HEMA: What sword would you use in the Medieval or Renaissance eras?
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. Such historically documented fighting styles survive mostly in the form of military manuals, fencing treatises, and dueling manuals written in centuries past.
How much reach do you want for your sword?
How much leverage do you want? (More leverage means greater ability to push aside your opponent's weapon, manipulate their weapon with yours, etc.)
How much hand protection do you want? (Hands are the easiest thing to hit in fighting)
Do you expect to fight a lot of armored opponents on the battlefield? Or just unarmored duels and street fights?
Thrusting! Thrusting is better than cutting against armor. It is also long reaching, subtle, and lethal. How important is thrusting power and precision to you?
Cutting! The cut kills faster, deals with multiple opponents easier, beats aside other weapons easily, and a failed cut can easily turn into another attack. Yet cuts do very little against steel plate armor. How much cutting power do you want?
How important is the quick draw to you?
Do you prefer a one-handed or two-handed sword?
Do you prefer a single-edged or double-edged sword?
Out of these, what is your favorite era in the history of Western Civilization?
Out of these, what is your favorite part of Europe? (Some weapons were more popular in different nations than others.)
Do you identify more with the nobility or with the commoners?
All these swords are versatile in various ways, but what specialty would you pick if you had to pick one?
Long Civilian Rapier
Long Civilian Rapier
Congratulations, you got the Long Civilian Rapier!
Considered by many to be the best dueling weapon every invented, the rapier has many strengths. It's reach is phenomenal, having blades ranging from 36 inches to 48 inches or more. It has extremely precise point control aided by a close point of balance and putting the index finger over the cross-guard (but underneath the finger rings). They are extremely good thrusters, capable of completely impaling an opponent with barely the slightest push of the blade. Their excellent hand protection is also quite helpful. Effectively, the opponent cannot attack your hand.
However, while the long civilian Rapier has many strengths, it does have some weaknesses. It is a bit slower to the draw due to the length of the blade - which is why Spanish Rapierists preferred blades no longer than ground to navel in length. It allowed for quicker draws and nimbler weapons. The Rapier also has rather limited cutting ability. It can split flesh and severe tendons, but don't expect to cut off any arms or heads. Finally, it is poorly suited for armored combat.
Rapiers were often used with off-hand weapons such as daggers, cloaks, bucklers, shields, pistols, or even a second rapier.
Historical Rapier masters include Alfieri, Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gerard Thibault, Geronimo Carranza, Nicoletto Giganti, Johann Georg Pascha, Salvator Fabris, and many, many more.
War Rapier (Side Sword)
War Rapier (Side Sword)
Congratulations, you got the War Rapier! (aka Side Sword)
The War Rapier is a weapon of far too many names. Many modern people call it "Side Sword" or "Cut and Thrust Sword" - which are useful as modern terms, but such names are vague, describe almost any sword, and were not used historically. This weapon was usually just called "sword" in its era since it was the most common type of sword in the Renaissance. It was sometimes called Reitschwert, Ritterdegen, or Ritterschwert in Germany (meaning cavalry sword, knightly rapier, or knightly sword).
It is a weapon somewhere between the classic medieval knightly arming sword and the long, civilian rapier, yet it was not a mere transitional weapon. It co-existed with the long, civilian rapier and outlasted it. Weapons with the same blade design (though admittedly different hilts) continued in military use throughout the modern era. They were especially popular amongst heavy cavalry, but saw plenty of use amongst infantry as well. It is a close cousin to the Walloon Sword, Mortuary Sword, Scottish Basket Hilt Broadsword, Spadroon, and US General George S. Patton's sword.
These weapons often favored the thrust over the cut, but could still cut very well. They had fairly long blades - typically ranging from 31 inches to 38 inches in length. They were elegant weapons with a suitably elegant fencing style. With great hand protection and such a versatile and nimble blade, it's no wonder they were so popular!
The War Rapier has few weaknesses as it is a well-rounded weapon. It was often used with off-hand weapons such as a dagger, gauntlet, cloak, buckler, shield, pistol, or another sword.
The War Rapier was taught by many masters, including Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Camillo Paladini, Henri de Sainct Didier, Domingo Luis Godinho, Joachim Meyer, Jakob Sutor von Baden, Michael Hundt, Giacomo Di Grassi, Camillo Agrippa, and Paulus Hector Mair.
Congratulations, you got the Longsword!
