22 March 2014

Real World Weapons: Liechtenauer Edition #1: Longsword

This is part one of a series of articles about real world weapons, their historical use, and how that knowledge can be applied towards RPGs. I am not an authority as such, but as a member of the WMA Mafia corrupting the delicate OSR movement, I guess it behooves me to pretend like I am an expert. You can all thanks Spells and Steel.

As the title states I will be discussing the longsword. In the interests of pointing out a slightly different point of view here is Spells and Steel's article on the same subject.

At the risk of being repetitive, I will explains in broad terms what a longsword is first, and emphasize that I am not talking about the "classic" knightly one handed weapon that is commonly called a longsword. That weapon will be covered later under the heading "Sword."

A longsword is roughly a straight, double edged, and acutely pointed weapon intended for two hands. It is a weapon that is long enough to hit someone, but not so long as to be cumbersome when worn on the hip, which is how all swords that were worn were worn. Any weapon much larger than that would be carried.

I would like to say that this is THE iconic knightly weapon, but it isn't. It is A knightly weapon, along with the spear/lance, dagger, and pollaxe.

The longsword, and in truth all swords, are divided not only between blade and hilt, but the blade itself is divided four different ways. There is the weak and the strong of the blade, that is the parts of the blade that you have the most control and power when your sword is bound against another's. The strong is the half closest to your hands, and the weak is the half furthest from them. The other way is the long and sword edges of the sword. The the long edge is the edge that is, usually, furthest from you, and the edge that you will strike most blows with as it provides the most reach, hence the long edge. The short edge is the edge that faces, or simply the opposite edge of the sword.

There are essentially two ways to fight with a longsword, and roughly four contexts that you would be fighting with one.

The first is grasping the sword at the hilt and using it like a sword. That is, with the hacking and the slashing and the stabbing; the cut or blow being a percussive edge strike, the slice being a combination of a draw cut and a pressure cut, and the thrust being the violent insertion of the point of the sword into someone's body.

From http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Codex_Wallerstein
From http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Hans_Talhoffer/W%C3%BCrttemberg

The second is grasping the sword with one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade. Now contrary to Charles Taylor, I do not believe that all, or even most, swords that were intended for use in this manner, called halfswording or the shortened point, were blunted or had special forged in grasping spots on the blade. It is possible to grasp a sharp blade with a hand and not get cut, particularly when that hand is being used to stabilize and guide not to add more power to the thrust. This is was used primarily to fight someone in plate armor because it gives you more control over the point so you can stab it into the gaps.
From the Gladitoria page on Wiktenauer.

There are two broad contexts in which someone would be using a longsword: unarmored and armored.

Unarmored falls into roughly two other contexts, self-defense, whether being accosted by peasants or bandits, or what can be inferred as a judicial duel, that is a fight to the death to determine legal matters. This is when someone is generally going to be using the longsword like a sword.
Unlike in other systems or styles, the body is divided into only four targets, or openings. There are two upper openings, and two lower openings.
And there are only four guards, although you only need one (vom Tag).

vom Tag and Alber
Pflug and Ochs

Armored is bit messier.
There is the one on one judicial duel, which is where the vast majority of primary sources are focused, and in which the two combatants have a reasonable expectation that they and their opponent will be halfswording.
There is also the friendly duels in which the longsword is employed like a sword and percussive blows are used, a significantly less lethal mode of combat, also extremely hard on the swords.
Finally, there is using a sword in armor on the battlfield.
You can also use the cross as a hook.

