The Weapon Arts

parzival135rThe term ‘longsword’ includes a gamut of long- and broad-bladed straight swords that can be wielded in one hand or two. The techniques of the longsword serve equally well in duels (one-on-one fighting) as well as on the battlefield. This weapon was largely popularized in story through Arthurian legends, historical epics, and modern fantasy books and movies such as The Lord of the Rings.

Though many often consider the longsword to be a brutish and simple weapon suited for hacks and slashes, it is in fact a sophisticated sword capable of much of the same finesse of its lighter counterparts, the rapier and the sidesword.

The system of longsword fencing taught at Academie Duello shares equal time between the cut and the thrust, and emphasizes circular movement, power generation, how to win ‘crossings’ of the sword, and feeling and responding to an opponent’s position, pressure, and timing.

Learn more about studying the use of the longsword on our Getting Started page.

The Anatomy of the Longsword

italian-longswordThe longsword is a long, straight-bladed weapon with a simple crossbar and grip that can accommodate two hands. The overall length of a typical longsword ranges from 40″ to 50″, with blades varying in length between 30″ and 40″. Longsword weights vary but typically fall between 3 and 5 lbs.

The Nature of the Longsword

florius17vLongsword combatants take rapid steps back and forth, keeping a safe distance while maintaining threat. Opponents with their blades circle tightly, looking for advantage and control of their adversary’s weapon. The tap and slide of steel on steel mixes with the rustle of footwork until one fighter lunges—a blur, confident in position and timing.

The longsword is a two-handed weapon: one hand applies pushing force, the other a pull on the pommel to utilize leverage. Powerful movements of the entire body, always moving in circles and figure-eights, contribute to the weapon’s tremendous cutting force. The opposing sides come together in dynamic crossings, always seeking to gain an advantage.

The longsword has been described as ‘the great equalizer’: while applications of pure force can work against an opponent, technique, speed and dexterity will triumph. Often sacrifices must be made on one area in order to capitalize in another. For instance, cuts from the shoulder convey the greatest strength but the slowest speed, whereas incredibly fast wrist cuts lack the force required to do serious damage.

History of the Longsword

During the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the knight’s sword underwent a number of significant changes that produced not only a weapon that was light, large and highly versatile, but also a new system of armed combat to exploit the new features that the improved sword—the longsword—could offer. For several centuries prior, the knight’s sword had been a single-handed, broad-bladed weapon about 36″ that was capable of powerful slashes. New improvements in armour in the form of metal plates, however, were reducing the effectiveness of slashes, as they could turn aside a sharp edge without much difficulty. To overcome the new armour technology, both the blade and the grip of the knight’s sword gradually increased in length, resulting in a weapon about 44″ long. Moreover, the blade’s shape steadily changed, becoming gradually thinner down its length and ending a sharp point. Thus, the longsword emerged into history, as swordsmiths pushed forging technology to its limits to produce weapons capable of defeating opponents clad in plate armour, which would eventually cover almost the entire body by the turn of the fifteenth century.

operanova107The spread of the longsword and plate armour throughout Europe in the Late Middle Ages also gave rise to new and sophisticated fighting systems. The longsword’s overall length meant that a wielder could keep a greater distance from an opponent and therefore remain safer. Powerful slashes remained an important forte of the longsword, but the new blade’s shape also permitted equally powerful thrusts against armoured opponents, which could penetrate unprotected areas of the body or weak spots in the armour.

With the longsword’s versatility exploited in the fighting systems that emerged in the Late Middle Ages, it is little wonder than that this sword became one of the most common weapons in Europe, not only amongst knights and the social elite, but amongst common soldiers and even civilians as well. The weapon lent itself equally well to the battlefield as it did to tournament melees. Common use persisted well into the sixteenth century, and survived as late as the seventeenth, when the longsword use eventually died out against the popularity of duelling swords. But the period of 1350 through 1600 nevertheless produced a wealth of combat manuals that cover the longsword in detail and describe sophisticated fighting systems that explore the vast possibilities offered by the weapon.

The first combat manuals that describe longsword usage date to the late fourteenth century: one of the most notable is a treatise by German master Johannes Liechtenauer dated to 1389 (MS 3227a). The earliest Italian manual describing longsword use is Fiore dei Liberi’s Flower of Battles (or Flos Duellorum), dated to about 1410, of which at least three manuscripts remain extant. This text provides the main foundation for Academie Duello’s longsword curriculum, with its detailed descriptions and illustrations. Somewhat later Italian texts that cover the longsword include Filippo Vadi’s On the Art of Swordplay (De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, 1482-3) and Achille Marozzo’s New Work on the Art of Arms (Opera Nova dell’Arte delle Armi, 1536).