24 August 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Longsword

In many ways, the longsword is very similar to the arming sword. It's a little longer, and a little heavier, but it actually performs rather differently.


Your basic longsword is about 4 feet long and about 3 lbs in weight. Longswords are built either for unarmoured or armoured combat, or built to make a compromise between the two.

Longswords built for armoured combat have a stiff blade, aggressively pointed. This is to facilitate the powerful thrusts required to defeat armour. The last few inches will be very sharp. Designs differ, but there will often be some provision for grasping the blade with your off-hand (this is known as "half-swording") - either the whole blade will be sharp save for a hand-sized portion in the middle of the last third, or only the tip will be sharp. Some longswords designed for armoured combat will have the quillons sharpened to points, to allow devastating quillon punches and mortschlags (more on that later).

An armoured man holding his sword in "half-sword".

Longswords built for unarmoured combat will have a more flexible blade, sharp all the way down. It may not be quite as aggressively pointed.

I'd like to clarify that the "unsharpened" portions are not totally dull, they're just not nearly as sharp as the rest of the sword.


The longsword, despite being a weapon of status, was not typically the primary battlefield weapon of armoured men, who typically preferred spears or poleaxes. The longsword was primarily a sidearm or a self-defence weapon.

Much like the arming sword, the cuts are delivered by pushing the balance point forward not with big swinging arm movements - . The big difference with a two-handed sword is that you do a "lever" action with your two hands, moving your right hand forward and your left hand back to snap the tip forward faster and more powerfully.


While half-swording (illustrated above) is possible with an arming sword, the extra 8" of blade (the other 4" of increased length over an arming sword is in the handle) really does make half-swording a longsword more viable.

Half-swording basically turns your sword into a small spear, and many of the spear plays are possible with the half-sword. It provides a powerful defence that can easily transition into a powerful thrust, and because it gets you in close, it puts you in a great position to enter and get into grappling.

Both Fiore and Vadi say, "the sword is an axe". While this statement is rather cryptic alone, by looking to the German tradition, we see a technique called the "mortschlag", or "murder-blow".

From historicalfencing.com - a mortschlag delivered to the vulnerable back of the shoulder.

The mortschlag involves grasping the blade with both hands, and swinging the sword exactly like an axe or mace. Ringeck advises that mortschlags be delivered to the foot, the hand or arm, or to the back of the hip or shoulder. Tallhoffer (I think - I know some of my readers are better versed in the German tradition than I am, and will surely correct me) describes used the crossguard to hook and disarm from  mortschlag.

The other side of the comment "the sword is an axe" is, in my opinion, that the sword and the axe share, amongst the knightly weapons, that is equally capable of thrusts and blows.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the sword can be used as an extra lever in holds, locks, or disarms. The point of the half-sword can be slipped between the arm and the sword and twisted for a disarm. If you can get behind your opponent, the sword can be held against their throat with a hand on the blade and one on the handle for a choke-out, severe neck wound, or a throw. When applying certain keys, the sword can be used to help lock up the arm and provide additional leverage for a break or throw.


In defence the longsword is used much like arming sword except at the half-sword, so that's what I'll discuss here.

Much like the spear, the half-sword can be used to knock a blow or thrust aside and immediately counter with a thrust of your own, or blow right through into a pommel/quillon strike.

From this block, you can turn your sword to the right, simultaneously displacing your opponents sword and directing your point at his face or neck, or come to a grapple as we see below.

Once you've blocked or parried at the half-sword, you're going to be very close to your opponent, and many defences in armour revolve around grappling. A man in armour is extremely well-protected, and throwing him to the ground is a great way to neutralize that advantage. Working at the half-sword facilitates this.

Coming to an arm lock - the opponent can be forced to the ground from here. If they strongly resist the throw, their arm will break.

From here, you can throw your opponent to the ground by pushing back on his head with the tip of your sword. Obviously, if he doesn't have good neck protection, he'll be severely injured even before he hits the ground.

A possible follow-on from the first half-sword defense I showed - push forward and slip the sword behind the neck, then use that powerful grip to hurl the opponent face-first into the ground.


  1. The photo and illustartions make this a litttle vague but you need good hand protection to pull off most these grips. Any sort of edged matched with the leverage needed to exercise these maneuvers is going to ruin ones own hand(s). Of course being alive nursing hands wounds is preferable to other options.

    I'm loving these posts.

    I've seen an illustration from a period Japanese book on swordplay similar to the shoulder grabbing disarm/pin and wonder if it was parallel evolution. Or the Japanese borrowed it after exposure to europeans?

  2. Speculating here, but I would guess that it's s case of parallel evolution. Human bodies are organized in the same way everywhere in the world, so martial arts everywhere have some marked similarities.

  3. The Japanese (and others) having similar, and I mean really do mean similar as in not the same, techniques is just a product of parallel evolution.

