Javelin- introduction to being a skirmisher

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After a long winter hibernation, it is high time for another post on the blog. This time, I am going to talk about a weapon which is not seen very often on the battlefield. It does however have a huge potential and is tremendous fun to use- the javelin.

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For thousands of years Javelineers were used in armies throughout the world and the dark age armies were no different. Javelins have been used by skirmishing units to harass the enemy, kill or encumber them and their mounts and in outflanking maneuvers. Mainline units also utilized the javelin, be it just prior to engaging in combat, or as a weapon of opportunity throughout the battle.

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Javelin is a very effective weapon, when used right. Heavier and larger than an arrow, but smaller than a spear, javelins could inflict some serious damage, even on an armoured foe. It did have it’s limitation: a shorter range and less power than an arrow or a sling, you could only take a limited number on a battlefield. It did have some serious advantages though, mainly that it was capable of rendering enemy shields near useless by getting stuck in them. It was good for killing horses, due to it’s superior weight. A man throwing a javelin could still benefit from a shield and fight in a shield wall, whereas an archer could not. Also, a javelin took a lot less practice than a bow and it did not require such strict maintenance, so it was easier to equip large number of warriors with them.

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But enough of a historical note- time to consider how a javelin is used in reenactment combat. The most important thing about it, is that a javelin IS NOT a competitive weapon. It is used FOR DISPLAY only and javelineers will never aim to “kill” their opponent- they will only ever throw their missiles against a shield. Why do they not use their javelins in competitive combat? The reasons for this are pretty obvious. A javelin is essentially a small spear, with a lot of weight behind it compared to an arrow or a slingshot. As opposed to reenactment arrow, it has a metal head. Even when used as a hand weapon it can cause grievous harm. In order to hit a target, a javelin must be thrown with a considerable force, otherwise it will fall short or loose direction. When thrown properly,  a javelin has enough force to easily break bone and pierce flesh. No one wants to be at a receiving end of a metal-tipped projectile, weighing some 2kg, moving at a speed approaching that of an arrow. In addition to that, a javelineer, once he has loosed the javelin, has no control over the projectile. This means, if anything untoward happens, there is no way to pull or stop the blow. It is for these reasons, that javelins are restricted as “display” weapons, only used against shields, in order to demonstrate a missile attack. It is also perhaps why javelins are seldom seen, as many warriors sadly deem them redundant.

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Despite the fact that it cannot be used in competitive battles (until the reenactors find a way to use a javelin safely, which we are working on for some time now and may eventually find an acceptable solution), a javelin is huge fun to use. It gives an extra dynamic to a fight, with a “missile” phase of the battle sometimes being just as exiting to watch and to participate in  as the hand-to-hand combat. Imagine advancing towards your enemy, as their archers loose waive after waive of arrows, and the slingers hurl their shots at your line. As you get closer, lightly armoured skirmishers approach and hurl javelins, which thud heavily against the shields in your line, only to retreat after discharging their missiles. Finally, as the lines are about to clash, more missiles come your way, with arrows flying high, slingshots going past your heads, or thumping warriors on their bodies and last of the javelins hitting your line, with maybe some even piercing weaker shields and getting stuck for good.

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It is a whole battle onto itself, never mind the combat! I know from experience, that a determined javelin assault can slow down, buckle or disrupt an advancing line, even though all those involved know that javelins cannot be used to score valid Kills. The sheer mass and force of the javelins, together with psychological effect of their use is enough, especially against less experienced warriors. Also, let’s not forget, that a javelin can achieve some impressive distances, up to even 25 meters (usually it is thrown from 4-7 meters) which is not that far off a small bow. Some of the best javelineers can even achieve longer distances, approaching those of actual athletes. Using a javelin is a test of skill, accuracy, daring and stamina. Not only that, you also get to show off some more, as javelineers often skirmish ahead of the main army and form a focal point of early stages of the battle. Javelin display is also one of the more impressive elements of a battle, with onlookers frequently excited (or frightened!) by a well done display. No longer are you confined to being just another shield in a wall! Instead you are a daring, dashing skirmisher, you dart in and out in front of your hapless foes, and pepper them with missiles, that often cause an advancing line of steel, wood and flesh to buckle, slow down or even retreat under fire. You get to be a hero for a short moment and you get the rush and the joy of standing out from the crowd, whilst performing some of the most dangerous and demanding tasks on a battlefield.

