Billmen - myth?

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Dave Milne
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Post by Dave Milne »

Dave Key wrote: This is explicitly referenced in contemporary Scottish acts which go into greater detail about what the expectation/requirement was according to income/property.
A very interesting post that has made following this thread worthwhile.

If it is possible could you private message me with more information about the Scottish Acts that you are referencing?

Thank you.

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Post by Fox »

Thank you, Dave. Enlightening as ever.
Dave Key wrote: In particular I noted Fox's comments ...

"The idea of billman fighting as groups of similarly equipped soldiers in close formation I think is believable though. I draw that conclusion from my understanding of the equipment in archeological finds, and how it's best used (supported by evidence of similar troop types from earlier and later periods). And also from read descriptions of battles."

I'm curious which archaeological finds you are referring to and how this has been extrapolated to support your argument? Also, any contemporary references to battle array I'd be very interested to hear.
Well, it's rather lost the context of the debate, possibly even when it was posted, but I'll do my best to explain what I was saying.

First the comment is with references to the idea of polearms being used collectively together.

1) Archeological.
There was a good deal of debate whether billmen existed at all at the start of this thread [regardless of what they where called at the time, and meaning billmen in the broadest sense].
There was some suitable reservation about any the relevance of illustrations, because it's difficult to tie them back to an illustrator who was accurately representing the British Isles for the appropriate period.
In light of that, my understanding is that there are physical finds that would support the use of spears and "bills" in the period.

2) Personal.
My personal experience of how polearms work is that they work best when they are mutually supportive. I understand the very strong limitations of a purely re-enactment context, but I am adding to this a limited WMA knowledge. You can add this to the generally excepted understanding of how weapons like this are used at different places and in other periods.

3) Battle descriptions
First, I have to be entirely clear, I am not working from primary sources.
I am not a historian, and I don't pretend to have the time or understanding for those sources to be useful to me (it's why I'm so very grateful when someone who does can help).
Therefore I am basing my understand of these events on the compiled knowledge of published historians.
Repeatedly battle accounts (by different authors) make specific comment about the deployment of troops, particularly seperating archers and infantry.
I have no primary basis for why they make these assertions as specific claims are not usually linked to the sources listed.

To clarify, though, my understanding of your points is:
(1) ...that "archers" are indeed archers, and not some mixture of troops.
Presumably this is in answer to the Man from Coventry's post, in which he says that a 1475 expedition from France included a contingent of "700 archers", containing 200 welsh spears.

(2) ...that archers typically outnumbered infantry by factor a three or more. (I don't think anyone has argued anything else in this thread).

(3) ...that man at arms is a general term to refer to infantry. (something proposed in thread on a number of occasions).

(4) ...that billman, like many of the words and phrases we now use to describe the period, is not contemporary.

(5) ...that a lack of drums in English sources might indicate against drilled troops.

What I'm unsure of is whether you are concluding that troops were generally arrayed on the field into seperate infantry and archery, whether they more closely tied together by their origin.
I think I see arguements for both in what you're saying.

Is there anything key that I've missed?

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Post by Allan Harley »

This is one of the nbest threads there has been and is full of food for thought

My understanding is that going forward we need to have "households"/groups of "armed men" (those with polearms , and archers around a core of command - but cruder than that employed on the continent
These pieces would be amagamated to form larger units with possibly bends/badges over their captains to identify them

Sounds good and reasonable - working on it
Away from the battle all are soldiers.

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Post by Dave Key »

Fox wrote:(1) ...that "archers" are indeed archers, and not some mixture of troops.
Presumably this is in answer to the Man from Coventry's post, in which he says that a 1475 expedition from France included a contingent of "700 archers", containing 200 welsh spears.
Not in answer to anything, just observation from the records I've looked at, but the reference to the 1465 Expedition is worth checking again.
My ost was not really to counter/support any of the previous threads, just my observations and musing.

