The Why of Weapons: The Great Sword of War

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This article is by Joseph Malik.

Today I’m going to discuss an underrepresented weapon in fantasy, although it was likely the single greatest casualty-producing weapon on the medieval battlefield until the development of the longbow.

Image 1A Gran Espée de Guerre by Michael “Tinker” Pearce. (www.tinkerswords.com)

It’s a sword. It’s arguably the sword. It’s the Oakeshott Type XIIIa great sword of war, referred to as a gran espée de guerre.

Calling it a sword is something of a misnomer, as it was really a demolition tool that happened to be sword-shaped.

Weighing between two and three pounds, a gran espée de guerre typically had a wide 30- to 40-inch blade, six to ten inches of handle, and a spatulate tip built to shatter bones and wreck armor. This sword was typically not ornate. Soldiers didn’t trick out their grans espées de guerre because construction workers don’t trick out their shovels.

The gran espée de guerre is often called a “greatsword,” and is often incorrectly referred-to as a “two-handed sword.” It is, in point of fact, a sword intended to be used with two hands but it works just fine with one. Assuming that your hero can get a hand around it, of course. (Halflings, Hobbits, Kender, gnomes, and dwarves, you can just leave now. We’ll catch up with you in a few articles when we get to the saxe.)

Despite frequent depictions in historical literature and art, fantasy authors often overlook the gran espée de guerre, going instead for either the two-handed Type XX, the Scottish Claymore, or something equally monstrous (bigger, of course, is always better).

Image 2Eddard Stark rockin’ a true “Two-Handed Sword,” an Oakeshott Type XX. The Type XX is a descendant of the Type XIIIa, and came into use a few hundred years later as a raised middle finger to knights in full harness. (HBO Entertainment)

In fact, the greatsword is so widely misrepresented, and apparently so misunderstood, that a Google search for “greatsword” returns this in the first ten results:

Image 3Ah, yes. The medieval greatsword. History is awesome. (monsterhunter.wikia.com)

And this:

Image 4You will put so much more than an eye out with that thing. (skreems.deviantart.com)

The gran espée de guerre was a professional soldier’s primary weapon from about 1100-1350 AD, the sweet spot of the Dark Ages where a lot of authors choose to place their fantasy milieus. For nearly three hundred years, it was the greatest casualty-producing weapon – maybe not the killing-est, but the hurting-est – and consistently the weapon that would get its wielder off a field in one piece.

Then, as now, soldiers used what they used because it worked at the time. Let’s look at why.

The gran espée de guerre was heavier than a longsword, not as deadly sharp as an arming sword, and not as task-specific as a true two-handed sword like the Claymore. It combined many different facets of metallurgy and physics to produce perhaps the ultimate hand-to-hand combat weapon of its day.

To understand this, you first need to understand that armored combat is not fencing. Nor is it tightly-regulated re-enacted historical competitive combat you see at the (insert historical society of your choice) Faire. It’s not even close. Sword-shield-sword-shield-bam-bam-bam makes for a fun sport, but the myriad safety considerations of sport combat reduce you to a hideously small range of options that, on a battlefield, would get you murdered in short order.

Hand-to-hand armored combat – whether it’s in helmets and hauberks or modern IOTV’s – is a matter of wearing your opponent down until he no longer presents a threat. Period. In advanced military combatives, where we learn to engage opponents in heavy body armor, we train to throw, sweep, stomp, choke, lock, and break bones. You engage and neutralize the threat. And you do it with a degree of abandon because your body is not merely protected in armor; it’s weaponized.

Trends and customs come and go, but the basis of physical combat has not changed. Medieval armored combat, like modern armored combat, was a matter of trying to break the other guy apart inside his armor between weapon strikes.

And that brings us to armor.

Your character is not going to cut someone in half through his armor. That’s why armor existed. If anything in the day could cut through armor easily, people wouldn’t wear it. That has not changed throughout history. (If you run up against a weapon that you know for certain will compromise your armor, you leave. That, also, has not changed throughout history.)

Armor has always sucked. It sucked for the Etruscans. It sucked for the Romans. It sucked for the Norse. It sucked for the Mongols. It sucked for Harold and his armies. Even our modern armor in today’s military – the Interceptor and the IOTV and even the Dragon Skin back when we could use it – sucks. Soldiers wear armor, and have always worn armor, despite the fact that it sucks; we wear it because it works. I’m a professional soldier. If I knew I was going into a fight where my armor wasn’t going to matter, believe me, I would leave it in my tent. Any soldier would.

Armor works.

Image 5Check that. Most armor works. (Second Life)

A different avenue to threat neutralization was to wreck your opponent’s armor to the point where he either had to retreat for his own safety, or where he could no longer fight effectively because all his broken armor was hampering his mobility. The gran espée de guerre was designed for this. It might not kill an opponent, but it would neutralize him, and that was plenty.

