There were three basic types of weaponry in Medieval Europe, hand-to-hand combat, ranged weaponry, and siege weaponry. Of all types of combat the most frequently used was hand-to-hand, or weapon-to-weapon, combat. Ranged weaponry was usually only effective in large numbers, and siege weaponry was only used when besieging a castle or city.
The main hand-to-hand combat weapons of soldiers in the Middle Ages were swords, axes, maces, spears, and lances. The sword, valued by the Saxons at about 120 oxen or 15 male slaves, was simple to construct, and remained popular through the Middle Ages. A good sword made of steel was very unlikely to break in the heat of battle.
In the 9th century the Vikings discovered another formidable weapon. The battle-axe was the main weapon used by King Harold’s housecarls, Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, at the Battle of Hastings. It had a trumpet shaped blade, but the axe was also very heavy, usually wielded in both hands, and expensive. They were capable of cutting off a limb or a head in one swift blow.
A mace was a club-like weapon made of either wood or steel. A blow from a mace could kill or break bones of someone wearing mail armor. Clerics were the main users of maces because they were not allowed to wield weapons with blades. Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William of Normandy, used a mace during the Battle of Hastings. The Romans often gave maces to their allies, but never actually used them in combat.
The spear was widely used for two reasons. They were easy to make and simple to use. Many permutations were created such as the trident, the yari, the naginata, and the lance. The basic design of the spear remained the same, a long pole with a sharp end. The Greek phalanx used spears 16 feet long because it made it nearly impossible to reach them. When given to the peasantry they were told, "pointy end goes in bad guy, kill the horses and you might live."
A lance, usually made of ash wood with an iron or steel head, was a horseman’s spear, carried by knights under their arms and used to stab enemy soldiers. By the 13th century the lance was rarely shorter than 10 feet long.
The peasants on the other hand were not as well armed. They used weapons that they had in their possession. The most common were hayforks, flails, axes, and clubs. Later, the weapons of the peasants were adapted to be used in the army.
Long ranged combat was becoming more and more popular in the Middle Ages. The two most prevalent ranged weapons of the time were the crossbow and the longbow. The main benefit of the crossbow was that anyone could be pulled out of a field and be trained to use it. Whereas, to learn to use the longbow took days training and discipline.
The English used large numbers of longbow archers effectively by using a technique called volleying. A volley consisted of 100-200 archers firing arrows into the air over the enemy hitting random targets in the enemies’ battalions. Cavalry horses were especially vulnerable, and when hit impossible to control. Archers would carry 24 arrows, sometimes sticking them in the ground in front of them for quick reloading. A skilled archer could fire 12 arrows per minute when a crossbowman could only release two.
Siege engines were one of the most critical weapons in medieval warfare. They were used during the siege of a castle. Some types of siege engines were the battering ram, the trebuchet, the mangonel, the ballista, and the onager.
The battering ram was often used in combat. It was essentially a large tree trunk with a sharpened end. The battering ram was used to break away stones or breach walls, but its main use was against doors.
The trebuchet, introduced to England by Louis of France, was basically a long arm that pivoted on an axle at the top of a high frame. Cut stones were sometimes used as projectiles that weighed as much as 300 lbs, but the standard weight of the stones was 60-100 lbs. Ten of these stones could be produced by a single stonecutter in a day. Also paving stones, dead horses, pots of quick lime, and scraps of iron were used as projectiles. A trebuchet could launch a missile about 500 yards, with deadly accuracy.
The mangonel, introduced to the Normans by the Byzantines, is also referred to as a Mangon. It was used for a century after the Norman Conquest. The Mangon was not as accurate as the trebuchet, but the costs of building one was much cheaper. The projectile would have a low and inaccurate trajectory, and have a range of about 200 yards.
The ballista, invented by Roman engineers around 50 B.C., was formed like a large bow that shot heavy arrows and stones. With a stone of 60 lbs., range was about 400 yards. The power of the ballista came from twisted ropes called skeins. Some were the biggest machines of their time.
The Romans invented the onager in about 50 B.C. It was one of the few siege engines that was also used as an anti-personnel weapon. A normal onager would stand 6 feet and launch large stones of varying weights 200-500 yards depending on weight. It was named after a wild donkey, who would kick back stones when it was hunted, hurting or even killing the men who hunted him. Onagers were easier to construct because it was essentially half a crossbow.