao, were written during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 25). The importance of the Jian on the battlefield started declining during the Han Dynasty of Eastern China.
Ji is a weapon with a steel or bronze tip mounted on the end of a long shaft, next to which is attached a curved blade. Because of the attachment of the curved blade, the weapon can be used to both stab and slash. The shaft of ji used in chariots is longer than those used by infantry and cavalry. When two curved blades are attached on opposite sides of the tip, the weapon is referred to as double ji.
Ji was first used during the Shang Dynasty (17th century BC-11th century BC), when it was made of bronze. It was popularized during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC-256 BC), when it was made of steel instead. By the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), it fell out of use in war, and by the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) it was replaced in its entirety by qiang (spear). Afterwards, it was used only as a weapon carried by ceremonial guards and as a weapon for martial artists.
The four basic weapons of ancient China are no longer used in combat but some of them, like the Jian, are used for ceremonial purposes. Martial arts institutes across China have re-developed the techniques of using these weapons. Today, there are very few of these weapons in existence. However, once upon a time, the four basic weapons of ancient China, established the supremacy of one of the biggest and most ancient civilizations of Southeast Asia.
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Was the spear actually that effective as an anti cavalry weapon?
Every historical video game, be it Total War or AOE, depicts spears as the answer to all things cavalry. This strikes me as very strange because if this were the case, it would seem that cavalry, the great weapon of the medieval era, would be rendered pretty useless, since spears would be more commonplace on the battlefield than metallic weapons due to their lower cost. Were spears actually that effective against cavalry, and if so, why, and are there any battles that exemplify that?
To put some context around massed spear formations vs cavalry, the terrain, weather and objectives of each opposing army are going to affect which comes out on top.
The cavalry has mobility and 'impact' for want of a better term. A disciplined cavalry charge can shatter the cohesion of a body of infantry receiving a charge. I can't be the only one to have stood against the railing at the races and imagined what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a cavalry charge, you can feel the ground shake.
The infantry, if disciplined can create a wall of pikes/spears that the horses will be reluctant to charge into. Once the momentum of the charge has been stopped the cavalry loses it's main advantage.
So based on this logic it is like a game of chicken, with a terrifying cavalry charge that will be ineffective unless a gap opens through which they can rip through and disorder the ranks of infantry.
I would be really interested to explore whether 'herd mentality' can drive a mass of horses into a disciplined infantry position, ie if you have one psychotic horse (ie Bucephalus) will the rest of a formation follow? I am struggling to think of a battle where this might have been the case.
Also I think there are several battles in which men at arms on foot have effectively demolished mounted forces with the common theme that the initial charge has been disrupted.
Some battles where infantry prevailed:
Sterling - Terrain prevented an effective charge
Crecy - Longbowmen and retreating Genonese Crossbowmen disrupted the charge
I am at work and will add more sources later :)
That seems to have been one of the greatest advantages that Greek hoplites had: The ability to convince the enemy that they were batshit crazy. Xenophon in the Anabasis mentions an amusing incident, I'll edit this comment when I find the quote. As I recall this ability was also used by Alexander the Great in a final and thorough defeat of the Persian king.
"And the Cilician queen, as the report ran, asked Cyrus to exhibit his army to her such an exhibition was what he desired to make, and accordingly he held a review of the Greeks and the barbarians on the plain.  He ordered the Greeks to form their lines and take their positions just as they were accustomed to do for battle, each general marshalling his own men. So they formed the line four deep, Menon and his troops occupying the right wing, Clearchus and his troops the left, and the other generals the centre.  Cyrus inspected the barbarians first, and they marched past with their cavalry formed in troops and their infantry in companies then he inspected the Greeks, driving past them in a chariot, the Cilician queen in a carriage. And the Greeks all had helmets of bronze, crimson tunics, and greaves, and carried their shields uncovered.  When he had driven past them all, he halted his chariot in front of the centre of the phalanx, and sending his interpreter Pigres to the generals of the Greeks, gave orders that the troops should advance arms and the phalanx move forward in a body. The generals transmitted these orders to the soldiers, and when the trumpet sounded, they advanced arms and charged. And then, as they went on faster and faster, at length with a shout the troops broke into a run of their own accord, in the direction of the camp.  As for the barbarians, they were terribly frightened the Cilician queen took to flight in her carriage, and the people in the market18 left their wares behind and took to their heels while the Greeks with a roar of laughter came up to their camp. Now the Cilician queen was filled with admiration at beholding the brilliant appearance and the order of the Greek army and Cyrus was delighted to see the terror with which the Greeks inspired the barbarians. "
Indeed, even as late as Waterloo, one of the key issues the French faced was that they couldn't hit the British square formations with artillery and disrupt them sufficiently for their cavalry to make effective charges.
I think bannockburn would be a great example of a battle where pikes made the cavalry almost irrelevant.
"Randolph's action was a foretaste of the main contest the following day: unsupported by archers, the horsemen were unable to make any impression on the Scots spearmen, precisely what had happened in the opening stages of Falkirk. The difference now was that the schiltrons had learnt mobility and how to keep formation at the same time. The English squadron was broken, some seeking refuge in the nearby castle, others fleeing back to the army."
