A Perfect Length II: The Longsword

Last time it was my turn, I made a post about the perfect length of a single handed sword, according to several different masters in the 16th and 17th centuries. This week, I turn my attention to the longsword. However, in order to argue what length it should be, I have to define what it is first. For the purposes of this post, I will be defining the longsword simply as a sword that is designed so that it can be used with two hands on the grip. See Richard Marsden’s recent essay for example1, which argues that the longsword and the two handed sword are intrinsically different weapons. This is not something I agree with, though that said there is some historical evidence for a separation of the two.

The English Masters

Joseph Swetnam talks about weapons (or perhaps more accurately, styles of fighting used with those weapons) derived from the sword, and from the rapier. From the sword he tells us is derived “The two hand sword” as well as “The bastard sword, the which Sword is some-thing shorter than a long Sword, and yet longer than a Short-sword2.

The London Masters of Defence also categorised the long sword, the bastard sword, and the two handed sword as different weapons, with the long sword being by far the most popular of the three3.

Swetnam talks of the use of the long sword and dagger together as a combination, giving the impression that his long sword was primarily intended for one handed usage. Unfortunately, the only scans I have access to of Swetnam are quite small, but in his illustration of the long sword, we can just about make out a hilt long enough to put both hands on. This image shows to 0.9 ratio of height to total length, and a ratio of 0.72 of height to blade length. One me, this produces a total length of 62 inches, and a blade length of 50 inches.

The idea that a longsword can be used one handed also coincidentally ties into George Silver, who, as we saw last time, who tells us that the length of our longsword should be the same as our short sword, or single handed sword. This is presumably so that the longsword can be used in one hand if needed. This gives us a ratio of height to blade length of 0.59, which on me produces a blade length of 41 inches.

Swetnam does not illustrate a bastard sword, and though he shows two handed swords on the front cover, the blades go off the side of the picture, so a total length can’t be measured. It’s clear from this illustration though that two handed swords are big swords, certainly much larger than his long sword.

So if the English do distinguish between long swords, bastard swords, and two handed swords, why will I not make the distinction? Simply because there is no such distinction in KDF. Whether the longswords are very small, like the ones seen in Falkner’s manuscript, or very large, like the ones seen in the Goliath, they are used in broadly the same way. There are differences between the manuals as to exact usage, but there is nothing to suggest that this is to do with the size of sword. It seems that any variance is simply down to personal preference of the master. The German masters didn’t distinguish between longswords, bastard swords, and two handed swords, and as KDF is my main interest, I won’t distinguish either.

The Italian masters

So we’ve seen the recommendations of the English masters, Another master to give us advice on how long a longsword should be was Phillipo di Vadi, who belongs to the tradition of Fiore dei Liberi. He tells us that:

The sword pretends to have right measure
She wants the pommel under arm
As it appears here in my writing.

Avoid she wants any uncomfort,
Round be the pommel, in fist closed,
And do this not to fall in trap.

And let again make use of this,
That handle be always one span,
Embarrassed is who has not this measure.

Let not your mind be here confused,
She wants the hilt as long as handle
Together with pommel, it won’t damn you.

She wants the hilt be strong and square,
With iron wide and pointed end
That makes its duty of hurt and cut.
Take note and listen to this adding:
The sword in armour if you’ll try
Make her four inches sharp from point
With the hilt that above was told,

With pointed hilt and note the writings.3

So the pommel should sit in the armpit and the handle should be one span. He doesn’t say exactly how big the pommel should be, but he says it should fit inside a closed fist. If I use this to work out the dimensions of my longsword, I can assume the pommel will be no longer than 3 inches, the handle should be 8.6 inches. The length from armpit to the floor is 51 inches (assuming that this measure is meant to be taken standing perfectly upright, which it may not be), meaning that the blade must therefore be 39.4 inches. This gives me a height to total length ratio of 0.74, and a height to blade length ratio of 0.57.

Originally, I was going to measure the lengths as shown in the illustrations of Vadi and dei Liberi, but in my research, I found that someone’s already made the measurements:

http://bunkaijuju.blogspot.com/2010/07/proper-measure-for-sword-part-ii.html

Interestingly, the Armizare & Co blog claims the height to total length ratio depicted in Vadi’s illustrations to be 0.66, which is different from the ratio 0.74 gathered from his text. Following the text gives me a sword with a total length of 52 inches, while following the ratio taken from the illustrations gives me a total length of 45.4 inches.

