In recent days, there appears to be a growing interest in presenting historical realism into fantasy writing. If that’s not your bag then that’s absolutely cool. This blog is aimed at those who want the swords in the hands of their characters to function like historical swords.
Fantasy writers that this blog is for:
- People who want the medieval weapons they write about to be used like medieval weapons
- People who are writing fantasy but aren’t super interested in spending years reading about historical weapon use
- Pedants like me
It’s not for you if:
- Historical realism is not part of your book – it is a fantasy after all
- You prefer to base your weapons use on what you’ve seen in the Peter Jackson LOTR movies
- You are looking for a blog about gardening. Like seriously, what are you doing here?
This blog is intended as a “Quick myth buster” sheet to help out those who want to get a quick grasp of some of the basic, but commonly unknown, facts about medieval arms and armour. It’s so common for swordsmen to play a huge role in fantasy novels but for the author to have little or no experience of sword fighting that I figured it might be helpful.
I focused only on the most common stuff as I didn’t know if anyone is interested in sickle duels.
Disclaimer 1: If you don’t agree with any of the points I put forward, or your swords are lightsabres, or you just don’t like them, or your characters have super strength, or they need special weapons to cut up insect people, then that’s all fine and I’m certainly not telling anybody what they have to do! You can write whatever you would like. This guide is intended for people who want an element of historical realism to their weapons and armour. If you want it to work differently then that’s entirely up to you and this post is not judging you for doing so.
Disclaimer 2: Some of the things I’m going to say are pretty generalised. There are always exceptions, but I’ve not tried to mention them because in doing so it gives too much weight to the rarities, and diminishes the ‘norm’ which is what I’m trying to put across.
How I claim to know about this stuff: I have a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology and a Masters degree in Medieval History. I also study Historic European Martial Arts and train twice per week with David Rawlings, one of the world’s most highly respect swordsmen in the Historical European Martial Arts community. As my background is in European history I won’t be talking very much about Asian martial arts but am talking about the type of fighting that took place in Europe between 500AD and 1700 AD.
I’ve aimed to keep this to brief, bullet point form so that it’s not like reading an essay, with videos provided for those who want to look into these ideas further.
THE BIG MYTH: Swords are the dominant weapon of a medieval/ancient society.
THE TRUTH: Swords are almost always a secondary or tertiary weapon for warriors, meaning that you would only use your sword if your main weapon was lost/broken/inappropriate. Main weapons would almost exclusively be pole based weapons (lance, spear, polearm, javelin, pike etc) or a missile weapon (bow, crossbow, sling, firearm etc). There is an exception to this, which is for very large and heavy swords that require two hands to be used, but those tend to serve specific functions on battlefields (beheading horses, defending standards etc) and are used by men in full armour.
Swords are at a big disadvantage against pole weapons in most situations but usually in both battlefield formations and 1v1 situations.
Know your swords
Terminology only matters if you think it matters, but if someone said ‘pistol’ and they meant ‘rifle’ that would generally be commented upon. Unfortunately, loads of fantasy authors seem to use D&D terminology or else just assume their own, which irritates historicity pedants like me:
Shortsword: There is no such thing in history. The image this term brings to my mind is the Roman gladius, which is fairly short as a sword, but the D&D shortsword that deals 1D6 damage simply doesn’t exist.
Longsword: This is a two handed weapon (the hilt is long enough for 3 hands to be placed, if you had 3). It is a later renaissance weapon but it was arguably a civilian and duelling weapon, not a battlefield weapon. There’s some debate on that.
Greatsword: This is a two handed sword for the battlefield.
Bastard Sword: This is the ‘hand and a half’ sword, somewhere between an arming sword and a greatsword. They were a real thing.
Broadsword: A single handed, single edged sword with a large basket guard. It is not a two handed weapon. It is often incorrectly referred to as such. The picture below shows a beautiful Scottish Broadsword made by the great modern swordmaker Marco Danelli of Danelli Armouries. If you want to see what swords should look like, his website is a great resource:
Swords do not easily cut through armour. A sword blade is very unlike either to cut, or punch through either mail armour or plate armour. If fighting an armoured opponent, people would historically used a Half Sword technique where they put one hand on the blade and use it more like a spear.
So why use a sword? Swords are light and easy to carry. They make great side arms because they can be hung easily on a belt. They’re also aesthetically pleasing, and because in the early middle ages making swords was very expensive, they have always been a status symbol. Swords are iconic and indicate being part of a warrior class for much of the middle ages, even after they became common by the end of the 11th century. Note however that swords cease to be expensive or rare by as early as 1000AD and in the high and late medieval they were neither expensive nor the preserve of the elite. Plenty of medieval artwork shows drunken peasants having a go at each other with their swords, and it was a standard side arm for pretty much all soldiers.
