The Two-Handed Great Sword
Making lite of the issue of weight

By Anthony Shore

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 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." (p. 48)

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:

Two-handed sword, German, c.1550 (IX.926) Weight: 7 lb 6oz.
Two-handed sword, German, dated 1529 (IX.991) Weight: 5 lb 1oz.
Two-handed sword, Scottish, mid 16th century, (IX.926) Weight: 5 lb 10oz.

(I know another of this last type, in a Glasgow Museum, that weighs in at 5 lbs exactly!)."

Robert C Woosnam-Savage
Curator of European Edged Weapons

In an e-mail correspondence with Mr. David Edge of the Wallace Collection in London, Mr. Edge states:

"Original weapons are indeed far lighter than most people realize… 3lbs for an 'average' late-medieval cross-hilt sword, say, and 7-8 lbs for a Landsknecht two-handed sword, to give just a couple of examples from weapons in this collection. Processional two-handed swords are usually heavier, true, but rarely more than 10 lbs. The heaviest and most enormous sword in our entire Armoury only weighs 14 lbs and was probably ceremonial."

David Edge
Acting Head of Conservation, and Armoury Curator/Conservator

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.

Two-handed sword
(Germany) Fifteenth C.
Length: 1375 mm (54.21 inches)
Blade: 920 mm (36.2 inches)
Weight: 1600 gr (3.5 lbs)
Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1600
Length: 1275 mm (50.19 inches)
Blade: 1000 mm (39.37 inches)
Weight: 2330 gr (5.1 lbs)
Two-handed sword
(Germany) 1475-1525
Length: 1382 mm (54.40 inches)
Blade: 1055 mm (41.53 inches)
Weight: 1550 gr (3.41 lbs)
Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1422 mm (55.98 inches)
Blade 1029 mm (40.51 inches)
Weight: 2700 gr (5.95 lbs)
Two-handed sword
(Germany ) end of Fifteenth C.
Length: 1473 mm (58 inches)
Blade: 1066 mm (41.97 inches)
Weight: 2720 gr (5.99 lbs)
Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Munich) 1575
Length: 1643 mm (64.69 inches)
Blade: 964 mm (37.95 inches)
Weight: 3500 gr (7.72 lbs)
Two-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1500
Length: 1340 mm (52.75 inches)
Blade: 955 mm (37.6 inches)
Weight: 1390 gr (3.06 lbs)
Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1817 mm (71.53 inches)
Blade: 1240 mm (48.81 inches)
Weight: 3970 gr (8.75 lbs)
One-and-a-half-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1475-1525
Length: 1153 mm (45.39 inches)
Blade: 932 mm (36.69 inches)
Weight: 1320 gr (2.91 lbs)
Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1893 mm (74.52 inches)
Blade: 1313 mm (51.69 inches)
Weight: 4830 gr (10.64 lbs)

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:

"In the Medieval and Renaissance collections at the National Museum of Denmark we have several very fine two-handed swords. This type of sword was used primarily in middle and northern Europe from about 1400 up to the beginning of the 16th Century. It was a combined cut-and-thrust weapon, which often was manufactured in Passau or Solingen in Germany. Originally it was a sword, used by armed knights on horseback, but in the end of the 15th century it was used by the infantry as well. Thus the big cavalry sword developed into the two-handed sword, which in turn became the weapon of the Landsknecht."

John Clements offers this summation of the weapon:

"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 1500-1600's, 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 "slaughters-words" 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 historical sources for fencing with these specific weapons have survived. These weapons were used primarily for fighting among pike-squares where they would hack paths through lobbing the tips 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.

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 this 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 12 or even 15 pounds and which were intended only for carrying in ceremonial processions and parades."

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.

See Also:
What did Historical Swords Weigh?


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.

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.

Henrik Andersson, Royal Armouries of Stockholm,

Vivian Etting, Curator at the National Museum of Denmark

John Clements, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

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.

"Polished Steel, The Art of the Japanese Sword." A Lecture given at London University, December 6, 1996 By Kenji Mishina.

"What did Historical Swords Weigh?" by John Clements, Director of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

"The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades"

Higgins Armory Museum

Suggested reading:

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:
Anthony Shore is by trade an IT professional but has been fascinated by Medieval weapons since early childhood. Anthony has been involved for over 10 years in the Historical Reenactment community and has been associated with a number of guilds focusing on Scottish history and culture between the
14th and 16th centuries."


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