Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sword Construction - Something To Get a Handle On

 by Scott Higginbotham

What could more exciting than reading or writing about sword construction?  Well, I can think of very few pursuits, except for unflavored pottage.  In fact, I have just now finished my second bowl.  

The parts and pieces of a medieval sword are taken for granted and extensive study and typology has been undertaken by Ewart Oakeshott and his work is nothing short of fascinating.  However, this piece will focus on two further parts of the sword – the grip (handle) and the blade. 

The Grip or Handle
Various Grips
To state the obvious, the handle is the part of the sword that enables the user to properly wield the sword.  Wood was a typical cover over the blade's tang, which then could be wrapped in leather, or even wire, to prevent slippage.  The most common grips were one-handed, two-handed, and the hand-an-half - also called the bastard sword.

Two-handed swords allowed an armored knight to wield his sword with both hands for those devastating strikes.  However, atop a destrier, perhaps with a shield on the left arm, two handed operation would be difficult at best.  Two hands gripping this type of sword was more suited when dismounted - manning a wall or within a press of knights making a last ditch effort during a siege.  
Two Handed
But is a two-handed sword even usable for a mounted knight?  It depends!  If your arms are well-muscled and your stamina strong then ride on to glory.  Or, and here is where the “sword magic” is on display – the pommel can balance the sword in such a way that its feel becomes light.  A lever and a fulcrum come to mind.

One Handed
One-handed swords generally have a shorter blade, which allows the user to wield it with relative ease.  Since it is shorter in length, Sir Knight can swing and parry the way he was chivalrously trained – on top of his warhorse.  

However, even a sword of this type could be used with two hands.  One could rest his hand on the pommel or take up a double grip.  While this is not ideal, there are advantages in terms of speed and strength of strike.

Hand and a Half
The hand-an-a-half sword, or bastard sword, was generally shorter than a two-handed sword and its design combined the better qualities of the two preceding types.  It was a versatile weapon, which allowed a mounted knight ease of use, while allowing the same knight to make that last stand against William Marshall as he scales the wall and draws you into a fight on the wall walk (a chivalrous nod of the helm to Elizabeth Chadwick and her favorite). 

This type of sword affords the user to comfortably grip the base of the pommel, thus giving it a two-handed feel without the weight.  When one-handed use is warranted, its relatively light weight resembles that of a one-handed sword – great news when your protagonist is mounted or defending a spiraling stairwell.

Putting myself into the hapless boots of a defender on the wall as William Marshall pokes his helm through the crenel gap, I would choose the bastard sword and put up a spirited defense.  I would thrust, parry, strike, and then impose upon his chivalrous nature and humbly yield.  Later, and once my ransom monies were settled, I would ask just what possessed a man of his years to scale such a wall.
The short video below shows the variety of uses for the other parts of the sword besides the blade.  Very fascinating for those that need to add some flavor to a dramatic scene or write their protagonist out of a tight spot. Also, note how the two-handed swords depicted in the video seem light.  Ahh, that "sword magic".


Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.



  1. Ohh more swords! Shared on my site, but the video doesn't seem to work on my computer.

    1. Quirky computers I think. It can found on Youtube by searching "two handed swords" or something close to that. Thanks!

    2. Will try that! I have a non-fiction book on William Marshall, might have to start reading it soon!

  2. A very informative and entertaining post Scott. I guess with William Marshal that feat at the siege of Millie was either a do or die moment, a proving to the whippersnappers he still had it, or just for the song of the sword!

    1. Elizabeth, I felt I had to give a nod to him and how you mention that scene in one of your books. Even as he grew older I am always amazed at how he consistently proved himself to have few equals.


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