I asked specifically about the archaeological evidence as I couldn't see what archaeology was going to be able to provide in this specific debate.It can give us hints on injuries etc. as a Towton, but composition of forces would be more difficult ... we can even use spent cartridge cases to pin oint a firing ine ... possibly target from arrow heads .. but even that I've never seen. But,as always, I'd be more than happy to larn of any such evidence.
Fox wrote:What I'm unsure of is whether you are concluding that troops were generally arrayed on the field into seperate infantry and archery, whether they more closely tied together by their origin.
I think I see arguements for both in what you're saying.
It's a bit unclear because ... well ... it's a bit unclear.

You're quite correct there are bits that may suggest one and some the other.

I need to go back to my notes and the pile of unchecked sources before I'd be confident in saying eitherway. take my word there is an absolute mountain of data that hasn't been tapped. Take Bridport for example, with time and effort you could probably say who each and every one of the men (and women)listed were and what they did for a living and where they lived. I have it for some ... but it's a long hard trawl

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Post by Dave Key »

Dave Milne wrote:
Dave Key wrote: This is explicitly referenced in contemporary Scottish acts which go into greater detail about what the expectation/requirement was according to income/property.
A very interesting post that has made following this thread worthwhile.

If it is possible could you private message me with more information about the Scottish Acts that you are referencing?

Thank you.
I'll try and fish out the details tonight

Cheers
Dave

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Post by Fox »

Dave Key wrote:...as I couldn't see what archaeology was going to be able to provide in this specific debate.
Simply that pole weapons of the type we're talking about were in use in this country at that time.

It's not much, I admit, but I could spend a lot of time going round in circles with Jorge, simply because both language and illustration were proving remarkably intractable in that regard.

I hadn't considered studying Bradford's Towton project, but that may suggest some clues.

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Post by gregory23b »

"but I could spend a lot of time going round in circles with Jorge, simply because both language and illustration were proving remarkably intractable in that regard."


Because, as I have said about this and many other topics, visual imagery is notoriously unreliable. Much of our visual reference for the WOTR reenactment is in fact foreign, yet it gets trotted out as a good example to follow when it rarely is. Pictures are much easier for people to 'understand', moreover they are even easier to misunderstand without a nod to the their original context because it takes less time, many arguments have been 'proved' or otherwise by showing a picture and no context or purpose of the imagery.

That is why, other than for some sort of visual reference for objects and even that is subject to the same argument, I find it hard to see the images as representative of anything more than a composition or 'rough' idea placed by the artist, no matter how good the rendering.

Also, I have to say this, using any of the practices we do in reenactment as some form of benchmarking for the past is inherently flawed, most of us do not use weapons in anger or in ways that replicates a 'proper' use of them. Our logic is not necessarily compatible with that of the past, some things were just plain different, what 'should' or 'must' may simply not have happened. An example would be an apparent lack of bill formations in the WOTR but actual bill formations in the middle 16thc, supporting pikes and handgunners, part of tercio-like formations, but then we are talking a time when the military structures were being overhauled in England to match continental practices.

Understanding that is why I am persistent in asking people for evidence other than pictures and our reenactment exprience, they are simply not enough, 'logical' though they seem to be.
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Post by zauberdachs »

Fox wrote: 2) Personal.
My personal experience of how polearms work is that they work best when they are mutually supportive. I understand the very strong limitations of a purely re-enactment context, but I am adding to this a limited WMA knowledge. You can add this to the generally excepted understanding of how weapons like this are used at different places and in other periods.
Interesting, which treatises are you thinking of?

From my own WMA experience with pole arms I would say that everything I've seen would inform us only as to the polearm use of the men-at-arms, i.e. the treatises written for gentlemanly use. In these cases they are invariably for individual use rather than for mutually supportive use.

