How good a weapon were javelin?

Reading some accounts of Troy, much is made of peoples prowess with thrown spears or javelins. Yet the books (by Homer and Virgil) also mention users of bows and arrows. Was the javelin more effective than bow and arrow in those days? Surely a bow is faster more accurate and has further range? The only advantage of the javelin seems to be in its ability to encomber a shield if it sticks into one, but that hardly seems to mittigate the encomberance of having to carry them into battle to be able to use them.

An advantage a javelin has over a bow is that you can use it one-handed. Which is nice if you also have a huge shield.

Given the greater weight, it should also be more able to penetrate shields and armor than an arrow.

There usually is never a “super weapon” on the battlefield, instead each weapon and unit fills a certain tactical niche in the whole system.

Historically Javelins were used to soften up infantry as they advanced. Sometimes they were thrown by light squirmish units in an attempt to break the enemy formation and confuse them, most other times they were used by infantry as an opposing infantry unit came within range. Disabling the oposing unit’s shields and softening up their line, must have been a very useful tactic.

The bow would have just filled another tactical niche in combat.

In ancient times, there were three major types of soldier: infantry, cavalry, and artillery; and each type came in three sub-types: light, medium, and heavy. The javelin was the major weapon of the “medium” subtypes, i.e. medium infantry, medium cavalry and medium artillery (javelin-throwing machines). The bow was the primary weapon of the “light” subtypes, i.e. light infantry = skirmishing archers, light cavalry = horse archers, light artillery = massed archers. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules; many light troops also used javelins, and the Roman heavy infantry had two each in addition to their swords.

That the javelin was an important weapon is shown by the effort that the Romans put into designing their javelin, the pilum. It was continuously tinkered with and “engineered” over hundreds of years. You don’t spend that kind of attention on something that’s not a major weapons system.

So at ranges for which the Javelin was effective, the Javelin + Large Shield combination was more effective than the unshielded archer. Were bronze age bows much less accurate than medievil bows?
Was the Javelin ever a unit’s main weapon? or was the Javelin just a way to give a medium infantry some ranged capabilities before turning to sword or spear?

Probably going to get this wrong, but I don’t think the same tactics were used in Medievil warfare as in ancient warfare (well, in the later period and in Europe I assume you mean…I think javelins or at least thrown spears were used fairly extensively in early medievil Europe), so the reliance on skirmishers wasn’t as heavy. You use skirmishers to attack and break up enemy formations. If the enemy isn’t really IN proper formations then you don’t need them as much. In addition and IIRC Medievil warfare (at least in Europe) relied more heavily on calvary than on foot, and calvary is ever the dread of the skirmisher…while calvary IS vulnerable to heavy formation type infantry. Its sort of a rock/paper/scissor type thing. In addition I think the advent of the crossbow probably factored in as a possible replacement for javelin throwing light skirmishers.


Javelins were engineered to maximize their kinetic energy, while arrows were engineered to maximize their range.

Most medium infantry used the javelin as their primary weapon. They did not have to engage heavy infantry hand-to-hand because they could always give ground while continuing to throw their javelins. They would try to lure the heavies into difficult terrain (marsh, swamp, woods, steep hill, etc.) where their tight formations would break up and small groups of heavies would become isolated and ripe for picking off (Heavy infantry rely on tight formations for survival; if they are broken up, they’re dead meat). When mediums did choose to engage hand-to-hand, they usually had a sword, axe, or spear as a personal defense weapon. Medium infantry would not charge unbroken heavy infantry on open ground.

Bronze age european bows were not as powerful as a medieval longbow; hence europeans often used javelins or darts instead of bows. Composite bows from the Middle East and Asia, appearing around 2300 BC, would be equivalent to a longbow.

Resist, resist, resist…naah!

However, early Medievil warfare relied most heavily on using your left arm as a boomerang. :smiley:


A related point, were the Greek Javelin/Thowing Spears of arround 500 BCE effective in use as hand to hand spears, or were they specialised just for throwing?

It seems to me that weaponry didn’t change greatly from 1000BCE to 1000CE, with the exception of the dissapearence of the throwing spear. Armour and durability obvoiusly improved mobing from bronze to iron to steel, and military order and field manouvers improved. So the fall of importance of the thrown spear seems strange.

Also I am not aware of the thrown spear ever being important in Japanese or Chinese armies in the same time frame whilst bow, sword, hand-to-hand spears and pole arms are similar between the far Eastern and European cultures.

Roman javelins were designed to stick in the enemy’s shield and make it unwieldly to handle, so it would be discarded.

By that time the hoplite system was in place; they used thrusting spears 8 or 9 feet long, which were not usually thrown. However, each hoplite might have one or two slaves who supported him in battle, and these slaves would fight with javens, bows or slings.

