The Two-Handed Great Sword -
Making lite of the issue of weight

Journal of Western Martial Art
October 2004

by Anthony Shore

For many years in the Historical Reenactment/Renaissance Faire community, I have listened to lectures regarding the weight of the two-handed great sword. I have heard endless stories of how this magnificent weapon often weighed in excess of 20 pounds with such justifications as "they needed to be heavy to smash through plate armor or to unhorse knights on the battlefield." Other arguments include such claims as "They (medieval Europeans) did not possess the technology to produce lightweight, quality steel weapons." This kind of statement usually includes some reference to the Japanese working with folded steel.

The purpose of this article is to dispel some of the myths and misinformation that have been circulating around the Renaissance Faire and the Highland Games communities regarding the two-handed great sword in regards to its weight, available technology, how it could be used and, what it was or was not capable of. While I am certainly no expert in the field myself, I do know how to ask questions and whom to ask. Over a 2.5 - 3 month period, I corresponded with various museums and armories throughout England and Europe, regarding the subject of the Two-handed Great Sword. This article is a compilation of data based on some of the responses I have received as well as information from other articles and books on this subject.

The weight question! How much did the actual historic weapons known as the two handed great swords really weigh?

I addressed this question to a number of European museums and armouries and, from those that responded I learned quite a bit. Robert C. Woosnam-Savage of the Royal Armouries at Leeds writes: "The fighting two-handed sword, weighed (on average) between 5-7 lbs. I give the following three examples, randomly chosen from our own collections, which I hope are adequate to make the point:

  • Two-handed sword, German, c.1550 (IX.926) Weight: 7 lb 6oz.
  • Two-handed sword, German, dated 1529 (IX.991) Weight: 5 lb 1oz.
  • Two-handed sword, Scottish, mid 16th century, (IX.926) Weight: 5 lb 10oz.
(I know another of this last type, in a Glasgow Museum, that weighs in at 5 lbs exactly!)."

In an e-mail correspondence with Mr. David Edge of the Wallace Collection in London, Mr. Edge states,

"Original weapons are indeed far lighter than most people realize? 3lbs for an 'average' late-medieval cross-hilt sword, say, and 7-8 lbs for a Landsknecht two-handed sword, to give just a couple of examples from weapons in this collection. Processional two-handed swords are usually heavier, true, but rarely more than 10 lbs. The heaviest and most enormous sword in our entire Armoury only weighs 14 lbs and was probably ceremonial."
David Edge  [Acting Head of Conservation, and Armoury Curator/Conservator]

Henrik Andersson, an archives librarian at the Royal Armoury of Stockholm, offered a detailed categorized list of some of their collection. Below are some of the examples in the armouries collection of two-handed weapons, their weights and dimensions and approximately when they were made or commonly used. Mr. Andersson supplied this list in metric so I have included the vitals translated into U.S. Standard.


Photo: Livrustkammaren, Sweden. All rights reserved.
Two-handed sword
(Germany) Fifteenth C.
Length: 1375 mm (54.21 inches)
Blade: 920 mm (36.2 inches)
Weight: 1600 gr (3.5 lbs)

Two-handed sword
(Germany) 1475-1525
Length: 1382 mm (54.40 inches)
Blade: 1055 mm (41.53 inches)
Weight: 1550 gr (3.41 lbs)
(Photo on left)

Two-handed sword
(Germany ) end of Fifteenth C.
Length: 1473 mm (58 inches)
Blade: 1066 mm (41.97 inches)
Weight: 2720 gr (5.99 lbs)

Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Munich) 1575
Length: 1643 mm (64.69 inches)
Blade: 964 mm (37.95 inches)
Weight: 3500 gr (7.72 lbs)

Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1817 mm (71.53 inches)
Blade: 1240 mm (48.81 inches)
Weight: 3970 gr (8.75 lbs)


Photo: Livrustkammaren, Sweden. All rights reserved.

Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1893 mm (74.52 inches)
Blade: 1313 mm (51.69 inches)
Weight: 4830 gr (10.64 lbs)

Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) end of Sixteenth C.
Length: 1422 mm (55.98 inches)
Blade 1029 mm (40.51 inches)
Weight: 2700 gr (5.95 lbs)
(Photo on left)

Ceremonial Two-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1600
Length: 1275 mm (50.19 inches)
Blade: 1000 mm (39.37 inches)
Weight: 2330 gr (5.1 lbs)

One-and -a-half-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1475-1525
Length: 1153 mm (45.39 inches)
Blade: 932 mm (36.69 inches)
Weight: 1320 gr (2.91 lbs)

Two-handed sword
(Germany) c. 1500
Length: 1340 mm (52.75 inches)
Blade: 955 mm (37.6 inches)
Weight: 1390 gr (3.06 lbs)

A question of technology - What technologies existed in regards to sword forging and, were the Europeans capable of producing steel that were lightweight and flexible?

When hearing arguments such as the Europeans did not possess the technology to produce lightweight, flexible steel weapons, I had to ask what evidence is there to support that statement. I started researching and found an abundance of evidence to the contrary. A forging technique called pattern-welding was in use by the Vikings in the 6th century A.D.1 Pattern welding is similar in nature to the Japanese process of folding the steel, it differs however in that patternwelding involves taking several "strips" of metal (steel) of various grades and, twisting them together before going to the forge. This often resulted in lightweight, strong and flexible blades.

Figure 1. Serpent Damascus Pattern, Jim Hrisoulas
Pattern-welded blades date from near the earliest days when steel was first discovered. Early smiths learned to combine steels and iron in various artistic patterns. This technology reached its zenith under the Vikings, who forged elaborate patterns in their blades as early as 500 A.D. Around the same time in India, parts of China and the Middle East, a similar technology for making a cast crystalline crucible steel called Wootz was developed. Another type of pattern welding called Damascus was also common.

In the movies and other media we often are given the impression that European sword smiths were large, brutish folk that were not the brightest of people and capable only of pounding out rough hewn, iron blades. The mistake here may be that we confuse swordsmithing with blacksmithing, which is similar, but not quite the same thing. Sword smiths of the day were often very intelligent, learned men who gave a great deal of time to the study of the properties of metals and how they reacted to heat and being combined with other metals. The forging of a good sword was often the cumulative effort of a group of men or an arms guild, not a single individual. Each man had his own specific task in the creation of a weapon. There were entire villages or towns throughout Europe such as Passau or Solingen, Germany, or Toledo Spain, which were dedicated to the construction and forging of arms and armour.

What does all this mean? It means that not only did the technology exist, it existed several hundred years before the great sword had become a common place weapon. Although the great sword may not have employed the pattern welding technique in the forge process, there were certainly other techniques available that could produce equally lightweight and flexible weapons. It also means that European sword smiths were not the ignorant brutes the media depicts them to be and were often very knowledgeable and capable in regards to forging steels of excellent quality.

Concerning Japanese Steel - Myth vs. Reality and the fold forging technique

Figure 2. Visible temper line (hamon) as a result of
Japanese heat-treating and polishing
courtesy of PardiniStudios.com
The Japanese process of folding the steel as part of the forge process as has been mentioned is similar to other technologies present in the European countries. One thing that needs to be mentioned is, the Japanese did not begin using this process until somewhere in the 8th century A.D., nearly 200 years later than the Vikings had begun using the pattern welding technique. Japanese steel is very good steel but there is nothing magical about it. The technique for forging the Japanese blades produces blades of excellent quality when well taken care of and there are museum pieces today that have survived hundreds of years and are quite possibly still battle worthy. Although fold forging is an excellent process, it cannot produce blades capable of slicing machine gun barrels in half or cutting through tank armor! Japanese steel is good but it is still only steel, and will behave as such. The fold forging technique was designed to create a blade with a fairly uniform carbon content throughout the length of the blade. The blade is a rigid blanket of steel wrapped around a softer, lower-grade steel or iron core for resiliency and a highly tempered edge that will keep its sharpness was then welded (yes welded) to the main blade. The Japanese blade is a highly efficient cutting tool but it is not indestructible and if used improperly, it will damage very easily. (Side note: folding the blade only 10 times will produce a blade with more than 1000 layers of steel.)

What about that Plate Armour?

