Longsword: History Of An Iconic Weapon
Everyone is fascinated by swords, an important historical weapon that has endured and survived wars, retaining all the symbolism that it is given. Representing strength and bravery, was the sword ultimately an instrument of death or freedom? Its importance in history is so significant that we have decided today to focus on its most destructive and imposing version, the two-handed longsword and its variants!
A destructive weapon: The Longsword
Characteristics of the Longsword
The longsword is a type of European sword that can be identified mainly by the following characteristics:
- Handle: 15 to 30cm to be used with two hands
- Double straight cutting blade measuring approximately 80 to 110 cm
- Weight: From 1 to 1,5 kg
The longswords were mainly used between the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (between 1350 and 1550). Nevertheless, some uses were noted from the 12th century until the 17th century, which shows the importance that this weapon had in military conflicts.
The longswords were often been wrongly associated with a longer blade, but this is not at all the case. The blade was the same size as the classical swords, it is the handle that was modified so that the sword could be used with two hands. As mentioned above, the longsword appeared in the 14th century towards the end of the Middle Ages. It became the preferred sword of soldiers wearing plate armor who were on foot or on horseback but by the end of the 15th century, soldiers without armor or even mercenaries were also wearing long swords!
By the 16th century, the use of the longswords in military settings was becoming increasingly obsolete, which led to the development of new swords that retained some of its characteristics, notably the bastard sword.
Characteristics of the Longsword
Since the end of the 14th century, longsword fighting began to be codified. Various types of teachings were taught, each with their own specificity. One of the most famous names in the development of longsword fighting is Hans Talhoffer. A German fighting master from the middle of the 15th century, he distinguished himself with a fighting style that used a wide variety of movements.
The longsword being a weapon at the same time fast; effective; versatile; able to carry mortal blows; to slice and to cut, its use was thus quite naturally codified:
- Both hands were placed on the handle, one resting near or even on the pommel;
- When disarming or seizing, the weapon could be held with one hand;
Later, a completely different variant of use appeared: the half-sword. Indeed, by placing one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade, the long sword became a half-sword which was extremely effective because of the control it offered when punching and thrusting. According to many books, the half-sword was used to learn the basics in order to later master weapons such as spears, sticks or hast weapons. The pommel could also be used to trip or unbalance an opponent, or even be used as a hammer!
The information on long sword fighting came mainly from artistic representations of the time (we have listed some below) on which the basics were described and in some cases depicted. The first manual concerning the use of the long sword, known as GNM 3227, was written in 1389. Due to its complex writing, it could only be taken as a reference when students from Liechtenstein like Sigmund Ringeck transcribed it in a more understandable way.
In 1410, the Italian fencing school wrote the Fiore dei Liberi, a manuscript presenting various uses of the longsword. The teaching of the Italian school shares some common points with the German school, notably with the positioning of both hands on the hilt. However, the Fiore dei Liberi devotes an entire section of his work to the use of the sword with one hand, explaining the possible techniques and the advantages that this change brings. Techniques for the hand and a half sword are also presented in the book.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the long sword lost its appeal, gradually being replaced by new models. As a result, the German and Italian schools slowly declined.
In Germany, Jakob Sutor published in 1612 the last teaching book dedicated to the long sword.
In Italy, despite the popularity of the rapier, the long sword survived until the middle of the 17th century. Several writings, in particular the well-known Lo Spadone by Francesco Alfieri published in 1653, were published, but the last treatise to date, soberly entitled "the two-handed sword" by Giuseppe Colombani was published in 1711.
Some german fencing schools
Bloßfechten (blosz fechten) also called "naked fighting" is a fighting technique in which both opponents do not wear protective armor such as chain mail or plate armor.
These fights involved a number of different techniques. The lack of protection could give the opportunity to slash, slice or pierce the opponent. It was not uncommon for the first opponent to place one of these techniques to emerge victorious from the fight, as each well-placed blow was likely to result in death or (in the best case) an inability to continue the fight.
Amputations were also frequent, the arms and forearms being the preferred targets to put his opponent out of harm's way.
Now that we have made a quick tour of the history of the longsword, its use in combat and its techniques, let's look at the different models that have marked the history. And if you're looking for a longsword, you can discover our longsword collection perfectly designed for LARP!
The Hand And A Half Sword
As seen previously, the half sword was used in fencing from the 14th to the 16th century. Characterized by its technique of gripping the central part of the blade in order to obtain more control and rigidity on the blade, it allows for more powerful and precise thrusts.
