The Weighty Issue of Two-Handed Greatswords
By J. Clements
overlay thy selfe with a heavy weapon, for nimblenesse of bodie,
Popular media, fantasy games, and uninformed historians frequently give the impression that these immense weapons were awkward, unwieldy and ponderously heavy. The facts confirm an entirely different understanding.
Identification - Definition of the Two-Handed Great Sword
To understand what we are discussing it is important to first have a working definition. The respected work, Swords and Hilt Weapons, offers this description of the weapon:
"The two-handed sword was a specialized and effective infantry weapon, and was recognized as such in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although large, measuring 60-70 in/150-175 cm overall, it was not as hefty as it looked, weighing something of the order of 5-8 lbs/2.3-3.6 kg. In the hands of the Swiss and German infantrymen it was lethal, and its use was considered as special skill, often meriting extra pay. Fifteenth-century examples usually have an expanded cruciform hilt, sometimes with side rings on one or both sides of the quillon block. This was the form which remained dominant in Italy during the sixteenth century, but in Germany a more flamboyant form developed. Two-handed swords typically have a generous ricasso to allow the blade to be safely gripped below the quillons and thus wielded more effectively at close quarters. Triangular or pointed projections, known as flukes, were added at the base of the ricasso to defend the hand." (Coe et al, p. 48)
In contrast to longswords, technically, true two-handed swords (epee's a deux main) or "two-handers" were actually Renaissance, not Medieval weapons. They are really those specialized forms of the later 1500-1600s, such as the Swiss/German Dopplehänder ("double-hander") or Bidenhänder ("both-hander"). The popular names Zweihander / Zweyhander are actually relatively modern not historical terms. English ones were sometimes referred to as "slaughter-swords" after the German, Schlachterschwerter ("battle swords"). While used similarly to longswords, and even employed in some duels, they were not identical in handling or performance. No major historical teachings detailing fencing with these specific weapons are known. These weapons were used primarily for fighting among pike-squares where they would hack paths through knocking aside poles, possibly even lobbing the ends off opposing halberds and pikes then slashing and stabbing among the ranks. Wielded by the largest and most impressive soldiers (Doppelsoldners, who received double pay), they were also used to guard banners and castle walls. The Italian humanist historian Paulus Jovius writing in the early 1500s also described the two-hand great sword as being used by Swiss soldiers to chop the shafts of pikes at the battle of Fornovo in 1495.
Many of these weapons have compound-hilts with side-rings and enlarged cross-guards of up to 12 inches. Most have small, pointed lugs or flanges protruding from their blades 4-8 inches below their guard. These parrierhaken or "parrying hooks" act almost as a secondary guard for the ricasso to catch and bind other weapons or prevent them from sliding down into the hands. They make up for the weapon's slowness on the defence and can allow another blade to be momentarily trapped or bound up. They can also be used to strike with. Certain wave or flame-bladed two-handed swords have come to be known by collectors as flamberges, although they are more appropriately known as flammards or flambards (the German, Flammenschwert). The wave-blade form is visually striking but really no more effective in its cutting than a straight one. There were also huge two-handed blades known as "bearing-swords" or "parade-swords" (Paratschwert), weighing up to 10 or even 15 pounds and which were intended only for carrying in ceremonial processions and parades.
Dr. Hans-Peter Hils in his 1985 dissertation on the work of the great 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer noted that since the 19th century many arms museum collections typically feature immense parade or bearing greatswords as if they were actual combat weapons ignoring the fact they are not only blunt edged, but of impractical size and weight as well as poorly balanced for effective use. (Hils, p. 269-286). Though never intended for actual fighting, examples of such ponderous specimens are still occasionally cited incorrectly as having been actual combat weapons.
