Longsword Conundrum

19 Feb

According George Silver’s hierarchy of weapons, the two-handed sword (longsword) comes much recommended. Silver assign it the advantage against the rapier, single-handed sword, sword/rapier and dagger, sword and  target, and sword and buckler. For a weapon with the same 37-40in blade length as the single-handed sword, that seems great.

Now, beyond that blade length, we don’t know too much about Silver’s two-handed sword. His comments about the weapon in Brief Instructions are both brief and cryptic. The available evidence indicates a weapon that falls within the range of historical longswords. Based on the blade length, we can estimate the overall length of Silver’s two-handed sword as 48-52 inches and its weight as 3.5-4lbs.

A gaming perspective provides a useful way to think about the relative advantage of weapons. A weapon’s difficulty of use and carry constitute a critical factor. Imagine, for example, roleplaying-game system in which an unarmored duel between a person armed with a halberd and one armed with a dagger came down solely to skill. Tom Leoni once argued for this scenario on a WMA forum. Under such a ruleset, the dagger stands out as superior to the halberd, given the dagger’s lower length and weight and much greater convenience. You can carry multiple daggers on your person with minimal discomfort, while it’s awkward at best to wear a polearm. (Some sources do mention wearing polearms at the back or from the belt, so it may be possible.)

So, in terms of convenience, Silver’s two-handed sword seems like a steal. For price of an extra 6-9 inches of handle and 0.5-1lbs, you get advantage against even somebody lugging around target, a shield that weighs 6-9lbs or so. (Renaissance targets varied quite a bit, and Silver didn’t specific what kind of target he was talking about.) Even the sword and buckler and long rapier and parrying dagger amount to similar hassle as the longsword. (Jospeh Swetnam recommend at least a 4ft rapier and 2ft dagger, and various other rapier master suggested rapiers of that length or maybe even longer.)

Now, the target offers considerably more protection from missile weapons than the longsword, so arguably that part of Silver’s hierarchy makes gaming sense. However, other historical masters didn’t necessarily share Silver’s opinions and contemporary sparring doesn’t necessarily confirm them.

The historical record likewise poses questions. If the longsword gave advantage in an unarmored duel, why did it mostly fall by the wayside in dueling in Western Europe in second half of the 16th century and the 17th century? Why the rise single-handed swords for both civilian and military use? The Swiss military continued to use longswords in significant numbers into the 17th century, but most European nations didn’t. (Donald Lupton in his 1642 military treatise mentioned his preference for the “short strong Sword” over “long Rapier” and “two-handed swords” because their generality of use, but he didn’t explain this.)

Judging by artwork and a few textual references, the Swiss equipped at least some of their pikers and halberdiers with longswords as sidearms during their glory days in the 15th and 16th centuries. Other German-region pikers and halberdiers did the same, albeit apparently less frequently, instead favoring shorter single-handed swords, sometimes with rounded points. By the later 16th century, various English, Spanish, and Italian military manuals converged on recommending a sword with a 36-37in blade, apparently single-handed.

If Silver was right, that the longsword is the best sidearm one can wear for unarmored single combat and a good weapon for the battlefield in armor, then why this shift away from longswords?

Perhaps it was matter of convenience and fashion. At least toward the end of the 16th century, close combat mattered less than it had because of gunpowder weapons. A single-handed sword is at least somewhat easier to wear than a longsword, a bit cheaper to produce, and a bit more versatile. (For example, if one of your hands or arms is occupied or injured, the single-hand sword serves better than the longsword.) Thus the single-handed sword may have outcompeted the longsword for military use even though the longsword granted some advantage.

This doesn’t explain why rapier masters like Swetnam or Ridolfo Capo Ferro advocated such long rapiers. If Silver was strictly correct, Swetnam and company must have been wrong. That’s possible; maybe it was all fashion and error. There’s some evidence for this position, such as Luis Díaz de Viedma’s description of the montante as “a weapon of little courtesy.” Assuming we split the difference and give Silver’s single-handed sword only equal odds against the long rapier, Silver arguably yet comes out ahead, given the similar weight and slightly lower length of his single-handed sword.

Alternatively, perhaps the rapier enthusiasts were right or at least closer to the mark than Silver admitted. As frequently comes out in contemporary sparring, the single-handed grip enables greater reach at any given blade length and a smaller target because of profiling. Long rapiers are, well, long, with 42+in blades, and ain’t difficult to see how reach can be an advantage.

Single-handed attacks, especially thrusts, from longsword can give it equal or greater reach, and these do seem effective in sparring. Silver did mention such single-handed techniques in his minimal comments on the two-handed sword. I suspect they’re part of how the longsword should fight against single-hand swords. From my own sparring experience and from theoretically gaming standpoint, I feel confident the longsword has some level of advantage over single-handed swords of equal or lower blade length.

By contrast, I’m not sure about the longsword against the long rapier or against sword and target.

Going beyond Europe, we see regions that used hardly any two-handed swords (much of the Middle East and South Asian) and regions where they were prominent (China and Japan). Longer Japanese two-handed swords prompted emulation in 16th- and 17th-century China, while various two-handed swords had been used previously in China for centuries. In Japan, varying blade length stabilized at the rather short katana length we’re all now familiar with, and this was the standard civilian and military sidearm for a couple hundred years. (This was mostly a period of peace.)

It’s hard to argue that the katana, assuming a blade 30in and under, constitutes the ideal sidearm for the unarmored duel, but that’s what nation used for an extended period of time. The same goes for the smallsword in Europe, though I’m sure I could find folks who’d make a case for either the katana or smallsword. (Donald McBane really liked the smallsword. There’s no question that both katana and smallsword are handy and effective sidearms.) If we acknowledge that either or both katana and smallsword aren’t the ideal sidearm for the duel or battlefield, then we acknowledge that choice of sidearm wasn’t necessarily a matter of relentless performance optimization. That potentially applies to the rapier as well.

So, I conclude with more questions than answers. Please chime in with any historical insights and/or sparring experience.

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Posted by on February 19, 2017 in Advantages, RPGs, Single Combat


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