It was very much used against armored soldiers. Indeed, the half-sword ensured that it was possible to cross the least protected areas, especially in the armpits and the throat, as the cutting or lacerating of the opponent was inefficient. Moreover, by combining the fight with the sword, opportunities to trip, disarm, break or throw an opponent appear. Thus it quickly becomes essential to place the opponent in a less offensive and more defensive position.
With this new way of fighting, the whole sword becomes a weapon, and this includes the pommel, the hilt and the crossguard. Here are two concrete examples of how the half sword is used in combat:
- As soon as a parry was made, giving a blow with the crossguard allowed to destabilize his opponent
- The Mordstreich, which could be translated as a killing blow, requires holding the sword by the blade. Thus the handle, the pommel and the crossguard became a hammer whose impact could cause an important concussion to the opponent.
The half-swords were later modified, notably with the addition of a ricasso. The ricasso. The ricasso is a relatively short part, no more than a quarter of the blade, which is located just after the guard.
The main purpose of the ricasso is to facilitate the use of the half sword both for thrusting and gripping.
Due to its use, the master swordsman Filippo Vadi, suggested in his book "De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi" that the sword should be sharp only at the point. According to him, some swords would not have been sharpened to half height; a hand width; to facilitate its use.
The claymore is a two-handed sword of Scottish origin. Its name comes from the Scottish Gaelic: claidheamh - mòr which means "great sword". The claymore sword is considered as the variant:
- the two-handed sword of the late Middle Ages;
- the Scottish variant of the basket guard sword;
The first use of the word claymore dates back to the 18th century in Scotland and parts of England. It referred to the basket hilt swords that were the main military swords used in Europe. Swords with basket guards and broad blades remained in use until the 21st century as a mark of distinction between Scottish and English officers when the Union Act, enacted in 1707, saw the coming together of the Scottish and English regiments. The choice to keep this sword is a direct reference to the Highland way of life representing a symbol of physical strength and prowess.
Claymore: a complex terminology
As mentioned above, the name claymore comes from the Scottish Gaelic: claidheamh - mòr, which was later anglicized in 1772. In 1773, the term Claymore came to mean a basket-handled sword, but the use of the term Claymore in the broad sense is "inaccurate but very common" according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).
The Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 also considers that the term claymore is "incorrectly" applied to the basket-handle sword.
However, Paul Wagner (no family connection to Richard Wagner 🙂) and Christopher Thompson contradict these claims, arguing that the term claymore was first used to refer to broad-handled swords before being applied to all Scottish swords.
Furthermore, RA Armstrong's Gaelic dictionary (1825), translates claidheamh mòr (great/large sword) as "broad sword", and claidheamh dà làimh as "two-handed sword". Claidheamh beag (small sword) is translated as "Bilbo".
The two-handed claymore (Highland)
This scottish claymore has become part of the legend and the collective imagination thanks to the Highlanders, the famous Scottish warriors. It was used from the end of the Middle Ages until the beginning of the modern period. This use was mainly between 1400 and 1700 during the wars opposing the Highlanders with the English.
The claymore began to be used during the first wars of Scottish independence from 1296 to 1328 and from 1332 to 1357. The models used were smaller and did not yet have the typical quatrefoil design that we know.
The scottish claymore was last used in large numbers in the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689.
Characteristics of the Scottish Claymore
Very much inspired by early medieval Scottish longswords, the two-handed scottish claymore has developed a distinctive style over the years. Its cross handle with forward sloping arms ending in spatulate swells can recognize it. The spatulate swells were later realized in a quatrefoil design. As for the pommels, they were mainly of Viking inspiration.
As a rule, a claymore measured about 140cm and was composed as follows:
- A handle measuring 33cm
- A blade of 107cm
- A weight around 2,5kg
Fun fact: the largest scottish claymore is on display at the National War Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. Named fuilteach-mhuirt, it measures 2.24 meters and weighs no less than 10kg. It was probably used by a Scottish giant belonging to the Maxwell clan!
Thomas Pennant did not hold the claymore sword in high esteem, having declared in 1772, after seeing the sword on one of his visits to Raasay as "an unwieldy weapon, two inches wide, double-edged; the length of the blade three feet seven inches; of the hilt, fourteen inches; of a single cross-guard, one foot; the weight six pounds and a half."
A much lesser known variation of the claymore was the "clamshell" claymore. Possessing a crosspiece composed of two downward curved arms and two large round concave plates whose purpose was to protect the front handle; this nickname was given to it due to those round guards which made it look like an open clam!