One source tells us that among 16th century armies the adoption of the two-handers was very limited and in comparison with the pike or the halberd did not play a meaningful role. “In the infantry unit, the German and Swiss Landsknechts positioned the Doppelsöldner (Soldiers who received double pay for wielding the two-handers) in the front ranks for a long time to strike down the opposing pikes and to hack out breaches into which one's own soldiers could penetrate. However it would become unusable, as soon as the opposing forces collided with one another, and there would be increased pressure from the back ranks onto the front ranks, which created a thick melee.” Thus, “sometime around the middle of the 16th century it (the two-hander) disappeared from war and mutated into a form of guard and ceremonial weapon with a symbolic character.” (Kamniker and Krenn, p. 130).
As one writer says of the weapon, "Among the smaller countries where mercenary bands were likely to develop---the Low Countries, the Italian city states, and the free cities and states of the German lands---the Swiss became premier two-handed swordsmen for hire from the 14th century until well into the 16th century. The two-handed sword and the multipurpose polearm, called the halberd, were familiar Swiss trademarks. The Swiss and Germans made their own two-handed swords. The Italians made a basic two-hander that they exported throughout Europe. Two-handed swordsmen were perimeter shock troops, trained to lay into approaching knights or infantry and break their stride. By the end of the 15th century, however, the Swiss had turned almost exclusively to the 17- to 18-foot pike as their weapon of choice, becoming the premier pikemen of Europe. The two-handed sword was considered incompatible with the pike and was actually outlawed as a frontline weapon by many confederation members--though the Swiss kept making them. The two-hander remained a popular weapon among many other European mercenaries, in Italy and particularly in Germany." (William J. McPeak. "For a Swordsmen with Muscle as Well as Skill, Two Hands Could be Better Than One." Military History, Oct 2001, Vol. 18. Issue 4, p 24).
Answering the Weight Question - how much did the actual historic weapons really weigh?
Nothing answers the question of genuine weight better than sample evidence of actual historical specimens. Sword collector and author Dr. Lee Jones possesses a very fine specimen of a 16th century German two-handed great sword, that this author had the privilege of exercising outdoors with, had length in excess of five feet and a weight of 7.9 pounds (3490g), but handled easily with superb balance. Curator of arms for the Hungarian Military History Museum in Budapest, László Töl, describes a very fine specimen of another 16th century German two-handed great sword of 53.4 inches length, which this author also had the privilege of examining, as weighing only a little over 8 pounds. Again, the piece's size and weight betrayed a functional and well-balanced weapon. László Töl adds: "The full length of the sword is 1808 mm, the full length of the blade is 1355 mm, the edge of the blade is 936 mm long, the length of the hilt is 306 mm, and the diameter of the cross-guard is 502 mm. The width of the blade is 46 mm, and its thickness is 7.5 mm. The 'neck' of the blade is 8.6 mm thick and 32 mm wide. The centre of gravity is 616 mm from the pommel. The sword weighs 3650g. The blade's cross-section is rhomboid in shape."
A 15th century two-handed Federschwert (practice sword) of 51.5 inches in length now at the Swiss National Landesmuseum weighs in at only 3.12lbs (1.415kg). Another warsword there of 48 inches in length weighs 4.63lbs (2.10kg), and an acutely tapered one of a length of 46.7 inches weighs in at only 3.018lbs (1.369kg). By comparison, a single-hand sword of 38-inches in the same collection weighed 3.28lbs (1.495kg).
The author has handled two-handed greatswords at the British Royal Armouries in Leeds that were distinctly identifiable as fighting weapons. The current curator of European edged weapons, Robert C. Woosnam-Savage, at the Royal Armouries writes:
Arms authority, David Edge, former head curator and current conservator of the famed Wallace Collection museum in London, similarly states for us:
ARMA consultant Henrik Andersson of the Livrustkammaren, Swedish Royal Armoury of Stockholm, provides a table with the following measurements on two-handed and greatswords in the collection there. The author and his colleagues have handled several of these pieces:
Note that unlike ceremonial specimens, none of the fighting weapons exceeded 4 pounds and the heaviest ceremonial was less than 11. The catlog of the famous arsenal in Graz, Austria, contains similar weights for its two-handed great sword specimens.