Again, from misunderstandings not only of the sword but, of plate armour as well, we often hear arguments such as the sword needed to be heavy to smash or cut through it. Armourers and Knights alike realized that trying to cut through plate with a sword was folly. More often than not, significant damage would be done to any sword when trying to "hack" through plate armor. Getting in between the joints with a weapon designed for thrusting as well as cutting however, was easier and more effective than trying to cut through it. There were much better tools such as an axe which could deliver greater cutting ability and shock absorption without sustaining a great deal of damage that would have been very expensive to repair.

Where does all this Myth and misinformation come from?

Far too often we hear and see such fantastic stories of massively heavy weapons wielded by Herculean warriors but, where does it all come from? This is what the media gives us and for some, it's probably just easier to believe what they see in the movies and accept it as fact. But also, this is what we expect of our heroes. A super human hero requires an equally powerful weapon. Reality and myth often clash and the truth gets lost in the story.

Conclusions

We can see by the evidence offered from the academic professionals and other sources presented in this essay, that the two-handed great sword of Europe was not the crude, lumbering, bludgeon with a point that it has been made out to be. Was this a heavy weapon? Yes! But not the excessive weights one would think. Although it is considerably heavier than its smaller relatives, it is still in fact, an agile, lightweight weapon and if used properly, an incredibly deadly tool for both close-quarter combat and all-out battlefield melees.

This weapon was a very effective tool for dealing with fully armoured knights but not in the way one would think. Dealing with plate was always a challenge, but trying to cut or smash through full plate armour with a sword of any size was ineffective so, a weapon that could either punch through or get between the plates was devised.

The technology for forging steel has been around for centuries and a knowledgeable armourer could forge a lightweight, flexible, quality steel blade that did its job extremely well in the hands of a skilled warrior. As for the Japanese; having found a design that worked well for the style of fighting they engaged in and, a culture that literally did not change for centuries, the basic design of the weapon did not change either. The techniques for improving on the quality and effectiveness of the blade did however. Again, there is nothing magic about Japanese blades! They are excellent in their design, quality and functionality for their intended style of use but over all, they are still just steel.

Academic and Professional Acknowledgements

Robert C. Woosnam-Savage, is a co-author of "Brassey's Book of Body Armour" and, was Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Glasgow Museums from 1983-1997 before joining the Royal Armories at Leeds as curator of European-Edged Weapons. www.armouries.org.uk

David Edge, Author of "Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight," has given to the world a worthy gift that encapsulates something of the knowledge he's built in nearly three decades of study working with the Wallace Collection in London, England. www.wallacecollection.org

Henrik Andersson, Royal Armouries of Stockholm, www.lsh.se/livrustkammaren/Thehela.htm

Vivian Etting, Curator at the National Museum of Denmark www.natmus.dk/sw1413.asp

Special thanks to Michael Campbell of the Alameda Newspaper Group for his invaluable editing assistance and guidance.

On Line Articles and resources:

  1. Basic Japanese Sword forging process
  2. "The Serpent in the Sword, Pattern-welding in Early Medieval Swords" by Lee A. Jones
  3. "Origins of the Two-Handed Sword" by Neil H.T. Melville, published in the Journal of Western Martial Art January 2000.
  4. "Polished Steel, The Art of the Japanese Sword." A Lecture given at London University, December 6, 1996 By Kenji Mishina
  5. "The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades"
  6. Higgins Armory Museum

Other suggested reading:

  • "Blankwaffen.Geschichte und Typenentwicklung im Europ√§ischen Kulturbereich", By Dr. Heribert Seitz
  • "The Complete Bladesmith, Forging your Way to Perfection", Jim Hrisoulas, Paladin Press, 1987
  • Wallace Collection Catalogue, 1962 two-volume set, by James Mann, plus the 1986 Supplement by A.V.B. Norman. (Contains weights of every edged weapon in the collection as well as weights of body armour)
  • "Records of the Medieval Sword", The Boydell Press 1991 and "The sword in the Age of Chivalry" 1964, By Ewart Oakeshott
  • Swords and Hilt Weapons, Barnes and Noble Books of New York, 1993

About the author: is an IT professional by trade but has had an interest in swords since early childhood. Anthony has been involved in the historical reenactment community in his home state of California for approximately 10 years and is a casual collector of museum quality replica swords.

Journal of Western Martial Art
October 2004


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