Object Title

Sergeant’s Spontoon

Development

The spontoon was a cross between a pike and a halberd, and was issued to British infantry officers in 1743. Prior to this, sergeants were being issued with halberds, which was a rather impractical weapon considering that the halberd was designed to deal with a kind of armour that had long since disappeared from the battlefield. As early as 1769, sergeants of grenadier companies (and later the light companies) were permitted to carry a much more suitable fusil, although the halberd persisted with battalion, or 'hat', companies.

After 1786, when infantry officers were finally ordered to give up their spontoons in favour of the first standard pattern infantry officer's sword, it was slowly realised that the halberd was not a suitable weapon for the modern battlefield. In 1792 it was ordered that 'the Halberd will gradually be laid aside and pikes, a new species of arms, substituted'. This new species of weapon was a slightly more practical fighting weapon than the largely ceremonial traditional spontoon, that had previously been carried by infantry officers and had developed out of the leading staffs of the 17th century.

Use and Effect

The spear head of the new spontoon was acutely pointed, had a flattened diamond section for thrusting, and retained enough of an edge that it could be used, to a limited extent, for cutting blows. The crossbar was intended to prevent over-penetration of a target, which would result in the weapon becoming stuck and difficult to withdraw. The blade and cross bar were both forged independently and were screwed onto the haft. Therefore, the weapon could be partly disassembled for transportation or have damaged parts replaced. The haft has two steel langets, which would protect the head from being cut off in combat, although the very thick haft of the weapon would have made this rather unlikely. Like most staff weapons of the period, the haft terminated in a metal shoe.

The spontoons value as a weapon must be doubted, as more effective socket bayonets had all but replaced infantry staff weapons. Certainly the weapon's great length and weight had been recognised as totally impractical for Sergeants of grenadiers or light infantry, who were expected to move quickly and independently in loose skirmish formation when required. Therefore, the spontoon was more important as a symbol of rank, and a useful tool for dressing the ranks of battalion companies who were fighting 'in line'. However, neither of these functions explains its issue to sergeants of artillery. They had no ranks to dress and already carried a bladed staff weapon in the form of a linstock (a combination weapon and burning match holder).

The spontoon did, however, have one useful niche function as a weapon, which was to protect the colours of a regiment. These standards were highly prized trophies and often fighting revolved around the colour party, which usually comprised an ensign who carried the colours, and a colour sergeant whose purpose it was to defend him. When faced with cavalry, in particular the lancers, the spontoon's reach could be usefully employed by such colour sergeants.

At Waterloo, Colour Sergeant Switzer of the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot defended his wounded ensign and his battalion's colours from a French officer who was trying to capture them. The French officer was swiftly dispatched by the spontoon of Switzer, who thrust the weapon through the breast of his opponent.

Despite this rather niche function, the spontoon was abolished for infantry sergeants in 1830 (though it was still a requirement for artillery sergeants until 1845). After this time no infantry staff weapons were issued for field use in the British military.

Statistics

Blade length 31.4 cm
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service 1792
Overall length 273.4 cm
Weight 2.489 kg

Author

Henry Yallop