The Zweihänder, commonly called swordfish from the Italian spadone, "big sword" is a sword characterized by a two-handed handling. Used between the 15th and 17th centuries, it was the weapon of choice of the lansquenets and the Swiss guards. The Zweihänder was mainly used in Central and Western Europe, where it was produced.
It is worth nothing that the word Zweihänder (which was taken over in English), also designated a saber whose use extends from the 18th to the 19th century.
Characteristics of the Zweihänder
To understand how massive a weapon the Zweihänder was, and how it imposed fear in the enemy ranks, one must look at its dimensions. First of all, the blades could reach between 120 and 170cm! In comparison, the blades of traditional longswords as seen before measured between 80 and 110cm, quite a difference. Note however that some blades could in the most extreme cases go up to 200cm! The fuses could measure from 25 to 35cm with extremes up to 50cm.
The Zweihänder has always been considered (wrongly) as a rare or expensive weapon. However, from the 16th century onwards it became the basic weapon of the infantryman. It therefore became as common as other weapons of the time. The Zweihänder was mainly used to perform large cutting movements, mainly with the edge of the blade.
These movements were possible because contrary to what one might think, the Zweihänder was very light! As a rule, it weighed between 2 and 4kg. By comparison, the bastard sword or longsword usually weighed between 1.4 and 2kg. Nevertheless, a Zweihänder model belonging to Grütte Pier and intended for combat has been recorded and weighed 6.6kg. But what was the manufacturing technique used to allow the Zweihänder to be so light with such imposing dimensions?
The explanation comes from the shape of the blades which were very often lenticular (lens shaped) and hollowed out with one or more gutters which made them lighter. Surprisingly, this process did not impact their solidity and rigidity.
Wearing a Zweihänder on the battlefield was not synonymous with better condition (well, it all depends on your point of view). The most telling example is the Doppelsöldner, which could be translated as "double-soldiers".
Present in the lansquenet formations, they were positioned behind the pikemen. As soon as contact occurred between two formations, the Doppelsöldner would take over, as the pikemen could not make a second assault with their spears swinging between 3 and 7 meters.
After sneaking up on the opponents, the Doppelsöldner had the task of opening gaps by cutting off the heads of the opposing pikes or by neutralizing the opposing pikemen. Since they were the first to fight the enemy hand-to-hand, their life expectancy was very limited; their salary was doubled or even tripled, hence the name Doppelsöldner.
Because yes, it was not uncommon for them to be killed by being hit by their own cavalry when the line was broken through or simply by being surrounded by enemy troops during the first hand-to-hand contacts. A sad fate.
The Doppelsöldner were motivated to occupy this position by the lure of gain. They often wore turbans, large hats with long feathers and loose clothing.
They were considered to be gamblers, proud and violent, and carried their purses between their legs to show their virility. Of course, this did not go down well with the clergymen!
Today, the Zweihänder is still considered to be one of the largest swords that ever existed. It is often compared to odachi (a traditionally made Japanese sword).
The Bastard Sword
The bastard sword is derived from the long swords which were mainly used between 1350 and 1550, the bastard sword will gradually replace the long swords and this expression will become a synonym of the long sword.
Characteristics of the Bastard Sword
The bastard sword is easily identifiable thanks to a straighter guard than the old swords; its rhomboid shape (a parallelogram which is neither a rectangle nor a rhombus) but also by the lengthening of its handle which reaches 1 hand and half.
With the evolution of the armors and in particular the appearance of the armors of plate out of metal which come to replace the traditional chain mail, it was necessary to seek and find new ways of drilling its armors, those having become more resistant to the blows of size.
From the 13th century onwards, the blade of the bastard sword became narrower in width width and tapered towards the tip to counter this phenomenon.
The arrival of the gauntlets of plates also allowed the handle to lengthen and to pass from 1 hand to 1 hand and half.
With the lengthening of the blade, it became necessary to balance it and this step by the modification of the pommel. Designed to have a shape of a flat disc quite wide, this new pommel allows, after the end of the handle has been lengthened, to become a handle to be grabbed.
But this is not the last evolution of the pommel, in the 14th century, it acquires a narrower triangular shape which will be replaced by a pear shape in the following century. Why adopt a new pommel again?
Well, this is mainly due to the fact that the sword had to adapt to the needs of the infantry, and mainly to the archers, had to adapt, but it did not take long for this new pommel to be generalized to all fighters during the XV century.