Part 1: Historical, cultural and battlefield context
I’ve always been fascinated by the true two-handed sword, the enormous Schlachterschwert used by the Landsknechts in the 16th century, but it remains a puzzling weapon within the HEMA context. Since there are no texts in the German tradition dealing directly with the use of these enormous swords, addressing their use and place in battle is an exercise in speculation rather than interpretation. Last year I had a chance to handle a few historical examples of these swords at the Timberley Collection in York, and I promised to write up my observations. However, I thought it best to preface my observations with some general historical comments, trying to place my thoughts in context. I’ve tried to stick to accessible web resources for references, but there is a longer bibliography is provided at the end for further reading.
The true two handed sword is primarily connected with the Italian wars and the Swiss Confederates and German Landsknechts who waged these wars. However, large two-handed swords also appear in two other 16th century infantry traditions, the Gaelic gallowglasses and the Japanese foot samurai of the Sengoku Jidai period, the consideration of which allows some cross-correlations to be made as to their use. These three traditions can be summarised as follows:
- The Swiss Confederates and German Landsknechts were the primary infantry troops in Western Europe during the 16th century. These were essentially mercenary bands, often raised from a particular area, and consisted primarily of foot soldiers. Though the Swiss started out as halberdiers, they and the neighbouring Landsknecht bands rapidly moved to long pikes as they became sought-after mercenary troops during the Italian wars. Both Confederates and Landsknechts were very similar in organisation (though not in tactics) during the early 16th century; each made use of elite soldiers (the “double pay” soldiers) who used two-handed swords or halberds (and sometimes crossbows and arquebuses) in amongst the pikemen.
- The Scottish/Irish gallowglasses (gallóglaigh or “foreign warrior” in Gaelic) were displaced Scottish nobles who formed a mercenary elite in the internecine Irish wars of the 14th-16th centuries. These warriors operated in bands, with each gallowglass leading a group of kerns who were spear-armed. The gallowglasses themselves were famous for the spath axe and the claidheamh-mòr, a large two-handed sword. Though some of the swords show a characteristic hollow pommel, swords with quatrefoil quillions and German Schlachtswerter were also used. The classic quatrefoil “claymore” falls into this category.
- The foot samurai of the Sengoku Jidai period (~1450- 1600 AD) in Japan were present in large numbers on the battlefields of the period. Though the bulk of the infantry troops were ashigaru, armed peasants in the main, a large number of samurai foot on foot with them. These samurai used a variety of weapons, but the giant ōdachi was common. Though some some historians have called these 4’- 6’ swords “cavalry” weapons, contemporary art and preserved Japanese fighting traditions (in particular the Ono-ha Itto-ryu, but other traditions as well) show these to have been infantry weapons. Interestingly enough, many of these swords have a cloth-wrapped grip in the centre of the blade, allowing the blade to be gripped in the centre similar to the way a Schlachtswert had a leather-clad ricasso for halfswording.
These three very different traditions share many common features which are of use in reconstructing the battlefield roles of large two-handed swords and the use of such weapons. Though some of the following comparisons are a bit strained, they do serve to show a common thread. Firstly, the soldiers using these weapons are always elite soldiers, set apart from the normal soldiers. The döppelsoldner in the Landsknecht army was expected to bring his own armour (generally a cuirass and helm, but often more), and to be trained in using his weapons. Similarly, a gallowglass fought in a mail shirt and helm, and came from a fighting tradition of displaced Scottish nobles. A foot samurai came with his own armour and weapons, and, though generally poor, was trained in the use of weapons from childhood.
Secondly, these warriors served in similar battlefield roles. In Ireland and Europe, the wielders of halberds and two-handed swords formed the first rank of infantry, the skirmishers ahead of the main infantry block, and as the bodyguards for the general and flag party. Descriptions of gallowglasses taking out horses with their swords are preserved in some old Gaelic records, skirmishing ahead of the line. In the Japanese and gallowglass traditions, the warriors were described as using the giant sword to fight off large groups and dominate ground, and similar stories are told of Frisian folk hero Pier Gerlofs Donia and Georg von Frundsberg. It does, however, appear to be a myth that two-handed swords were used to cut the heads off pikes (probably impossible anyway considering the langets protecting the pike staves), quite possibly a misinterpretation of a battlefield description.
