The pollaxe represents one of the best innovations of the “medieval arms race”, as it were. The increasing use of the more protective plate armour, in concordance with maille, leather, and cloth armours, meant that specialized weapons had to be developed, or more commonly old weapons had to be updated and improved upon, to defeat these armours. The pollaxe, the combination of axe, spear, and hammer, is an ideal weapon to deal with both armoured and unarmoured foes, at either long or close range. I lay out here my suppositions for the development of the axe, as well as potential reasons for the variety of shapes in historical examples, based on my experience as a medieval historian and a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts.
To first understand the development of the pollaxe it is necessary to look at the etymology of the three most common ways of spelling the word itself: poleaxe, pollaxe, and polaxe. All three spellings can be broken down into two parts; the prefix and the word “axe”. Because it is common to all three, we will look at the word “axe” first. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as “ax or axe: a chopping or cutting tool with an edged head fitted parallel to a handle”. I believe it is safe to assume that most of us are familiar with this kind of tool, and from it’s presence we can infer that the weapon will be some kind of axe, or have some kind of axe-head on it. So now we look at the three options we have for a prefix and from them we can try to piece together what this weapon looks like and how it was developed. The word “pole” is defined as “a long slender piece of wood or metal” (Miriam-Webster). Then the word “poleaxe” quite literally means “an axe on a (long) pole”. The next option, “poll”, is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary first as “head”, and that makes sense when you consider modern use of the word (“to take a poll”, “the poll’s show”) where it denotes a vote, or a head-count. So, the word “pollaxe” simply means “axe-headed”. As for the third option, “pol” comes from Greek indicating “society” or “person” and is, in my opinion, a precursor to the word “poll” and can be interpreted in the same manner. By combining these definitions, we have a weapon that has an axe-head, mounted on a long pole. We can reasonably assume then that the pollaxe is derived from the axe.
The simple axe was one of mankind’s first tools, being a stone knife tied to a stick. It has continued to be a common tool in most cultures, right up to the modern period. As far as its use as a weapon of war, both the single-handed and two-handed variants can deliver powerful blows and are usually ready-at-hand, being used as a tool for chopping wood. Unlike a sword, which exists only as a weapon of war, the axe would be used all the time for chopping wood, building dwellings, etc. and would be familiar in the hand. Because it is familiar to you, then when you have to fight you will go with what is familiar. Arguably, the axe is also cheaper to produce than a sword and wood hafts are easily replaceable. The main problem with the axe as a weapon (and from here on I will mainly be discussing the two-handed axe as that is what closely pertains to the development of the pollaxe), however, is that the base version is rather one dimensional in that it lacks the capability to do more than chop or cut effectively. Notice I used the word, “effectively”. One problem with two-handed axes is that while the long hafts allow for strong blows, the axe is not capable of delivering thrusts. Not only are thrusts useful for finding the gaps in plate armour, or penetrating maille, leather or cloth, but they also serve to extend the distance between combatants. For this reason, the top fluke of the axe head began to be elongated and reinforced, like this Hungarian axe or the Russian berdysh, making the weapon a combination of spear and axe, the ideal combination to deal with foes armed in maille, leather and cloth and transforming the axe from a simple farm tool into a weapon of war.
The axe as a weapon was used by all classes of combatants, including the nobility. As plate became more prevalent, the nobility needed a weapon for foot combat that was capable of delivering cuts to un-armoured parts of the body, thrusts to the gaps in armour (strong enough to penetrate maille, leather or cloth), as well as being able to deliver crushing blows, especially to the joints. Because of the limited visibility allowed in bascinet helms with visors, the weapon needed to be useful no matter how it was picked up. That and the need to have a counter-balance for the axe blade, lead to a hammer being placed opposite the axe blade on the head of the weapon. As the pollaxe became more prevalent variants began to appear. The two most common types were the axe/hammer type and the hammer/fluke type. A third variant was an axe/fluke type. All pollaxes have a spike on the top of the haft and some have a spike on the bottom end as well. It is the hammer/fluke variant that is shown most often in manuscripts, both German and Italian, and is the type described in the Burgundian “Le Jeu de la Hache”, the only manuscript to deal exclusively with the pollaxe. But no matter the composition of the head of the weapon, all are referred to as an axe; “l’azza” in Fiore and Vadi, “le hache” in Le Jeu, and “der axst” in Talhoffer (Anglo, “Le Jeu de la Hache”).
It is intriguing that while the axe/hammer variant seems to be more prevalent both in surviving examples and contemporary artwork; it is the hammer/fluke type that is shown/described in manuscripts. The reasons for this are varied and likely lost to history, but my personal conjecture is that both variants, as well as the earlier forms of the two-handed axe, were used together, the decision to use one or the other likely dependent on personal choice. I do view the polehammer variant as the more specialized tool for judicial duels when dealing with opponents in full harness, much as Fiore and Vadi show swords that were specific to judicial dueling. The pollaxe was perhaps better suited to the battlefield, where the axe blade could be used to great affect against more lightly armoured foes (I am not entirely convinced by this myself, but I have yet to hear any better theories).
• The pollaxe developed from the simple two-handed axe because of a need to combine the axe with the range capabilities of the spear and the crushing capabilities of the mace/hammer.
• The pollaxe is a specialized weapon developed for use against armoured opponents.