What do you take into battle?
DISCLAIMER: Realism in fiction is not a requirement and I’m not suggesting that it is! For writers who want to write non-historical combat, or who want to write Lightsabres or Shardblades, this stuff just doesn’t matter. Write what you enjoy, write what you think is fun first and foremost.
A man stands facing the legion of dirty orcs as they slobber and growl, marching out of step as they approach the gates of the last free city. The man’s squire appears and offers you what’s probably the last weapon he’s ever going to hold.
YOU ARE THE MAN.
What is your squire offering you?
Fantasy writers love swords. Are obsessed with them. I know that I am. I own antique swords, plastic training swords, steel training swords and frankly I wish I owned more swords. But would he be offering me a sword? Possibly not.
Let’s see what one particular historical swordsman would have said.
One of our best informed sources on this is George Silver. In 1599, English sword master George Silver wrote a treatise called Paradoxes of Defence. Silver taught a lot of different forms of hand to hand combat at his school, along with his brother, and within his treatise he includes an interesting list of “What weapon beats other weapons?” You can read the full treatise here:
Now, it’s also important that I mention that Silver really hated Italians, and he hated the rapier because of three Italian fencing schools in London where he perceived that the teachers there were teaching men to fight in an improper, sporting way, using swords that were far too long – useful for poking one another in the salle, but of little use on a battlefield or in a real fight. Any modern swordsman can tell you that this is a bit dubious as rapiers are excellent weapons. We have to take what Silver says about them with a handful of salt, especially as in part Silver is trying to promote his own fencing school.
I’ve recounted the bit that I’m interested in here, and have changed some of the wording to modern English.
Sword – a single handed weapon but quite a long bladed one – Silver says that the blade should be a yard and an inch. The sword would have a complex hilt, and is probably the kind shown in the image below (which comes from the treatise).
Rapier – a single handed weapon, half a foot longer than the sword, with a complex hilt.
Target – a shield, its size unknown. Possibly similar to the rotella shown below (note that the word ‘target’ is used simply to mean ‘shield’ – it does not necessarily have the specific meaning that Scottish targes do).
Battle axe –a two handed weapon, possibly, but not certainly, a long pole weapon
Two handed sword – a longsword. Its blade is actually the same length as his Sword, but its hilt is long allowing different handling. It is not a greatsword/zweihander. I’m holding one here:
Black-bill / Welch Hook / Forest Bill – Exactly what this should look like is not entirely clear (at least I don’t think it is) The picture below shows various bills. However, Silver clearly makes a distinction between them.
So, what does Silver say?
The following is my interpretation and modernising of his treatise:
- The single sword has the advantage against the single rapier.
- The sword and dagger has the advantage against the rapier and poniard.
- The sword & target has the advantage against the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
- The sword and buckler has advantage against the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
- The two-handed sword has the advantage against the sword and target, the sword and buckler, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
- The battle axe, the halberd, the black-bill, or such like weapons of weight, are all one in fight [are equally matched], and have advantage against the two handed sword, the sword and buckler, the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
- The short staff or half pike, forest bill, partisan, or glaive, or such like weapons of perfect length, have the advantage against the battle axe, the halberd, the black bill, the two handed sword, the sword and target, and are too hard for two swords and daggers, or two rapier and poniards with gauntlets, and for the long staff and morris pike.
- The long staff, morris pike, or javelin, or such like weapons above the perfect length, have advantage against all manner of weapons, the short staff, the Welch hook, partisan, or glaive, or such like weapons of advantage excepted, yet are too weak for two swords and daggers or two sword and bucklers, or two rapiers and poniards with gauntlets, because they are too long to thrust, strike, and turn speedily. And by reason of the large distance, one of the sword and dagger-men will get behind him.
- The Welch hook or forest bill, has advantage against all manner of weapons whatsoever.
- Yet understand, that in battles, and where variety of weapons are, among multitudes of men and horses, the sword and target, the two handed sword, battle axe, the black bill, and halberd, are better weapons, and more dangerous in their offense and forces, than is the sword and buckler, short staff, long staff, or forest bill. The sword and target leads upon shot, and in troops defends thrusts and blows given by battle axe, halberds, black bill, or two handed swords, far better than can the sword and buckler.
- The morris pike defends [in] the battle from both horse and man, much better than can the short staff, long staff, or forest bill.
- Again the battle axe, the halberd, the black bill, the two handed sword, and sword & target, among armed men and troops, by reason of their weights, shortness, and great force, do much more offend the enemy, & are then much better weapons, than is the short staff, the long staff, or the forest bill.
So what are we going to smite orcs with?
If you’re fighting 1v1, Silver thinks that you want a Welch hook or forest bill. Silver says that it wins against everything, and from my own experience of learning to fight with weapons, I’d agree. A man with a pole weapon beats anyone without one.
In battle, however, it seems that we’d be happy with a battle axe, halberd, black bill, two handed sword, or sword and target. It should be noted that in 1599 there were still men encased in plate armour on the field of battle, though it was beginning to decline.
Now, I know that many fantasy writers will be sad that ‘two daggers’ are missing from the list… but whilst they may be a rogue’s classic, in a battle situation you’d get smacked by the first novice with a sword who came your way. Sorry, rogues.
What would I choose? Well, a Holy Avenger +5, obviously. Or a cannon.
Me, left, sparring against Jack, right, with rondel dagger simulators at the London Longsword Academy.