Thirdly, in all three traditions, the use of the two-handed sword ceased by the early 17th century. In Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate banned swords greater than a certain length after 1603. In Europe and Ireland, the true two-handed sword faded away more slowly, but was a rare sight in the 17th century. Oddly enough, the two manuals we know of dealing extensively with large two handed swords, Figueyredo’s manual on the Portuguese montante (1651) and Alfieri’s work on the spadone (1653), were published mid-17th century. Though the Japanese demise is bureaucratic, it is likely that changes in warfare and the increased presence of firearms ended the use of such weapons on the battlefield. Thus, any consideration of the two-handed use should bear in mind that it had a specific battlefield role in which it excelled.
Part 2: Observations on the handling of two-handed swords
I’ve been fortunate enough to handle several real two-handed swords and to observe many, many more in the last two years, so I’ll present my observations on the handling and morphology of German two-handed swords. I’ve thrown in a couple of other sword observations as well (just because). Unfortunately, there are very few pictures here, as most of these collections restrict taking photos.
Swords from the Timperley Collection, York
Last year at Fechtschule York, Payson Muller organised a handling session at the York Museum for the lucky hordes. The collection we handled was part of the Timperley Collection, a bequest from the first half of the 20th century. Two large two handers were available for handling, one large Bidenhander with a wavy blade, and a large but fairly standard sword. Though
The Bidenhander is a fairly big monster: http://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/collections/search/item/?id=30004241&search_query=bGltaXQ9MTYmc2VhcmNoX3RleHQ9JkNMJTVCMCU1RD1NaWxpdGFyeStIaXN0b3J5Jk9CJTVCMCU1RD10d28taGFuZGVkK3N3b3JkJkdzJTVCb3BlcmF0b3IlNUQ9JTNFJTNEJkdzJTVCdmFsdWUlNUQ9JkdlJTVCb3BlcmF0b3IlNUQ9JTNDJTNEJkdlJTVCdmFsdWUlNUQ9MTYwMCZGTj0lMkE%3D
This sword was completely forward-weighted, basically good only for big downwards blows. This could be because the original pommel had been replaced, but this was uncertain. It was significantly more useful when the ricasso was gripped.
The second sword (which is unfortunately not imaged on the collection website) was a large, straight bladed weapon with a spatulate tip and straight quillions, a little shorter than the first sword. This weapon was heavy but manageable- I would not want to swing it for long, but I could swing and fight with it.
Bonus sword: short sidesword, very similar to Meyer’s weapon, including a projecting shield on the crossguard. Almost exactly the same weight, balance and size as my Regenyei 36” sidesword.
Glasgow Museums Resource Centre
The day after the Smallsword Symposium, Phil Crawley organised a trip to the warehouses of the Glasgow Museum. While the rest of the crew was oohing and aahing over smallswords (and some sabres and rapiers), I took the chance to handle two large two-handers. Thanks to Ralph Moffat for letting me handle the swords!
Large claymore- classic quatrefoil blade, stamped as from Solingen: http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/collections-research/online-collections-navigator/Pages/home.aspx
Compared to replicas, this sword was fantastically mobile. Bit larger than some replicas, the sword was mobile and felt quite light in the hand. A thinner grip than on many replicas.
Large longsword- this sword, probably of Highland extraction, unfortunately not shown. Though not a true two-hander, this sword was as large as the claymore, and as mobile.
From a very small sample, I can state that 3 of the 4 large two-handers I’ve handled are mobile and well-suited to a role in open space and skirmishes. However, the only true bidenhander in the collection was extremely forward-weighted, suited primarily for overhead swings when wielded as a sword.
Part 3: Observations from German armouries
Preserved armouries are an ideal place to view large two-handed swords and to seem them in context. Though there are many such armouries which I have not visited, here are my records from two such armouries I have visited (both of which are not well-known enough).
Coburg Veste: The castle of Coburg Veste in southern Germany hosts an enormous collection of arms. While the tournament armour will interest those who enjoy mounted combat, the prize for me was the armoury in the roof, containing several hundred suits of “black and white” armour, along with pikes, halberds, sideswords, guns and the two handed swords.
Emden Armoury: The Rathaus in the small town of Emden in Germany contains an enviable collection of late 16th century arms and armour, perfectly preserving a collection bought in a relatively short 30 year period (1550-1580). One wall is covered in large bidenhanders, many of which are identical down to the numbers stamped on the blade (common in other armouries).
Observations: These armouries carry relatively large numbers of bidenhanders, essentially for the defense of fortifications. Many of the swords are identical, bought in lots. This is again strong support for the idea that these swords are standard and not ceremonial items. The swords are often fairly roughly made, but generally feature exaggerated quillions and often a spatulate tip.
Part 4: Discussion and conclusions
So far, I’ve stuck to documented evidence (even if some of it is almost folklore). From this, we can start to speculate about the use of such swords in battle, though this much necessarily be treated as opinion.
- Though some writers have called such sword “ceremonial”, there is plenty of evidence that these swords were a regular and possibly essential tool on the battlefields of the 16th century. The swords are present in the armouries in bulk, and are not finely made items.
- The wielders of these weapons were heavily armoured and skilled men. They were thus not men to be thrown away in battle, and thus the two-handed sword must have been more than just an intimidatory weapon. No weapon survives nearly 100 years on a battlefield if it is useless, as some online commentators have stated.
- The descriptions of skirmishing warriors and outnumbered warriors holding their attackers at bay tally well with the swinging, flowing use of the sword described by Figueyredo and Alfieri. It is obvious that, while the true two-hander was heavy and hard to handle, it was neither slow nor useless. If it was also used against horses, then the two-handed sword definitely had a place in battle. Similarly, the presence of large numbers of such weapons in armouries dedicated to the defense of fortified positions implies that even in close confines such weapons are considered essential to warfare.
- Swords from all three traditions often have grips above the quillions to allow for half-swording. This is obviously useful in a pike or spear square in close formation, where wide swings are impossible.
- A large two-handed sword and a halberd have a number of advantages over pikes or spears, the weapons with which they often worked. Though the pole weapons are longer, they lack cutting power and are relatively unwieldy; a halberd or two-handed sword can deliver enormous power when swung down, and can change from thrusting to cutting as the course of battle dictates. Pikes and spears will often knock a man from his feet, but will not necessarily kill a person, whereas a downwards swing from sword or halberd as its wielder steps through the line will cause significantly more damage. Such downwards swings are present in modern Japanese koryu, as well as in the montante and spadone manuals.
- Since pikes continued for another 150 years after the sword and halberd disappeared, it would appear that these weapons were replaced by something that obviously did their job better. Firearms fill this gap; they can kill horses, be used to skirmish, and they can fire into opposing infantry blocks and at fallen enemies. As firearms became more common, the need for another killing weapon was reduced, until finally the pike and firearm were merged into the bayonetted musket.
Select Bibliography (referenced for accessibility)
Baumann, Reinhard. Landsknechte: ihre Geschichte und Kultur vom späten Mittelalter bis zum Dreißigjährigen Krieg. Beck, 1994.
Blau, Friedrich. die deutschen Landsknechte. 1882. (available through http://f.letmeprint.ru/84252605-52b9f4bf/fragment_1265497.pdf)
Delbruck, Hans. “History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History: Antiquity (Contributions in Military Studies) 4 vols, translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr., vol 2, Warfare in Antiquity.” (1975).
Mondschein, Ken. The art of the two-handed sword. SKA Swordplay Books. 2012
Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Greenhill Books, 1999.
Thompson, Christopher Scott. “Broadsword Academy. Self Published through Lulu. 2011
Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai: a military history. Routledge, 2013.
Turnbull, Stephen. Numerous Osprey books.