I'm trying to think of anything in WMA that would be comparable to a bill, i.e. a primarily cutting pole weapon. The pike, as I've seen it in Meyer, is used completely differently so it not a good comparison while the halberd also seems to lean heavily on thrusts.
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Post by steve stanley »

16th century bill units....It struck me many years ago,that most ECW events much more closely resemble 16th century,with large pike columns supported by shot...Maybe we should all just meet in the middle & do Pinkie?....We'll bring the pike and cannon...... :)
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Post by Adam R »

zauberdachs wrote: From my own WMA experience with pole arms I would say that everything I've seen would inform us only as to the polearm use of the men-at-arms, i.e. the treatises written for gentlemanly use. In these cases they are invariably for individual use rather than for mutually supportive use.
I agree

I think you would have to wait until Silver for commentary on bills - it is 1599(ish) though - possibly they are longer than the medieval bill - but they are referred to for individual combat rather than commentaries on how to use them in groups. Nothing Medieval IIRC though.

The emerging (in the mid 15thC) art of written/drawn manuals mention poleaxes often enough - and the arts appear to be aimed at the gentlemanly classes it would reflect pole axes being used by the gentry.

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Post by Fox »

zauberdachs wrote:I'm trying to think of anything in WMA that would be comparable to a bill, i.e. a primarily cutting pole weapon. The pike, as I've seen it in Meyer, is used completely differently so it not a good comparison while the halberd also seems to lean heavily on thrusts.
You look at civilian use of halberd (BTB, excellent article in Issue 1 of WMA Illustrated).
Look at the design of halberd, and it's an axe on a stick, ideal you would have thought for choping/hacking.
Nevertheless, it's primarilly a thrusting weapon.

I'd be interested why you'd think a bill was "primarily cutting pole weapon", I would have said thrusting.
And remember when we say "bill" in the context of this discussion we simply mean pole weapon so that includes spears, glaives and possibly a number of other things.

Regardless, it wasn't my intention to say that there was a specific WMA source that gave amazing insight (it was barely an aside in another sentence); only that I'm aware of the differences between re-enactment and using a weapon for real and that I have a [humbly incomplete] understanding of body mechanics, target areas and so on.

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Post by Dave Key »

Dave Milne wrote:
Dave Key wrote: This is explicitly referenced in contemporary Scottish acts which go into greater detail about what the expectation/requirement was according to income/property.
A very interesting post that has made following this thread worthwhile.

If it is possible could you private message me with more information about the Scottish Acts that you are referencing?

Thank you.
Somewhere on an old laptop I have most of these typed up ... but of course I can't find them offhand :(

Anyway, I grabbed an example.

This one is from the Acts of Parliament of James II 1456,

"Item it is ordained that all manner of man that has lands or goods be ready horsed and geared after the faculty of his land and goods for the defence of the realm and at the commandment of the king's letters, by bails or out horns. And who ever is not shall be well punished in his person and goods. And that all manner of men between 60 and 16 be ready on the best wise and cum to the borderers on there best manner for the defence of the land when any writing comes of the coming of the great English host. And that no poor man nor unprovided be charged to come to any raids in England, and that each man whose goods extend to 20 merks be furnished at least with jack, with sleaves to the hand or else a pair of splints, a sellat or a pricking hat, a sword and a buckler, a bow and a sheaf, and if he can not shoot that he shall have an axe and a targe either of leather or of board with two hands on the back. And throughout all shires they are to be warned to provide for such things and to come and make their wappenshaws before the sheriffs, bailies or stewarts of regalities on the morning after the law days after Yule. And whoever comes not bearing as appropriate, after his fault, is to be punished in his goods and so forth their wappenshaws is to be continued from 30 days to 30 days, etc.


Well that's how the Scottish Parliament have translated it ... it could have been better but it saved me the job.

It's all on-line at http://www.rps.ac.uk/ ... worth noting the "translation" and the Manuscript" are not exactly as written in the 1707 transcription ... e.g. "a bow and a sheaf" in the original has "a bow and a sheaf of arrows", and "wapenshaws" is "weapon showing" (i.e. a muster) so what else has been mistranslated & mistranscribed or simply misunderstood is open to question ... but it's still A LOT easier than it was when I was looking this stuff up a few years ago.