I think the emphasis on the discipline and training of the troops is critical. I mean, imagine horses charging at you, possibly fully armored. Not a lot of men could stand in line, brace their spears, and face that down. The cavalry charge was an extremely effective psychological weapon that oftentimes broke lines before they hit them.
I mean, you have accounts of cavalry charges literally shaking the ground. I don't have access to a decent database because I'm at a CC right now, but I found this forum post:
"Doing reenactment stuff for a Bannockburn film, we (about 120 of us) were placed in front of a green screen and faced up as a Schiltron about 30 wide and 4-5 deep.
Was quite concerning feeling the ground shake as the 12 polo horses charging towards us, yet being in the middle of a well disciplined mob gave a lot of comfort as you were in a very solid mob of packed pikemen."
Iɽ appreciate if someone would just run a database search for something like "cavalry charge shake ground."
Basically, the point that I'm trying to make is that giving a spear to a group of men wouldn't do much against cavalry unless they were disciplined, well trained, and had a good deal of experience (or a solid group of experienced men to keep order in the line) too.
Regarding your psychotic horse comment: there was a small battle, the Battle of Garcia Hernandez, in1812 where German cavalry charged a French square and one of the horses was shot it slid into the one of the French lines and the German dragoons were able to immediately take advantage of the gap, charge in, and break the formation. Then the panicked French fled to the safety of the other square, but in doing so broke up the formation and the dragoons came in with them. Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe (fictional character) say that the correct thing to do is to shoot your own men in that situation.
I don't think we fully appreciate the weapon that the horse was either. These horses were not only bred for combat, but trained. They were taught to ignore the clamor of battle. They moved constantly to avoid being hamstrung. They would rear up to strike with their hooves and would even bite people. While I haven't heard of it referenced directly, it would be surprising to me if they weren't also taught to charge home through small gaps in a line.
The spear was certainly effective as a deterrent against cavalry, but it was not the "I charge my Yari Samurai into your Katana Cavalry and win" effectiveness that the Total War series like to portray. As you've mentioned, if spears were that effective against cavalry, then surely cavalry would have died out a long time ago, especially when your typical Medieval levy were equipped with spears.
The conclusion, logically then, is that the spear by itself was not the ultimate anti-cavalry weapon, but rather how it was used alongside compatible weapon systems. Indeed, spears by their lonesome have never fared well against cavalry, unless there were unfavorable factors that weighed against the horsemen's favor. The weight and momentum behind a well timed cavalry charge is immense, especially when the rider and steed are also clad entirely in some form of armor. Hell, even during the zenith of the pike and shot age we have reports of heavily armored gendarmes charging into pike blocks and shattering them.
Infantry, even infantry with spears, are always at a marked disadvantage against cavalry simply because the cavalry can dictate the terms of the fight. They can decide where to attack because they can outmaneuver and outrun you, and they can decide when to attack because no self-respecting general will retire to from the battlefield when there is enemy cavalry nearby ready for a devastating charge. What the infantry needed was a way to strike at the cavalry from range, a way to gain the initiative from the cavalry and even the playing field.
At first it was the bow that was thrust into the limelight, but besides the English longbow and some Asian recurve bows, the bow simply lacked the stopping power to halt a cavalry charge, especially when the riders were in near or full plate armor. Then the crossbow was tried and saw some success when deployed in formations. Indeed, the early Swiss pike blocks used crossbows in conjunction with pikemen to mixed effect. However, the crossbow was slow to reload and unwieldy, and could not really harm heavy cavalry outside a hundred yards. What the infantry needed was a weapon that had both range and stopping power. They got that in the form of the gun, or specifically, the arquebus.
An infantry formation equipped with arquebuses and pikes could inflict casualties upon the heaviest of cavalry both at range and in close. More importantly, the soldiers equipped with arquebuses served as a skirmishing screen that prevented the pike blocks from being flanked and charged in the rear by maneuvering cavalry. It was this system of combined arms that saw the gradual decline of cavalry, and not the use of spears alone. It should also be mentioned that as warfare evolved with the increasing prominence of guns being the centerpiece of your standard army, the spear would return in the form of the bayonet, effectively combining two weapon systems (the pike and the arquebus) into one (the musket).
Top 10 Ancient Chinese Weapons
The ancient China civilization has seen a variety of martial arts and battle techniques. The ancient Chinese army won many famous battles and was a very successful force in the Asian continent. And weapons of course played an important role in it. These ancient (medieval) weapons were masterpieces of engineering and helped Chinese army succeed much easier. Below is a list of top 10 ancient Chinese weapons. If you feel like any important weapon is excluded in the list, please let me know in the comment section.
#1. Gong 弓
The bow is called “Gong” in Chinese language and it has a long history in ancient China. According to archaeological materials, the use of bow by ancient Chinese went as early as 2800 years ago. The archers had always been an important branch of the imperial army until the late 19th century. In ancient China archery has always been an essential subject of the military exam for official selection.
#2. Qiang 枪
Qiang, a type of spear, was an important weapon in ancient China. The common Qiang could was a kind of spear with a long staff and a steel mounted tip. The Qiang was used in battles for long distance combat including throwing spears, even after fire weapons were introduced by the Qin Dynasty.
