The grip of a sword is often overlooked in the study of the sword, so we thought we would share some of our research about how crucial this aspect of sword design can be. We recently have had a couple of queries on proper grip size and shape and thought others might be interested too.
When we first started making swords over 40 years ago some modern swords had horrible grips. They were often round in cross section and too large in circumference. Our swords, even though based on originals, were criticized because our grips were not large in circumference and round in cross section. Even today one of the most mistaken ideas people have is “we have big hands, so we need a big grip”.
A sword grip is designed to enhance the use of the tool. They are each a bit different per the sword style and intended use. The variation in the grips, shape and form, can be quite broad but they usually conform to some tight design envelopes as far as total circumference and specific details.
The grip should allow the forehand to encompass it nearly or totally. This is important for mechanical reasons. Your grasp on the grip can be easily broken free if there is space between the fingers and the palm. If the grip is too large for your hands the sword becomes less secure. Comments and visual evidence from historical sources show clearly that the grip should be almost entirely encircled by the hand.
In the case of long swords, the grip will usually taper at the pommel end, allowing the rear hand to be set loosely in place. This provides little hinderance to the winding of the sword by the forehand and means one can grasp the rear hand tightly only when needed at impact or binding.
When we look at some of the period sword grips this narrowing of the upper grip can be extreme. Here we have the Schloss Erbach sword from The Oakeshott Collection.
Schloss Erbach Grip, Check out more about this sword in this blog post.
There are even several period examples showing longswords were the upper grip is literally the shaped tang of the sword.
Medieval sword with tang formed into upper grip.
Custom Sword from A&A
The central portion of these grips will often swell in size. This provides the fore hand some leverage on the sword against the rear edge of the hand, facilitating winding and adding power in the strike. This characteristic increased in size and frequency as the longsword evolved over time. It is obviously a mechanical advantage adjustment that becomes more and more prevalent. Some later examples exhibit this form of grip on shorter swords.
Swelled grip in sword, image in Wallace Collection by David Biggs.
Grip Cross Section
As for the cross section of a grip, it is most commonly an elongated oval, but there are examples of chamfered rectangles and some that are a diamond-like shape. Round, again, is to be avoided in the fore grip as it creates difficulties in manipulation of the sword and security of the grip. It can also make good edge alignment difficult.
Schloss Erbach Grip Cross Section, see more 3D Info on this sword here.
The ridges under the covering of grips are called risers. In the Schloss Erbach Sword detailed above you can see two pairs of risers one at the base of the grip and the other at the wider midpoint.
Risers have three distinct functions on a sword grip. One is decorative. They can be done in patterns or in particular shapes or groups. The second is to reinforce the grip at stress points, especially at the base and top. This reinforcing aspect of risers allows thinner grips to better withstand the rigors of use. They can even extend over the edges of guards and pommels on many surviving examples. The third and probably most important function is providing tactile indicators and response points for the wielder of the sword. The mid riser provides an anchor for the back side of the hand for position. It also allows a sense of where the swords vector and speed are aligned.
The riser at the base of the grip is useful in conveying fühlen, feeling your opponents intention. The rib at this point of the grip allows the thumb to rest against it, acting as a tactile indicator if your opponent is strong or weak in their action. It also provides leverage for the thumb in the turning of the sword. For those with less experience in using the sword, this is crucial as it allows you to wind or roll your sword in the hand with the manipulation of just your fingers. A well made sword should move in our hand naturally, risers enhance and magnify this characteristic.
Lastly a note on hand size. The human hand size for average males is 7.6” long by 3.5” wide and 6.8” long and 3.1” for women. Now there are many folks with larger or smaller hands but the total difference for most of the curve is in a small range. When this is compared to some of the most recent studies of historical body size there is not a great difference from the middle ages to today.
The sizing of the swords of the period should work well for most folks today and in the case of larger or smaller hand sizes adjusting your pieces would be appropriate for you. Also check out this post when thinking about training sword sizes.
We have a variety of grip choices one can see on our reproductions.