It is the amazing development of arts and science which is best defining the Renaissance. Weapons and war are completing the picture of a still warlike epoch, when, at times, even the greatest artists had to use their creativity for war related purposes. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are the best known examples.
Many of the medieval weapons were still in service during the Renaissance. Weapons like the Guisarme, the Halberd, the Mace, the Partisan are already known to those studying the medieval weapons.
The Guisarme may be claimed with all confidence to be one of the most ancient of weapons, as its first inception occurred in the Bronze Period, and from that remote age down to the 17th Century it was more or less in evidence. It terminated generally in an extremely strong and sharp point; the two sides were approximately parallel, and both brought to a keen and almost razor-like edge, while a hook was provided a short way down the blade. The blade lent itself to elaborate ornamentations and many examples of the 16th and 17th centuries exhibit splendid specimens of engraving. It was used in England as late as the battle of Flodden (1513).
Brought in the field by the Swiss, the Halberd was maybe the most popular of the Renaissance weapons, as illustrated by the splendid 16th Century equipment of the Vatican Swiss Guard. It was also the weapon offering the most exquisite examples of ornamentation, especially those designed for parade purposes. This weapon essentially consists of an axe-blade balanced by a pick, the head of the shaft being prolonged in the shape of a spike. The spike underwent changes, broadening and flattening at times until it presented a blade-like aspect, which was often curved downwards towards the shaft. It was essentially a weapon for the foot soldier, and although it is occasionally seen with a very long shaft, these are for pageant purposes, the war weapon seldom exceeding five or six feet in length. The halberd became obsolete when the pike came into favor.
The Partisan was introduced into England in the middle of the 14th Century, and from the 15th to the 17th centuries was used extensively on the Continent, but especially in France. It consists of a long double-edged blade, wide at the base, where it is provided with projections of various forms, hooked, crescent, and tapering to a point. It is always symmetrical, both sides balancing in form. The Ranseur and the Spetum are modifications of the partisan.
The Pike was much appreciated among the Renaissance weapons. It was one of the simplest of weapons, being merely a long, narrow, lance-like head of steel strengthened by lengthy strips of metal, which ran for a considerable distance down the pole, rendering it almost immune from sword-cuts. The length of the weapon varied considerably, from over twenty feet to less than ten, but the latter was the usual length. For resisting a cavalry charge the base of the pike was fixed into the ground, an iron shoe or point being provided to protect that part. The long strips of steel down the shaft may be considered one of its special features, as it could not be put out of action by any ordinary cuts of the sword or axe.
The Glaive had a convex , broad cutting blade. Hooks, spurs, and other projections appear upon the base of the blade. This weapon was more in use upon the Continent than in England, chiefly in France and Germany, and did not become obsolete until the beginning of the 17th Century. The term "glaive" may be applied to a simple shaft weapon bearing any resemblance to a knife blade.
The Mace, already used by the Normans and Saxons at Hastings, did not disappear until the 16th Century. It has undergone many changes of form, being at times of cog-wheel shape, oval, globular or dentated, but the general form was that of radiating flanges surrounding a central head. The knob was at times of lead, and some maces are furnished with a spike, as a prolongation of the shaft. In the 16th Century, the mace was the characteristic weapon of the sergeant-at-arms. The royal arms were stamped upon the shaft at the termination of the grip: this end became in consequence the important part of the weapon; the ornaments and guards augmented and developed, while the end furnished with the knob shrank into insignificance. Finally the mace was reversed; the arms now appear upon the upper end of the shaft in all corporation and other maces.
The Lance did not exhibit any remarkable changes for centuries; it was of uniform size and thickness from end to end, with a lozenge or leaf-shaped head, rarely barbed, the lozenge being the commoner form. For tournament purposes the heads were blunted, but as jousting became more popular special points or coronals were introduced, of which examples are shown in most museums. These were not intended to pierce, but only to give a grip upon plate armor. The men-at-arms invariably dismounted and fought upon foot, and in order to adapt the lance to these altered conditions it was cut down to about five feet in length. A small circular plate was fixed upon the lance to protect the hand, and this subsequently developed into the varnplate of varied form and dimensions. At this time also the shaft of the lance became much enlarged for tilting purposes, and was made hollow, with longitudinal grooves upon the exterior; in this form it splintered in the encounter; when the tilting had for its object the unhorsing of combatants the lance was made stronger and heavier. During the reign of Elizabeth the lance ceased to hold the important position it had hitherto maintained among weapons, and became obsolete, but in later times it has been revived for the use of cavalry.