#3. Jian 剑
The Jian, a double-edged straight sword, was regarded as the king of all weapons in ancient China. The double bladed Jian was a harder weapon to control than a single-blade saber, so in ancient China Jian was usually owned and used by the educated class or skilled warrior.
#4. Dun 盾
The Dun (made of metal or wood or bamboo) is Chinese name for shield. It is a big board held in the hand to protect against the attacking of other weapons such as arrow and spear. It was usually used along with a dagger-axe or saber.
#5. Yue 钺
Yue is an axe-shaped arms used in China about 3,000 years ago. It has a threatening expanded blade and is usually decorated with a magical animal in Chinese myth. Yue was created especially for against heavy-armor enemy.
#6. Nu 弩
The Nu was a semi-automatic crossbow invented by Chinese about 2,400 years ago. It comprises a feeder on top and a lever near the end for repeating action. Skilled crossbowman could launch 10 bolts in 15 seconds before exhausting the magazine.
#7. Dao 刀
The Dao was one of the most commonly used arms in ancient China. Dao can be described as a single-edged Chinese sword with wood wrapped handle. In Ancient China the Dao was used mainly for hand to hand combat especially for the cavalry on horseback.
#8. Gun 棍
Though just a simple staff, the Gun was one of the Four Major Weapons in ancient China. It was usually made from bamboo and mainly used for self-defense. The Gun was rarely used by the Chinese army, and its most common usage is to train new recruits. The army favored bladed weapons as they were more durable.
#9. Fu 斧
The Fu, Chinese name for the axe, was usually held by imperial guards, rather than common soldiers. The Fu was characterized by large blade that was often carved with a image of a powerful animal. Fu is similar to another Chinese weapon Yue, but is much smaller and lighter and has more practical applications.
#10. Ji 戟
Ji is is a two-handed pole weapon used as a military weapon in China as early as the Shang dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC). It comprises a long handle with a curved blade attached to the top and a sharp metal tip. Ji is a very diverse and useful instrument, it can be used to slash with the side blade or stab with the tip.
IMPERIAL CHINA MILITARY
The military history of Imperial China before the nineteenth-century Western impact shows considerable variation from period to period, depending on changing historical circumstances and the differing social bases of successive dynasties. It also shows continuity related to the persistence of the major cultural factors that came together in the Han period. These cultural factors include Confucianism, the Legalist state, and hostility to the nomads of Inner Asia. All three of these emerged individually during the Warring States period that preceded the Qin unification, but should be viewed analytically as part of Imperial China.
Military Officers and Soldiers
Over the long run of Imperial China, the military service obligation of the general population evolved from being nearly universal, as in the Qin and Han, to a burden imposed on a minority. While both the Tang fubing system and the Ming weisuo system employed the principle of soldier-farmers liable to conscription, in both dynasties this principle applied only to a minority of the population. In the Tang fubing membership seems to have been seen as a benefit in the early reigns of the dynasty, later evolving into a burden, while in the Ming weisuo membership seems to have been viewed as a burden from the beginning. In the Song the troops of the standing army were poorly paid and used for menial work, while military officer status was conferred on many officials doing low-level work disdained by true scholar-officials. Coupled with the hypertrophy of “civil” values among the educated elite, these attitudes and patterns of treatment led to the denigration of soldiers (including officers), noticeable from Song times onward and expressed in the often-quoted saying, “Good iron isn’t used for nails good men aren’t used as soldiers.” Occasional efforts of civil officials to revive the militia ideal of classical antiquity seldom worked as intended.
Weapons and Military Technology
China has been an “advanced” country, in comparison to its contemporaries, through most of recorded history, losing ground only after the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. The major innovations in weaponry that influenced Western military history have their counterparts in China. Any list would include the crossbow, armor, the stirrup, fortifications, gunpowder weapons, and shipbuilding.
In the Qin and Han conscript armies, infantry and cavalry replaced chariots as the principal arm, and the infantry were armed with spears, bows, and in particular crossbows (nu), a weapon in whose technology the Chinese remained superior. Later descriptions of Chinese armies usually include units of archers mixed with crossbowmen, the latter presumably needing protection between rounds due to their longer reloading time. The intricate trigger latch mechanism of the crossbow was a closely guarded state secret under the Han. Battle accounts (too often, unfortunately, influenced by literary conventions) often mention the sky being darkened by clouds of arrows. Evidence for the actual conduct of battles is sketchy, but discharges of arrows (including crossbow bolts) were crucial to victory. Even though infantry bearing shields, swords, and spears existed, there is no trace of either a “phalanx” or a “legion” style of infantry fighting.
Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb army is wearing armor, and there are many later representations of armored Chinese soldiers. Most of the armor is of the lamellar variety, in which overlapping leather or metal plates of varying size are laced together. Such armor is relatively light and flexible at the expense of protective strength, and in the West infantry and cavalry trained for shock tactics and reliance on edged weapons tended to move on to armor composed at least partly of large plates, of which there are a few Chinese examples.
