SWORD V. ARMORComplications Ensue
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Sunday, September 04, 2005

I'm struggling at the moment with the reality of medieval armored combat. (I like a job where this sort of conundrum comes up.) It's clear that bodkin arrows will punch through armor. By the same token, I can easily imagine the dagger point of a halberd punching through plate armor, not to mention chainmail, with the full weight of a knight focused on one sharp point. But how on earth did knights do any damage to each other with swords?

In period stories, you read all about knights splitting each other's helmets in half with a good stout blow. But it's hard to imagine in reality. Yes, a sword functions pretty much the same as an axe, focusing all its cutting power on wherever the blade hits. But if you took an axe to, say, a steel frying pan, good luck doing more than denting it. So, either people's helmets were made of far inferior metal (possible). Or, plate armor is not as thick as your basic steel frying pan (possible). Or, the stories are full of it (definitely possible).

You also read about Richard the Lionheart being able to crack an anvil with his sword, while Saladin could slice a feather in midair with his. That's definitely hyperbole. Ask anyone who owns an anvil. Maybe the swords were just for putting down the peasants, and knights hit each other with maces. On the other hand, you do see armored guys in medieval paintings with swords sticking out of them...


I think I remember reading that against heavily armored sorts, swords were largely used as heavy hunks of metal good for bludgeoning people into exhaustion -- then stab at your leisure.

Also, I think that the actual wearing of plate armor in the field is mostly stuff for stories and paintings -- real soldiers had to stick with layers of chain.

By Blogger Steve Peterson, at 1:35 PM  

A four foot long sword weighing over five pounds, probably wouldn't have much difficulty cracking some types of armour.

You can get an excellent overview here. You want Type XV and onward, from about half way down the page.

By Blogger Lee, at 5:31 PM  

Alex, I think Steve is right, I think it was more a matter of knocking them out, or wearing them down, but, try checking with Jim over at


he is into Ren Fairs, so he might have more accurate information.

Also, for procrastinating research try this http://www.taleworlds.com/

By Blogger Grubber, at 6:11 PM  

Well, you need a timeframe context here -- the swords changed with the times too, for as armor become more effective, the swords became stouter, more thrust-in for the weak spot cut...wasn't the big brandish, swing around style as much, all about the push thrust. Also of the big swords were for battle play -- cutting out the horses legs, and randomly swinging around in the warfare chaos, not really a civilian weapon. But like any military weaponry, it changed with the times, updated itself to be more functional to current tech. See some of the later 13th Century and Crusades swords, they are nearly pure thrust. To sum up: Swing at start, thrust when the plate armor tech increased.

Also, fyi, R. Ewart Oakeshott is one of the historical Subject Matter Experts within this field, I have a few of his books, look him up for more detailed analysis.

By Blogger Christopher Coulter, at 9:29 PM  

For a literate/literary take on medieval weaponry and recreational combat, skim T.H. White's "The Once and Future King." White had an uncanny ability to describe the equipment and techniques as though he had been a long-time enthusiast sitting in the benches lining the lists, making notations on the fight cards. For earlier descriptions, "Beowulf" has a fair amount of swordplay and helmet cleaving. The real experts today, of course, the creative anachronists.

By Blogger Marc in MD, at 8:43 PM  

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