Study of the Destructive Capabilities of the European Longsword

Journal of Western Martial Art
February 2002

by David M. Cvet


Much has been written and discussed across the historical European martial arts community in articles and forums on the subject of the value or lack of value of practice cutting employing sharp swords. Often there is great emphasis on the importance of practice cutting with respect to enhancing one's skills with the sword, occasionally with little concern for the foundational training, while other opinions regard this exercise as unimportant in the context of overall swordsmanship training. There is also a noticeable absence of specific material on this aspect of training in any of the historical treatises and fechtbuchs.

The purpose of this exercise is to determine the viability of this activity in the context of the AEMMA swordsmanship training program based only on the concluding assessment of this exercise in the absence of supporting historical evidence.

  1. Determine the physics and action required to cut a facsimile of a human target.
  2. Determine the viability of the target design for sharp-sword strikes training.
  3. Determine the benefits if any of this form of training and its placement in training.
  4. Validate the cutting form and techniques employed in the AEMMA training program.
  5. Determine the "fun" factor for this potential aspect of training.
  6. Identify any safety concerns or precautions with this activity.


  1. Facsimile Human Target (FHT)
cutting standThe design of the FHT was based on a design frequently employed by the Eastern martial arts community, which is essentially comprised of a water-soaked straw or tatami material roll, affixed vertically onto a wooden spike extending beyond a vertical stand. The illustration on the left depicts a design engaged in this particular exercise.

The FHTs were created by tightly rolling a pair of rice/tatami sheets together and securely tying them near each end with string in order to ensure the rolls retain their cylindrical shape. The cloth hemming material along the ends of the mats was removed prior to rolling them up, however, the hemming material along the edges on both sides remained intact. After the rolls were constructed, the rolls were placed into a tub of water and soaked overnight. The following day, the tub with the rolls remaining in the tub was drained to permit excess water to drain from the rolls.

The resulting rolls were approximately 13 cm (5.25") diameter and approximately 76.7 cm (30.25") in overall length. The soaked rolls weighed in at approximately 2.7-3.2 kg (6-7 lbs). The end of the roll was then vertically affixed onto a wooden spike protruding from the top of a vertical 10.2 cm x 10.2 cm (4"x4") post of 78.7cm (31") in length resulting in an overall height of approximately 137.2 cm (5' 1 ¼") in the completed FHTs used for this exercise.

  1. Edged Longsword
The longsword similar to the image on the right was used for this exercise and was given an extremely sharp edge throughout the entire length of the blade on both edges. Comparison with historical examples of Sharpened swordmedieval swords examined at the Royal Ontario Museum or ROM indicates that the edge is neither consistent nor inconsistent with the swords examined. Some swords possessed an edge geometry that was consistent with the edge of a sharpened axe, while other longswords possessed an edge geometry that matched more closely with our sword, with the later period swords examined given the much shallower depth of the blade. The sword used in this exercise was originally sourced from Heimrick Armoury. The sword is known internally as the "Mark I" and is an example of the original design employed by AEMMA for training in 1999. A number of these "Mark I"s are still in use today for both training and tournaments.

For a point of reference, if one holds a plain piece of paper, and draws the edge of the sword across the edge of the paper, the paper should be cut with nearly no resistance at all. The sword specifications are the following:


The method employed for this exercise involved a stationary vertical FHT and simple "recruit" level of strikes. The strikes deployed were exactly the same as the strikes deployed during training. This means that there was no specific cutting nor drawing action while the strike was delivered. This particular method of deployment was of interest because of the architecture of the sword -- straight edged blade versus a curved edge found on some other swords such as sabers. It was reasoned that the curved edge of a sabre-like sword would enhance the cutting action of the weapon and therefore, ensured that the strikes were simple straight-on cuts. The variations of the deployments are listed below:


The FHT was determined to possess a similar consistency with flesh. There was a malleable consistency along with a toughness of meat. What the FHT lacked was a core that would simulate living bone material. Despite the relatively unsecured base, the FHT withstood the strikes without the need to reinforce the base. The only incident of it toppling over was during the 1/2-force strike which can be attributed to the sword not entirely passing through the roll.

The resistance felt during the strike was inconsequential. Terms such as "it was like cutting butter" seemed to be the most relevant and persistent description of the experience. The lack of resistance had a significant impact on the form of the delivery causing, in some cases, an over-compensation due to the expectation of resistance during the strike.

The methods employed can be visually examined by clicking on the images below. The video segments behind each image range from 2.2 MB to 4.6 MB.

