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Some Questions & Answers on Sword Weight

Q: How much did European swords really weigh in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?
A: The average sword only weighed between two and a half and three and a half pounds.
There were exceptions to this; some swords were lighter than average, some were heavier, but the vast majority of swords fell in this range. Medieval and Renaissance swords were also very well balanced, making them quick and deadly. A sword’s balance (how the weight is distributed along the sword) is every bit as important. A well-balanced sword can feel lighter than one which actually weighs more. Whereas, as a poorly-balanced sword can feel heavier and more awkward than another that actually does weighs more.

Q: Didn’t swords have to be heavy?
A: No. A heavy sword would have been too slow and clumsy, and a person with a lighter, more agile weapon (such as a spear) would be able to fight circles around the swordsman.
It’s important to remember that Medieval and Renaissance sword makers got immediate feedback about the quality of their weapons. A poorly made sword could get its owner killed in combat, and that would cost the swordsmith a customer as well as his reputation.

Q: If swords weren’t heavy, how could they cut through plate armor?
A: Swords didn’t cut through plate.
Fencing manuals from the Middle Ages show a great deal of techniques to use against an armored opponent. None of them show fighters trying to cut through hardened steel plates. If your opponent was wearing it, the general idea was to thrust the point of your sword into a gap in your opponent’s armor, such as an eye slit or armpit. Cuts against an armored opponent were really made to force them to have to defend and lose their ability to attack. In the process this caused an opening elsewhere where a thrust could be made or even a cut delivered to an unprotected area.

Q: How do we know what swords really weighed?
A: ARMA Scholars, and museum curators, arms collectors, expert sword makers, and others have all had the opportunity on several occasions to examine and weigh real antique swords.
Also, documents, such as the catalogues from museum and arms collections all show weights of real swords. Even the largest and heaviest combat swords were on average 3 or 4 pounds, with only a few in the 7-9 pound range.

Q: I recently saw a show on TV where an expert said swords in the Middle Ages were heavy and weighed as much as 40 pounds. Didn’t he know what he was talking about?
A: No, at least not as far as real swords were concerned.
Unfortunately, there are many historians out there who are quite knowledgeable about the Middle Ages in general but are totally ignorant about swords and swordsmanship from that time period. Most likely, that particular historian had never handled antique swords; his knowledge of the subject probably came from studying history books written in the 19th and 20th centuries. If he had handled antique swords, it’s hard to say what he’s using as a basis for his claim. It’s possible the only sword he handled was an antique “bearing sword” used only for parades and processions and not for fighting. Bearing swords were in fact much heavier than fighting swords; a typical bearing sword could weigh eight or nine pounds. To someone unaccustomed to handling swords (such as a historian who is not also a martial artist), this could seem very heavy indeed. Also, remember that “heavy” is a relative term. They fail to actually weigh real swords but typically just based their opinions on impressions about their weight.

Q: I talked with a sword seller at a Renaissance faire who assured me that real swords were heavy and had to weigh at least 12 or 15 ponds. Was he wrong?
A: Yes, he most definitely was.
Keep in mind a person trying to sell you swords has his business success as his first concern, not your education. If all he has to sell are heavy swords, and those are all he has ever handled, then you can expect he is not likely going to be able tell you that they are not realistic versions. Sword sellers seldom have real hands-on experience with authentic arms and armor, and when they do, they are very rarely athletic or experienced martial artists able to evaluate a weapon’s use.

Q: Where did the idea come from that they were so heavy?
A: The problem started not long after people stopped using swords as a primary weapon in real combat.
By the 18th century warfare technology changed so that swords, armor and other hand-weapons were not important in battle. But slender thrusting blades known as smallswords became used for private duelling. By comparison, Medieval swords could seem “crude” and “unwieldy” to those who only had experienced with the new slender thrusting style of unarmored fencing. This is especially true if you try to apply a Medieval sword’s handling characteristics to the way smallswords were used. Without the knowledge of proper technique as taught by the Medieval masters, or considerable practice in their teachings, you can’t really appreciate the agility and speed of a well-made Medieval sword.

Q: Why do they look so heavy whenever you see one being used on TV or in the movies?
A: These are choreographed “show fights”, stunts that are meant to be entertaining but not real displays of genuine fighting skill or historical combat styles.
The purpose of using a sword in combat is to kill your opponent; the purpose of a pretend sword fight is to increase the drama and excitement of a play, movie or TV show. To accomplish this, actions taken by the “combatants” are often bigger, slower and flashier than what you would do in combat. In fact, if you tried many of these exaggerated moves in a real fight with a heavy sword you would probably be killed very quickly.

Q: I was at the mall the other day and I saw some swords for sale. I picked them up, and they felt very heavy and clumsy. Why is this?
A: Many (but certainly not all) modern reproduction swords are made by people who are ignorant of historical sword weight, balance, and proper use.
If a modern reproduction isn’t made with the same blade geometry as a historical sword, it won’t handle like a historical blade. This means the reproduction blade needs to have the same shape and cross section along its entire length and width. There are other reasons many modern sword makers produce inaccurate replicas. Some may be trying to cut costs; others may be afraid a light, well-balanced sword may be rejected as “inaccurate” by customers whose only knowledge of swords is the inaccurate belief they were “heavy”. Plus, if you haven’t trained with a sword, it can seem pretty heavy, just like a big-league baseball bat might seem heavy to a new little-league player.

Q: What else can I do to learn more about this and help educate others?
A: There’s a lot you can do!
You can read more about it from reliable sources; see the “Recommended Reading” section of the ARMA website. The works of the late Ewart Oakeshott are a great place to start. Also, you should get out and try to find museums displaying historical arms and armor. There’s nothing like seeing the real thing with your own eyes. Bear in mind, though, not all museums have somebody on staff with a good working knowledge of medieval and renaissance arms and armor, so if something doesn’t sound right, just do your own research and come up with your own conclusion.

This Q&A was written by ARMA Scholar Chris Jarko and was derived from the article “What did Historical Swords Weigh” by John Clements.

 
 

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