The Longsword is the classic knightly sword and by far the most popular sword for knights from the 1300s to the end of the 1500s - though there was occasional early use in the late 1200s and occasional late use in the early 1600s. It was quick, powerful, versatile, and boasted great leverage and perhaps the highest thrusting power of any sword. Thrusting-oriented Two-Hand Swords and Estocs could probably beat the Longsword for thrusting power, but both of those are merely subsets of the larger "Longsword" category. The Longsword also boasts great cutting power as well. Most short to medium length Longswords can be used in one hand, though all Longswords are primarily two-handed weapons.
The Longsword, when wielded against fully armored opponents, was gripped in the "half sword" guard. One hand was on the grip like normal, but the other was gripping the blade using special gripping methods ensuring the Longswordsman did not slice his hand. Half-swording the blade allowed for maximum thrusting power, leverage, and point control - all vital for armored fighting. The warrior would stab powerfully into the gaps and joints of his opponent's armor to kill him. Occasionally, both hands would grip the blade and the Longswordsman would use the pommel as a mace or the cross guard as a war hammer. This was called the Mordschlag (Death Strike) and was used to stun armored opponents with powerful blows to the head (or possibly knock them out with a perfect hit). Since most of the weight of the sword is in the hilt, such attacks had incredible momentum.
Perhaps the only real weaknesses of the Longsword are its large size and the fact that it occupies both hands. It remained the dominant military sword so long as full plate armor was common on the battlefield. When armor gradually faded from use, the Longsword faded as well. It was expensive and bulky overkill for unarmored warfare.
Longsword fencing was taught by many historical fencing masters including Fiore de'i Liberi, Filippo Vadi, Johannes Liechtenauer, Sigmund Ringeck, Hanko Dobringer, Hans Talhoffer, Joachim Meyer, Paulus Hector Mair, Peter Falkner, Theodori Verolini, Martin Syber, Andre Paurñfeyndt, etc.
Congratulations, you got the Arming Sword!
The Arming Sword is the classic one-handed knightly sword in use from the early Medieval era until it eventually evolved into the War Rapier in the Renaissance. In its era, it was simply called "sword" since it was by far the most common sword in existence.
Arming Swords have no real weaknesses nor any outstanding strengths. They are the definition of a well-rounded blade. They cut and thrust very well, but they are not the best in either category. They have decent reach, but not the best. They are very fast, though, and quick to the draw. Blade lengths typically varied from 27 inches to 33 inches and they generally weighed anywhere from 2 lbs. to 3 lbs. A typical arming sword would usually have a 30 inch blade and weigh 2 and 1/2 lbs.
Since their only hand protection is a simple cross-guard, the Arming Sword is usually used alongside a buckler or shield. This allows the quick and versatile Arming Sword to attack from many angles, while the buckler or shield protects the hands, beats aside the opponent's weapon, stifles the opponent's attacks, or even shield-strikes the opponent as an attack in its own right. Though bucklers and shields were the most common off-hand weapons for the Arming Sword, it could also be wielded with a dagger, cloak, pistol, or another sword in the off-hand.
There are very few manuals that teach Arming Sword per se - British Royal Manuscript I.33, Fiore de'i Liberi, and Hans Talhoffer may be the only three. Yet there are many Messer and War Rapier manuals to study that transfer rather well to the Arming Sword.
Congratulations, you got the Krieg Messer!
The Kriegsmesser is the only weapon on this list for which there are no surviving fencing treatises to read. However, a coherent style can easily be re-created by combining Longsword techniques with those of the Grosse Messer (the one-handed version of this weapon).
The Kriegsmesser is the "War Knife" - a two-handed, curved, single-edged blade with tremendous cutting power and blade presence. It also had decent thrusting ability and both a cross-guard and protection for the back of the hand.
Putting this together, it was a very good weapon to have around! It was called a "War Knife" due to complicated German laws. Messerschmidt (Knife smiths) weren't allowed to make swords due to guild/government regulations. Commoners weren't allowed to carry swords in peacetime due to weapons laws. So the knife smiths and commoners got together and figured out a solution: make a "knife" as big and dangerous as a sword! It was still technically not a sword due to the slab tang, knife-like hilt, unusual guard, and curved, single edged blade. So it was technically legal for the knife smiths to forge and technically legal for the commoners to carry. It was probably the most commonly exploited weapons law loophole in history.
While the Kriegsmesser is very powerful, it's tip thickens too quickly to thrust well into the gaps of armor, making it less useful against armored knights. It also occupies both hands, making it powerful and giving it great leverage, but also precluding the use of an off-hand weapon.
Congratulations, you got the Grosse Messer!
The Grosse Messer (Great Knife) or Langes Messer (Long Knife) was by far the most common weapon used by commoners in the medieval Holy Roman Empire. It was fast, light, easy to carry, quick to the draw, had better hand protection than most blades of the era, and it had truly terrific cutting power. Few one-handed swords would have a ghost of a chance competing in cutting power - many two-handed swords would have difficulty as well.