    As far as halfswording with a sharp edge, it is possible to do so with no hand protection without cutting your hands. You're only to slice your hand if you let the edge slide along your palm. Your lead hand is primarily just helping direct the point, all the power for the thrust come from the hand on the hilt. Granted there are existing eamples of swords with forged in gripping places on the blade, but it's not like a longsword is going to be scary sharp, just cutting up peasants sharp.

    Looking forward to the pollaxe post.

    1. I'm also looking forward to poleaxes! They're pretty amazing.

      Something I forgot to mention about the halfsword that you reminded me of - in addition to your point that most of the power in a halfsword thrust comes from the back hand, Ringeck talks about how sometimes you can brace the quillon against your chest for even more powerful thrusts powered directly from the body.

    2. Oh yes, the fourth guard of the halfsword.
      Halfsword has one more guard than spear does in the Geselschaft Liechtenauers, the third guard of the spear is the fourth guard of the halfsword, in which once you have got your point someplace, commonly the armpit, you could couch your spear or halfsword like a you would a lance and push with your whole body working the point around in small circles to worm the point around in the nerves and arteries in the armpit until they collapse or you have forced them against or over the barrier, all of which would declare you the winner in the judicial combat.

      You can also as a counter to this thrust your own point into your opponent's armpit and push until your pommel is in your chest which will push yourself back, and/or your opponent away freeing their point from your armpit.

      If you can't tell halfsword is my second favorite form. I'd rather go halfsword against a spear, but pollaxe against pollaxe, which is the most knightly weapon of all, a weapon primarily designed to be used on foot by a man-at-arms against other men-at-arms. It's halfsword on steroids.

  4. I'm a little confused about the mortschlang maneuver. You've stressed that the blades are sharp, why wouldn't this damage the hands?

    In what scenario would one want to turn their sword around and attack with the less deadly side?

    Halfswording is badass as all hell. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks for the questions!

      First off, the pommel/quillon end is not any less deadly. The sharpened quillons are like the backspike on a warhammer, and the pommel is like a mace-head. So it's not a less deadly side, it's a differently deadly side. It's basically turning your longsword into a mini-poleaxe, instead of a spear (when halfswording) or a sword.

      The longsword is pretty cool like that - it's a sword, a spear, and a poleaxe. Not many weapons have that kind of versatility.

      A blow from the pommel can stun in a way a blow from the blade can't, and the point of the quillon can deliver a forceful punching blow at an opening not available to the point (as it's coming in at a 90 degree angle).

      Secondly, it's a technique to be done in armour. You'll typically be wearing heavy gloves under your gauntlets.

      Thirdly, people have told me (I have not tried this) that halfswording or mortschlags is totally possible and safe with no gloves even with a sharp sword. It is surprising to me, too, but enough people who would know have said it (including Masters from the Medieval Era, such as Hans Talhoffer) that I believe it.

      Fourthly, Vadi says that it's reasonable to make a sword for use in armoured combat that is only sharp right at the end. So, if you (and by that I mean the longswordsman) is still concerned about cutting their hands during the mortschlag, they can dull the majority of the blade a little to make it safer.

    2. Technically you would be using the quillions, and most of the spikes/beaks of warhammers and pollaxes, for hooking something, like a weapon or limb, to move things or trip your opponent, and even if you were to use the quillions of your longsword to strike with a mordschlag they could have flat tips and it would still hit like a hammer against a man in armor, or punch through an unhelmed skull. Mostly mordschlagen are dealt with the pommel, and they are primarily directed at the head and hands, because getting hit in the head will very often create an opening for something more dangerous, like being born to the ground and then stabbed with a dagger in the face or groin, and because the lames over the hands are much thinner than most everywhere except the feet and so more of the blow with get through to the hands, and those lames will be much more easily deformed so even if the hands aren't injured badly their movements will be impaired because the lames are bent.

      A personal feeling of mine is that the mordschlag isn't taught so much as an expected attack, because it a slow and obvious attack that requires a lot more set up to pull off successfully, but rather so the student can learn how to defend against it.

    3. "Technically you would be using the quillions, and most of the spikes/beaks of warhammers and pollaxes, for hooking something,"

      " they could have flat tips and it would still hit like a hammer "

      While that's a possibility, Ringeck definitely describes using the quillons as a pick in mordschlags as well as the pommel, and Vadi recommends sharpening your quillons to points.

    4. You got a plate number for Ringeck? My translation mentions nothing about using the qullions as a pick, only the use of the pommel as a striking point.

    5. You are correct. I looked at my book again, and using the crossguard is an interpretation of Lindholm and Svard (the authors of the book I have), and is not in the original.

      My apologies! Totally wrong there.

    6. It happens, and I am glad I never picked up that book. I was hoping my translation was missing something.

      Now then, does Vadi specifically mention using the quillions as a pick? I ask this because I am totally unfamiliar with the actual specific contents of Fiore and Vadi.

    7. Vadi says in his introduction, in the section on how to size your sword,

      "If you wish to test the sword in armour,
      Make the cutting edges four fingers from the point,
      With the handle as is said above,

      With pointed crossguard, and note well the text."

  5. Updated the post with some more shots of defenses in armour.