First strikeThe first strike was deployed with full force and full speed. The rather impressive performance of the sword easily slicing through the roll and witnessing the top half of the roll simply fall to the floor instantly elevated the respect for such a weapon. This strike delivered from an oblique downward angle assured us that the possibility of toppling the FHT was decreased and ensured that the first strike was deployed in a safe manner. This strike being full powered and full speed ensured that the expectation of the first strike cleanly cutting through the roll would be satisfied which caused some over-compensation of the strike resulting in somewhat bad form on delivery. The video on the left illustrates the first strike followed by an initial assessment described with the video segment on the right.

Second strikeWith the experience gained with the first oblique cut, a second strike was deployed from a horizontal orientation. Again, given little experience in these forms of exercises, the expectation was that the force of the cut would topple the FHT but that was not the case. Again, little if any resistance was observed. The strike was delivered with a little more control given the experience gained with the first strike. The video on the left illustrates the second strike described above.

Developing a bit more comfort with the exercise, the third method was invoked. The resulting damage caused by a strike that possessed only 1/2-force and delivered only 1/2-speed resulted in a gash that was almost the width of the diameter of the roll, and at least 4.5 cm (~2") in depth. During this particular exercise, the FHT was toppled over. The video on the left illustrates the 1/2-force strike.

1/2-force & 1/2-speed strike3/4-force & 3/4 speed strikeThe last exercise was an attempt to simulate the force and speed behind strikes deployed during armoured training and tournaments using steel swords at AEMMA. It was readily apparent that without the protection of armour, a body receiving a strike with the force and speed employed during training would most likely receive a mortal wound. The roll received a gash that penetrated approximately 95% of the thickness of the roll. The last method is illustrated in the video on the right.


The short conclusion was that a weapon such as this wielded by an expert swordsman would be a force to reckon with. A renewed and healthy respect for the destructive capabilities of the European broadsword was cemented in our minds.

The benefits derived from such an exercise, aside from the increased respect for the weapon, included "fun", quite potentially an exciting addition to the training regimen for students to experience the destructive nature of the sword.

Another benefit was the impact the sharpened weapon had on form and technique. Over-compensation was readily observed, however, some of this can be explained by the excitement of fixating one's visual attention to the resulting cut rather than properly following through with the strike. The subtle deficiencies in deployment of strikes became more apparent as well, such as the angle of inclination, the possibly less effective strike point on the blade during deployment. It appeared that this exercise does in fact provide added value to the training regimen.

Safety concerns never left our minds during the exercise. The sharpened sword is a dangerous weapon to carry around without a proper scabbard. Casual transport of this weapon will only result in injury and care must ensure the secure transport. Secondly, during the deployment of the strikes, care must be taken to ensure that no individuals are too close in proximity to the strike. Blade breakage, or even the possibility of the sword leaving the hands could result in mortal danger and therefore, sharp sword exercises cannot be handled lightly.

The FHT exhibited some attributes of a human target, save the core or living bone material. Suggestions of inserting a dowel into the roll to simulate the bone would not necessarily enhance the human attributes of the FHT because living bone is not "dry and brittle" as would be exhibited by dowels. Continued experimentation with 2-3 cm diameter ABS tubing may enhance the attributes. The point of continued development of the FHT is to develop a "pell" for sharp sword training that possesses closer attributes to a human target.

In conclusion, AEMMA will integrate this exercise into the training regimen in order to enhance the depth and interest of the overall training program. Further experimentation will be conducted to introduce other variables such as:

Journal of Western Martial Art

About the author: is the Founder and President of the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA), an organization dedicated to the resurrection and formalization of medieval martial arts training systems. He received training in Milan, Italy employing steel weapons in longsword techniques and has participated in various organizations dedicated to studying the Middle Ages. In addition David has studied some Asian combat arts in his past. His background and experience having fired his desire to pursue a formal medieval martial arts training program, he founded AEMMA in mid-1998. He is a member of the advisory board of the Swordplay Symposium International (SSI), an interdisciplinary colloquium of historical fencing specialists dedicated to promoting and advancing the study of Western swordsmanship, a participating board member of the Association for Historical Fencing (AHF) and a member of the research board of the American Academy for Medieval and Chivalric Research (AAMCR). David received his appointment of free scholler in Oct, 2000 and the "Acknowledged Instructor" (AI) designation for armoured longsword instruction in Oct, 2000 by the International Masters at Arms Federation (IMAF).