An ancient weapon, the pikeman provided the main defensive arm of the infantry. Closely ranked together and thrusting forward an impenetrable bristle of sharpened spearheads, a well trained and sturdy pike division could see off the most gallant of cavalry charges, protecting musketeers from attack. Pikemen would also be used as heavy infantry, delivering assaults against enemy pike divisions in an attempt to break the line.
The pike itself was originally eighteen foot long, but soldiers quickly shortened this to sixteen foot to aid handling and maneuverability. Usually made of ash the pike was tipped with a steel spearhead. This was held on by langettes, two strips of steel running a few inches down the side of the pike. The langettes had a dual function; as well as securing the head, they protected it from being severed by the blow of a cavalry sword at the most vulnerable part of the pike, which would have made the weapon useless.
At the start of the English Civil War the well-equipped pikeman would have had three components to his armour; the breastplate, the backplate and a set of tassets. They were so equipped as they were the ‘heavy’ division of the infantry, and could be used to provide a shocking impact at weak points of the enemy’s line, thus perhaps turning the tide of battle.
The breastplate and backplate were manufactured from shaped steel and protected the torso. Theoretically the armour could turn a musket ball. Armourers used to ‘proof’ their wares by firing a pistol at the armour at close range, leaving a small dent on the breastplate. However, it is likely that many such proof marks were inserted with the aid of a hammer!
The armour was secured to the pikeman by means of two short leather straps across the shoulders, protected by metal plates, and a belt around the waist. The tassets were two curved steel plates attached by hinges to the bottom of the breastplate, designed to protect the thighs. Very early during the wars pikemen found the tassets to be extremely uncomfortable on the march, and quickly ‘lost’ them in hedgerows and campsites.
As the war progressed and the accuracy and efficiency of the musket left the pikeman more and more redundant, the breast and backplate often shared the same fate.
Pikemen were issued with a short sword, known as a tuck. This weapon was mass-produced and very inferior in quality; the blades were scarcely able to hold an edge. The length of the weapon was kept short as the pikeman needed to be able to draw the sword from the scabbard with one hand, whilst still controlling his pike with the other.
Pikemen rarely used their tucks in action. Firstly, the strength in a pike division lay in its massed, armoured ranks. To use the sword this division of men, normally standing shoulder to shoulder, must have broken ranks, rendering them ineffectual as a fighting unit. Secondly, their poor quality and short length meant that they were ineffective against any form of armour – even a buff coat. Therefore the weapons tended to be used more for domestic purposes, such as chopping wood for a campfire.
Completing the pikeman’s defensive armour was a steel helmet – the morion or ‘pikeman’s pot’. These varied slightly in design and were usually manufactured under the Spanish or English pattern. However, all designs had similar characteristics. Curving upward almost to a point, with rounded sides, they were designed to deflect a musket ball or sword blow away, without it being able to ‘bite’ into the steel. The morion had a wide brim around the edge, which curved upwards at the front and back. These upwards curves were designed to deflect any enemy weapon away from the face and neck.
The Role Today
When taking part as a pikemen you will be armed with a pike 16 feet long, and protected by armour and a helmet. These items are supplied by the regiment. The equipment issued to soldiers is expensive, both in financial terms and the time taken to manufacture it. For example, a pike costs about £80 and can take a day to make. Members should take great care of any regimental equipment they use.
The pikemen form the central part of the infantry body. They engage with enemy pike blocks at “point” or “push” depending on the situation, as well as defending musketeers from charging cavalry.
Off the field, pikemen demonstrate the weapon and armour to the public, or represent the activities undertaken by soldiers in camp during the period.