The idea that the stirrup, by permitting the evolution of shock cavalry armed with the lance, was a primary factor in the creation of European feudalism has received a surprising degree of credence, though recent reevalution of the four-horned Roman saddle has undermined its central thesis.2 In China the spread of the stirrup is associated with the development of the armored cavalryman, mounted on an armored (barded) horse and armed with a lance. Literary references to “armored cavalry” occur as late as the Tang, and a vivid pictorial representation of mounted warriors looking like European knights occurs in a tomb dated to 357 c.E. Nevertheless, it may be stated with confidence that the social outcomes attributed to the stirrup in Europe did not occur in China. Knightlike cavalry were part of the ruling class of north China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. This class, which evolved into the governing aristocracy of the Sui and Tang, was largely Xianbi in origin but also included other Inner Asian peoples and Chinese who had adopted barbarian ways. Far from devolving into feudalism, the Sui and Tang dynasties erected a powerful and enduring version of the centralized, bureaucratic empire previously built by the Qin and Han. And, stirrupped or not, the cavalry future belonged to the Inner Asian warrior whose strength was his skill with the bow rather than the lance.
China has always been a country of cities rather than castles, and city walls were not only a means of defense but also a symbol of the city’s status in the hierarchy of rule. The walls were formidable defenses. While there are many recorded examples of long sieges and much literature on siege-craft, it remained the case that the best way to take a city was by treachery or surprise during a period of confusion, and a siege was more likely to be won by protracted blockade than by a successful assault. China’s urban fortifications did not evolve the low, relatively cannon-proof bastions of the trace italienne, as European cities did in the sixteenth century while China lived peacefully under the rule of the Ming. Afterward, the thick earthen walls of the major Chinese cities remained highly resistant to the gunpowder weapons that were becoming more prominent in Chinese warfare.
The basic formula for gunpowder was known to the Song, weapons incorporating gunpowder were used prominently during the Yuan, and in the Ming Yongle reign (1402-1424) a special headquarters was established in Beijing to coordinate the training of gunners. Firearms added to the defensive strength of the Great Wall, itself a Ming creation, and the Chinese element of the Manchu banner system seem to have been valued, in part, as artillery specialists. However, we cannot discern a “gunpowder revolution” in Chinese military history. In the Ming, Qi Jiguang’s successful and widely emulated military organization had gunners serving alongside bowmen, swordsmen, and spearmen in the same primary (squad-level) formations, and in the Qing Zeng Guofan’s Hunan Army battalions combined newer and older weapons in the same way. Firearms originated in China, but in China they remained just another missile weapon. One does not see efforts to standardize manufacture, reduce the number of calibers, or create new tactics and organizations to exploit the potential of a new weapons system.
Marco Polo’s descriptions of Chinese ships were part of his credibility problem in Europe, and Europeans also found it difficult to credit the early Ming naval voyages. It is now accepted that China built wooden ships as large or larger than any ever built in Europe, and, having invented the compass, navigated them beyond the sight of land to Africa and other distant coasts. But these capabilities did not add up to a navy in the latter part of the Ming and in the Qing, China’s seagoing forces consisted of small ships and boats tethered to the military organizations of specific provinces.
China’s long history of technological progress provides scant comfort for theories that see certain kinds of social and political change as the inevitable result of specific technologies. Neither the stirrup nor gunpowder had the dramatic consequences in China claimed for them in Europe. With respect to shipbuilding technology, Ming China’s withdrawal from the sea was deliberate and dramatic, and had long-lasting consequences. It compares to Tokugawa Japan’s “giving up the gun.”3 In both cases, ruling establishments feared and prevented technology-driven change.
Within the context of the factors of continuity and change already discussed, we may see three broad (and partly overlapping) subperiods in the evolution of Imperial China’s military institutions and practices, each of which transcends any single dynasty, and each of which came to an end due to a crisis of Chinese civilization involving the two basic military threats: domestic rebellion and foreign invasion. The first subperiod is bounded by the rise of Qin in the Warring States and the end of the last of the Six Dynasties in 589 C.E., the second by the consolidation of the Northern Wei in the fifth century and the final Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279, and the third by the Kitan conquest of part of north China in the tenth century and the fall of the imperial system as a whole in the twentieth century. We will label these subperiods Han, Tang, and Mongol-Manchu.
The two Han dynasties continued to employ the cadre-conscript army developed by the state of Qin during the Warring States, just as they continued the bureaucratic system and other Qin institutions. Similarly, the military systems of the Three Kingdoms, the ephemeral Western Jin (265-316), and the later south China regimes collectively called the Six Dynasties evolved from the Later Han state of affairs in which rival warlords controlled armies of dependent soldiers (buqu).
The career and reforms of Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) in Qin are described in a hostile and caricatured way in the sources, but they converted Qin permanently into the strongest of the seven warring states well over a century before the final Qin conquest of China. Shang Yang abolished hereditary status and created a new set of “titles of nobility” (jue) that could be conferred on any male subject, but only for success in war or agriculture. The population was organized in mutual responsibility groups and governed by officials who could not be natives of the areas they governed. These officials were rewarded (or punished) strictly for their success (or failure) in carrying out their orders. The other states contemporary with Qin undertook less comprehensive and less successful reforms, but Qin retained the leadership that Shang Yang’s reforms had conferred. Qin’s greatest general, Bai Qi (d. 257 B.C.E.), made it a deliberate policy to massacre the armies of the states he defeated in order to maintain Qin’s comparative advantage.
