Author Archives: B. H. Abbott-Motley

Longsword Conundrum

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


George Silver’s Short Sword Had a 37-40in Blade


George Silver’s 1599 Paradoxes of Defense remains a controversial text, particularly the claim that he “short sword” has the advantage over the “long rapier” in a duel. Sparring results vary; fencers who don’t practice Silver’s system frequently believe the rapier has a notable advantage over the basket-hilt sword and all other shorter swords in a single combat.

In this context, it’s important to remember that Silver specified a 37-40in blades: “The best length for perfect teaching of the true fight to be used and continued in fence schools, to accord with the true statures of all men, are these. The blade to be a yard and an inch for men of mean stature, and for men of tall statures, a yard and three or four inches, and no more.” Silver additionally provided instructions for how to find one’s perfect length. It’s trivial to make this consistent with the 37-40in range. Personally, I’m 5′ 10″ and I can manage a 37-38in blade even under a restrictive interpretation of Silver’s measuring position.

While most basket-hilt swords from the British Isles and elsewhere have shorter blades, some extant basket-hilt swords fall exactly into Silver’s specifications. A 36-37in blade was a common standard for military swords in Silver’s day, and civilian swords could be significantly longer, up to 48 inches of blade. Thus it makes sense to a call sword with a 37-40in blade a “short sword.” Humphrey Barwick used that term for a sword with a 36in blade.

Various skilled fencers practice Silver’s style with somewhat shorter swords. Some of them argue that Silver’s 37-40in range meant the sword’s overall length. While this better conforms to the average size of basket-hilt swords, it’s is patently ridiculous as textual analysis. First, there’s no reason to think Silver meant “overall length” when he wrote “blade” instead. Second, overall length isn’t relevant for one’s ability to uncross and so on. Grip and pommel length can differ, so it’s a fuzzy number. I don’t know of any sixteenth-century text that refers to a sword’s overall length.

As further evidence supporting longer blade lengths for Silver, he wrote that it was better to have a weapon above perfect length than below it: “And if two shall fight with staves or swords, or what weapons soever, the one of them having his weapon longer than the perfect length, and the other shorter than the perfect length, he that has the longer has the vantage, because the shorter can make no true cross in true time.”

George Silver still may have been wrong that the short swords has the advantage against the long rapier, but you can’t test that without using swords as long he instructed and employing the techniques he described.

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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Advantages, Single Combat


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On the Push of Pike

The Switzer cannot strike with his pike an enemy close to him, on account of the length of the shaft, but must take his sword, which is useless to him, since he is unarmored and is opposing an enemy who is fully armored. Hence he who considers the advantage and the disadvantage of both will see that the unarmored man has no way of escape; and to overcome the first push of the pikes and to pass their extended points is not very difficult, when those opposing them are well armored. For the battalions move (you will understand better when I show how they are drawn up), and when they move, of necessity they draw near one another in such a way that they clash breast to breast; and if the pikes kill some or throw them to the ground, those who remain on foot are so many that they are enough for the victory.

Niccolò Machiavelli, Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, Volume II, 600.

And who so would consider of the force of this order, shall finde that euerye sort of armes shall doo his office throughlye; for the Pikes are profitable against the Horssemen: and when the footmen doe meete Batailon against Batailon, the ferue to a good vse before that the rankes are throng together, but after that they are once at the close, the Pikes can doe no more seruice. Wherefore the Switzers, to auoide this inconueuience, after euerye three rankes of Pikes do place one ranke of Halbardes, which they doo to the intent giue their Pikemen space and place to fight in a prease; but yet this is not ynough, but as for vs, we will haue our Pikemen both before the Ensigne and behinde to carrye Targets: and there shall be Halbards in the middest, by meanes of this order, to resist bothe Horssemen and footmen, to breake into the enemie: for you know that Pikes may serue no turne after that the rankes are preassed together, because that the Souldiers are then as it were one in anothers necke: and therefore if the Pikemen had nothing but their Pikes and Swordes the Pike being abandoned they should be naked: for which cause I have giuen them Targets to couer themselues from blowes, and to fight in all places, what unease soeuer there were. Moreouer the Halbardiers maye also fight better in a prease then the Pikemen, which Halbardiers are expressely appointted for this purpose, and likewise they may followe the sayde Targets at the heeles, who are heauily laden, to reskue them with their Halbards. And as for the Target men, I would haue them but onely to thrust at the face and legges, or at any other parte that were vnarmed.

Raimond de Beccarie de Pavie, baron de Fourquevaux, Instructions for the Warres (1548; 1589 English translation), 73.

`Gentlemen, it may be that there are not many here who have been in battle before, and therefore let me tell you that if we take our pikes by the hinder end and fight at the length of the pike, we shall be defeated; for the Germans are more dexterous at that kind of fight than we are. But you must take your pikes in the middle as the Swiss do and run headlong to force and penetrate into the midst of them, and you shall see how confounded they will be.’

The Germans came up to us at a very round rate, insomuch that their battle being very great, they could not possibly follow, so that we saw great windows in their body and several ensigns a good way behind, and all on a sudden rushed in among them, a good many of us at least, for as well on their side as ours all the first ranks, either with the push of pikes or the shock at the encounter, were overturned, neither is it possible amongst foot to see greater fury. The second rank and the third were the cause of our victory, for the last so pushed them on that they fell in upon the heels of one another, and as ours pressed in the enemy was still driven back. I was never in my life so active and light as that day and it stood me well so to be, for above three times was beaten down to my knees.