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Post by m300572 »

In light of that, my understanding is that there are physical finds that would support the use of spears and "bills" in the period.
That doesn't help with the debate as to whether there were specifically bill/spear/glaive/polearm of choice armed "billmen" and how they fought.

The problem with archaeological finds is that they are "post depositional" and we (archaeologists) are relying on guesswork and the same sorts of sources that are being discussed here as the rest of the re-enactment community (and medieval military historians) to try and work out how they were used prior to their deposition in an archaeological context and then how the archaeological context reflects the use and the deposition processes.

There are very few deposits where specific articles of equipment can be related to particular individuals and events - the Visby grave pit is one and is unusual in its formation, Towton is another but has no equipment deposited with the burials. Battlefield finds may show concentrations of arrowheads which may indicate target areas for volley fire (assuming that these are the broken off heads that weren't salvaged after the battle for re-use) but can't tell you how the archers were arrayed and commanded or if they were armed with polearms as well as bows. Any polearm heads among the arrow heads may be from "billmen" (for want of a better term) supporting the archers, rather than from polearms carried by archers for use at close quarters.

Fascinating discussion all round though - both from the point of the medieval evidence and the potential for a history of re-enactment as a means of interpretation.
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Post by zauberdachs »

Fox wrote: You look at civilian use of halberd (BTB, excellent article in Issue 1 of WMA Illustrated).
Look at the design of halberd, and it's an axe on a stick, ideal you would have thought for choping/hacking.
Nevertheless, it's primarilly a thrusting weapon.
Quick post on my way out. I'm quite willing to admit I could be wrong as I have comparably little interest in this.

Yep, seen the article. If you look at the halberds in that article they have long thrusting spikes and a slight axehead. They are designed for lots of thrusting with occasion cuts. It's my understanding that bills invariably have big cutting heads and only occasionally have large thrusting points.

Summary of my thoughts:

1. If your fighting technique involves lots of thrusts then the bill isn't your weapon of choice, the spear is. Not only is it cheaper and easier to make but most importantly it won't tire you out so quickly as holding all the extra weight of the bill head out there as you make thrusts/hold your your guard.

2. Agriculturally the bill is used to cut. You take the knowledge from Agricultural use and directly transplant it onto the field, you have a primarily cutting weapon.

3. Flodden. If it'd been a thrusting competition don't you think the guys with pikes would have won? ;)
Last edited by zauberdachs on Wed Jul 09, 2008 8:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

Are you saying us Celts cannot thrust boy! Thats fighting talk! :lol:
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Post by gregory23b »

So far we have:

we know that bills and other pole arms were used in the WOTR period, from the following types of sources:

civic records, watch and ward

correspondence - eg pastons

archaeology - finds, eg Dadlington bill

None of the above have been contested, quite the opposite.

What we do not know, or more precisely have very little evidence for is specific English units of bill or other pole arm users in the field, this pertains to the original question and the idea of a type of soldier called a 'billman'.

Do we agree that this is where we are so far?
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zauberdachs wrote:Quick post on my way out. I'm quite willing to admit I could be wrong as I have comparably little interest in this.

Yep, seen the article. If you look at the halberds in that article they have long thrusting spikes and a slight axehead. They are designed for lots of thrusting with occasion cuts. It's my understanding that bills invariably have big cutting heads and only occasionally have large thrusting points.
Halberds appear to have come in lots of shapes and sizes. From what I've seen they seem to evolve into almost exclusively the style you describe. That could be read as an indication that polearms of that length are essentially thrusting weapons.

Taking the "classic" bill, it has a long pointed blade, which is sharp on one side, sometimes two, it has a hooked blade on one side, often complemented by "spike" on the other, which is sometimes depicted as a "forward facing" blade.

Billman are not generally shown with the "hook only" agricultural version of a bill; although we have to accept all the limitations of both period and modern depictions as illustrated in this debate.
zauberdachs wrote: Summary of my thoughts:

1. If your fighting technique involves lots of thrusts then the bill isn't your weapon of choice, the spear is. Not only is it cheaper and easier to make but most importantly it won't tire you out so quickly as holding all the extra weight of the bill head out there as you make thrusts/hold your your guard.

