PILUM                                          12/8/13

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       The javelin or pilum consists of a long iron head with a small point, and a wooden shaft.  On the most common type, the bottom of the head widens into a flat tang, which is riveted into the widened top of the wood shaft.  The second type has a socketed head, and a third type, less well-known, has a spike tang.  In the first century AD, some tanged pila are shown with a spherical weight, presumed to be lead, behind the joint block.  Apparently the weapon had become lighter over the centuries, and the weight was added to increase its "punch".

       Pilum heads are 14" to 30" long, with pyramidal or barbed points c. 2" long.  The iron shanks are about 1/4" thick (round) below the point, swelling to c. 3/8" or 1/2" square at the base.  The tang is an inch or more wide, and can be rectangular or slightly flaired.  (Before forging the tang, it's a good idea to fold up c. 6" of the shank, then flatten, to strengthen the tang and allow more width.)  There is no evidence that the points were specially hardened--they penetrate simply due to their shape.  Likewise, the iron shank cannot really be described as "soft", it bends on impact because it is thin.

       The wood shaft is made all in one piece, generally ash, though oak or hickory are also acceptable.   Overall it is 4 to 5 feet long, making the complete weapon 5-1/2 to 7 feet in length.  Most of the length (or all of it, for a socketed pilum) is round in section, about 7/8" to 1-1/8" in diameter.  At the top of the top of the shaft is the tapered, square-section "joint block", 5" to 8" long.  It is slotted to receive the tang, and capped with an iron ferrule or collett which is secured by 2 little iron wedges.  (Since the ferrule is also tapered, it works best to allow a little of the wood to project above it, to be splayed out by the wedges.)  Two or three rivets hold the tang in place; a socketed head needs only a small nail.

      All iron parts of the pilum should be black from the forge, imitated if necessary by heating the piece and wiping it with oil.  The buttspike is a cone made by wrapping a triangle of sheet steel (20-gauge).  The point is sometimes hammered into a square-section spike, but the seam is usually not forged shut.  It is secured to the shaft with a small nail.  The head can be riveted to the shaft with regular nails if you first heat the heads red hot and give them a few raps with a hammer to make them look forged.  Use a washer at both ends of the nail and peen the end flat like a regular rivet.  Washers can be cut from blackened sheet steel with a cold chisel; round washers can be used but first remove any galvanization and blacken them.

        The wood may be treated with linseed oil, but should not be stained.  An ash 2x2 can be worked down to the proper shape by first sawing the shaft section down to 1" square, then using a drawknife and rasp to round it.  Then saw the joint block to its desired shape.  Starting with a hole-digger handle--mostly round with a square-section end--is another option.

       Click on the image at left for a larger version.  The junction blocks of two pila are shown, one with two rivets and one with three.  Next to them is an unmounted pilum head showing the flat tang, as well as a ferrule, two nails with forged heads, washers, and a buttspike of wrapped sheet steel (3-3/4" long).

       At right is a typical point, roughly full size.  Below is a socketed pilum head by Mark Morrow (click for a larger view).  It is 24" long and weighs about 12 ounces.

       If your pilum head bends when thrown (as it should!), and you wish to avoid stressing and eventually breaking the metal by simply bending it straight again, heat the bend red-hot with a propane torch or in a forge, and quickly hammer it back into shape.  Do not quench it in water to cool it!  (See the page on Armoring Hints.) 

       A couple original pilum heads can be seen here: http://www.romancoins.info/MilitaryEquipment-spear.html.


       In Legio XX we all have hand-forged pila and they work very well.  But to avoid the repeated strain of throwing them, since they do cost us money and labor, we have made a number of what we call "cheapy chuckers" for our throwing demonstrations and practices.  These are literally made of junk, steel rods and broom or tool handles pulled out of trash piles.  Mind you, we keep these stowed away until we need them, using our good pila for showing to the public.  Construction is very simple.  Cut a piece of round or square section rod to the desired length, mash one end flat with a hammer (heating red hot with a propane torch helps!), and grind it into something like a point.  Drill a hole into the end of the wood shaft (as deep as your drill bit will go) and stick the rod into it, setting it firmly in place by rapping the butt on a solid floor, if necessary.  Drill a little hole through wood and metal a few inches down from the top of the shaft, and drive a small nail through to hold them together.  Cut a half-inch wide band off a piece of steel pipe or conduit and rap it down tightly over the top of the wood, to keep it from splitting too easily.   I used to paint the metal parts flat black to simulate forged iron, but it turns out that pila made in exactly this way were fairly common in the Republic!   So it is better to heat all the metal with a torch and wipe with oil (before assembly!), to get a more realistic blackened appearance.   Then you will have a pilum which will not be afraid to throw and break, but which will not embarrass you by its appearance.  Adding a buttspike will add to its authenticity, but we leave the butts rounded because we usually throw the pila and then charge over and through them, and those whose points are stuck in the ground could be hazardous.
       The socketed pilum at the top was an old Museum Replicas "heavy pilum", a monstrous thing with a 4-inch leaf point and an untapered 5/8" shank.  I cut it in half and ground down the shank to make a new point.  Couldn't do much about the bulge, that's a weld...  Now it not only is chuckable, but I use it to drill holes for the signum and vexillum.

       The one below it was some kind of garden edger or cutter, with a heavy wrapped socket. We just cut off the blade, drilled a hole, and stuck in the shank.  Kind of heavy...

       On the bottom one you can just see the small nail below the ferrule, which goes through the end of the shank.

