Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tapered Rattan Spears

Tapered rattan spears offer several advantages when simulating armored spear combat within the Society for Creative Anachronism. Medieval spears were usually, if not always, tapered in the Middle Ages. A tapered shaft offers an important advantage over a straight section shaft: it uses less material where stresses are lower and more where they are greater, offering greater strength than a constant section shaft of the same weight. It also improves balance.

Pultruded fiberglass is often used for spear shafts in SCA armored combat, but it has some disadvantages. SCA rules require a bulky 3”’ diameter thrusting tip on such shafts, compare to 2’ diameter on rattan weapons. The constant diameter shaft is not tapered like a typical medieval spear.

Spears shafts can also be made from 1 ¼” rattan, but unless they are very short such shafts are excessively flexible. They have poor point control, and when binding against another spear bend much more than the hardwood shaft of a medieval spear would.

There’s a better solution: take heavy rattan and plane it down to create a tapered shaft. I recently completed a pair of these. I started with the heaviest rattan I could find, 2” in diameter. I cut eight foot shafts because that length seemed to be fairly typical for single combat in surviving illustrated medieval combat manuals such as the Codex Wallerstein. After straightening the rattan with the aid of a vice and blowtorch, I used a hand plane to taper it from 2’ at the butt to 1 1/4” near the tip. While somewhat thicker than a typical medieval spear the shaft had a visible taper, and was reasonably stiff. I was very satisfied with the result.

I primed and painted the shafts to within 2” of the tip, because I wanted to seal the shaft and because medieval lances were often gaily painted. I used water based primer and latex paint in a shade called “colonial red’ that looked like it could have been produced with medieval pigments. Oil based paint would have been more authentic and might have been more durable, but I was eager to test the lances in action so the shorter drying time of the water based paint was attractive.

The Head

The thrusting tips were designed to slide on the shaft rather than collapsing as their foam compressed. I purchased a pair of plastic flanged tailpieces for kitchen drains, 1 ½” in outside diameter and 4”’ long. They slid easily on the shaft near the tip, where it was 1 ¼” in outside diameter. I cut away the flanged portion to create a 2 ½” long plastic tube, and painted the end that would be exposed when completed silver. I also purchased a pair of flexible plastic washers for kitchen drains that were a snug press fit on the 1 ¼’ diameter lance tip.

When the paint was dry I slipped the plastic tube onto the tip of the lance, and then coaxed the flexible washer onto the tip, with ¼” of bare rattan between it and the end of the lance. To keep the washer from sliding off the end of the lance I drilled four snugly fitting holes to receive pins cut from bamboo barbecue skewers, and followed these with a lavish bead of epoxy on the tip side of the washer. When the epoxy was dry the plastic tube was free to slide back towards the butt, but was prevented from sliding off the tip of the lance by the washer. I used a grinding wheel to remove any epoxy or washer that extended beyond the outside diameter of the plastic tube.

I then built a 3 ½” tube of 1/8” thick vegetable tanned leather with a 1 ½” inside diameter, to be a snug fit on the plastic tube. I cased the leather first to make it easier to form, and used a skived joint on the side. I wrapped the front half with filament tape and sealed one end with a thin leather disk and more filament tape. I then wrapped another tube of the similar leather around the first and glued it in place with contact cement. The second layer was only 2 ¾” long, since I intended to taper the tube from front to back. I wanted to give the visual impression of a coronal when completed. I used a grinding wheel to taper the tube so that the wall was ¼” thick at the front and less than 1/8’ thick at the back. Vegetable tanned leather is more sympathetic to this sort of shaping than other kinds. I slipped two 1” thick discs of closed cell foam into the leather tube, slipped it onto the plastic tube and taped it on with filament tape. Next, I glued a ½” thick disk of closed cell foam to the front and cut three triangular notches into it with a hacksaw blade to further the coronal impression. Finally, I covered the head with silver duct tape. I eventually plan to recover the heads with thin leather, but as I said earlier I was eager to try them out.

An enterprising craftsman could cast these out of hard rubber. Historic Enterprises makes some nice rubber heads for jousting. Unfortunately, they don't have enough inside diameter for this purpose as is, and the points are probably too agressive for the SCA marshalate. I also suspect they don't have enough internal volume for the necessary foam, but something similar could be done.