The German masters

There is a belief popular amongst many modern KDF practitioners that the current swords available are too short, and that we should get longer swords to better understand the art. For example, see Roger Norling’s article on the subject.4

Up until researching this post, I was of the opinion myself that modern reproduction swords are too short for KDF, and that using such a short longsword was a silly thing done by Fiore-practitioners, but that the KDF-practitioners needed bigger swords. A viewpoint like this is perfectly understandable. The first manuscript I ever saw was Talhoffer’s 1467 fechtbuch, which depicts quite large longswords. I’m not sure when I first saw the Goliath, but I think that was fairly earlier on in my HEMA career as well, and that depicts even larger longswords. So the preconception that KDF only used larger longswords was set.

Further, if we look at KDF, we see many elements of the system that can be easily explained away by longer, and therefore heavier, swords. KDF contains very few one handed attacks, especially compared to the English longsword tradition for example. Why? Well obviously because they used longer and heavier swords, which are harder to control with one hand. We also see a lot of winding and other techniques done without leaving the bind. Why? Well obviously because they used longer and heavier swords, which make them slower to leave the bind. Arguments like these make sense, but they ignore the fact that the manuscripts clearly depict longswords of different lengths, and that the amount of winding or one handed techniques within any given manual does not seem to have any correlation with sword length.

There is however some truth to the argument that modern reproduction swords are too short. Most modern day training swords are a bit on the short end compared to what we see in some of the manuals, but I will argue that does not make them too short.

To this end, here is a list of several of the major illustrated treatises comparing their height to total length and height to blade length ratios. These ratios were formed by picking four plates from each manuscript, calculating a seperate ratio for height to total length and height to blade length for each of those four plates, and then averaging them to be left with two ratios per manual.

Wallerstein part C, circa 1430
Height to total length ratio: 0.9
Height to blade length ratio: 0.67

Talhoffer, 1467
Height to total length ratio: 0.83
Height to blade length ratio: 0.62

Kal, 1470
Height to total length ratio: 0.69
Height to blade length ratio: 0.55

Wallerstein part A, circa 1470
Height to total length ratio: 0.76
Height to blade length ratio: 0.55

Falkner, 1495
Height to total length ratio: 0.71
Height to blade length ratio: 0.52

Glasgow, 1508
Height to total length ratio: 0.79
Height to blade length ratio: 0.56

Goliath, circa 1510
Height to total length ratio: 0.96
Height to blade length ratio: 0.69

Pauernfeindt, 1516
Height to total length ratio: 0.83
Height to blade length ratio: 0.56

Medel, 1539
Height to total length ratio: 0.87
Height to blade length ratio: 0.65

Mair, circa 1540
Height to total length ratio: 0.77
Height to blade length ratio: 0.6

Hutter, 1564
Height to total length ratio: 0.85
Height to blade length ratio: 0.59

Meyer, 1570
Height to total length ratio: 0.83
Height to blade length ratio: 0.59

Basically, what these numbers mean is that an average height to total length ratio can be anywhere between 0.69 and 0.96. On me, this means a longsword could have a total length of anywhere between 47.6 and 66.2 inches.

An average height to blade length ratio can be anywhere between 0.52 and 0.69, so for me a blade should be roughly between 35.9 and 47.6 inches long.

So if we look at a few of the more commonly used longsword trainers, we can see that most of them actually fit within these specifications.

A&A Fechterspiel
Total length: 48.5”
Blade length: 37.75”

A&A Spada da Zogho
Total length: 46.5”
Blade length: 35.75”

Albion Liechtenauer
Total length: 47.5”
Blade length: 36.5”

Albion Meyer
Total length: 47.75”
Blade length: 36.5”

Cold Steel Hand and a Half Training Sword
Total length: 44”
Blade length: 34”

Hanwei Practical Bastard Sword
Total length: 49.5”
Blade length: 38”

Hanwei Practical Hand and a Half Sword
Total length: 43.75”
Blade length: 34”

Rawlings Synthetic Sparring Longsword
Total length: 48.5”
Blade length: 38”

Tinker Pearce Longsword
Total length: 47.25”
Blade length: 35.25”

So out of this list, it’s only the Hanwei Practical Hand and a Half and the Cold Steel Hand and a Half which are too small. Some of the swords might not quite match the ratios above, but they’re close enough. The Spada da Zogho’s total length is only 0.9 inches shorter than my lowest total length estimate, which isn’t particularly important, especially bearing in mind that the numbers are just estimates, not hard and fast rules. The manuscript art gives us a rough indication of how long the swords should be, but they were not drawn exactly so that a few hundred years later someone could measure them to the nearest millimetre. So a sword not exactly matching the ratios above isn’t a massive problem, as long as they’re reasonably close. I would argue that the Hanwei and Cold Steel Hand and a Half Swords are too short, but that all the other training swords mentioned above are fine in terms of length, at least for me.

