HEMA: What Off-Hand Weapon would you use with your Sword?

HEMA stands for “Historical European Martial Arts” and is defined as any historically preserved warfare, dueling, or self-defense system originating from Europe – and by extension anywhere in the Western world. This HEMA based quiz is to determine what off-hand weapon would fit you best in a Late Medieval or Renaissance setting. “Off-Hand Weapon” means the sort of weapon you would wield in your off-hand assuming that you were wielding a one-hand sword in your dominant hand.

Tidewater Renaissance Fighting Arts
On May 18, 2015

Are you interested in a mostly military fencing style or civilian fencing style?

If you were fighting in war, would you prefer to fight in a tight infantry formation or a loose, small skirmisher, ranger, or adventurer group?

Off-hand weapons are frequently used to parry enemy attacks. What sorts of weapons are you likely to face and what sorts of attacks do you want to be good at parrying?

If you were to fight in war, how much armor would you prefer to wear?

How much armor do you expect most of your opponents to be wearing?

Do you expect to use your off-hand weapon primarily to parry or to attack?

How big is your bag of sneaky tricks? Do you employ a lot of deception, feinting, and mind games?

Does your sword have a lot of hand protection? Remember, the hands are the easiest thing to hit in fencing.

How much range do you want for your off-hand weapon and why?

How important is it for you to be able to bind well, trap your opponent's weapons, hook them, grapple with them, and so forth?

How important is it to you that you can easily carry and draw your weapons?

During this era, it was perfectly acceptable to carry swords every day. Yet some off-hand weapons were socially frowned upon to carry in towns during peace time. Do you care if your weapon is socially acceptable for daily civilian use?

Do you prefer a Medieval fencing style or a Renaissance fencing style?

Sword Alone (Empty Hand or Gauntlet)

Sword Alone (Empty Hand or Gauntlet)

Congratulations, you got Empty Hand/Gauntlet!

Even though this is an off-hand weapons quiz, there certainly are options to having nothing in the left hand. It allows for the longest stance that reduces your target size the most, making your harder to hit. It also makes grappling very easy, which is especially important for armored combat or for fighting against pole-arms. Having no off-hand weapon is also convenient due to having less to carry and being ready to fight without drawing another weapon.

Using a Gauntlet on the left hand is another closely related possibility. It allows for the off-hand to beat aside thrusts, grab the enemy's blade (so long as it's still at the time), and makes half-swording far safer. Half-Swording is when one hand holds the sword normally and the other grips the blade. This is especially important for armored combat since it provides maximum thrusting power, leverage, and point control for piercing the gaps of armor. Obviously, the Gauntlet doesn't even need to be drawn since you wear it and it allows for steel punches.

Sword Alone is taught by virtually all fencing masters, though Sword and Gauntlet (with no other armor) is rarely taught. It is taught in the Anonimo Bolognese manual. However, any armored combat manual with Sword Alone is technically Sword-and-Gauntlet.

Wearing a left-hand gauntlet in civilian circles was usually frowned upon. It was considered threatening and thuggish, similar to brass knuckles today.

Sword and Dagger

Sword and Dagger

Congratulations, you got the Dagger!

Sword and Dagger was easily one of the most popular combinations in history - especially in the Renaissance. The reasons are legion. The dagger had a large cross guard and frequently more hand protection for the rest of the hand. The blade was often a foot or a foot and a half in length. This allowed it to be used as a very effective parrying weapon, allowing for strong binds. It can also thrust very well, penetrating many forms of armor.

Furthermore, the Dagger makes the Sword-and-Dagger much more effective at close distance fighting. As such, it is often paired with longer sword like a Long Civilian Rapier or a War Rapier. The sword has high reach and the dagger low. Between the two of them, the fencer can fight at any distance. There is also one illustration in Paulus Hector Mair of Dussack and Dagger (the Dussack being a Cutlass) and Scottish styles often used Broadsword and Dirk, a similar style.

Having two weapons such as the sword and dagger allows the swordsman to use both weapons to parry a very powerful attack, parry with one weapon while attacking with the other, or attacking two targets simultaneously from different angles. This makes it good at overwhelming opponents who are using single weapons.

The dagger is usually better at parrying thrusts rather than cuts, though it can still parry quite powerful cuts if used near the base of the opponent's weapon.

Masters that taught Sword and Dagger include Achille Marozzo, Giacomo Di Grassi, George Silver, Alfieri, Capo Ferro, Joachim Meyer, Paulus Hector Mair, and many more.

Two Swords (Dual Wielding)

Two Swords (Dual Wielding)

Congratulations, you got Two Swords!

Duel Wielding Swords is also known as Case of Rapiers, Florentine Fencing, Twin Swords, etc.

While not as common as using a dagger, buckler, or shield in the off-hand, Twin Swords was still absolutely a real, historical fighting style. It was usually done with two Long Civilian Rapiers or two Side Swords (War Rapiers).