In Action

The lances are reasonably stiff, and strike with authority, but without, I believe, excessive harshness. They balance well, and the 2” diameter head is significantly more insidious than the 3” diameter head I used in the past. Two of my sparring partners, who both have small hands, felt that it was difficult to maintain a good grip on the thicker butt. I have large hands and didn’t feel that the same problem. I should note that a grip with one hand on the butt is rare in medieval spear manuals: typically the point midway between the hands is either near the middle of the lance, or about 2/3 of the way back from the point. The paint is vulnerable to scrapes and scratches, either from gauntlets or from opponent’s harness at close quarters. The primer and paint I used were from two different manufactures, which may have added to the problem, and oil paint might have been more durable. Also, the glossy finish isn’t ideal for gripping. Simple linseed oil is another medieval finish that would be less gay, but show scratches less. I've used it with succcess on planed rattan shafts in the past.

As far as I know, coronals were not used in foot combats in the 14th c., although they were so used in the 16th. However, I had a choice between a shape evocative of a coronal, a shape evocative of a pencil eraser, or a shape evocative of a grossly oversized and very blunt spearhead. I chose what I thought was the lesser of evils.


Adam said...

How do they feel in the hand? Did you file a grip too?

Shay said...

Will, I enjoyed the pictures of your spear, thank you for posting them, along with the details of its manufacturer. I have to say, that point you created is an engineering marvel. And functionality aside, the spear just looks damned fine. I would be afraid to take it out and get it chipped up! I don't know how authentic this is, but I've had some good results with cabernet wood stain. But of course no stain will ever catch the eye like that paint. Is that your strategy, bewilder your opponent with dazzling craftsmanship before you pith him like a frog? ;) -Shay-

Shay said...

I should point out that I used that stain on my ash spear. Wouldn't be that great on rattan of course. -Shay-

Phil Nadela said...

Sir, I am currently researching how to treat rattan and i stumbled on your blog. I was wondering if you would elaborate more on how you straightened the rattan. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

How are they holding up?

Will McLean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will McLean said...

The spears have held up well. The red paint does get scratched up. Because the carved foam on the front of the tip compresses, the outer covering of duck tape shows a fair amount of crumpling. Since the real work of absorbing the blow happens inside the tip, I'm looking to replace this component with less compressible rubber.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will!

I'm coming in late (very late) here...

I think the tapered vs. non-tapered issue may come down to application. In Fechtb├╝cher, short spears for use on foot are almost invariably shown as having hafts straight as a ramrod. Where a cavalry lance is shown, they're often tapered. In Paulus Kal, where the duel continues on foot, after beginning mounted, the lance continues to be used.

Most, if not all, of the spears shown on foot in Talhoffer's manuscripts are straight, even where loving detail is heaped on them, as in the Copenhagen (Thott 290) codex. This is also true for where he shows spear v. spear techniques - some of which clearly show guards, and actions, for striking - in the Vienna copy of the Koenigsegg edition.

Fiore also shows straight spears, as does Gladiatoria, both of which involve striking. I could point out several non-technical sources pointing to the same.

All of which begs the question...why do you feel most were tapered?

Take care my friend!

Christian Tobler

Will McLean said...

Hi Christian!

It's possible I have overestimated the ubiquity of tapered spears. I've tended to look at frescoes rather than manuscripts, because it's hard to detect the presence or absence of taper in a relatively small image.

I think the spears in the earlier part of the Codex Wallerstein taper, but it's hard to be sure, given the size of the images.

Pikes look pretty straight in the surviving iconography, but I understand that the surviving shafts often have a sophisticated barrel taper, narrowing towards the point and the butt.

andrewjameslowry said...

Master Galleron,
Do you have any update to this topic of tapered rattan spears for SCA foot combat? How do you keep it straight in the variable weather conditions of SCA camping?

I am considering making one for summer melees including Pennsic. I am not a craftsman so I turn to my betters for insight and advice. I have a suitable stave, purchased back in the 90s for a different project. It is 2 " x 9' 3".

Sincerely Yours,

Richard Larmer