We may say that, among the Renaissance weapons, the sword underwent most of the changes when compared with the medieval period. Towards the end of the 15th Century, and the beginning of the 16th Century, the changes are chiefly in the hilt which presented a wide variety of additional pieces, mainly designed to protect the hand. As the duel became a fashion, those pieces were also designed for the entanglement or breaking of the sword-blade of the opponent.
A finger-guard was often added by prolonging one side of the cross-piece, whereby it ran parallel to the grip, and then either curved outwards or, later in the period, turned inwards to join the pommel. The medieval cross-piece did not die out, but became bent in another form as a capital S; rings appeared on either side of the cross-piece and at right angles to it; back-guards were introduced, and also the basket-hilt. The quillons, by being curved as indicated above, developed the knuckle-guard on one side of the grip which eventually reached the pommel, while the other, circling towards the blade, developed counter-guards for protecting the back of the hand. Thus the rapier-guard was developed, the varieties and modifications of which are almost numberless. Cup-hilts were a common form where long, straight, or curved quillons were used in conjunction with a cup-shaped finger-guard at the base of the blade, which was as a rule highly decorated. The swept hilt had a broad back-guard which narrowed towards the pommel, together with curved quillons. Upon many swords of the 16th Century and later, curved guards may be seen extending round the ricasso; this is the pas d’ane, while rings may also be observed for passing the thumb through. The rapier blade was long, thin, and tapering; it was essentially a thrusting sword, but not exclusively so. These weapons were for parade and the duel, a two-edged rapier of special design being used in war.
The two-hand sword was never in such high favor as during the 16th Century. It was now employed by the high and the low; by the royal combatant in the lists and by the humble mercenary. The Swiss were especially celebrated for their skills in using the weapon, and in Scotland it was held in much esteem. This was a natural result of the conformation of the arm itself for while the arquebus and crossbow, and even the axe and the halberd, might be successfully wielded by any soldier of moderate strength, the spadone could only be employed with effect by men of superior force and the greatest agility. The two-hand sword is very rarely seen after the close of the 16th Century.
Much appreciated among the Renaissance weapons was the dagger. The main-gauche, or left-handed dagger, was of Continental origin, and enjoyed an immense popularity in England during the 16th Century. During a duel, it was held in the left hand to ward off blows and entangle the point of the adversary’s weapon, while the long rapier was being used in the right hand.
The science of artillery and handguns had made considerable progress during the Renaissance. Weapons like the arquebus and the caliver replaced the bow, due to their accuracy and penetrating power, coupled with their rate of fire. However, the change did not come easy, and throughout the 16th Century there was an obstinate struggle between the arrow and the bullet. The advocates of the first had a clear advantage on the side of eloquence and ingenuity; but in the field, the "shot" made a steady advance, and the Bow, that weapon which had decided victories from the beginning of the world, and of late had constantly won them almost single-handed, was driven from the battlefield.
Despite the improvements in handguns technology, in the first half of the 16th Century, their effect remained limited. However, an arquebusier could bring down a men-at-arms from his horse, and leave him to the ground, with his movements hampered by his armor. The arquebus of the 16th Century was of 2 kinds: that discharged without a rest, and the higher caliber one, fired from a rest which the gunner carried with him.
The loading and firing of a matchlock gun was a long and complicated process. To overcome this, a new cavalry maneuver was invented. Although known by its French name of caracole, it was popularized and developed by the German "Reiters", who became the masters of the system. Armed with pistols, the Reiters charged the opposing infantry riding up to the enemy ranks, firing their pistols at almost point-blank range, and then rapidly rejoining their own ranks. At that moment, their second rank repeated the maneuver in quick succession, with devastating effects.
The second half of the 16th Century saw the raising of mounted arquebusiers in addition to the cavalry armed with pistols. They were able to fight also on foot if the situation in the field so required. The arquebusiers or musketeers were now flanking the pikemen, and the ratio was of two to one.
Artillery is one of the Renaissance weapons making huge progress and
it became a real army corps during this period. But at this stage it is
still hard to say it was able to decide a battle.
At the Battle of Novarra, on 15th June 1513, the Swiss pikemen and halberdiers faced the French who were fielding a considerable artillery force.
In the beginning, the French cannons were able to hit hard the Swiss ranks. But because the French remained on the defensive, in the end
it was the initiative of the Swiss which won the day.
Two years later, at Marignano, on 13th September 1515, the French troops under Francisc I. faced again the Swiss Confederation army.
This time, the French took advantage of their excellent artillery, however, in the end the battle was won by repeated charges
of the French cavalry, with Francisc I. riding in the front rank.