It was called a "Great Knife" due to complicated German laws. Messerschmidt (Knife smiths) weren't allowed to make swords due to guild/government regulations. Commoners weren't allowed to carry swords in peacetime due to weapons laws. So the knife smiths and commoners got together and figured out a solution: make a "knife" as big and dangerous as a sword! It was still technically not a sword due to the slab tang, knife-like hilt, unusual guard, and curved, single edged blade. So it was technically legal for the knife smiths to forge and technically legal for the commoners to carry. It was probably the most commonly exploited weapons law loophole in history.
The Falchion is essentially the same as a Grosse Messer, but the Falchion has a more traditional sword hilt similar to an Arming Sword.
The Grosse Messer's main weaknesses are it's short reach (24 inch to 30 inch blades being typical) and the fact that it's point usually thickens too quickly to be able to penetrate through the gaps of full plate armor. Yet it is very well suited for extreme close quarters fencing.
Messer was taught by many masters including Johannes Leckuchner, Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, and virtually every other Medieval German fencing master.
Congratulations, you got the Dussack!
"Dussack" is the Czech word for "Fang" and is essentially another term for the Cutlass - though the HEMA community still uses the word Dussack. The Dussack can be thought of as an early form of Cutlass or Saber as it was a curved, single-edged cutting sword with a complex guard offering fairly complete hand protection. Contrary to popular belief, the Dussack was not a mere training weapon. It was a weapon of war ideally suited for the quick draw, for cutting power, and for use in extreme close quarters. It was very popular in Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe. In many respects, it was Europe's answer to the Turkish Kilij.
The Dussack lends itself to an extremely quick, close, fluid form of fencing and Dussack matches tend to be very fast-paced. It's only real weaknesses are it's shortness and the fact that it's tip usually thickens too quickly to effectively thrust into the gaps of full plate armor. However, by the time the Dussack came onto the scene, full plate armor was becoming much less common. The Dussack, from pommel to tip, is intended to be the length of the fencers arm from fingers to shoulder.
The Dussack was taught by Joachim Meyer, Paulus Hector Mair, Andre Paurñfeyndt, Michael Hundt, Jakob Sutor von Baden, etc.
Two Hand Sword (Montante)
Two Hand Sword (Montante)
Congratulations, you got the Two Hand Sword! This sword is similar to the Longsword (the most popular weapon in HEMA today) but is larger. Two Hand Swords range from 4 lbs. to 8 lbs. in weight and often have blades from 40" long to 50" long. From pommel to tip, they are supposed to reach from the ground to the shoulder - or even up to the head! Most Two Hand Swords are optimized for cutting rather than thrusting, though many thrusting oriented examples exist that were designed for armored combat between knights.
Two Hand Swords, contrary to popular misconception, are extremely fast. The tip on the blade moves far faster than any other sword due to their length and momentum. Yet due to their terrifying momentum, they aren't very nimble. They have so much momentum that they cannot easily change directions from one way to the opposite way like smaller swords can. Thus, you must flow in smooth, circular motions from one cut to other similar cuts. The only thing difficult is a complete reversal of motion. Cuts from these swords are powerful enough to power through the parries of lesser weapons and knock armored opponents clean off their feet.
Two Hand Swords are ideally suited for fighting multiple opponents because you can easily beat aside their weapons, power through their parries, and whirl the blade around you with precise footwork to simultaneously fight off many opponents. Two Hand Swords are also very well suited for clearing a room, guarding territory, and beating pikes aside. They were often used to beat aside (or occasionally even break) pikes and halberds in warfare, open up holes in enemy infantry formations, and rush in. Two Hand Swords also boast excellent hand protection and the ability to easily grip the blunt ricasso of the sword with one hand and use it like a short spear.
Other names for the Two-Hand Sword include the Montante, Spadone, Slachterschwerter (Slaughter Sword), and Zweihander.
Like the Spear, Halberd, and Pollaxe, the Two Hand Sword is among the most dominant melee weapons ever invented, however it still has some weaknesses. It is not as long as spears or long pole-arms, plus it's high momentum makes it harder to reverse direction. This makes them more vulnerable to feinting, deception, and clever use of distance. This is why many masters focus on thrusting with the Two-Hand sword in one-on-one fights. Two-Hand Swords also are more expensive and take more time to learn than pole-arms.
The Two-Hand Swords were taught by such masters as Achille Marozzo, Domingo Luis Godinho, Figueiredo, George Silver, and Joachim Meyer.