While the first Han emperor made a great show of moderating the severity of Qin laws and experimented with a limited revival of feudalism, in the end the Han continued most Qin institutions, including the Qin military system. For most people conscription was the most important element of that system. Men were drafted for two years, serving as infantry, cavalry, or sailors according to their background. For a small minority this meant service in the capital, and for a larger minority service along the walled defenses of the northern frontier, whose operation in Han times is understood in unusual detail from surviving contemporary documents.4 Most conscripts seem to have served their time within their native province (jun, “commandery”), whose governor (taishou, literally “grand defender”) was also their commander in case of invasion. The founding of the Han coincided closely with the unification of the Xiongnu under Maodun, and Han Wudi’s resort to war against the Xiongnu is associated with the creation of specialist cavalry forces that could fight in the Xiongnu manner, most famously by Huo Qubing (d. 117 B.C.E.). But Wudi’s wars against the Xiongnu and his annexations of territory in Korea, south China, and Vietnam were made possible by the mobilization of large numbers of mostly infantry troops, and this capacity was retained under his successors.
Guangwudi (r. 25-57), the founding emperor of the Later Han, lightened the military burden by eliminating the annual summer mobilization of the reservists. The Later Han maintained military pressure on the Xiongnu, and finally broke them up for good. Except for the adventures of Ban Chao (d. 102) in the Western Regions (now Xinjiang), which were a classic example of indirect rule maintained by locally recruited troops, the Later Han was not committed to territorial expansion. Despite coups and conflicts in Luoyang, relative peace prevailed in the provinces, along with increasing concentration of landownership. When the Later Han confronted its major military crisis, the Yellow Turban rebellion (from 184), the fastest way to mobilize large armies was to recruit among the dependent clients of already powerful notables a breakdown to war-lordism followed quickly.
Cao Cao (155-220) was the most successful of these warlords, and his descendants were the rulers of Wei, the most powerful of the Three Kingdoms. His rivals founded Shu-Han (221-263, in Sichuan) and Wu (formally 229-280, at Nanjing). The Jin dynasty of Sima Yi and his descendants ended the Three Kingdoms and briefly ruled over a reunified China. After the rebellions and invasions of the early fourth century, the Jin ruled south China from Nanjing until 420, where four more Chinese dynasties followed until 589.
Many scholars believe that under these dynasties peasants were reduced to the status of serfs, and that armies also were composed of soldiers who were unfree dependents (buqu). While some of this theorizing is in the service of a Marxist periodization of Chinese history, it is very clear from the histories of these dynasties that a warlord pattern had developed: For whatever reason, soldiers were at the disposal of their generals, and central authority was correspondingly fragile. While expressions of disdain for soldiers can be found in the literature of the period, many eminent literary figures also exercised high military command, and the warlord founders of two dynasties (Liu-Song and Liang) had sons who compiled major literary collections (Liu Yiqing and Xiao Tong, compilers of the Shishuo xinyu and the Wenx-uan, respectively). The Sui conquest of Nanjing ended this line of evolution.
In 493 Tuoba Hong, the Northern Wei emperor posthumously titled Xiaowendi, played a trick on his Xianbi clan leaders. Pretending to lead them in an invasion of south China, he instead made them stop at the still impressive ruins of Luoyang, the capital of the Later Han and Western Jin, which he made his own capital. North China had been overrun early in the fourth century by various Inner Asian peoples who diplayed an uncharacteristic hostility to Chinese civilization. After the disorders of this period, the brief stabilization of the Northern Wei in the fifth century as the first of the important “dynasties of conquest” begins the second period of military evolution. The Northern Wei created early forms of the equal field (juntian) land system and the fubing military system that became major institutions under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Most important, the Northern Wei attempted to create a society in which the military skills of the Xianbi would be complemented by bureaucratic and literary skills of the Chinese educated elite. Later dynasties of conquest made the same attempt, and in military matters Inner Asian influence was important even in dynasties (Sui, Tang, Ming) usually considered Chinese.
After the breakup of the Northern Wei, Yuwen Tai (505-556) and his descendants ruled the northwest first through puppet emperors of Western Wei and then as emperors of the Northern Zhou, and there both the soldier-farmer (fubing) military system and the mixed Chinese and Inner Asian Guanzhong aristocracy that commanded it evolved to provide military means and leaderhip for the Sui and Tang empires. The Yuwen rulers were not of Chinese origin, while the Sui founder and the father of the Tang founder were married to sisters from the Xiongnu Dugu clan. By the end of the sixth century, surnames within the Guanzhong aristocracy did not indicate purely Chinese or Inner Asian ancestry because of intermarriage, and similarly the fubing soldiers included elements capable of fighting on foot or on horseback. Under the fubing system each headquarters (fu) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital. These tours were usually one month long (two months for the most distant units), and their frequency depended on the distance of each unit from the capital. The fubing soldiers permitted the Sui and Tang founders to conquer China, but attempts at foreign conquest were less consistently successful. Obsessive efforts to subdue the Korean kingdom of Koguryo ultimately cost the second Sui emperor his throne and his life. Tang Taizong (r. 626-649) fought both Türks and Tibetans to peace on favorable terms, but failed to overcome Koguryo. That goal was accomplished by his son Gaozong (r. 649-683), though the final winner was not Tang China but its ally, the southern Korean kingdom of Silla, which succeeded in unifying the entire peninsula under its own rule. Japan, which had supported Paekche, the third Korean kingdom, was alarmed by these developments and responded by imitating the fubing and other Tang institutions in the Taika reforms.
