Here at Arms and Armor we have always loved complex hilted longswords. While we've made many as custom pieces over the years, our only current production example is our German Bastard Sword, which has an S-guard with side rings. However, we are currently considering introducing a new model, and we would love your feedback. If you have a favorite complex hilted longsword that you'd like us to produce please post a picture or a link to our Facebook page. Your feedback will help us to choose which of these awesome swords to move into production. Read on below for a description of this category of swords, when and why they were popular, and a bunch of pics of pieces we've made alongside some historical examples.
Complex-hilted longswords first start to appear in the early to mid 16th century. The addition of fore rings, to protect the finger, and thumb rings, to enhance winding, were expanded with rings and sweeps to protect the hand at the same time that complex hilts were becoming popular on one-handed swords as well. The side-sword, rapier, and single edged swords such as the dussack all were common by the end of the century. The reasons for complex hilts being adopted on two handed swords were manifold. First was a generalized movement away from protecting the hands with metal gauntlets (especially outside military contexts) and toward building hand protection into the hilt of the sword.
Second was the development of longsword fencing as a practice that went beyond the knightly classes, expanding, especially in Europe north of the Alps, among guildsmen and burghers (check out Ann Tlusty's 2011 "The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany" for a scholarly take on this development). The popularization of fencing schools and exhibitions in the mid-16th century, along with a strong tradition of dueling, probably influenced the adoption of these swords. In many duels it was not permitted to wear armor, hand guards on swords therefore became desirable. In addition there was an aesthetic component to the adoption of these sword forms. In these photos (above and below) of complex-hilted longswords from the Wallace Collection there is clear attention paid to the artistic beauty of the swords which, after all, were a status symbol that were displayed far more than most were ever used. Click on the pics for links to their descriptions at the Wallace Collection.
Early 17th C German A 486
German or Swiss 1530 A 482
The function of complex-guards
Diagram for complex hilted Swiss Saber, Oakeshott hilt type F
Complex guards on longswords have a similar function to comparable guards on rapiers or side swords. Side rings affixed to the crossguard not only protect the hands from oblique cuts, they also protect much of the upper body when the sword is held in an extended guard like longpoint. Side rings with a fore ring anchored at the ends of finger rings help to protect the hands from the thrusts that are often used to force an opponent to move out of the longpoint guard (see the sword below). Knuckle-bows, which covered either both hands as with the Swiss Sabre at the bottom of this page, or just the front hand as in two of the swords above, help to protect the hand from cuts, or from miscalculated parries (don't parry with your hands!), especially when moving through a hanging guard.
There are several variations of these hilts. The best overview is by Ewart Oakeshott in his "European Weapons and Armour" categorized by style and region.
Symmetrical complex hilt diagram, Bavarian Oakeshott hilt type D.
The addition of complex guards to longswords has a significant impact on the handling of these weapons by concentrating mass close to the point of balance, potentially reducing the blade-feel of the sword. These swords are, all things being equal, heavier than standard longswords of similar dimensions, but they often feel surprisingly nimble in the hand because a higher portion of the overall mass is focused close to the point of rotation. This can make complex blade motions, flourishes, and false-edge cuts flow easily, and stop on a dime. The bladework of Joachim Meyer, for example, feels very natural with some of these swords. The plate below from Meyer is contemporaneous in time and geography with many of these swords. Although the fencers in the plate are using practice swords it is likely that at least some members of the Freifechter Guild and the Marxbruder used complex hilted swords for this style of fighting.
Some examples we have made
In addition to our famous rapiers, we have made many complex-hilted longswords over the past 40 years. Our specialty, as you can see from the pics, is exacting reproductions of existing historical pieces, though we are also happy to work from illustrations, effigies, or other historic representations, or to work with you to create your own historically inspired, unique piece.
The above swords were all custom commissions. To begin the process of commissioning a custom sword or other weapon you can contact us here.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.