This is not to say that we couldn’t do with longer longswords. I can reasonably use a blade of up to roughly 47.6 inches long according to my calculations, whereas there few commercially available swords with blades of that length. I personally prefer longer blades, and I would love to see more swords being made with blades in the 40” to 48” range. Until then however, the longswords we have at the moment are satisfactory, for someone of average height, for practice of KDF or armizare. George Silver and Swetnam practitioners definitely should be using longer swords, as they both illustrate longer swords, and Silver is in my opinion quite clear what he considers to be a perfect length. As ever, your mileage may vary.

Glossary

  • Armizare : a short form of l’arte dell’armizare loosely translated as “the art of arms” is a system of traditional martial arts defined in the original treatise authored by Fiore dei Liberi entitled “Flos Duellatorum” (definition taken from AEMMA’s glossary)
  • KDF: a shortening of kunst des fechten, a German term that means the “art of fighting” and is usually associated with Liechtenauer and his followers

Notes

1 http://hemaalliance.com/discussion/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=1288#p15415

2 Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, chapter XII

3 http://www.iceweasel.org/lmod_analysis.html

4 De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, chapter 12, translation by Marco Rubboli and Luca Cesari

5 http://www.hroarr.com/articles/article-longswords.php

Bibliography

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3 Responses to “A Perfect Length II: The Longsword”

  1. Roger N says:

    Really good article! Thank you for this research!

    A couple of thoughts though. First of all, I do agree that there is a considerable variation in length, and I also mention this at the end in the article I wrote.

    Second, I don’t think we can use all sources as reference, since some are quite badly drawn. Even Talhoffer, which has many good qualities, has some really badly drawn swords.

    Third, the perspective of the images showing the swords will also add to the variation in length, sometimes quite considerably.
    You probably had this in mind when you measured, but I just thought I’d mentioned this. This has caused me some confusion when studying Meyer’s halben stangen…

    The images I chose were images that I felt was a fairly reliable and realistic in the depiction of size and proportion. Still, it was only a small selection and I feel more research needs to be done.

    However, the main point I was trying to make was that most of us practice with swords that are at the short end of the spectra, even if we know for pretty certain, that considerably longer swords were also common, and actually more common in my belief.

    And although perhaps they do not necessarily explain how the techniques developed in the first place, longer swords seem to make them more “clear” and logical.

    Again thanks! It’s a good read and I have added a link to it from my article. :)

  2. AlexBourdas says:

    Hello, Roger. I’m glad you liked the article. In retrospect though, maybe it could have been worded a bit better. I’m not disagreeing with what you wrote, and it was your article that inspired to look at the issue of sword length in the first place.

    There certainly is a lot of variation, and what I’ve tried to do in this article is prove what a wide range of lengths a longsword can have.

    The art certainly is not perfect. I was originally going to only look at the better art, but then I realised that that meant the later art, and I was curious to see if early and late art showed similar lengths. Especially given perspective problems as you say. I tried my best to take perspective into consideration, but it’s very hard to be exact. As I say, the ratios I present above are supposed to be rough estimates.

    Although, surprisingly I found Talhoffer’s sword lengths to be reasonably consistent. I actually found the Goliath to have the most inconsistent sword lengths.

    I definitely agree with you that the degree of longer longswords is underestimated (or people will dismiss longer blades and claim they are actually a seperate type of sword instead). I think that most swords today are an acceptable length, but that they are on the short end of acceptable lengths. Sword makers really do need to start offering longer blades as well.

  3. AlexBourdas says:

    Actually, one more thing I should add. I suspect you’re right that longer swords can help to make techniques clearer. I’ve gotten a long pommel for my Knight Shop synthetic longsword, and I found that getting that extra length in the handle has made a difference. In particular, it makes the zwerchau feel a lot easier and smoother.

    Though that being said, some of the masters, like Falkner in particular, used very short swords, so presumably they didn’t feel a need to have longer blades.


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