       Excellent pila can be bought from Mark Morrow or Pedro Bedard (though Pedro only offers the metal parts).  See the Suppliers page.  Soul of the Warrior offers very good pilum kits made by Robert Wear, http://legvi.tripod.com/armamentarium/id113.html       Albion Swords also offers a good tanged head.

       Deepeeka still has not come up with a decent pilum (though they may be getting closer), and of course Museum Replicas/Windlass and other imported pila should be avoided.  See the Page of Things to Avoid.

      The pilum is a very dangerous weapon.  The small point could penetrate a shield and wound the man behind it, or possibly even pierce armor.   It has often been said that the pilum was designed to get stuck in an enemy's shield, forcing him to discard it, but of course its primary function was to kill.  However, the shield-disabling capabilities of the weapon would be a very visible and important side effect!  A shield with a pilum stuck firmly in it would be very cumbersome, due to the leverage of the shaft.  An oncoming Roman would be able knock the shaft aside to pull the victim's shield out of place, or simply step on it (if it's close enough to the ground) to rip the shield out of the hand.  If the pilum is loose in the hole it has made, the buttspike will dig in and act like a doorstop, possibly very suddenly.   There would only be a few seconds from the time the pila hit to the moment when the Romans arrive with swords and shields ready, not long enough to set a shield down and yank out a pilum.  One can well imagine the effect of hundreds of pila crashing into a line of barbarians who are just starting to charge.  As well as those wounded and killed outright, many men will suddenly be tripping over pila and shields, or trying to stop and back up to remove pila from their shields (or bodies!).  This will disrupt the entire formation--the pilum is a charge-breaker.

      Finally, no matter what the javelin hit, its iron shank was supposed to bend, if only a little, so that an enemy could not throw it back.  When the Romans were finished winning the battle they could gather their pila and straighten them.

       Back in the early Republic, c. 5th to 4th century BC, the pilum was made in "heavy" and "light" versions. The light one seems to have been the socketed style, with a long narrow iron shank and a small point, with a socket at the bottom to connect to the wooden shaft. The heavy version generally had a shorter, stouter iron shank with a barbed head, widening at the base into a large flat tang which was solidly riveted into block at the top of the wooden shaft. By about the 2nd century BC or so, the tanged variety also has a version with a longer, slimmer iron shank like the light pilum, though it seems the overall construction was still "heavy".  The general concept was to throw the light pila first, probably at a range of about 30 yards, then the heavy ones just before the final charge.  The men farther back in the ranks may have held onto theirs at first, and moved up to the front as the men who started there got tired and moved back to rest.

       Gaius Marius is credited with a design change about 100 BC. He found that the iron shank was not bending very often, so that the enemy were able to throw the pila back at the Romans.  So he had one of the two iron rivets that held the parts together replaced with a wooden peg which would break or shear off on impact, causing the head to flop and making it unusable.  After the battle it was a simple matter to replace those pegs.  One problem is that on many of the surviving pilum heads from this general era, the edges of the tang are bent to form flanges which essentially wrap around the wooden junction block.  So they aren't going to flop if one rivet is missing!  But of course few of these can be dated with certainty, and there do seem to be pilum heads with simple flat tangs which would function as the story says.

       By the end of the Republic, however, it looks like the difference between heavy and light pila has gone away.  The tanged variety is slimming down, and the points are generally a narrow pyramidal form, very rarely barbed any more.  Some have three rivets rather than two, and most have an iron ferrule or collet at the top of the joint, so Marius' wooden peg system was apparently no longer in use.  But we do find that the iron shank will bend on impact, keeping the enemy from chucking them back.  Most illustrations of Imperial legionaries show only one pilum, but a few show two, both tanged and apparently identical.  It would appear that two pila were still carried, but that there was no longer a "heavy" and a "light".

       Somewhere around the mid- or late first century AD, the weighted pilum shows up.  None have been found by archeologists, yet, but what we see in artwork is a regular tanged pilum with a ball behind the junction block.  We are guessing that this is a lead weight, to add penetration power to the weapon since it had been getting progressively lighter over the years.  The weight does not form part of the actual joint between iron and wood but is just below the joint. It might have been held in place by a cord wrapping on the wood below it, but there could easily have been some sort of nail or rivet holding it in place.  Since the wood shaft was under an inch thick by that time, the weight didn't have to be very big, maybe tennis-ball sized or less.  Though there is a tombstone from the late 2nd or early 3rd century that shows a pilum with TWO weights...

       There were certainly other types of javelins used by the Romans, most of them having points shaped like regular spearheads, if smaller.  The Republican skirmishers called velites carried a number of javelins behind their shields, some of which apparently had socketed heads like a lighter and shorter version of the socketed pilum.  In the Empire, auxiliary infantry regularly carried a pair of lanceae, essentially a light spear suitable for thrusting or throwing.  These had had a leather loop tied to the middle of the shaft.  This was wound spirally around the shaft, and the first two fingers inserted in it, so that the throw would both add leverage for more distance, and spin for more accuracy.  (The pilum never had a throwing loop, as far as we know.)

       The javelins of the later Empire are beyond the scope of this website, and there is a lot of confusion about the terminology because the Romans tended to use words interchangeably--verutum, spiculum, gaesum, lancea, etc.  Several new types of missile appeared, some of which evolved from the pilum (such as the later angon).  The plumbata is pretty well known, and was claimed to have amazing range.  On surviving examples, the lead weight was cast directly onto the joint between the iron and the wood.  See the Fectio site for pictures of modern reconstructions.

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