Using two swords at once allows for great redundancy - you have two weapons to cut with, thrust with, parry with, and bind and wind with. Each one can be put in different stances closing off different lines of attack. This makes it far more difficult to fight against someone using two swords. Also, they are used for simultaneous offense and defense. One sword parries while the other attacks. Both swords can be used to parry together against very powerful enemy attacks, both can be used to parry different attacks, or they can both attack different targets at once. Due to their length, both swords can be used interchangeably for single-time counter-cuts and counter-thrusts. Typically, one weapon is held more forward and used primarily defensively. The other is held back further and used more offensively. The two weapons frequently trade roles in a very complex and dynamic style. This is also a good style for use against multiple opponents.

However, there are several major weaknesses in Double Sword styles.

1. It is redundant. There is nothing that one sword does that the other could not do.
2. Drawing two swords out of their scabbards makes this style slower to the draw. On a related note, it is harder to carry around two swords. Sometimes this issue was obviated by having both in the same scabbard.
3. It is a more difficult style as it requires the fencer to be ambidextrous to a larger degree than other fencing styles. The time spent learning to make a more difficult style work could have been spent perfecting a simpler style.
4. The swords, being the same length, do not provide any significantly improved close-in fighting, though they perform very well at moderate distance.
4. The swords, being the same length, easily can get tangled with each other.

That last issue is the one most often exploited by opponents using larger weapons as they can parry both swords as if they were one weapon, tangling the two swords up and preventing the Twin Sword user from using them independently. Such tangling would not so easily occur with Sword and Dagger.

One final note is that using two swords at once was not only very difficult, it was also highly specialized. Few people carried two swords around on a daily basis for personal self defense. It would tend to be cumbersome. So it was rarely used for daily wear. It also was unsuitable for most roles in warfare. Using two swords on horseback makes little sense since one hand is needed for the reins. Finally, using two swords at once is a very bad idea for infantry formations. The style requires some room and a line of twin sword users would quickly become hopelessly tangled up with each other. This style could theoretically be used by skirmishers, rangers, adventurers, and duelists, though it remained very rare.

Twin Sword fencing was taught by Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Camillo Paladini, Camillo Agrippa, Giacomo Di Grassi, Domingo Luis Godinho, and very briefly by Michael Hundt and Jakob Sutor von Baden.

Sword and Buckler

Sword and Buckler

Congratulations, you got Sword and Buckler!

Sword and Buckler was perhaps the most successful two weapon style in history. There are references to Sword and Buckler dating back to the early Iron Age, through the Medieval era, and even into Early America with sword and buckler being used at Jamestown in the early 1600s!

Sword and buckler was done with every sword imaginable - from the Grosse Messer, to the Arming Sword, to the War Rapier and the Long Civilian Rapier. The bucklers themselves also varied substantially in size and shape. Bucklers were usually 9 inches in diameter up to 18 inches and their shapes ranged from convex to concave, from round to square to diamond, and they were generally made from steel. Many had spikes in the middle to increase their offensive usefulness. The buckler is held in a fist grip far from the body. Due to principles of geometry, the farther the buckler is from the body the more coverage it gives you. With only slight movement, the buckler can cover anything from the head to the knees.

The buckler's advantages are many and subtle. It is great for protecting the sword hand, allowing the fencer to safely close the distance against larger and longer weapons. It closes off the easiest target to hit. The buckler is also able to easily stifle enemy attacks just as they begin or just as they end, allowing the sword the freedom to attack while their weapon is pinned. The buckler can also be used to deflect, parry, and beat aside enemy attacks. It can be used as a grappling aid to hook behind their weapon and, of course, it can be used as a steel, spiky fist to strike their face.

It really only has two weaknesses - first, it is poor at intercepting thrust mid-attack. When long, nimble thrusting weapons are parried mid-attack by the buckler, they can at times wind around the buckler and attack behind it, thrusting the sword-and-buckler user. Second, the buckler is small. This size makes it easy to carry on the belt and very quick, but it does not have the coverage of a full shield. It is ineffective at stopping ranged attacks and can be overwhelmed by cuts from halberds, two-handed swords, etc. That's why the trick is to always bind/stifle/parry their weapon just at they begin their attack or just as they end it.

Sword and Buckler was taught in the oldest surviving fencing treatise: The British Royal Manuscript I.33 (the source of the illustration), as well as by Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, George Silver, Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Domingo Luis Godinho, Paulus Hector Mair, and many others.

Sword and Shield

Sword and Shield

Congratulations, you got the Sword and Shield!