Actually, you could expand that to 3000 BC - 1500 AD. A Sumerian army of 3000 BC used long pikes just like Alexander’s army or medieval Swiss. An Assyrian heavy chariot of 700 BC had the same impact as a medieval knight.

First of all, weaponry changed a lot from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE. There are a whole bunch of changes I’m not going to go into, but most notably, you had the stirrup, which made mounted cavalry, especially the cavalry charge, practical.

The stirrup is a good point ( :wink: ), the ancient Greeks cavalry seemed to have fought more from the chariot than from the saddle. Is it really impossible to control a horse charge just with a harness and bit? I can see a stirrrup would make riding and control easier so making horses and riders quicker to train into an effective unit. Or does the stirrup allow a rider to remain seated on a horse in combat rather than getting knocked off with the first blow? So the stirrup may well have removed the need for chariots?

That’s a myth. Armored cavalry charging with lances were used by the Lydians before 500 BC, and by Alexander and subsequent hellenistic armies; by Parthians, Sarmations, Sassanid Persians, Late Romans, Alans, and Ostrogoths to name a few. They did not have a problem with being de-horsed at impact. Here is a site that debunks the stirrup myth.

The “chariot age” was from about 2800 BC (when the Sumerians first harnessed a fighting platform to four wild asses - the horse had not yet been domesticated) to about 700 BC (when the art of riding horses into battle was perfected by the Assyrians, thus making the chariot obsolete.) The Greeks of the Illiad lived in the chariot age. Shortly after the Trojan War, that whole bronze age civilization collapsed (1200 BC) and Greece entered a dark age that would last until about 700 BC. Little is known about greek warfare in this period. The Hoplite, or heavy armored infantryman armed with a thusting spear, became the norm in Greece from about 600 BC, and cavalry was generally nonexistant except in Thessaly and Thrace. The Athenians and others revived the use of cavalry, as well as medium infantry, around 400 BC, after the Persian wars brought them into contact with a wider range of adversaries.

To fight on horseback requires two hands, thus the horse has to be controlled by voice and by pressure from the rider’s legs. It took a long time to perfect. In fact, when the Assyrians first experimented with riding, they used a two-horse team where one rider fought and the other rider held the reigns of both horses. Cumbersome, to say the least! But still faster and more maneuverable than a chariot. Chariots disappeared from most battlefields after 600 BC.

The Crossbow and (to a lesser extent) the Longbow- both new techologies- made the javelin a thing of that past- once you get firmly into the medieval period.

The earlier style bows were pretty lousy, and they also took lots of training. The jalelin was better in some circumstances, and didn’t take much training.

The Crossbow also didn’t require much training, but was hugely better than the javelin. (The Longbow required enormous amounts of training, but was likely the best weapon until the flintlock). So basicly- the CB replaced the javelin- around 1100 or so*. The CB was replaced by the matchlock, etc.

Yes, the Greeks had a primitive sort of CB. It didn’t work well.

  • but do note that means the javelin was a respected weapon for several thousand years, if not more. The CB only lasted for 500 years or so.

I’m just going to speak about the Roman use of javelins. For the legions, the javelin wasn’t a great weapon unto itself. Rather, it was a way of augmenting existing heavy infantry. A legionaire was given one light and one heavy javelin, or Pilum. as the unit advanced, the troops would all throw their light pilum first, then the heavy one as the range decreased. As mentioned, this softened up the enemy and weighed their shields down, making them easier prey for the sword and shield-bearing legionaires. Therefore, the pilum was used because it fit so well into existing tactics. It was one-handed, so it didn’t encumber the legionaire or require him to fumble or switch around weaponry as he advanced. It was best used on the move, so it actually became more effective as the cohorts advanced. Also, it gave the hand-to-hand guys a limited ranged attack. And it was a simpler weapon to make than a bow. I imagine that many pilum were repaired and recycled after battle.

So in many ways, the pilum was a way of giving roman troops a “Combined arms” capability.

How many javelins can the average soldier hold? It was mentioned that a roman soldier typically had 2 javelins and I asumme more than about 5 would become unwieldy. OTOH, an archer could easily hold maybe 30 or 40 arrows.

How easy are they to make? Once you’ve thrown a javelin, you can’t get it back. And unless you’ve designed it to break on impact, the other side can throw them back at you.

I don’t really see how effective they could have been. I’m sure they were but theres something I seem to be missing about them.

Precisely my thoughts when making this OP, only you said it better. Thanks.

The roman Pilum were designed with a long iron head held on with a weak wooden peg. The peg broke, rendering the pilum useless for return fire. The whole point of the javelin from the Roman point of view is that it wasn’t the main weapon. It was an additional secondary weapon with a specific tactical use: to allow an infantryman to take down a few enemy at range while advancing. The Romans didn’t expect it to win the battle, just to provide “Fire support.”