Most of the fubing units were located in the northwest, and the system was best suited for the annual campaigning cycle of an expanding empire. Under Empress Wu (r. 684-705) the fubing system declined, and under Xuanzong (r. 712-756) a standing army stationed on the northern frontier evolved in its place. This army reached a strength of half a million men and eighty thousand horses by the 740s. Its Chinese personnel included many men displaced by economic changes since the founding of the Tang, and its non-Chinese personnel included Koreans, Kitan, Türks, and Sogdians. The new standing army thus preserved the Chinese-Inner Asian mixture characteristic of the early Tang, but the old Guanzhong aristocracy ceased to have much involvement with it and its higher ranks came to be filled from within. Having accepted the decline to uselessness of the fubing system, the Tang court had no central army to resist the An Lushan rebellion, and could only counter it by appealing to other frontier commanders whose social background was similar to An Lushan’s and who could move swiftly from loyalty to rebellion when their autonomy was challenged. Despite impressive successes by the court, the pattern of regional warlordism continued until the fall of Tang. While the replacement of the fubing system with the standing army was a major discontinuity in China’s military development, this discontinuity occurred in a period of peace as a result of a deliberate policy decision of the Tang government. While it led to disorder, it was not caused by defeat.
Recognizing the need for a central army as a counterweight to the troops of the regional warlords, the post-An Lushan Tang emperors created the Divine Strategy (Shence) Armies, whose eunuch commanders grew increasingly powerful as the Tang declined. The Privy Council or Bureau of Military Affairs (Shumiyuan), originally a eunuch agency, was taken over by generals during the Five Dynasties (907-960), while continuing to command the central armies (jinjun, qinjun) at the personal disposal of the emperors. The Five Dynasties were politically unstable, each ending in a violent overthrow, but they were militarily successful, since the territory ruled from Luoyang expanded and the troops were increasingly concentrated in the central armies.
The Song founder continued this system, making modifications in the interest of political stability. He retired his principal generals, turned the Bureau of Military Affairs into a department controlled by civil officials, and moved the capital to Kaifeng to make supply via the Grand Canal easier. The chain of command over the central army troops concentrated in the capital area was changed regularly to prevent any general from developing a dangerous personal ascendancy over a particular body of troops. Under the first three Song emperors, the army was efficient enough to reunify the south Chinese states (the Ten Kingdoms) with the empire, but was not strong enough to destroy the two states ruled by Inner Asian peoples (Tangut Xixia and Kitan Liao) that together dominated the northern frontier. The long-term trend in the Northern Song was for the central army to become larger and more expensive, while its soldiers became poorer and less capable militarily and its civilian administrators more intrusive and abusive. The relative ease with which the Jurchen Jin conquered Kaifeng and the rest of north China illustrated the decay to the Song military system. The Hangzhou-based Southern Song depended militarily on an exiguous combination of warlord-led improvised armies and naval power (exercised along the Yangzi as well as on the ocean). The execution of Yue Fei, the most prominent of the warlords, restored political stability even as it dimmed the hope of reconquering the north. When the Mongols completed the destruction of the Southern Song in the 1270s, they ended both the much-discussed “early modern” economic developments of the Song and the continuous line of military evolution that had begun in the Northern Wei.
Deciphering the inscription
On one side of the blade, two columns of text are visible with eight characters, near the hilt, that are in ancient Chinese script. The script, known as "鸟虫文" (literally "'birds and worms' characters") is characterized by intricate decorations to the defining strokes, and is a variant of zhuan that is very difficult to read. Initial analyses deciphered six of these eight characters. They read, "越王" (King of Yue) and "自作用剑" ("made this sword for (his) personal use"). The remaining two characters are likely the name of the king.
Deciphering the scripts on the Sword of Goujian ( Wikipedia)
From its birth in 510 BC to its demise at the hands of Chu in 334 BC, nine kings ruled Yue, including Goujian, Lu Cheng, Bu Shou, and Zhu Gou, among others. The identity of the king that owned the sword sparked debate among archaeologists and Chinese language scholar. After more than two months, the experts formed a consensus that the original owner of the sword was Goujian (496 – 465 BC), making the sword around 2,500 years old.
Goujian was a famous emperor in Chinese history who reigned over the Yue State during the Spring and Autumn Period (771 - 476 BC). This was a time marked by chaos within the Zhou Dynasty and takes its name from the Spring and Autumn Annals, which chronicled this period. The Spring and Autumn Period was renowned for military expeditions these conflicts led to the perfecting of weapons to the point that they were incredibly resistant and deadly, taking years to forge and lasting for centuries. The story of Goujian and Fuchai, King of the Wu state, contending for hegemony is famous throughout China. Although Goujian’s kingdom was initially defeated by the State of Wu, Goujian would lead his army to victory 10 years later.
