There are a lot of folks who are puzzled by the relatively short grips on many medieval European swords. When we put swords in the hands of people who have never held an original sword they often comment that the grip is shorter than they had anticipated, and often suggest that medieval people must have had small hands. This really isn't the case, instead short grips under 4" were very common in many places over a long period of time. In large part because an appropriately short grip allows the pommel to nestle against the back of the palm, adding considerable leverage and maneuverability to the sword.
An excellent sword for illustrating this point is our Fornovo Sword, a wonderful singlehanded sword from the second half of the 15th C. It has a classic wheel pommel and straight guard that terminates in swollen terminals and has a small peak in the center. The blade is a firm diamond cross sectioned type XVIIId with a viscously tapering point.
At just under 2.5 lbs the sword is quick and makes an excellent cutter with the stiff diamond sectioned blade. This style of sword is the type often illustrated on the hip of soldiers and archers of the period. The short width guard and moderate length would work comfortably hung from the belt or saddle.
One of the reasons we choose to replicate this sword was the interesting characteristics of its shorter grip when in play. We had found such a grip length to work very well with certain actions as depicted in the manuals of the period and felt that such a sword would be appreciated by those practicing these arts. We looked at several swords of this size but this one appealed most in form and function.
Here we can see one of the characteristics of a shorter grip when the hand nests tightly between the guard and the pommel, allowing the rear of the hand to power the short edge cuts from the back of the sword. The ability to adjust and control the grip is crucial in the ability to use a sword to advantage. If the sword wielder is unable to adjust from the handshake to a hammer grip and variations, it will leave some of the potential of the sword's lethality unused. For a deeper discussion of this check out Dimicator's excellent video, and this blog post of ours that examines grip length in more detail.
We have named this sword after the Battle of Fornovo. The first battle of the Italian Wars where Charles the VIII of France and his army had made a drive to claim the Kingdom of Naples. This brought the disparate powers of Italian city states together in the Holy League and the ensuing battle.
Italian and French in conflict at Fornovo
The French army and its Swiss Mercenaries fought the opposing force to at least a stand still and were able to continue on their way through Lombardy and back to France. The Italian forces and their Balkan Mercenaries, Stratioti, took significantly more casualties and did not recover the French baggage train with its plunder, but did declare themselves the winner and celebrated as such in Venice. This style of sword could have been seen on both sides in this conflict.
So here is spotlight look at our Fornovo Sword!
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.