Blaise de Monluc, writing about the Battle of Cerisoles in 1544, The Hapsburg-Valois Wars and the French Wars of Religion (London; Longman Group Limted, 1971), 107-8.

But in this place I think good further to notefie vnto the Readers of these mine instructions that in the year. 1588. I heare some two or three of our Nation of principall offices and charge Militarie hold an opinion, that when two squadrons of Enemies all piquers should come to incounter and confrunt the one with the other, with thrusts and foines (as they terme it) at all the length of their Armes and piques, according to the vse of single combattes either in sport or earnest betwixt piquer and piquer. By which kinde of fighting of squadrons at the push of the pique, I say, that none of the rankes can fight but only the first ranke, because that if they obserue their proportionate distances according to order and discipline, the piques in the second rank are too short to reach with their points the first rank of their enemies squadron like standing still foining at all the length of their Armes and piques, as they vainelie imagine: Yea although to the trouble and disorder of the first ranke before them they do thrust and foine ouer their shoulders; During which time of the pushing and foyning of the two first ranke; of the two squadrons of enemies, all the rest of the rankes of both the squadrons must by such an vnskilfull kind of fighting stand still and looke on and cry aime, vntill the first ranke of each squadron hath fought their bellies full, vntill they can fight no longer: which is a very scorne and mockerie mylitarie to be either spoken or thought of by any men of warre that doo pretend to haue seene any action effectuallie performed betwixt any great numbers of piquers reduced into form of squadrons in the field. For in troth according to all reason and true experience, such a squadron as should think it their advantage to fight in that sort, must (contrarie to discipline) inlarge themselues in their ranks and distances both in frunt and by flankes, to the intent that they may haue elbow roome enough without any impediment by the nearnesse of the ranks behind them, to pull backe their armes, and to thrust at their enemies approaching them at all the length they can of their and piques, and againe with dexeritie to pull back, & retire them giue new thrusts: which opening & enlargment of ranks being perceiued by the contrarie squadron (who if they be skilfull men of warre) doe come closed in their rankes both in frunt and by flankes, as close as they can possiblie march pace with pace and step with step, as if they were one entire body, carrying their piques with both their hands breasthigh, all the points of the piques of the first rank of one evennesse & equality not any one preceeding the othere. And so likewise the points of al the piques of the second, third and fourth rankes, carrying the like equalitie and euennesse; but yet the pointes of euerie ranke of piques, shorter and further distant almost by a yard from their enemies faces, then the pointes of the ranke that doo preceed them; And all those fower ranks marching or moouing forward together pace with pace and step with step, carrying aforsaid their points full in their enemies faces, they doe altogether giue a puissant thrush, the points of the first ranke of piques, first lighting vpon the faces of the first ranke or rankes of their enemies; and the points of the second, third, and fourth rankes, subsequently in a manner all in an instant, doe all one after another in such terrible sort light vpon the faces, breasts and bodies of the formost rankes of the enemies that do stand still pushing and foining with their piques in their rankes opened and inlarged, that they neuer giue them any leysure any waies to pull backe and recouer the vse of their piques to giue any new thrustes, nor yet to close their ranks inlarged, but doo ouerthrow, disorder and breake them with as great facilitie, as if they were but a flocke of geese; as all men of right consideration and iudgement may easilie consider and see.

But after all this it may be, that some very curious and not skilfull in actions of Armes, may demand what the formost rankes of this well ordered and practised squadron before mentioned shall doo after they haue giuen their aforesaid puissant blows & thrusts with their piques incase that they doo not at the first incountry ouerthrow and breake the contrary squadron of their enemies: thervnto I say, that the foremoft rankes of the squadron hauing with the points of their piques light vppon the bare faces of the formost ranks of their enemies, or vpon their Collers, pouldrons, quirasses, tasses, of disarmed parts of their thighes; by which blowes giuen they haue either slaine, ouerthrown, or wounded those that they haue lighted vpon, or that the points of their piques lighting vppon their armours haue glanced off, and beyond them; in such fort as by the nearnes of the formost ranks of their enemies before them, they haue not space enough againe to thrust; nor that by the nearnes of their fellowes ranks next behind them, they haue any conuenient elbowe roome to pull backe their piques to giue a new thrust; by meanes whereof they haue vtterly loste the vse of their pieques, they therefore must either presentlie let them fall to the ground as vnprofitable, or else may with both their hands dart, and throw them as farre forward into & amongst the ranks of their enemies as they can, to the intent by the length of them to trouble their ranks, and presently in the twinkling of an eie or instant, must draw their short arming swordes and daggers, and giue a blow and thrust(tearmed a half reuerse, & thrust) all at, and in one time at their faces: A therewithall must presentlie in an instant, with their daggers in their left hands, thrust at the bottome of their enmeies bellies vnder the lammes of their Cuyrasses, or at any other disarmed parts.

Sir John Smythe, Instructions, Obseruations, and Orders Mylitarie (1595), 24-7.

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Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Pike


Single Combat

The Advantages of Weapons

Longer weapons are to be preferred to shorter ones: therefore, the spear is to be preferred to the spiedo, holding it against the latter not by the butt (dangerous because of the weapon’s length) but at mid-haft and with good advantage. Similarly, it is better to take a partisan rather than a two-handed sword.

Antonio Manciolino, The Complete Renaissance Swordsman: Antonio Manciolino’s Opera Nova of 1531, translated by Tom Leoni, page 78.

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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Advantages, Single Combat