In today's post we examine the thrusting potential of the Leeds Castle Sword, a replica of a type XVIIIc longsword with a very wide blade and strong distal taper. These swords have become popular in recent years due to their tremendous cutting capabilities. These wide, thin blades of a highly tapered flattened diamond section have been considered a bit of a historical curiosity due to the flexibility of the blades, a trait that some respected and knowledgeable experts believe makes them unsuited for thrusting. For example, Clive Thomas' excellent description of the Alexandria Arsenal swords from the 2003 London Park Lane Arms Fair catalogue describes these swords in the following manner:
"...the sections of the broader swords show that they could not have been intended for use against any kind of substantial armor. Although they have accute points, they are far too thin and flexible for thrusting with and would probably only bend and cause little damage if the wielder attempted to pierce even light armour (such as the padded European gambeson or its mamluk equivalent, the qarqal).
Therefore, these are essentially cutting swords; photographs do not really do justice to the sheer breadth of some of these blades which, combined with their greatly flattened sections were optimized for cleaving lightly armored opponents. We can assume that they were tapered to improve their agility and balance, for with much of their weight concentrated toward the broad upper half of the blade, they feel considerably more mobile in the hand than one would expect.
Put into use, this would enable the wielder to maintain a fairly precise control over his sword. These are still quite heavy weapons, though and ample weight remains at the "business end" of the blade to ensure that a lethal slicing cut could be delivered - the larger examples would have been especially deadly if wielded with two hands or from the back of a horse.
It is certain that these swords were designed specifically for use in the middle east, where heavy plate armor was not used because of the local climate. In common use in the area were the dir' - a mailshirt very similar to the mail hauberk of European soldiers - and the kazaghand, which was basically a sandwich of mail and padding covered with light cloth. This was actually quite a heavy garment to wear and its exact composition is unclear. It is likely that by the early fifteenth century its mail element had been discarded, thus reducing its protective qualities somewhat. Thus, it would appear that our swords would have been perfectly effective when used in their intended environment, especially when we consider that, apart from the elite mamluks and their knightly counterparts, most common soldiers wore little in the way of substantial armor.
It is certainly feasible that these weapons were occasionally used by the mamluks themselves against local adversaries such as Bedouin tribesmen who, shunning armour on account of their beliefs, would have been particularly vulnerable to weapons such as these."
While we certainly respect Thomas' scholarship, we also think that this is part of a larger trend in which thinner, more flexible medieval swords are misunderstood in the contemporary context. We are currently preparing an in depth examination of thin and flexible original swords, but in the meantime we decided to put our Leeds Castle Sword through its thrusting paces. It should be noted that this sword is among the lightest and the longest of the historically extant type XVIIIc swords, meaning it is also one of the thinnest and most flexible.
As you can see in the video below, we found that this sword has no problem at all thrusting through a double layer of 350 newton cloth armor, but it is relatively ineffective against maille with alternating riveted and solid rings. However, when compared to a thrust with a much stiffer sword, its performance is about the same. While the thinner type XVIIIc flexes far more when thrust against maille, the more rigid sword is no more effective at penetrating this defense. It should also be noted that although the sword flexed significantly when wielded against maille, it was not damaged in any way. When the mail was examined after the thrust it was possible to find the spot the tip landed and it looks like the tip caught two of the washer rings. Perhaps if the maille had been entirely riveted it might have taken more damage and produced different results.
We think that the takeaway from this experiment is that although thinner, more flexible swords are foiled by maille armor, so are many more rigid swords, meaning that this isn't really much of a weakness for a cutting-optimized sword. Spike like blades and spears however are very effective against maille. Stay tuned for our in-depth examination of thin, flexible, medieval swords, and enjoy the video!
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.