2. Agriculturally the bill is used to cut. You take the knowledge from Agricultural use and directly transplant it onto the field, you have a primarily cutting weapon.
That's a gross over simplification of how the weapons work.

I would suggest that the bill is primarily a thrusting weapon, and also that cutting edge is used by making a thrusting motion.

I would argue that thrusting with a polearm gives you the quickest and most accurate blow and allows you easiest body movement; meaning that this is optimum in terms of timing, place and so on.

Spears are lighter and faster, and allow the user to have a slightly longer reach.
However they are simple in design, restricting the functionality; (spears are sometimes depicted with "boar catchers", presumably to increase their functionality). The lightness of the weapon also makes them easier to deflect, and makes them hard to use defensively.

Bills are heavier, giving more momentum for both attack and defence. The more complex shape allows for trapping and hooking and gives access to less protected parts of the opponent, such as the backs of the knees and thighs.
zauberdachs wrote:3. Flodden. If it'd been a thrusting competition don't you think the guys with pikes would have won? ;)
I've tried to write an appropriate answer to this about three times, partly because I don't know whether your :wink: indicates you actually understand what appears to have happened.

Do you really want me to explain the most common excepted version of events?

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Post by Fox »

m300572 wrote:
In light of that, my understanding is that there are physical finds that would support the use of spears and "bills" in the period.
That doesn't help with the debate as to whether there were specifically bill/spear/glaive/polearm of choice armed "billmen" and how they fought.
Except that it provides a starting point that these weapons were in this country. At the start of this debate we weren't taking that for granted.

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gregory23b wrote:So far we have:

we know that bills and other pole arms were used in the WOTR period, from the following types of sources:

civic records, watch and ward

correspondence - eg pastons

archaeology - finds, eg Dadlington bill

None of the above have been contested, quite the opposite.

What we do not know, or more precisely have very little evidence for is specific English units of bill or other pole arm users in the field, this pertains to the original question and the idea of a type of soldier called a 'billman'.

Do we agree that this is where we are so far?
Agreed. We have now established those basics. Thank you.

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Post by gregory23b »

Just thought we needed a reminder of where we had got to. ;-)


And Dave, thanks very much for your input, hopefully you will have more to add, it has proved of immense value and set a few of my thoughts in a different direction to where they wandering and sorted out a few of my assumptions.
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Post by zauberdachs »

If you want to discuss bill use then lets start a new thread. I don't have time/interest to reply but others would probably enjoy it.
zauberdachs wrote:3. Flodden. If it'd been a thrusting competition don't you think the guys with pikes would have won? ;)
;) = A joke/humour. I fully appreciate that the oft quoted bills v's pike argument is largely an irrelevance.
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

What a strange comment given that the whole thread has been about the use of the bill as a weapon. :?
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Post by gregory23b »

Isn't the thread about the absentee billman, rather than the actual weapon comparisons, we accept and evidence shows a mixed terminology for them all?

So maybe the relative combat merits and demerits of those weapons might be a slightly different topic, I accept that the dicussion of how they might be used in a potential billblock is useful, but as there is, as yet, no bill block, that IMHO is moot ;-)

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Post by Man from Coventry »

Just to recap . What i think we are discussing is was there:
- a seperate class of soldier armed with bills/polearms as primary weapon.
- were they called billmen (at that time)
- did they form a significant proportion of WOTR armies
- did they fight in distinct units of like armed men. i.e the billblocks we use in re-enactment today.
- Were these soldiers included in the Men-at-arms or archers

Bills clearly existed at the time, there are numerous examples in accountss of lawlessness and they are described as weapons of war. This appears generally accepted from the thread above.

Billmen do appear to be an accepted class or type of soldier in the tudor period and are widely attributed to have been a significacontributing fac

I have done a bit more research,most of my previous comments have been off the top of my head, from a lifetimes reading and it is now difficult in some cases to provide the original reference to back up my perceived wisdom when challanged by such eminent scholars as Mr Key and the ubiquitos Mr 23b.

The earliest reference I have found so far to billmen or bill users as a distinct entity are:

Letter from Henry VII to Sir Gilbert Talbot, July 1493

"whereof we desire you to make as many spears, with their custrells and demi-lances, well horsed as ye can furnish, and the remainder be archers and bills, ye be thoroughly appointed and ready to come upon a day's warning for us to be ready in this case'

I've not seen the original but it is quoted in Goodman, Wars of the Roses 1981. Admittedly this is Tudor but ony 6 yrs after Stoke Field, 8 yrs after Bosworth.

That are also references of men who are clearly not men-at-arms fighting with polearms. In 1471 after Tewkesbury Jasper Tudor, under siege at Pembroke Castle was relieved by Daffyd Thomas.

"he had suddenly gathered together a rude rabble to the number of eight thousand within the within the compass of eight days and so attended by his ragged regiment with hooks , prongs, glaives and other rustic weapons."

Griffiths (Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family. A study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

Although it seems likely that they were not that well organized.

Food for thought.
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Post by gregory23b »

"challanged by such eminent scholars as Mr Key and the ubiquitos Mr 23b. "

I have challenging behaviour but am no scholar, seriously, whereas Mr Key is.
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Post by zauberdachs »

Marcus Woodhouse wrote:What a strange comment given that the whole thread has been about the use of the bill as a weapon. :?
Not so strange, my interpretation of this thread is that is about the actual evidence, i.e. what folk can actually prove, in relation to the existence of bill men. Therefore I do not think another sub-discussion based on our opinions rather than any actual evidence would add anything to this thread.

Of course if anyone was aware of any actual historical treatise for bill use that would be very interesting. Some one has mentioned Silver so I'll have a look at that next time I get a minute.
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Silver can be found on the internet, and I've Terry Browns book in my library.

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Post by behanner »

I miss Dave being around more.

A couple of things, a Bill to a certain extent is the proverbial "pitchfork" weapon, it is a tool that also makes an effective weapon. We still use them some in the States although we usually call them a brush axe. The majority of depictions from the WOR period show the weapon being primarily held point towards enemy even when the weapon is more glaive like. The one major exception I can think of is depictions of Swiss formations in the 1470s and 80s which tend to show mixed pike/halberd units. Basically if your opponents have the same weapons as you do and your standing waiting to hack them from above they are going to stab you and their arms being most of what you have to target.

The English had an amazing ability to supply bows and arrows during this period. Bows and arrows were purchased for the forces going into Kent after Tewksbury, so after what was almost 2 months in the field there was still a ready supply.

The follow up question to this one really is how did archers fight after the volleys of arrows were over. At Agincourt they basically grabbed what they could find from swords to mauls and just kinda went at it. Like with all things the thing to do is go through the evidence and see if anything can be learned from it.

Adam R
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Post by Adam R »

guthrie wrote:Silver can be found on the internet, and I've Terry Browns book in my library.
Terry Brown is an excellent source I believe - both practical and research wise.
KDF Nottingham
"Oh, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!"

m300572
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Post by m300572 »

A couple of things, a Bill to a certain extent is the proverbial "pitchfork" weapon, it is a tool that also makes an effective weapon. We still use them some in the States although we usually call them a brush axe.
At the risk of a CUBA, bill hooks are stil used in Britain, mainly for hedging and woodland management work. Historically they came in a range of shapes and sizes depending on the local traditions of hedgelaying and the like - however, even the longest handled and heaviest bill hooks (probably the Yorkshire style which has a handle about 18" long and has a backed blade) wouldn't make a good weapon in the way that the "military" bill would.

My understanding is that the bills being discussed here have hafts around 8 foot long, a spike on the top and one on the back as well as the cutting edge - may be a development of the agricultural tool but a very different item in overall terms.
Wilkes and Liberty, Wilkes and the Forty Five

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