Steel was prohibitively expensive at the time the gran espée de guerre was in use, so most armor was made of iron. Look up the shear steel process and then imagine making a suit of armor from it. Go on; I’ll wait.

Having a suit of steel armor in 1100 AD would be like driving a car made of hammered gold today.

Armor from 1000-1300 AD was primarily iron mail, with reinforced areas of wrought iron, cuir boulli, and, very occasionally, steel. (The full field harnesses we saw in pseudo-historical-fantasy atrocities like John Boorman’s Excalibur didn’t come about until a couple of hundred years after the gran espée de guerre had outlived its usefulness, at which point the massive Type XX greatsword was giving their wearers a run for their money.)

Sword edges around this time period were made of steel, typically welded onto iron spines. Steel is harder than iron, but iron has flexibility and impact resistance, called ductility, that steel lacks. The flexibility of an iron spine meant that your sword wasn’t as likely snap in half while you were beating someone up with it.

In order to make a flexible blade that still had sharp edges, the Europeans – and the Romans before them – welded steel edges onto iron spines. There were other ways to come up with a workable result, but welding was the most convenient and cost-effective solution, and it must have worked because it’s how people made swords and tools for over a thousand years.

Image 6A broken-back saxe blade by Jeroen Zuiderwijk, moderator at swordforum.com. Note the weld line along the edge where the steel is folded into the iron. Historically-accurate swords would have a line like this along each cutting edge.

A carbon steel edge will bite into iron the way a diamond will bite into glass. The gran espée de guerre coupled this differential in hardness with a peculiar type of edge geometry: a stout edge with a bevel that made it functionally less like a kitchen knife and more like a splitting maul. This was not a particularly sharp edge by any definition that you’d recognize today. It would not shave you, nor part a dropped silk scarf like a katana, nor do any of the other magically-sharp stuff that a hero’s sword always seems to do in fantasy novels. In point of fact, you’d have to punch the edge of the sword to cut yourself on it.

No, seriously.

The reason you don’t use a “sharp” sword against armor is that sharpness, in simplest terms, is reduced drag. Reduced drag results from a combination of edge bevel and sectional density. In order to make an edge razor-sharp, you have to file down the edge until it is quite thin. This makes for a long bevel with a very shallow slope (authentic swords didn’t have secondary bevels the way modern kitchen knives do). This is the edge you find on a straight razor, and it is ridiculously delicate. Straight razors are honed with a leather strop, literally aligning the molecules.

If you slam an edge that delicate against plate iron, you will make a useless spot on the blade. (If you drop a straight razor onto a marble countertop, you can destroy it.)  This is why I sigh inwardly every time I read fantasy works where the hero has a super-sharp battlesword and he’s cleaving badguys in twain, armor and all, as if it’s a lightsaber. He’d hack through about two and a half mooks before his sword became a metal cricket bat.

However, a gran espée de guerre,  with its beefy edge and trick bevel on five or six feet of moment arm – arm’s length, plus blade – would sink its teeth into iron. It may not compromise the armor – it may not even draw blood – but that didn’t matter.

Stick with me on this.

The primary function of armor is not to stop a weapon, but to redirect it. Armor does this by either absorbing a weapon’s energy, or by glancing the weapon off a curved surface such as a cop, a plate, or a helmet.

Driven against an iron or cuir boulli surface, the beveled edge of a gran espée de guerre bites and transfers the full force of the blow instead of skipping off. A gran espée de guerre might not penetrate an iron helmet, but it would make a dent you could rest a cantaloupe in. That’s the kind of injury that sidelines a guy for days, if it doesn’t leave him drooling and twitching for the rest of his life.

Against a hauberk or byrnie, the gran espée de guerre transmits far more kinetic energy than other weapons of the time. The trick bevel not only damages the mail but carries the impact to the padding beneath. It hits like a crowbar, breaking bones under repeated blows before all but the finest mail falls away in tatters.

This has a lot to do with blade harmonics and center of effort, as well. If you look at the Type XIIIa . . .

Image 1Mmmm. Just look at it. It doesn’t mind. Go on and look.

. . . the ideal point of impact, where the main focus of the mass comes together, is just past the end of the fuller. The fuller serves to lighten the sword. Yet the tip of a Type XIIIa is built heavy. The weight is carried forward for the same reason that Abrams tanks fire rods and not big bullets: for maximum penetration, you want to stack mass behind the impact. The Type XIIIa is amazing for its concentration of effort. It is an engineering miracle, considering the time period.

A full-speed blow from a gran espée de guerre wouldn’t kill you in sturdy armor, but you’d be done for the day. A hit to the chest or back – or even a heavy blow driving the edge of your shield against your helmet – would leave you out of breath and seeing pink-and-purple Rorschach tests everywhere for a few minutes, and you would probably have to be carried off the field.

That’s what the gran espée de guerre brought to the fight: BAM. “You’re done.” BAM. “You, too.” BAM. “I can do this all day.”

Up until now, we’ve discussed using the gran espée de guerre on foot. Brandished from horseback, it was a slate-wiper.

If you were a professional soldier – a knight or well-paid mercenary, as opposed to a conscripted mook with a spear and a linen jack – you brought home big bucks swinging this monster on the field, sending badguys home one after the other to get their armor fixed.

It was a “Great Sword of War.” A war sword.

The war sword.

The weapon is not undefeatable. You can counter a greatsword by engaging with a gran espée de guerre of your own, or bum-rushing the wielder with five or six of your buddies and taking him down. Ideally, you’d use a combination of both. One or two of you are going to get injured or maimed in the process, though, and generally the caliber of military discipline required for such a stunt didn’t exist back then. So if you were wielding this sword on a battlefield, you’d find that things were pretty much going your way most of the time.

Soldiers carry weapons that get them off the field in one piece. That hasn’t changed since the days of living in caves and fighting with rocks and sticks. The gran espée de guerre is a weapon that did exactly that, yet it’s criminally underrepresented by authors who haven’t given a lot of thought to why their heroes carry the weapons they do.

There’s your why.

Your fantasy writing doesn’t have to be historically or physically accurate. But when you start digging into the history and physics of weaponry, you can come up with some interesting springboards for your own writing. Consider the gran espée de guerre and then look at your hero’s sword.

Most of all, have fun. And write, dammit.

Why do your characters carry the swords that they do?

About the Author:

Joseph Malik is one of the authors of The Syria Policy Playbook. He has worked as a stuntman, a high-rise window washer, a freelance writer, a computational linguist, a touring rock musician, and a soldier in U.S. Army Special Operations. He currently serves in the Army Reserve and consults for infrastructure development projects in areas of ongoing geostrategic concern. His blog on writing and fighting can be found at m-j-malik.blogspot.com.

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26 comments
AWAbooks
AWAbooks

Brutal, blunt, and incredibly informative! I could feel air getting knocked out of my lungs with each paragraph. It's wonderful to get such clearly communicated knowledge from someone who appears to have truly used the weapon, and knows something of "real combat" of the time. Immediately made me begin rethinking 40 years of Hollywood images... 

Thank You :-)

Diane Tibert
Diane Tibert

Thank you for this informative article. I'm always on the look out to learn more about swords.

As for armour, I've been tempted to create my own shirt (or vest stye) of mail (linked steel). A few years ago, a student at the local high school created one. It must have taken her hours to connect those little steel circles.


I wrote a post on sword weights back in April 2012: http://dianetibert.com/2012/04/12/dispelling-the-myth-of-sword-weights/

NatRusso
NatRusso

A master class in medieval weaponry. Thank you, sir!

Morgyn
Morgyn

"(bigger, of course, is always better)"  Spit laughing, ducking my screen, sniggering, laughing out loud.  This was as much fun as it it was to-think-about.  Tweeted.  Off to your blog, oh wise one.

stephenspower
stephenspower

I don't know what's going to happen first: a dozen scenes added to WIPs in which two soldiers banter over the efficacy and actual use of a great sword, or a newborn by one of these authors given the name Oakeshott. Great article. Emailed it to my friends. Now to work on a new scene...

Mike Cairns
Mike Cairns

Hi Joseph

What a wonderful, insightful post, thanks. 

Being of the bent that focuses on characters, my guys and girls normally carry 'sharp swords', 'twin knives', or in one, unusual example, Stechkin machine pistols, as a tribute to an old comic i loved as a kid. 

This will, however, always pop into my head when I write from now on, and hopefully inform my choice of weapons. 

cheers

Mike

wordwalker
wordwalker

Superb. The core weapon for "the" core medieval period-- and a master's tour of so much else about that time and fighting too.


I'd guess the reason it's left out of fiction is that, like you said, real fighting's all about moves you can't get insurance for on a soundstage. That and how one-shot weapons are bad for sustained drama-- to our blinkered Western expectations, anyway.

Mythic Scribes
Mythic Scribes

Michael Warner - Actually, the belief that rapiers weren't used for cutting is a pervasive myth. Most rapiers were designed for cutting as well as thrusting, and "slicing" techniques were taught in most period Italian fencing manuals. Check out this FAQ: http://www.salvatorfabris.org/WhatIsTheRapier.shtml

Michael Warner
Michael Warner

Aren't rapiers made for thrusting and piercing, not slicing?

KassanWarrad
KassanWarrad

Great article. I'm going to have a list of follow up questions for you to answer.

A E Lowan
A E Lowan

As always, both entertaining and extremely informative.  We're getting close to writing a battle in our current WIP, and this article could not have come at a better time.  Thank you!

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani

My protagonist carries an Italian-style rapier. It's made of an indestructible magical alloy that can slice through armor without losing its edge. Although most denizens of his world need heavier weapons, this enchanted blade dominates with its speed.

TracyMJoyce
TracyMJoyce

@CiaraBallintyne Agreed. All I meant was what you do describe has to be accurate, a balance b/n res. knowledge and the art of story telling

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