Two-Handed Great Sword
For many years in the historical-reenactment/renaissance faire communities, I have listened to lectures regarding the weight of the two-handed great sword. I have heard endless stories of how this magnificent weapon often weighed in excess of 20 pounds with such justifications as they "needed to be heavy to smash through plate armor or to unhorse knights on the battlefield." Other arguments include such claims as how Medieval Europeans somehow did not possess the technology to produce lightweight, quality steel weapons. This kind of statement usually includes some reference to Japanese swords and "technologically superior" folded steel.
The respected work, Swords and Hilt Weapons, offers this description of the weapon:
The purpose of this article is to dispel some of the myths and misinformation that have been circulating around the Renaissance Faire and the Highland Games communities as well as among sword enthusiasts in general regarding the two-handed great sword. While I am certainly no expert in the field myself, I do know how to ask questions and whom to ask. Over a period of some eight weeks I corresponded on the subject of the two-handed great sword with arms curators and authorities at various museums and armories throughout Europe. This article is a compilation of data based on some of the responses I have received as well as information from other sources on the subject.
Factual Evidence as to Weight
Robert C. Woosnam-Savage of the Royal Armouries at Leeds writes: "The fighting two-handed sword, weighed (on average) between 5-7 lbs. I give the following three examples, randomly chosen from our own collections, which I hope are adequate to make the point:
In an e-mail correspondence with Mr. David Edge of the Wallace Collection in London, Mr. Edge states:
Henrik Andersson, an archives librarian at the Royal Armoury of Stockholm, offered a detailed categorized list of some of their collection. Below are some of the examples in the armouries collection of two-handed weapons, their weights and dimensions and approximately when they were made or commonly used. Mr. Andersson supplied this list in metric which I have translated into U.S. Standard. Unlike the ceremonial pieces, none of the fighting weapons exceeded 4 pounds and the heaviest ceremonial was less than 11.
A question of technology
In movies and other popular media we often are given the impression that European sword smiths were large, brutish folk who were not the brightest of people and capable only of pounding out rough hewn, iron blades. (This kind of statement usually includes some reference to the masterful Japanese working with folded steel--disregarding that the Japanese never developed the spring steel technology which made European swords so resilient and flexible). The mistake here may be that we confuse swordsmithing with blacksmithing which is similar, but not quite the same thing. Swordsmiths of the day were often very intelligent, learned craftsmen who gave a great deal of time to the study of metals and, the forging of a good sword was often the cumulative effort of a group of highly skilled and artistic men, each with his own specific task in the creation of a weapon. There were often entire villages or towns such as Passau or Solingen, Germany, or Toledo in Spain which were dedicated to the construction and forging of arms and armour.
How was this weapon used?
Part of the "myth" surrounding this weapon may be from a lack of understanding of how it was used. As weapons, swords are designed to fill specific needs. In a fight, one gains an advantage in several ways, two of which are: keeping your opponent from getting close enough to strike and, being able to strike your opponent before he can strike you. This requires two things; 1: A weapon capable of striking from a distance and, 2: A weapon light enough to be wielded quickly. One of the advantages of this weapon was length, which meant it had greater ability to reach an opponent from a distance while preventing him from reaching you. An inordinately heavy blade could not accomplish these goals.
The two-handed sword was also versatile in the variety of ways it could be used, the blade for cutting and thrusting, the hilt for smashing (or more appropriately, pummeling) and, the cross (quillons) for hooking either your opponent or his weapon. With this in mind, I am left thinking that this weapon required more skill than muscle to wield. Why is it then that we so often hear and see such fantastic stories of massively heavy weapons wielded by Herculean warriors? Because this is what the media gives us and for some, it's probably just easier to believe what they see in the movies and accept it as fact. But also, this is what we expect of our heroes. A super human hero requires an equally powerful weapon. Reality and myth often clash and the truth gets lost in the story. (See: Fence With All Your Strength).
Vivian Etting, Curator of the National Museum of Denmark, in a recent correspondence offered the following:
John Clements offers this summation of the weapon:
What about that Plate Armour?
Again, it is from a lack of understanding not only of this weapon but of plate armour that we hear arguments as to how this sword "had to be large and heavy" in order to smash or cut through it. Warriors realized that trying to cut through plate with a sword was folly. More often than not, significant damage would be done to any sword when trying to "cleave" through plate armor, but you could get in between the joints with the point of a weapon. Being able to "punch" through plate was more effective than trying to hack or bash through it, but if one was determined to actually cut into a knight outfitted in plate armour, there were much better tools such as a warhammer or an axe, which had a wide enough blade and could handle the shock of striking a surface that hard without sustaining a great deal of damage.
We can see by the evidence offered from the academic professionals and other sources presented in this essay, that the two-handed great sword of Europe was not the crude, lumbering, bludgeon with a point that it has been made out to be. Although it is considerably heavier than its smaller relatives, it is still in fact, an agile, lightweight weapon and if used properly, an incredibly deadly tool for both close-quarter combat and all-out battlefield melees.
This weapon was intended for fighting among the close-pike formations of the new style of warfare emerging among late 15th and early 16th century battlefields. It could chop at the shafts of opposing weapons and when needed be used almost like a pole-arm itself. It was also an effective tool for dealing with fully armoured mounted knights.
The technology for forging steel has been around for centuries and a knowledgeable armourer could forge a lightweight, flexible, quality steel blade that did its job extremely well in the hands of a skilled warrior.
Academic and Professional Acknowledgements:
Robert C. Woosnam-Savage, is a co-author of "Brassey's Book of Body Armour" and, was Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Glasgow Museums from 1983-1997 before joining the Royal Armories at Leeds as curator of European-Edged Weapons. http://www.armouries.org.uk
David Edge, Author of "Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight," has given to the world a worthy gift that encapsulates something of the knowledge he's built in nearly two decades of study working with the Wallace Collection in London, England. http://www.wallacecollection.org
Henrik Andersson, Royal Armouries of Stockholm, http://www.lsh.se/livrustkammaren/Thehela.htm
Vivian Etting, Curator at the National Museum of Denmark http://www.natmus.dk/sw1413.asp
John Clements, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. http://www.thearma.org
Special thanks to Michael Campbell of the Alameda Newspaper Group for his invaluable editing assistance and guidance.
On Line Articles and Resources:
"The Serpent in the Sword, Pattern-welding in
Early Medieval Swords" by Lee A. Jones
"Origins of the Two-Handed Sword" by Neil H.T. Melville, published in the Journal of Western Martial Art January 2000. http://www.ejmas.com/jwma/articles/2000/jwmaart_melville_0100.htm
"Polished Steel, The Art of the Japanese Sword." A Lecture given at London University, December 6, 1996 By Kenji Mishina. http://www.galatia.com/~fer/sword/mishina/lecture.html
"What did Historical Swords Weigh?" by John Clements, Director of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm
"The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus
Higgins Armory Museum
Blankwaffen. Geschichte und Typenentwicklung im Europäischen Kulturbereich. By Dr. Heribert Seitz.
Wallace Collection Catalogue. 1962 two-volume set, by James Mann, plus the 1986 Supplement by A.V.B. Norman. (Contains weights of every edged weapon in the collection as well as weights of body armour).
Records of the Medieval Sword. The Boydell Press 1991 and "The sword in the Age of Chivalry" 1964, By Ewart Oakeshott.
Swords and Hilt Weapons. M. Coe, et al. Barnes and Noble Books of New York, 1993.
About the author: