Comparing how swords were used – the importance of the hilt

It has been on my mind for a while that in the study of medieval and renaissance longsword fencing, the length of the grip is the greatest characteristic when determining how a specific sword can (or should) be used. Many people look at the blade length or the blade profile when thinking about how a sword should be used, but I think this method is misleading to some extent. It is not my intention to say that the blade length and profile have no bearing at all on the handling of the weapon – this would be a wrong statement to make – but rather to suggest that the length of the hilt is the most important factor in choosing a style for using a longsword.

The swords that will be used for reference in this article are as follows:

1) a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half sword;

2) an Albion Meyer;

3) a standard federschwert made by Peter Regenyei.

Top to bottom: Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half, Albion Meyer, standard federschwert by Peter Regenyei.

4) a standard Rawlings synthetic longsword with a wheel pommel;

5) a standard Rawlings synthetic longsword with a standard scent stopper pommel;

6) a standard Rawlings synthetic longsword with an elongated pommel.

Top to bottom: Rawlings synthetic longswords with wheel pommel, standard scent stopper pommel, and elongated pommel.

Swords 1 and 4 in this list can fit two hands on the grip without much discomfort, but not any more than two.

Rawlings synthetic longsword with wheel pommel, and a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half.

Swords 2 and 5 in the list can comfortably fit three hands on the grip (one at the cross, one immediately beneath, and then one more hand below that on the pommel).

Rawlings synthetic longsword with standard scent stopper pommel, and an Albion Meyer.

Swords 4 and 6 in the list can comfortably fit four hands on the grip (one at the cross, one immediately beneath, one immediately below that, and then one more hand on the pommel).

Rawlings synthetic longsword with elongated pommel, and a standard federschwert by Peter Regenyei.

As anyone will know who has had the chance to handle any of the swords in this list, they all handle slightly differently from each other, and a large part of that comes down to the amount of leverage that can be applied by a combatant’s two hands on the grip. If the hands are jammed close together out of necessity, as with the Hanwei and the Rawlings synthetic with a wheel pommel, then there is not much leverage that can be applied to the weapon when striking from side to side; in comparison, when using a Regenyei feder or a Rawlings synthetic with an elongated pommel, a lot more leverage can be exerted upon the weapon, making it much easier, faster and more comfortable to strike from side to side.

A number of months ago, I did some flourishing (or “shadow boxing”, or solo movement drills) with the various practice swords I had available to me. I noticed that each sword handled quite differently, and that each sword was more suited to a particular style of flourishing. The Regenyei feder and the Rawlings synthetic with elongated pommel, the two “four hand grip” swords in my collection, were most comfortable when striking from side to side, above and below, using both short and long edges – something very similar to the striking diagrams in Meyer’s treatise and to the flow drills developed by Matt Galas.

Rawlings synthetic longsword with elongated pommel, and a standard federschwert by Peter Regenyei.

The Hanwei and the synthetic with wheel pommel, the two “two hand grip” swords in my collection, were very uncomfortable to use in this fashion. Instead, it was much more comfortable and much more effective to strike from a guard position out into an imaginary bind and then flourish from the bind, so to speak, using winding techniques and thrusts and Durchwechseln, rather than just striking at an imaginary target from different angles.

Rawlings synthetic longsword with wheel pommel, and a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half.

By contrast, the Albion Meyer and the synthetic with standard scent stopper pommel, the two “three hand grip” swords in my collection, were not uncomfortable to use when striking from different angles, but not quite as comfortable as the “four hand grip swords”. They were considerably more wieldy than the “two hand grip” swords and allowed for much more striking from different angles, but they were also quite comfortable when flourishing from an imaginary bind and using thrusts and windings.

Rawlings synthetic longsword with standard scent stopper pommel, and an Albion Meyer.

It might appear to be stating the obvious, but I believe this is something that goes unnoticed by many practitioners: it is a pointless endeavour to try to use a sword like a different weapon with different hilt fittings and dimensions and to expect it to work in the same way. People try to execute techniques like the Zwerhaw (cross strike) and the combination of Ablauffen (running off) and Umbschlagen (striking round) with a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half, and they find it much more difficult to do successfully than someone who is doing the same techniques with a Regenyei feder.

That being said, for a beginner student, it is simply easier and more comfortable to strike into a bind with a Regenyei feder and then do the Ablauffen and Umbschlagen, striking from one side of the bind to the other, trying to hit one of the undefended openings on the opponent, rather than striking to the bind and working with winding techniques. I must point out that I am not saying that it is difficult or impossible to use winding techniques with a Regenyei feder or with any “four hand grip” sword; what I am saying is that the length of the grip makes it more comfortable to leave the bind and strike from side to side until a student has developed the discipline and control to use winding techniques and remain the bind. Comparatively, if a student or a similar level uses an Albion Meyer instead of a Regenyei feder (or a Rawlings synthetic with a standard scent stopper pommel instead of an elongated pommel), I see more winding and thrusting from the bind, since the grip is shorter and the leverage is somewhat less, and so winding with a thrust becomes a more natural and more comfortable motion.

Rawlings synthetic longsword with standard scent stopper pommel, and an Albion Meyer.

I believe that the “three hand grip” swords are best suited for studying the earlier sources such as the anonymous gloss (that is often attributed to Peter von Danzig) or Ringeck’s gloss, and that the “four hand grip” swords are much more suited for studying later sources such as Mair and Meyer. I think this is also something that should be kept in mind by teacher when recommending swords to students; if a club is studying from Meyer’s treatise, then recommending a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half simply because it is the cheapest option is going to retard the student’s ability to perform techniques and develop his or her skills. Likewise, if studying from an earlier source and outfitting a class with Regenyei swords, then care must be taken that students do not rely on the long grip to do little but striking from side to side; students should be encouraged to fight their natural instincts and to use winding techniques, and perhaps more half-sparring exercises and games should be employed to help acclimatise practitioners to a more correct use of the sword.

One might well note that comparing a Hanwei practical half-and-a-half sword to a Regenyei feder is a poor comparison, since there are all kinds of differences. The feder’s grip is longer, the feder’s blade is longer, the feder’s blade is lighter (in fact the feder on the whole is lighter), the feder has a schilt… It is correct that this is not a fair comparison to use in order to prove my theory. However, the Rawlings synthetic longsword blade is always the same; if you simply replace the pommel and try each of the pommel types with the same blade, crossguard and grip, then the test becomes a very fair comparison and is useful to support the theory. The Rawlings synthetics are the best way to test this theory, and the steel swords are useful for helping to illustrate the points in this article.

I will conclude the article with a translation of a quote from a book about Polish sabres. Although the subject matter is a little different, the quote itself highlights the point that the hilt assembly is a very important characteristic for determining how a sword is to be used:

“The hilt assembly says a lot about the specific styles of fencing that are characteristic to particular nations. The hilt of a Polish fighting karabela or a hussar sabre was quite different from an Arab or Persian sabre. They were meant for cuts that were specific to the style of sword, so they had to be different. This is why the Polish fighting sabres that were used for specific cuts (because of a different method of holding the hand on the grip, and following from that, a different way of using the blade) could be used only by a Polish cavalryman or footsoldier, because in other hands, they lost their specific functional qualities. This is why, wherever the sabre was used, the changing of the hilt assembly happened; own national hilts were fitted to foreign blades.”

Dzieje szabli w Polsce (The History of the Sabre in Poland), page 21

W?odzimierz Kwa?niewicz, translated by Daria Izdebska

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