The distinction between two-handed swords and longswords can be confusing, and the deeper you delve into marginal cases the less clear the distinction can become. At the most basic level a longsword, also often known as a hand-and-a-half sword or a Bastard Sword, is a double-edged European sword, often with a cruciform hilt, that is capable of being used in either one hand or two. This, however, is less of a clear differentiator than it may at first seem. Many longswords, such as those frequently used in the German and Italian longsword traditions, are almost always used in two hands and would usually be gripped with a single hand only if mounted, disarming an opponent, entering into grappling, or performing some kind of trick move. This is compounded by the great variety of longswords, some of which were designed for thrusting against armored opponents, such as the Black Prince Sword below, while others were mostly cutting weapons, such as the Bohemian Broadsword, which, despite its name, is a longsword.
In fact, the range of swords that we might reasonably call 'longswords' is very large and includes examples from several Oakeshott blade types.
Type XIIa and XIIIa swords, such as our 12th Century Sword, are probably more properly referred to as a Great-sword of war, but share many characteristics with the later longswords including having grips of a size to fit two hands and the ability to be usefully employed in either one or two hands.
Type XVa swords, as with our Black Prince Sword, are properly longswords. This example has a grip that is a touch over seven inches in length with a hefty pommel that balances the robust, diamond sectioned, thrust-oriented blade, making it equally comfortable in one hand or two.
Black Prince Sword, a type XVa Longsword
Type XVIa swords such as the Bohemian Broadsword have a flat tapering blade. The grip of this sword is only five inches long, but two hands are easily accommodated as the back hand fits comfortably over the pommel, giving this piece great speed and maneuverability.
Type XVII, XVIIIa, XVIIIb, and XVIIIc are all classic longswords from the 14th to 16th centuries. The type XVII blades have a hexagonal section while the type XVIII varieties have a flattened diamond section.
Arms and Armor Schloss Erbach Sword, Type XVIIIa
Arms and Armor Durer Longsword, Type XVIIIb
Arms and Armor German Bastard Sword
Some Type XIX swords, such as our Calliano Sword, may also be categorized as longswords due to their two-handed grips and light-weight blades, though the majority of this type were one-handed swords. The type XX swords are also longswords in the majority of cases.
Arms and Armor Calliano Sword
The distinguishing characteristics of these swords is their ability to be used in one hand or two, and their suitability for use within the fighting systems of the German and Italian fencing masters of the 14th-16th centuries, as in the plate below from Joachim Meyer (courtesy of Wiktenauer).
Two handed swords, on the other hand, are intended for a different style of combat and are quite a bit larger than their longsword cousins, "being four handfuls in the handle, or more, having also the great cross" as Giacomo di Grassi tells us in his 1570 "Discourse on wielding arms with safety". Depending on the country where the sword originates, two handers were known as, among other names, "Grete Swords" in England, "Spadone" in Italy, "Montantes" in Spain, or "Zweihanders" in Germany. These very large swords appeared most popular in the 16th century and their use is often described alongside that of the rapier in treatises of the time. The two handed sword was preferred "when it so chances that a few are constrained to withstand a great many. And because his weight and bigness, requires great strength, therefore those only are allotted to the handling thereof, which are mighty and big to behold, great and strong in body, of stout and valiant courage."
Large longswords, such as the German Bastard Sword (above) are typically under 48 inches in total length with blades approximately a yard long. Two handed swords such as our 15th Century Two-Hander features blades longer than 45 inches, and total lengths of 60 inches or greater and a weight of six pounds. Our Highland Claymore is another example of a two handed sword of slightly smaller proportions that still dwarfs most longswords.
Arms and Armor 15th Century Two Hander
Arms and Armor Highland Claymore
Some two handed swords such as those below are even larger, and were often used in a manner more closely related to pole arm technique than to those suited for longswords. For example, the Great Two Handed Sword below is 65 inches long with a blade that extends over four feet from the cross.
Custom two handed sword length ~ 70"
Or, to get even more crazy, we present this Landsknecht Two Hander, a custom piece we made for a customer. It's total length is just over 73 inches, with a nearly 58 inch blade.
This type of sword, which is often as long as its wielder is tall, is functionally different from a longsword and must be used in a substantially different manner. "Who ...uses a two handed sword should)... altogether use ...it... to deliver great edge blows, downright and reversed, fetching a full circle, or compass therein, staying themselves sometimes upon one foot, sometimes on the other"(Giacomo di Grassi.) Whereas longswords are relatively light and can stop and change direction in mid-swing, allowing feints and complex engagements, two handed swords are typically used with a flowing momentum that allows the weight and inertia of the sword to become a benefit rather than a detriment.
A plate from Alfieri's mid 17th century "Lo Spadone"
In the end, what makes a sword a two hander rather than a longsword is a function of how it is best put to use. Is it a sword that allows the full expression and development of longsword fighting techniques, or is it a sword that lends itself to the techniques developed for two handers?
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of the Oakeshott Institute. He had given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.