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What did Historical Swords Weigh? Clements "never overlay thy selfe with a heavy weapon, for nimblenesse of bodie, and nimblenesse of weapon are two chief helpes for thy advantage" - Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, Just how heavy were swords from the Middle Ages and Renaissance?
This question perhaps the most commonly encountered in this subject is easily answered by knowledgeable students of the subject.
While understanding of the true weights of Medieval and Renaissance swords is appreciated by serious enthusiasts and practitioners of historical fencing today, in contrast the general public and even specialists are often woefully ignorant on the matter. Finding accurate information on what real historical swords actually weighed can sometimes be difficult, making efforts to convince skeptics and the uninformed a considerable challenge.
A Weighty Issue Erroneous statements about the weight of Medieval and Renaissance swords are unfortunately common. It is an issue of the most habitual misinformation and misstatement. This should come as no surprise given the misrepresentation Medieval and Renaissance swordplay continually receives in popular media.
Everywhere from television and movies to video games, historical European swords have been depicted as being cumbersome and displayed with wide, exaggerated movements. On a recent national television appearance on The History Channel, one respected academic and expert on medieval military technology even declared with conviction how 14th century swords were "heavy" sometimes weighing as much as "40 pounds"!
From ordinary hands-on experience we know full well that swords were not excessively heavy nor did they weigh 10 or 15 pounds and more. There is only so many ways we can repeat how these weapons were not at all heavy or ungainly.
Remarkably, while one would think a crucial piece of information as the weight of swords would be of great interest to arms curators and arms historians, there is no major reference book that actually lists the weights of different types.
Perhaps this vacuum of documented evidence is part of the very problem surrounding the issue. However, there are a few respected sources that do give some valuable statistics. For example, the lengthy catalog of swords from the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London readily lists dozens of fine specimens among which it is difficult to find any weighing in excess of 4 pounds.
Indeed, the majority of specimens, from arming swords to two-handers to rapiers, weigh much less than three pounds. The late Ewart Oakeshott.
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds.
As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: Even the big hand-and-a-half 'war' swords rarely weigh more than 4. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven and who had to be tough specimens to survive that agewere by no means too great to be practical.
Oakeshott, the 20th century's leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know. He had handled thousands of swords in his lifetime and at one time or another personally owned dozens of the finest examples ranging from the Bronze Age to the 19th century.
Medieval swords in general were well-made, light, agile fighting weapons equally capable of delivering dismembering cuts or cleaving deep cavities into the body.
They were far from the clumsy, heavy things they're often portrayed as in popular media and far, far more than a mere "club with edges. Even the heavier bastard swords which were used only by second-grade fighting men did not exceed 1.
When due allowances are made, these surprisingly low figures also hold good for the enormous two-hand sword, which was traditionally only wielded by 'true Hercules.
Starting in the 16th century there were of course special parade or bearing swords that did weigh up to 8 or 9 pounds and more, however these monstrous show pieces were not fighting weapons and there is no evidence they were ever intended for use in any type of combat.
Indeed, it would not make sense given that there were other far more maneuverable combat models available which were several pounds lighter. Hans-Peter Hils in his dissertation on the work of the great 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer noted that since the 19th century many arms museum collections typically feature immense parade or bearing greatswords as if they were actual combat weapons ignoring the fact they are not only blunt edged, but of impractical size and weight as well as poorly balanced for effective use.
Expert Opinions The belief that Medieval swords were lumbering or unwieldy to use has virtually taken on the guise of urban folklore and still perplexes those of us who today exercise with such weapons regularly.
It is even something of a challenge to try to find a 19th and even 20th century fencing author and even arms historian who does not unequivocally declare in their writings that Medieval swords were "heavy", "cumbersome", "unwieldy", "clumsy", and in a complete misunderstanding of the handling, purpose, and application of such diverse weapons were designed only for "offense.
The view is not one limited to modern times. For example, Thomas Page's otherwise unremarkable military fencing booklet, The Use of the Broad Sword, exclaimed nonsense about earlier swords that became largely accepted as fact in the 19th and 20th century.
Revealing something of how much things in that period had changed from earlier skills and knowledge of martial fencing, declared how their: They were the Instruments of Strength, not the Weapons or Art.
The Sword was enormous length and breadth, heavy and unwieldy, design'd only for right down chopping by the Force of a strong Arm. Page's views were not uncommon among fencers then use to featherweight smallswords and the occasional saber and short cutlass.
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