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The lance is a weapon of uncertain but ancient origin. It consists of a
long shaft with a sharp point and is distinguished from the spear in that it is normally carried by mounted soldiers and tends to
be longer than the spear, javelin, or pike wielded by men on foot. It
is reasonable to assume that a weapon so basic evolved independently in
different civilizations as the need for it arose.
Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all used the lance. The Hittites had perfected the use of light chariots, and in their hands the iron-tipped lance was devastating. The Saxons in England fought with such a weapon before 1066, and the Bayeux Tapestry shows the invading Normans carrying lances with pennants hanging from, the tops. At that time the lance was a simple tubular shaft with a metallic head, apparently never more than eight or nine feet long.
For jousting or tilting an especially spectacular weapon was developed. It was often over 14 feet long and, toward the end of the 15th century, the shaft (then called the truncheon) had swollen to as much as 16 inches at the grip, being even larger above and below it. The lance was further elaborated by a metal disk or shield, called the vamplate, fixed above the grip to protect the arm, and a heavy metal ring, called the grate or graper, fastened to the shaft below the grip. The grate rested against the knight's breastplate and relieved the hand and arm of the full shock of contact. The metallic head (or socket) of the war lance was usually leaf shaped, while that of the tilting lance, at least from the early 14th century, had three blunted points to prevent penetrating wounds. Both the tilting lances and the war lances, which were somewhat simpler in design, were generally made of ash until the late 15th century, after which cypress and other woods were introduced. By the 17th century, the average length for both types was more than 12 feet.
In the Near and Far East, lances were lighter and slimmer, seldom exceeding 10 feet in length. Their butts were often spiked, so that the lance might be thrust into the ground to rest in an upright position when not in use. The shafts of Turkish, Indian, and Persian lances were of wood or bamboo and those of the Muslims were often intricately decorated. A characteristic feature was a heavy metal ball below the grip to balance the weight of the shaft.
The medieval lance disappeared from warfare with medieval armor and the weapon fell into disuse in western Europe for many years. In the mid-18th century, however, Frederick the Great, possibly impressed by Polish use of the lance, established a troop of lancers within each of his cavalry regiments. The Cossacks of Russia also used the lance to good advantage. Napoleon I impressed some crack Polish lancers into his army in 1807 and expanded his use of such forces after suffering heavy losses at the hands of lance-wielding Cossacks during the Russian campaign of 1812. His efficient use of lancers in a losing cause at Waterloo in 1815 led the British to establish lancer regiments. The famed Light Brigade of the Crimean War was such a body, and by the mid-19th century lancers were a staple of every western European army. Britain's native lancer brigades in Bengal and elsewhere also captured the public imagination, as did the Prussian uhlans. Lancers proved particularly effective in the pursuit of fleeing infantry. They bore a relatively light weapon, usually made of strong bamboo.
Though successful charges by lancers were made during World War I, trench warfare signaled the end of the usefulness of the lance, which now survives chiefly on the parade ground. Thus the lancer brigade predeceased the ordinary cavalry unit as a practical military arm. Curiously, the United States Army throughout its history never established a regiment of lancers.