A Complete Guide To Boarding Pikes

Key Point: Boarding pikes were long, pointed weapons used by sailors and soldiers for boarding enemy ships or repelling enemy boarders during naval combat.

In this installment on naval weapons, we will be taking a look at boarding pikes. And more importantly how they were used in naval battles. So, by the time you finish this article, you will have a clear understanding of how boarding pikes were used, and why they eventually stopped being used.

Now, before we continue. Let’s examine an important thing first. What were boarding pikes? And how were they used in battle?

Boarding pikes were long polearm weapons with a pointed metal tip, used for close combat in naval warfare. They were used by sailors to repel attackers attempting to board their own ships, as well as to board enemy vessels. Boarding pikes were especially popular during the “Age of Sail when naval warfare relied heavily on boarding actions. They were used to fend off enemy combatants during boarding actions, and to maintain a defensive line when being boarded.

That was a quick definition of boarding pikes. But now let’s explore this topic in a little more detail. Starting with its origins.

The Origin Of Boarding Pikes

The origins of boarding pikes can be traced back to the earliest days of naval warfare. Back then the main tactic they used was either to ram the enemy ship and make a huge hole that would hopefully sink the ship or board the ship and take it over.

Boarding pikes could not stop a ship from ramming you and causing a hole. But it could help prevent an enemy soldier from boarding your ship.

So, what started as a spear directed at the enemy eventually evolved. It developed into a longer spear with sharper tips. which became known as a boarding pike. The pike was designed to be used by a sailor standing on the deck of a ship, with the pointed end of the weapon directed toward an attacker.

When Were They Most Often Used?

The use of boarding pikes reached its zenith during the so-called “age of sail”. Which lasted between the 16th and the mid-19th century. During this era naval engagements involving boarding the enemy ship were quite common. So the sailors needed an effective handheld weapon to fend off any attackers.

Now, let’s see the dimension of boarding pikes. And how that changed across centuries.

The Dimensions Of Boarding Pikes

The dimensions of boarding pikes changed over centuries. As ships have gotten larger and larger the length of boarding pikes increased as well.

For example, during the early days of naval warfare, an average boarding pike measured 8 to 10 feet. But as the ships progressed in size so have the pikes. During the later stages of the so-called “Age of Sail” boarding pikes measured typically between 12-18 feet.

What They Were Made Off?

The wooden shafts of boarding pikes were usually made of ash or oak. The shafts were straight and smooth. This allowed the sailor to hold onto them tightly without worrying about splinters or rough spots.

The metal tips or spearheads of the pikes were usually made of one of two metals. Iron or steel. Other materials such as bronze or brass were very rarely used. The tips of pikes were usually between 8 to 12 inches in length.

The metal tips were attached to the wooden shafts in a variety of ways.

Some pikes had a socket in the tip that the wooden shaft fit into, and others had a tang that was inserted into the shaft and then secured with a metal ferrule. The tips of boarding pikes were often decorated with intricate designs or patterns. With some even being engraved with the name or emblem of the ship or crew that used them.

How Were Boarding Pikes Used

Boarding pikes were used in two main ways. One was to prevent an attacker from boarding. And the other way was to help the attackers in boarding the ship.

If we take a look at the boarding pike as a defensive weapon. The sailors of the defending ship would line the deck and point the boarding pikes at the enemy trying to board the ship. This in effect created a wall of pointy pikes directed at the attacked making any boarding extremely difficult.

The second way was for the attacking sailors to line their boarding pikes, direct them at the enemy ship and use their boarding pikes to board the enemy ship. They would in effect use the pikes to hook onto the rigging or bulwarks of the enemy ship, allowing them to climb aboard.

Now, if they were as effective as I claim they were then why did they fall out of use? Let’s see.

Why Did The Boarding Pike Stop Being Used?

There are 2 main reasons why the boarding pike stopped being used. One is of course gunpowder weapons. As those became more efficient and more accurate, ranged weapons simply won out. They were more effective since you were able to take someone out at a larger distance.

Weapons such as the blunderbuss were really effective at clearing decks of enemy sailors.

The second reason was the changing naval environment. Warships started to rely much more on powerful cannons to take out enemy ships and much less on boarding the enemy ship. And since the tactic of boarding fell out of use, so did the boarding pike.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope you learned a thing or two about the history and use of boarding pikes. If you wish to continue learning about naval weapons I suggest taking a look at my article on the Byzantine warship the dromon, right here.

Or take a look here at another weapon used during the “Age of Sails” the fireships!

Take care!

Source: “Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650-1815” by Brian Tunstall