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So, now that I had have you hooked (hopefully!), time for some practical considerations. How does one use a javelin effectively? See some pointers below:

  1. Forget the usual stance and combat style. Whilst throwing a javelin, you will inevitably end up out of balance, not covered by shield, not facing the enemy the right way etc. This is fine. All you need to do, is be able to get away, or resume your fighting stance fast in things get too close and personal.
  2. Hold it right. Hold your javelin either like you would a dart (with tips of your fingers), or as athletes do, resting it on the palm of your hand. Hold the javelin at the balance point, or just behind. If throwing long distance, you might want to hold it slightly further back, this will allow you to generate more energy with same motion (try it as an experiment- hold the javelin close to its tip, then throw. With each throw hold it further back, until you hold it just a foot away from the end. You will notice, that the throw gets easier and the distance increases the further back you hold the javelin).
  3. Aim. Always keep eye on your target, but do not aim for too long, as this will throw you off. Just like with a bow- nock, draw, loose, no faffing about. Eye on the target, set and throw. Remember, that over distance javelin will tend to dip down, until it hits the ground, so take it into account (Personally I find it helpful to see the very tip of my javelin in the corner of my eye as I aim, but some find it distracting).
  4. Use the Force. A javelin must be thrown hard, in order to fly straight and true, otherwise it will fall short of it’s target, or change it’s course too easily. Do not be afraid to put some considerable force in the throw- after all, there is a plank of wood (also known as the shield) between you and your opponent, so they should be safe. It helps if you manage to put a spin on a javelin (especially for longer throws) as it flies more like an arrow, straighter and more accurately.
  5. Assess the risk. As a javelineer, you must be conscious that you can easily injure someone, especially if you take them unawares. ALWAYS make sure your target knows they are about to receive a javelin (usually a short moment of eye contact and a nod suffices). Do not throw, if you feel unsafe about it, if the target is too far, moving too fast, or does not know you are about to throw. Consider weather conditions, slippery grass, slope etc. and make your assessment. If in doubt- DO NOT THROW. And, just to reiterate, ALWAYS make eye contact with target before throwing. If your intended target indicates that they are not ready, or do not wish to receive the javelin, move on to someone else. Due to the nature of the weapon you could easily kill or maim with it, and each time you use it, you must use common sense and judgement. This is why javelin requires skill and experience and not many warriors choose to use it.
  6. Be like a flowing stream. By which I mean, move fast, with fluidity and try to avoid getting into sticky situations. Javelineers usually serve as skirmishers, so they move a lot, run fast, hit hard and retreat quickly. You are there to run around flanks, harass a main line, protect your archers, or delay an enemy. This is not the tank core! Welcome to the skirmishing world, where melee is avoided and keeping in line doesn’t matter. It is a different type of fight altogether and not suitable for everyone.
  7. Show some panache! Scream, make faces, shout insults and make as much noise as you like. Move fast and hit hard. You are there to make a show and to distract, so do it in style!
  8. Do not overburden yourself. Carry no more than 3-4 javelins, and do not bother with more than two other weapons. Not only does it look silly, it also impedes your own moves and effectiveness.
  9. Release the javelin at the right moment. Draw your arm back, stretch it out, then bring it forwards and throw. Release just as your hand passed your shoulders, and keep your arm straight as you do so. You do not want to send your javelin spinning to the side, but keep it flying straight, so make sure your arm moves in a straight line and not in a curve.
  10. Use your wrist. By giving the javelin a “flick” or a “push” with your wrist just as you release it, you add power to the throw. It is a hard move to explain, but see someone do it, or watch athletes compete in javelin throw and you will see what I mean.
  11. Aim at shields only. Never aim anywhere else than an opponents shield (ideally just under the boss) or just short of your opponent. Safety first!
  12. Make sure you have plenty of practice, to co-ordinate your arm and your eye. Just like when throwing a dart, the eye picks a target and the arm should adjust the height, angle and force of the throw to hit the intended target. Also make sure you practice in your wargear, as throwing a javelin while wearing a helmet, gauntlets and a shield is a lot different to what you may know from your sports class.

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Using a javelin is a demanding task, as it is actually a lot more dangerous than other weapons we use, due to the fact that it is being thrown and not directly in your control. It requires skill, co-ordination and practice, but it is HUGE fun to use. It is a different kind of a fight. Personally, I would like to see more javelins used on the battlefield, as they make for a great show and add great dynamic to any fight. The biggest reason why we do not see many javelineers, is the fact that a javelin cannot be used competitively- a fact that hopefully may change in the future. In the meantime, I would like to encourage everyone to give javelin a go and see for themselves what a great weapon it is to use.

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