Swords are not heavy! Even the longsword (often referred to as the bastard sword) only weighs 1-2kg (2.4-4lbs). It is very very fast, light and swift. It is hard to parry an attack with any sword even if you know that it’s coming! It’s totally fine for even a slightly built person to wield a steel sword for 2 hours solid without feeling tired unless they’re entirely unused to physical exertion.
If you are NOT wearing armour or have no shield, once they commence, sword fights end in about 1-5 seconds. You can basically forget about multiple clashes of blade or anything that looks like what you’ve seen on Game of Thrones. This video demonstrates longsword fighting in about as historically accurate way as I’ve been able to find:
Wrestling is an essential part of all hand to hand combat but often neglected! When two fighters get close to each other they will commonly abandon their weapons and fight up close.
The longsword/bastard sword/2 handed sword was the knightly sword, and not very common. The most common civilian weapon set is the single sword (or arming sword) with a buckler. Sword and buckler combat probably played far, far more importance in the medieval world than longswords. Our earliest fight manual, the so called “I.33” from about the year 1300 demonstrates techniques for sword and buckler. The video below is some really great interpretation of sword and buckler fighting (but slowed down). You might note how the inclusion of the shield means that the sword fight takes much longer.
Using a one handed sword with nothing in your second hand is generally unusual up until the appearance of complex hand guards. Most people would have used a shield in war, a buckler in civilian life, a knife or cloak if you didn’t have your buckler. Failing all of those you use your free hand to slap at the enemy weapon when it comes near you! You can grab a static sword blade and it will not cut you. Medieval European swords were very sharp, but you can grip a sharp sword with your bare hand safely as long as it’s not pulled through.
I have to mention one of the biggest myths: Katanas are in no way superior to other swords. They have a mythology about their sharpness, but in most ways are quite inferior to European swords. They are prone to chipping because of the hardened blade, they are heavy compared to European swords, they are short and because they are two handed weapons this actually limits their reach. The reason for all that special smithing has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with the terrible quality of steel in Japan during the katana’s heyday. Sorry, katana fans! They look gorgeous but they aren’t especially useful.
Spears were THE medieval and ancient weapon. They were used in some format by every army from the beginning of history to modern day – even professional soldiers have bayonets, turning their gun into a spear. They are so underrepresented in fantasy that the only notable wielders that spring to mind are Kaladin in Way of Kings and Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones. That’s not many for such an important weapon.
An inexperienced spearman will often (usually!) beat an experienced swordsman because the spear has a huge advantage in reach over the sword.
A spear thrust could penetrate mail but will not penetrate plate.
Swinging the whole pole around your head is a totally legitimate historical technique.
The optimal hand to hand combat weapons against plate armour are pollaxes or similar pole based weapons. These weapons were specifically developed to fight against plate armour. If plate armour is a thing in your world, this is what people should be using against it!
Pole axes are the only weapon that I’ve ever trained with where I thought “jeez, this is heavy!” They weigh a lot. Swinging them takes a lot of effort and you need to use all the muscles in your core and up into your back.
The one handed axe is a weapon that is used because it is cheap and easy to obtain, not because it is an especially good weapon.
Axe heads need to be pretty small. The huge axe that Gimli has in the LOTR films is far, far too large to be used practically (and must require him to have enormous strength to wield). An axe made specifically for war should be far smaller because in combat, speed is what matters.
If someone chooses to use an axe over a sword for non-armoured fighting then they need a very strange reason to do so. A sword has huge advantages over any single handed axe.
Axes were seldom favoured but they did have their uses. The Vikings made good use of the Dane Axe, a huge double handed weapon to fulfil specific battlefield roles.
If you don’t have plate armour, you want a shield. Shields are awesome.
If you do have plate armour, shields become redundant and you’re better off with a two handed pole type weapon.
Shields are also very inconvenient to carry around with you.
Unlike a sword, a medium sized shield is actually pretty heavy. Training for 2 hours with a Viking style shield will leave your shield arm knackered. Since shields varied between being little bucklers that just protect the sword hand and massive tower shields that covered the whole body, it’s not really possible to give a ‘standard weight.’
Armour: If you want a great documentary on armour, then the Weapons that Made Britain series is fairly good and entertaining. Note: I’m using the English spelling of armour. If you’re American you can spell it your own zany way!
Historically, this does not really exist as it’s most commonly imagined in fantasy. Who would wear leather to stop getting stuck with a sword? It’s like suggesting that you couldn’t push a kitchen knife through your shoe. Leather armour would offer almost no protection against bludgeoning, cutting or piercing weapons.
