How Long a Sword is Too Long?
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Categories: Modern

How Long a Sword is Too Long?

three male peacocks and a female peacock on a concrete staircase next to a Baroque castle garden
Just before the plague hit, I took this photo. Schloss Ambras, February 2020.

Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.

Fencers such as Matt Easton often recommend a sword with a blade in the neighbourhood of 80-100 cm long (32-40″) for single combat. A sword like this has a long reach but is still controllable, and in single combat on foot after the weapons are drawn out of measure the fighter with the longer reach has an advantage. This is also longer than the vast majority of swords in world history. Was that just because most historical people were poor and their steel was not very good, or do such long swords have disadvantages in other situations? Sir John lists several reasons why such a long sword is not always better. I have changed his printer’s use of I/J and U/V to match modern conventions, and added back in consonants which are indicated with a macron in the 1590 edition of his Discourses.

{3v} our such men of warre (contrarie to the auncient order and use Militarie) doo now a daies preferre and allowe that armed men Piquers, should rather weare Rapiers of a yard and a quarter (113 cm) long the blades, or more, than strong short arming Swords; little considering (or not understanding) that a squadron of armed men in the field being readie to encounter with another squadron, their Enemies, ought to streighten and close themselues by frunt and flanckes, and that after they have given their first thrush with their Piques, and being come to joyne with their enemies frunt to frunt, and face to face (and therefore the vse & execution of the piques of the formost rancks being past) they must presentlie betake themselves to the use of their Swords and Daggers; which they cannot with any celeritie draw, {4r} if the blades of their Swords be so long: for (in troth) armed men in such actions, being in their rancks so close one to another by flanckes, cannot draw their Swords if the blades of them be aboue the length of three quarters of a yard (68 cm), or a little more: besies that, Swords being so long, doo worke in a manner no effect, neither with blowes nor thrusts where the {one word missing} is so great, as in such actions it is; as also, that Rapier blades being so narrow, and of so small substance, and made of a verie hard temper to fight in privat fraies, in lighting with any blow upon armour, do presently breake, and so become unprofitable. Horsemen also, & chieflie Lances, wearing their Swords by their sides (as Soldiors ought to doo) cannot readily drawe them without letting fall their bridles out of their left handes, if their Swords be above the length of three quarters of a yard, or a yard at the most, & yet that too long. All which considered, their opinion of such long Swords, or Rapiers to be worne either by horsmen, or footmen armed, is very ignorant.

Long heavie Daggers also, with great brauling Alehouse hilts, (which were never used but for private fraies and braules, and that within lesse than these fortie yeres; since which time through long peace, we haue forgotten all orders and discipline Militarie) they doo no waies disallow, nor find fault withall, but rather allowe them for their Souldiors to weare, than short arming Daggers of convenient forme & substance, without hilts, or with little short crosses, of nine or ten inches the blades, such as not onely our brave Ancestors, but al other warlike Nations, both in warre and peace, did weare, and use. By the which they evidently shew that they do very litle consider how over-burdensome {4v} and combersome, such Alehouse Daggers are for all sorts of Souldiors both horsemen and footmen, as also how unfit they are to be used with the point and thrust by Soldiors, Piquers or Halbardiers against their enemies in squadron. Where, by proofe, reason and experience, in al battailes and other encounters, the nerenesse and prease being so great, short, strong, and light arming daggers are more maniable, and of greater execution amongst al sorts of armed men, than such long deformed Daggers, as aforesaid.

Smythe, Discourses (1591), pp. 3v-4v http://name.umdl.umich.edu/a12567.0001.001

In traditional English, an armed man or armatus is a footsoldier with iron body armour, an iron headpiece, and often arm armour. Smythe has three basic arguments for short swords and short daggers. When the troops are closed into close order, it can be hard to draw a long sword quickly when the enemy are too close to use a staff weapon. If you want to strike at a distance, you have a long staff weapon or a gun- the sword is used when the enemy are too close to use a longer weapon. Second, very long swords may break because they strain the available materials to their limits. Smythe’s contemporary Joseph Swetnam also warns that the kinds of swords and rapiers which ordinary Englishmen use “may either bow or breake” if they are swung. And third, long heavy weapons with great hilts are “over-burdensome and cumbersome.” In other words, they are heavy and bulky. Smythe thinks that longer swords and rapiers and daggers with great basket hilts may have use in “private frays,” but he does not think they are a good choice for soldiers.

Elsewhere, Smythe also suggests that halberds, bills, or battleaxes should be short for men who will fight in a line, and a foot or two longer for men who will go ahead of the block of pikes to support the skirmishers. Once again, he suggests that soldiers who will fight in close quarters use shorter weapons than men who will fight in the open one on one or two against three.

Smythe was a military tourist who refused to name exactly which armies he had followed and which sieges, battles, and amphibious assaults he had been present at. He was also a crank who believed the military art had reached its peak when he turned 18 and helped put down the risings in Cornwall in 1549. But he was good at describing the best practice in Hapsburg territory in the middle of the 16th century.

And such a Prince or Lieutenant generall of an Armie, as hath those sufficiencies in him (that I haue before mentio∣ned) cannot faile to frame good Officers of his Campe & Ar∣mie, as also good and sufficient Coronells and Captaines. And such Officers, Coronells and Captaines cannot faile to make good soldiers: All which, with the seruing of almightie God, tendeth to the orderlie proceeding and managing of a warre in all affaires and actions to the end of the same with victo∣rie.

And this that I haue aboue set downe, is a principall part of a Milicia, and discipline Militarie of all warlike Na∣tions; and the contrarie is tumultuarie, and cleane opposite to all Arte and Science Militarie. And this I haue written in the end of my Proëme for a note and remembrance, for all yong Gentlemen of our Nation, that haue a desire to winne honour by following of actions of Armes. And now I proceed to my discourses.

PS. After I wrote this post, I discovered another blog focused on 16th and 17th century Europe with similar ideas https://otakudo.net/2016/07/07/swords-in-war-part-2-daggers-and-are-fencers-any-good/ Great minds think alike!

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(scheduled late 2021)

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