Armour in Ancient Chinese Warfare
With zinging arrows, powerful crossbow bolts, stabbing swords, and swinging axes all a staple feature of the Chinese battlefield, it is not surprising that soldiers sought to protect themselves as best they could with armour and shields. Leather tunics with metal additions, bronze or iron helmets, and shields of lacquered leather helped to deflect at least some of the missiles and slashing blades that came a soldier's way. Horses were similarly protected, and heavy cavalry with the horse and rider covered entirely in armour became a feature of later Chinese armies.
The history and evolution of armour in Chinese warfare is difficult to ascertain with certainty, given its often perishable nature, but text descriptions and appearances in art, such as in wall paintings and on pottery figurines, along with surviving metal parts can help reconstruct major developments. Just who wore armour and when is another point of discussion. Military treatises of the Warring States period (c. 481-221 BCE) suggest that all officers of any level wore armour. The same sources contain references to commanders keeping armour in storage bags and distributing it to troops, but at least some of the ordinary conscripted infantry probably had to provide their own. This obviously depended on their means, and being farmers it is unlikely to have been a realistic possibility for most.
The first armour in China was made from animal skins during the Neolithic period. These were probably not much adjusted for their new function and were likely more intended to impress than deflect weapons. From the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) leather was used to make tailored armour, and it would continue to be a popular choice for centuries. The most common source of leather was cowhide but the skin of buffalo and rhinos is also recorded (the Sumatran rhino was common in China prior to the 5th century BCE). The tanned and stiffened leather, sufficient to deflect bronze age weapons, was fashioned into two pieces to protect the chest and back of the warrior.
Sometimes pieces of shell were used as an extra layer of protection, and there are remains of armour with high neck protectors. The armour was frequently painted, typically using red, yellow, white, black, and blue. Some were embellished with metal bosses and depictions of fearsome mythical creatures, tigers, or demon masks.
Shields were in use during the Shang period or even before. Early ones were larger, probably because the body armour of the time was less efficient than later versions. Some combined bronze plates and leather while more rudimentary versions would have been made from whicker, interlaced bamboo or reeds, wooden slats, or animal skins. The leather or layered cloth material was stretched over a wooden or bamboo frame and then lacquered to give extra strength without significantly adding weight. They came in two sizes, a smaller version for infantry and a larger one that could cover the height of a man for chariot riders. The infantry shield was held in one hand, and their remains in tombs suggest they had an approximate rectangle shape, curved slightly outward in the centre, had a single vertical handle centrally placed, and measured 70 x 80 cm.
A soldier's head was protected by a helmet made first of rattan or leather and then, later, of bronze. They were typically of a spherical type covering the top of the ears, protected the back of the neck, and were topped by a simple and low crest. Some metal helmets have stylised projections and engravings similar to those used on shields. Bronze helmets were lined with a softer material to cushion blows and for comfort they weigh on average 2-3 kilos. Helmets were only capable of deflecting light missiles and glancing blows from a sword, and enough skeletal remains evidencing wounds from arrowheads and swords suggests that armour, in general, was not particularly effective in earlier periods of Chinese warfare.
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Zhou & Qin Armour
By the middle of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) a more flexible armour was devised, made of small overlapping rectangles of leather held together using leather thongs, hemp cord or rivets, and made into the form of a tunic. Each piece of leather was hardened by tanning and lacquering. This type of armour is typical of the warriors of the Terracotta Army found in the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). The terracotta warriors display seven different types of armoured tunic, some with extended flaps to protect the groin. An alternative to leather was to use small rectangles of bronze or a layered combination of bronze and leather. Naturally, too, many soldiers who could afford it adorned their armour with extra decorations designed to impress and made from precious metals, ivory, and rhinoceros horn.
With the wider use of the crossbow and their increasing firepower, especially from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) onwards, iron was increasingly used in body armour. Again, small plates were stitched or riveted together to form a semi-flexible tunic which also protected the outer upper arms. Iron was at the same time used to strengthen shields and to make helmets. Helmets of this period take on a hood-like shape with a hanging part to protect the neck but they still offered no protection for the face, even if there are references to iron face-masks in Han military treatises.
Another development was to design armour for specific types of soldiers. The two or three soldiers within a chariot did not need any great mobility, and so their armour could be heavier and more cumbersome but with the benefit of offering greater protection. All of the body could be covered, provided the arms were left free to wield weapons such as lances and halberds (a mix of axe and spear). Infantry, meanwhile, had only short tunics and more basic leg protectors which allowed them to move quickly across the battlefield. Cavalry, which began to replace chariots from the 4th century BCE, were traditionally lightly armed with halberds and bow so that in order to move freely and fire from their primitive saddles while still on the move their clothing had to be light and unrestrictive.
The horse had, if any, only the limited protection of a hanging leather cover over its front below the neck and sometimes a tiger skin spread over its flanks. With the invention of the stirrup, a heavy cavalry became possible from the 4th century CE. These cataphracts had all-over body armour for both rider and horse and can be clearly seen in pottery figurines of the period. The great weight of such heavy cavalry impeded their use in practical terms and, consequently, there was a return to lighter and faster cavalry in the Tang period (618-907 CE), even if a small corps of gentlemanly knights continued well into the medieval period.