Historical fencing researcher and author, Grzegorz Zabinski, observes, "It can be assumed that the two-handed infantry swords were a culminating point of one of the directions of the evolution of swords, that aimed to increase their efficiency against plate by means of increasing their dimensions and weight, and, quite naturally, their impact." Zabinski offers sample data for a range of two-handed infantry swords from the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries at the excellent collection of such weapons housed in the State Art Collection at the Royal Castle of Wawel, Krakow, Poland:
A practical explanation for the futility of especially heavy weapons is that they are slow. In physics terms, doubling the mass of a weapon can provide twice the strike energy, but doubling the velocity of a strike provides four times the energy.
Below is a table of measurements from 69 two-handed great swords from the 16th century in the famed Austrian arsenal of Graz (K. Kamniker and P. Krenn, p. 139-152). Note that the average weight is less than 8 pounds at an average length of 67 inches. The weapons in the collection range up to 5 pounds difference in their weight. The lightest weapon, a slender blade, is just over than 3.3 pounds (at roughly 57 inches long) while the heaviest, a large and elaborately hilted piece, is no more than 13 pounds (at about 78 inches a long):
A sword's weight cannot be judged just from its size or blade width. Hilt style and blade cross-section are determining factors in a weapon's mass. Just because a blade is thinner does not mean it is necessarily lighter. For example, an Italian side-sword from circa 1550-1560 of 43.5 inches length weighs in at only 2 pounds 6 ounces, while a typical rapier that is much more slender bladed from the same era but just a few inches longer, weighs 2 pounds 9 ounces and still another only 5 inches longer at 3 pounds 3 ounces.From the late 1400s, a large double-handed Kriegsmesser (or "war knife") of 49.5 inches length is listed as weighing only 3.8 pounds (see the Metropolitan's 1982, Art of Chivalry, p. 90 & 93-94 for samples).
One historian states, "The true two-handers really did require two hands, though their overall weight averaged only about 8 to 10 pounds. With blades of up to 45 inches or more, the hilts had to be at least 9 inches to counterbalance such a long blade. The crossguard's length also helped in distributing weight." (William J. McPeak. "For a Swordsmen with Muscle as Well as Skill, Two Hands Could be Better Than One". Military History, Oct 2001, Vol. 18. Issue 4, p 24).
Despite the facts above, many are convinced today that these large swords simply are, or even have to be, exceptionally heavy. The view is not one limited to modern times. For example, Thomas Page's otherwise unremarkable 1746 military fencing booklet, The Use of the Broad Sword, exclaimed nonsense about earlier swords that became largely accepted as fact in the 19th (and 20th) century. Revealing something of how much things in that period had changed from earlier skills and knowledge of martial fencing, declared how their: "Form was rude, and their use without Method. They were the Instruments of Strength, not the Weapons of Art. The Sword was enormous length and breadth, heavy and unwieldy, design'd only for right down chopping by the Force of a strong Arm." (Page, p. A3). Page's views were not uncommon among fencers then used to featherweight smallswords and the occasional saber and short cutlass.
European sword making technologies throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance were quite capable of producing high-quality, lightweight, and flexible steel blades for cutting swords that could hold keen edges. These weapons were not intended to defeat heavy plate armor with powerful cuts but did evolve from those longswords that were developed for use against armors by thrusting rather than cutting. Handling real specimens of some of these enormous but beautiful weapons [such as seen in the three images to the right] is enlightening, for their size betrays their exceptional balance. It very quickly becomes clear they were intended for large fighting men to deliver not only powerful slashing blows but great stabbing attacks as well as pole-weapon-like techniques. Large as they were, they were not ridiculously heavy.
For more than a century two-handed greatswords were used less for fighting against armors and more for open battlefield where pike and halberd formations were combined with firearms. Accordingly, just as with its shorter single-hand cousins, the late 15th and early 16th century two-handed greatsword was not a crude excessively heavy bludgeoning weapon but a fairly agile and balanced weapon designed for close-combat in war and occasional duel.
Appreciation to Grzegorz Zabinski for sharing additional data and Stewart Feil for editing assistance. All quotes here are provided by permission of the sources.
See also: What Did Medieval Swords Weigh?