Sword and Shield was a very popular combination for millennia. Roman legions, knights, and Conquistadors alike were famed and feared for their skilled use of Sword and Shield. Sadly, there are no Sword and Shields treatises surviving from the ancient or medieval era - just from the Renaissance. This is due to the fact that Full Plate Armor (worn by the nobility) made shields redundant. Why carry a shield when you are wearing one on your entire body? Yet by the Renaissance there were enough relatively wealthy commoners that Sword and Shield appears in the surviving martial arts literature. It was mostly used by people who were wearing partial suits of armor. For a short time, Sword and Shield proved highly effective against Pike formations due to the shield providing great protection against pikes as the Swordsmen closed the distance. Some steel shields were even proof to the guns of the time! Yet Sword and Shield users were very vulnerable to lance armed cavalry, meaning that they were rarely used in large numbers in open field warfare. Shields truly excelled in siege warfare! A swordsman could carry his shield above his head as he climbed a siege ladder, keeping him quite safe from all the arrows, rocks, and so forth raining down on him as he ascended the walls. Shields were also very useful inside the close corridors of the castle where long weapons would get tangled and it was very difficult for opponents to maneuver around the swordsman's shield.

These round, domed steel shields were called Targets in English and their users called "Targeteers." In Spanish they were "Rodeleros" using Rodelas. It was Rotella in Italian. The swords were usually straight, double-edged cut-and-thrust swords with complex hilts. They were generally shorter, beefier, and better at cutting than the long rapiers in the picture.

Sword and Shield allows for using both weapons at once for combined offensive and defensive maneuvers. Beat aside their weapon with the shield while attacking with the sword, parry low with the sword and bash them with the shield...sword and shield present tremendous variety and versatility! They are two halves of the same weapon and they are meant to be used simultaneously. The shield is not a passive defense, but active, aggressive, and mobile.

Sword and Shield is a truly excellent fencing style, relatively easy to learn, provides tremendous coverage/protection, and it is highly effective against most weapons. However, it still has some weaknesses. The shield blocks the swordsman's view, the shield prevents grappling since the hand is occupied, and the shields high momentum makes it less nimble than a buckler, dagger, or other off-hand weapon. So the shield may provide excellent protection, but it is vulnerable to feints. Furthermore, the shield cannot quickly be extended to protect the legs without crouching. Thus, attacks to the legs are common. Finally, shields are very large and cannot quickly as quickly deployed as a buckler or dagger. So Sword and Shield is more uncomfortable, bulky, and slower to the draw than other options.

Sword and Shield is taught by Achille Marozzo, Luis Godinho, Giacomo di Grassi, Donald McBane, and others.

Sword and Cloak

Sword and Cloak

Congratulations, you got Sword and Cloak!

The cloak may not be what most people think of as a "weapon", but it can be surprisingly effective. It can be draped over the arm to block the view and disguise the movements of your sword, it can be wrapped around your left arm many times until the cloth is so thick that it can be used to knock aside a sword, and it can be used to throw onto your opponent's head or weapon. It has virtually no offensive power and it is not as good defensively as a dagger, sword, buckler, or shield, but the cloak is the best weapon for sneaky tricks and mind games. It is also a weapon that virtually everyone carried around with them on cold or rainy days. So it works extremely well for a non-weapon!

This weapon style was usually used with a Rapier, making it even easier to beat aside the cuts or thrusts of a lighter, more thrusting oriented weapon. However, a thrust directly into the cloak could very well pierce through.

Sword and Cloak was taught by such Masters as Jakob Sutor von Baden, Joachim Meyer, Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Giacomo di Grassi, Francesco di Sandro Altoni, and others.

Sword and Pistol

Sword and Pistol

Congratulations, you got Sword and Pistol!

While this combination may seem impossibly obvious to us in the 21st Century, pistols were not always reliable. They were very slow to load and inaccurate. Very early guns were often useless in wet weather and had a tendency to explode when overloaded with powder (which was measured out during reloading). As such, this style wasn't really a viable option until at least the invention of the Wheel Lock pistol. Wheel locks were not prone to exploding, they were more water proof, and they tended to be much more reliable, though there was a gap of a second or two between pulling the trigger and firing. Thus, many fencing masters would teach their students to listen for the click of the pistol, draw their sword, and lunge to kill before the gun could fire.

Flintlock Pistols made Sword and Pistol extremely common, though. Flintlocks were still slow to reload, but were otherwise very reliable weapons. You only had one or two shots before the reload, which is why warriors often carried multiple pistols. Even once a pistol was fired, it was still useful as melee weapons. Early pistols were quite heavy and often had a steel butt cap, making then make-shift maces once they had been fired. The pistol can be used to parry and strike fairly well, though not as well as a dagger or buckler.

Pistols could pierce through most armor, though a Renaissance Knight’s hardened steel plate armor was generally proof to period pistols. Thus the pistol was often fired into the open visor, into the gaps of the armor, or into the thinner plates on the arms or legs. Even then, the best Renaissance armor was completely proof to flintlock pistols at point blank range. Against such fine armor, the only options are to shoot or thrust through the gaps and joints.

Over the course of the 1600s, the Pistol gradually took over from the dagger as the most common off-hand weapon. By the 1700s, the Pistol’s ascendance was complete. Even then, however, having a pistol does not preclude carrying another melee weapon. Daggers, shields, and bucklers were still very useful in close quarters and the Scots in particular still used them well into the 1700s.

Michael Hundt in 1611 recommended the pistol as his favored off-hand weapon. Sword and Pistol also featured in Wallhausen's war book.