How far can you throw a spear?

And how many spears should your soldiers carry to throw in volley?

Here’s a great answer from Eric Lowe: How far could an ancient Roman soldier throw his one or two spears and isn’t that a small amount of ammunition?

I can’t recall any primary sources discussing range, but modern experiment suggests around 20 meters.

As for whether or not that’s a small amount of ammunition, I think the other answers have missed an important point. As of this writing, I see answers discussing the fact that the number of pila in the air added up when you consider how many men were throwing them and pointing out that they were to be thrown as a precursor to charging. And that’s all true, and I agree with it, but it still amounts to each maniple being able to throw a pilum as a precursor to charging only two times per battle. The question as I read it is whether that’s too small a number.

The answer is no. It’s actually somewhat conservative. 

And then a discussion about why.

Slightly related: How do you actually hold and use a sword: The Basics

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2 thoughts on “How far can you throw a spear?”

  1. Hmmm…. Back in the days when I did historical re-enactment… and then was writing the Boudica series, we thought that spears were almost exclusively for slamming into shields and dragging them down, thereby rendering them unusuable.

    Though I did used to fight with spear and shield and never used it that way -largely because our spears were blunt (and I’d spent years practicing with an Aikido jo-stick so had a bit of an edge), and anyway, we weren’t allowed to throw them around. (Only the longbows were allowed to fire projectiles and they were supposed to be blunt. The story of The One That Fired the Sharp – not me – is for another day. Nobody died, but only by pure luck).

    Anyway – I was told that the Viking/Norse word for spear translated as ‘Shield Trapper’ which seemed to confirm it. Though a decade later, someone wrote to me to tell me that I’d got the pila all wrong and nobody now thought that the soft iron necks were so that the other side couldn’t pick them up and throw them back. Be interesting to know what current theory is, though given that I’m no longer writing Roman stuff just now (until I get back to Dreaming the Wounded Bear), it’s probably not high on my list of research.

    I remember reading Caesar saying he signalled and out-of-control cavalry wing ‘Good Luck’. But that Cromwell had iron control over his troops and could keep them in line throughout battles, which is something of a miracle.

    Anyway – glad you’ve picked up Freya Marske. Also mention for Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, which may not quite count as fantasy but is utterly and amazingly brilliant.

    And, your welcome, re: the podcast. I am buying Tuyo for all the younger members of the family. :)

  2. Manda, the idea of Roman javelins not being usable after they’re thrown has its genesis in ancient sources:

    Polybius (Histories VI.22) says, “The spear of the velites has a wooden haft of about two cubits, and about a finger’s breadth in thickness; its head is a span long, hammered fine, and sharpened to such an extent that it becomes bent the first time it strikes, and cannot be used by the enemy to hurl back; otherwise the weapon would be available for both sides alike.”

    Caesar (Commentaries 1.25) says, “It was a great hinderance to the Gauls in fighting, that, when several of their bucklers had been by one stroke of the (Roman) javelins pierced through and pinned fast together, as the point of the iron had bent itself, they could neither pluck it out, nor, with their left hand entangled, fight with sufficient ease; so that many, after having long tossed their arm about, chose rather to cast away the buckler from their hand, and to fight with their person unprotected.”

    Arrain (Array Against the Alans) says, “Those of the second, third, and fourth ranks [should stand to] the javelin-throwing [and] should shoot their kontoi so as to hit, both wounding the horses and killing the horsemen, making the dismounted rider useless also through the softness of the iron of the kontoi bent and stuck in his shield and corselet.” I discuss some of the translational difficulties of that particular passage here:

    What ISN’T current any longer is the idea that the soft iron necks of Roman javelins were DESIGNED to make them one-use weapons. It’s clearly something that happened, and Arrian suggests that that tendency could be exploited. But a lot of people have thrown a lot of reproduction pila at things by now, and the truth is that they just don’t bend all that often. Rather, what the necks seem to be FOR is penetrating shields–not to make the shield useless, but to wound the person who thinks they have blocked with their shield. This is a very watchable video on that phenomenon:

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