Leather armour is in fact actually just ‘clothing.’ Clothing made of leather.
There are boiled leather vests and some instances of leather armour around the world, but it’s inflexible and never preferrable to steel. Armour and weapons always develop in tandem: if the enemy wear cloth armour/silk then you use curved weapons because the curve reduces friction as you cut them. If they then change to leather you just punch straight through it with something straight and pointy. If they then change to plate you switch to a bludgeoning weapon and try to smash them down and then stab them in the eye when they’re prostate. But leather armour? That’s like armour made out of the same stuff as your shoe.
And just imagine how quickly it’s going to rot after your hero goes swimming in the swamp/sweats in battle.
The term ‘chainmail’ is a modern convention, historically it was just called Maille.
Mail armour is not heavy. It weighs about 11kgs. A U.S. marine carries about 60kgs on his back, whilst mail’s weight is spread around the shoulders.
You cannot swim whilst wearing it, even if you were a good swimmer. It’s not an issue of weight, it’s an issue of buoyancy.
Mail is super effective against cutting attacks. You cannot cut through a mail shirt with a sword, even a two handed sword. A good cut against it might cause limited blunt trauma damage to the body beneath, but the mail won’t even be damaged.
Mail is not very effective against piercing attacks. Arrows, spears, sword thrusts – anything direct and forceful might go through mail (might – there are historic accounts of mailed knights looking like hedgehogs due to all the arrows sticking in their mail during the crusades). If you’re interested in seeing how mail does against various weapons, the following video is fairly decent:
Plate armour is not heavy. A full suit of plate armour only weighs about 20kgs (again, 1/3 of what a US marine carries today). It does restrict your movements slightly, but you can do cartwheels, forward rolls etc without any kind of problem in plate armour.
If someone is knocked over, it takes no longer for them to get up wearing plate armour than it does if they are naked. The armour makes no difference, it is not restrictive like that.
Wearing a close visored helmet will interfere with your breathing after serious exertion.
Plate armour did not commonly cover the backs of the upper legs; it was generally assumed that if you were in plate armour then you’d be sitting on a horse, although knights often fought on foot.
Plate armour takes time to put on, and you need help getting it on (my friend estimates 40 minutes for his 15th century harness, with someone helping). It’s not practical to wear whilst travelling around or just day to day.
Plate is probably the most poorly represented armour in fantasy settings. When you are in full plate armour YOU ARE A LIVING TANK! Although the quality of armour could vary hugely, and surviving examples we have today are likely only of the very best quality, a man in full plate was almost invulnerable to even direct blows from the hand held weapons of the medieval period. A fit person who has never held a sword before who is given a suit of plate armour and a sword will almost certainly defeat very good swordsmen if they are unarmoured… but then, that’s what heroes do, right? 🙂
Your best bet to kill a man in plate is to get him on the ground and put a dagger in his visor or in the joints (which would be protected by mail), or pull his helmet off (if it’s not buckled on) and get him in the head. As before, wrestling is an essential part of any warrior’s skill set.
Aiming to get a sword/spear into the visor slot or other joint whilst the man is up and fighting should be considered an essentially superhuman feat. People just aren’t accurate enough to do that in a fight.
Do you want plate armour to stop arrows? Depending on which technology level you aim at you can choose! By the 15th century, Italian armour was arrow-proof as experienced by the English longbowmen at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424. Earlier armour was far less hardened.
You need to train for many years to be able to be an effective longbowman. You need to seriously bulk up your shoulders in order to give you a significant draw strength on the bow for battle.
If you are just hunting or shooting targets you don’t need this strength, but don’t expect your arrows to go through armour. Even the bows of the strongest longbowmen eventually were defeated by armour – a bow drawn by a slinky, sexy woman who hasn’t done some weight training is not going to penetrate plate or even mail regularly.
If you intend to have main characters using bows, you need to watch this video and see just what is capable – somersaulting whilst hitting moving targets? Yep! 10 arrows in the air before one lands? Sure. Shooting faster than Legolas? Yes absolutely!
Now, in fairness, some people do dispute Lars’ video as being authentic but there’s only so much that you can say “See that thing you just did? You can’t do that.” Your hero archers should be capable of pretty spectacular stuff if they spent their lives with a bow.
Well, that’s it for now. I hope that some of this is useful to you or at least mildly interesting. I’d always urge you to conduct your own research and to go and train at a local HEMA class in order to test these things out for yourself. The Palace Armoury branch at the London Longsword Academy will always welcome you for a fight and a pint afterwards.