During the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) and the succeeding Tang dynasty periods, a new armour developed which became known as “cord and plaque”. Seen in pottery figurines of the time, the armour was composed of large iron plates joined by cords running down the centre and across the chest and linked to a cord belt, which probably helped distribute the weight away from the shoulders. Another popular type during the Tang was a long coat of armour made from hundreds of small metal plates and which hung down almost to the ankles.
In medieval China, armour became even more ornate with intricately designed suits of armour made of fabric-covered riveted panels, armour which covered the tops of the legs for cavalry, and helmets made from multiple overlapping plates of iron or even sometimes engraved silver. Mail armour was used but rarely and, despite the arrival of gunpowder and firearms, Chinese armour remained remarkably traditional with leather still being commonly used for all types of warriors just as it had been for over two millennia.
When did bladed weapons, such as swords and pikes, become obsolete to gun?
Ivɾ been trying to find this out and ivɾ never really been able to pinpoint the exact time, from my understanding it seems to have happened in or slightly before the 17th century. Granted cannons were used then but i'm more concerned about when just footmen stopped using them.
This all depends on what you mean by "obsolete". If your asking "When did firearms replace melee weapons as the dominant military arms", the answer as you guessed, is around the 30 Years War in the mid 17th century. Before then, while many armies incorporated firearms, they were secondary to Pikes and Polearms in military formations. However, the growth of German mercenary companies, generally known as Landsknecht, also saw the growth of gunpowder weaponry. By the end of the 30 Years War in 1648, most armies featured a balance of guns and pikes, perhaps with a slight edge towards guns. Of course this is a pretty generalized answer, and it didnt reflect the development of every army. The Spanish army, for example, remained very pike heavy through the 17th century.
If your question is instead "when were melee weapons completely replaced by firearms?" then there are two answers: The first, and probably least satisfying, is never. Swords, knives, bayonets, spears, and other weapons remain in both the ceremonial as well as functional arsenals of modern militaries across the globe. So in a very real way, melee weapons have never left the military. The other answer, and the one which I think is more in the spirit of your question, is around the beginning of the 18th century and the War of Spanish Succession. During this conflict, or immediately preceding it, many European militaries underwent a major shift in equipment. Previous armies featured a mixture of pikes and guns. The pikes protected the musketeers while they reloaded, while the musketeers used their firepower to break open enemy formations for attacking pikemen. Musketeers could also utilize a defensive instrument called a "plug bayonet" which was basically a big blade that soldiers jammed into the barrels of the guns. This turned their weapons into a crude pike, but the plug bayonets were nearly impossible to remove on the battlefield, and so were neither practical nor popular. At the beginnings of the 18th century, the plug bayonet was replaced by the socket bayonet. This completely changed the way Western Europeans equipped their forces. The socket bayonet allowed a musketeer to both fire their weapon and use the bayonet simultaneously. Rather than having an army split between dedicated pike formations and musketeer, the socket bayonet allowed armies to combine rolls. The musketeer suddenly became capable of not only delivering their traditional range fire, but they could also defend themselves against cavalry and infantry attacks. In the span of about a decade, the pike was replaced by muskets using this new pattern bayonet, and it spelled the end of the widespread use of melee weapons by infantry units. In cavalry units, the lance and saber remained popular until after World War One, while in infantry units the pike and sword were relegated to symbols of rank and office.
What Rifles Did the U.S. Cavalry Carry During the Frontier Era?
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Army issued various longarms, including the seven-round Spencer and Springfield “Trapdoor” rifles and carbines that had been modified to accommodate the self-contained cartridge. The Army continued issuing the Springfield, based on the Allin Conversion, until 1898. These single-shot, breech-loading, .45 caliber models had a reputation for accuracy, even at a distance.
The budget-minded Army brass thought the Winchester repeating rifles were too expensive and too “complicated” for the typical soldier. During the Civil War, the 15-shot Henry rifle was available for use—however, it cost four times that of the Springfield. Consequently, the Army ordered a limited number of Henry’s.
George Custer’s U.S. Army-issued model 1865 Spencer carbine dates from the Indian Wars and quite possibly could have been carried by him at the Battle of Washita. But historians warn us: Don’t blame the weapons carried by the 7th Cavalry for the deaths of the general and his men at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
– Courtesy Heritage Auctions, December 11-12, 2012 –
Yet the Spencer fared as well in range or accuracy as the Henry and Winchester. Rather than blame bad results on the weapons used, historians point toward poor marksmanship training. Prior to 1880s, target practice was nil. Only after George Custer’s disaster at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn did that change, just a bit—the Army issued about 20 rounds per year for training.
Frontier Cavalry Trooper: The Letters of Private Eddie Matthews, 1869-1874, edited by Douglas C. McChristian,&hellip
How many cavalry troops served during the Indian Wars? James RowleyLaingsburg, Michigan The Indian Wars&hellip
Were gun silencers used during the Old West era? Ray Munkittrick Chicopee, Massachusetts The first&hellip