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
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
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
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
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
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
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.