What Do I Know?…A Question About Spears

Occasionally, as the host of the Historical Wargames Podcast, I get a question which is extremely thoughtful and/or thought provoking.  Sometimes, I might have an answer and sometimes I have no clue.  It was a recent question that really made me chuckle to myself, but I figured was worth taking some time and answering:

I listen to your podcast and know you know everything about WAB, but I want to know whether heavy throwing spears or thrusting spears are better for my Late Imperial Roman Army.  You put yourself out as a so-called master, so I am coming to you for advice. – Phil

Well, I don’t know if Phil was being courteous or a smart-ass (I am leaning towards the later), but here are my thoughts on the issue.  It really comes down to analyzing the pros and cons of each weapon when designing your army with your own style of play in mind.  Since cavalry can’t have heavy throwing spears, I will stay on topic in regards to infantry only.

The heavy throwing spear (HTS) is most often characterized as the pilum in WAB.  I often refer to the HTS as a one hit wonder, due to it’s initial damage and usage in 2 ranks (when charging or being charged).   On average against a T3 target, a HTS will wound 66% of the time, and against a 4+ armor save, will only be saved against 66% of the time.  So typically, a model will hit 50% of the time (against WS3 & WS4).  So a few math-hammer* calculations later and against a WS3 or 4, T3, armor save nil or 6+ opponent, the HTS will hit, wound and kill 33% of the time.  Even against the normally impressive armor save of 4+, and everything else the same, the HTS will kill 22% of the time…which is not bad.  But that is also the HTS’s weakness, it only lasts for ONE round.  Then both the strength and additional attacks from the second ranks end.  It is not unlike a boxer who leads off with a devastating upper-cut and must follow-up with modest jabs to the body.  It is a flexible weapon and very good against high armor save opponents, but against stubborn troops can be very disappointing, who weather the initial hit (and massive casualties), and do not break.  It has the added bonus against warbands that it allows for high combat resolution which normally grants the win in the first round of combat and thus nullifying the auto-break rule.

The thrusting spear (which I just call spear), is normally not as spectacular as the HTS.  The spear does have it’s own strengths.  When being charged or in ROUND TWO (or after) combats the spear retains the ability to fight in two ranks, which can effectively double (or better) the number of attacks going at your enemy when compared to the HTS (after round one).  So, a few math-hammer calculations later, against the same WS3, T3, AS 6+ opponent, the spear will nominally kill 21% of the time and only 13% of the time vs. a 4+ armor save.  The weakness of the spear is that when charging only the front rank can attack which limits the initially hitting power of the weapon, unless of course the unit has the phalanx or offensive spearmen special rules.  So, remaining with the boxing analogy, the spear is initially (during a charge) like a weak left hand, but followed up with twice as many body blows as the boxer referenced above.   The spear does well for defensive players who often find themselves battling enemies not easily broken or stubborn and will typically find combats lasting for more than one round.   While not typically as effective against warbands, the spear is a good defensive weapon which allows for good combat result generation throughout and entire combat.

So it comes down to playing style, a typically defensive player may want to look towards the humble spear, while a more aggressive player may want to apply the heavy throwing spear.   In my own Late Imperial Roman Army, I actually use a combination of spears and HTS to maximize my flexibility on the battlefield.   So Phil, in closing I would take both…for the reasons discussed above and balanced by my own generalship style.

*=math-hammer, a bunch of bullshit statistics with which players try to determine the outcome of games…