| The javelin or pilum
of a long iron head with a small point, and a wooden shaft. On
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
has a socketed head, and a third type, less well-known, has a spike
In the first century AD, some tanged pila are shown with a spherical
presumed to be lead, behind the joint block. Apparently the
had become lighter over the centuries, and the weight was added to
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,
the complete weapon 5-1/2 to 7 feet in length. Most of the
(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
square-section "joint block", 5" to 8" long. It is slotted to
the tang, and capped with an iron ferrule or collett which is secured
2 little iron wedges. (Since the ferrule is also tapered, it
best to allow a little of the wood to project above it, to be splayed
by the wedges.) Two or three rivets hold the tang in place; a
head needs only a small nail.
All iron parts of the pilum
black from the forge, imitated if necessary by heating the piece and
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
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
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
a larger version. The junction blocks of two pila are
one with two rivets and one with three. Next to them is an
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"
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.
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
the battle they could gather their pila and straighten them.
Back in the early Republic, c.
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.