There are also a larger number of openings in armor, but they are all much smaller and harder to wound, which is why halfswording is predominately used. 
  1. There is the face, which in the context of a judicial duel would completely open, with the visor up or totally removed, being able to see your opponent and breathe better appears to have been historically worth the risk of getting stabbed in the face. In a friendly duel, the visor would attached and lowered, and face wouldn't be a purposeful target anyways.
  2. There are the armpits, which being a joint aren't fully encased in metal, although depending on the time period may be protected by the underlying mail armor, a mail voider attached to the arming doublet or the armor, or with additional hanging plates called besagews. This is why the halfswording. It's rather difficult to cut into someone's armpit, and even if your thrust does not break or deform a mail ring, it will fit into the ring approxately half an inch as well as the mail flexing inwards allowing for more penetration of the point.
  3. The palms of the hands
  4. The back of the gauntlets. Yes it seems odd, but there are situations in which you could wind up (hah winding pun) that allows you to place your point down the cuff of the gauntlet, which even if you don't do much injury still gives you control of that hand.
  5. The back of the knees. Honestly, not the best of targets when halfswording.
  6. The groin. It's basically bigger armpit, but as it's lower it's futher away and thus not the best primary target.
  7. The elbow, which is better than the knee.
Counter thrusting to push away from a thrust into the armpit. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Codex_Wallerstein

These are just on the basis of thrusting. The hands, feet, elbow, and knees from the outside are also vulnerable to percussive blows, but the edge of the sword, while capable of deforming the thin plates requires a more powerful blow. You are generally better off using the point, or grappling, or another weapons.
"But what about the murder/thunder stroke?"
Attempting a murder-blow...
Oh you mean the technique in which you grasp your sword with both hands on the blade and deliver a heavy blow with the pommel to the head, hands, or feet? Sure. Why not. Aside from it being a slow technique, that is relatively easy to counter, that requires more thoughtful set up, it is a perfectly wonderful technique. You can deliver a stunning blow to the side the head, cave in their face, although you can use the pommel to do this without grasping the blade with both hands as well, or stunning/disabling blow to a hand or foot, all of which give you an opening to close in and throw your opponent to the ground for followup ground fighting. It is a useful technique, but not a perfect one.
...and it is denied. From http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Hans_Talhoffer/W%C3%BCrttemberg

(Note: I am ignoring mounted combat because it is significantly beyond my personal experience)

Something that is common between longsword and halfsword, as well as fighting in this school, is the idea of winding and staying in the bind. Once blade to blade, or other weapon to weapon, contact is made, you stay there. This allows you rely on your tactile senses to feel where their weapon is instead of your eyes. The eye is much easier to deceive, especially once you are in spitting distance.

When fighting longsword to longsword out of armor, there will probably not be a lot of this clanging and banging around that you see in movies. There will be an abrupt and violent meeting of blades, and then a lot, or a little, of subtle and quick maneuvering for position so you can thrust home, or slice a limb, or leave the bind long enough to cut. This is not to overshadow the brutality of using a 3'-4' hunk of sharp metal to kill a human, or to romanticize it. But it's not as hulk-smashery as film depicts it.

But what does all this mean to you someone who just wants to play some person in a game, or as the person running a game?

Here are some historical notes.
  1. Peasants, and commoners, won't know these things.
  2. Commoners will know these things to a greater degree the closer to the expansion of cities, the Renaissance in most cases.
  3. Even the knightly classes will not as totally versed or even aware of these techniques and teachings. This can be inferred by several passages in historical manuals relating to how to fight someone who is bad at the arts.
  4. The usage of flashy fake fighting for entertainment has a long history.
  5. The longsword isn't a primary weapon in armor.
  6. Nobility might not like commoners learning and practicing their arts.
  7. Swords weren't as expensive as many people commonly believe, with their price going down as manufacturing improved.
  8. There is a form of longsword that isn't technically a sword because it has a slab hilted construction with a single edge. This was a way for knife-makers to horn into sword-making without breaking the law. I guess.
And I will end with this: As fascinating as I find HEMA, I know damn well that trying to roleplay out, or stick mechanics to the hundreds of specific techniques will bog down play. I know I don't want to spend half an hour dealing with the potentially long chain of responses from two people just touching blades.


Codex Danzig

Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship