Evolution of the Longsword
The longsword was a type of European sword used approximately during the late medieval period. These swords had long cruciform hilts with grips over 10 to 15 inches in length, which provided room for two hands. The sword was not only used defensively, but could be applied offensively. All parts of the blade are purposeful and versatile. By using both hands, a more powerful attack can be dealt on opponents.
The longsword deserves its name because it usually measures around 70–86 cm (28–34 inches) in length with an average weight of 900 grams (~2 pounds).
The blade of the sword is straight and has a double-edged edge. Blade styles vary with length, width, and shape. The crossguard design changed over time to adapt for different blade properties or artistic trends.
The evolution of swords through European history
In European history, the sword has undergone many changes. While swords from the Lazio period were relatively uniform and simple, over time, diverse and complex types of swords emerged. This article provides you with a brief overview of the most influential stages in the European sword’s development.
Swords of the La Tène Period
Iron production in Europe increased during the Hallstatt period, which led to a corresponding increase in iron swords. Despite variations in production methods and materials, Iron swords from the Hallstat period resemble Bronze predecessors in their design. It was only at the beginning of the La Tène period (450-100 BC) that this changed.
The swords from the La Tène period typically had an iron blade, and it was often double-edged and straight. The length of swords varied depending on multiple variables, but typical lengths ranged between 80 and 100 cm. Long swords often had a cross guard to protect the user from getting their hand near the blade (see reproduction in picture). The metal guard was soldered onto either end of where it crosses over itself – one on the handle and the other on the hilt of the sword.
Longswords evolved over time, slowly becoming more of a slashing weapon than anything else. They could be identified as long swords with the implementation of a forefinger bar (a Spatha) which was commonly seen in ancient Japan and Europe. The La Tène era produced swords with stamps imprinted on them. However, it is not clear whether these were the manufacturer’s brands or something else.
The key concept to remember about La Tène Period swords is that, while often conflated with Celtic swords, the two are actually not interchangeable. The La Tène Period was a time period and the Celts were an ethnic group. A longsword can originate from the La Tène culture without being Celtic, and a Celtic sword existed before the La Tène Period because the Celt culture lasted from 800 to 275 BC.
Swords of Classical Antiquity
Some scholars believe that La Tène swords were spread through the Roman army during Julius Caesar’s Gallic War by Celtic horsemen. People have been enhancing swords throughout history. The Roman Spatha, with its leaf-shaped blade and straight quillons, developed during the early 2nd century AD. A longsword is a type of medieval European sword that’s between 75 and 110 cm in length, with a blade 4 to 6 centimeters wide. Initially used primarily by mounted auxiliary troops, it also found its way into the infantry arsenal at some time in the second century.
In the Roman army, gladiators relied on a short sword known as the gladius from third century BC. This 50-58 cm blade was fully replaced by the spatha in 3rd century AD. For centuries, this type of sword has been the standard weapon for infantry. More than just infantrymen use it though as horseback riders and sailors have also adopted it.
The Romans introduced their curved sword technology to neighboring cultures. Curved swords were originally not a popular “cutting” weapon but rather used for slashing, which created uniform wounds through the body.Roman swords were incredibly different from the swords of other regional cultures. The Falx varied considerably in length, and by the end of antiquity only a short sword was used by Europeans.
When tribes migrated in the migration period, the spatha was still common. Various groups adopted the sword. The German people in particular developed it further, which made it longer and heavier over time. It was seen as a weapon of knights and nobility.The sax, a short single-edged slash knife, was originally manufactured for domestic use. By the 16th century in Germany, the blade of the sax had been straightened and made bigger and heavier. From this development sprang the Scramasax which resembled a short single-edged sword.
It is thought that Damascus steel swords first reached Europe during the migration period. These blades were made of a metal with an undulating surface caused by forging together two different types of iron and then applying a subsequent layer of molten steel to give it sharpness.
Early Middle Ages / Viking Swords
This period in sword production (starting around the 6th century and ending about the 7th) is notable for its unusually high rate of growth, not just within Europe but also on a wider scale. Steel sword-makers were casting all their work in molds from preformed sand, improving the quality of blades significantly. The skill and craftsmanship of these swords was unprecedented for those regions, sparking a demand which led to improved skills throughout Europe that would later spread into Spain.
In general, the shape of early medieval swords were long and wide with tips that were mostly rounded. Slashing weapons developed from the Roman stabs that many have been designed for pure slashing. Cross guards are straight and not meant to protect hands but also hurt opponents during battle. The pommel is round or flattened in shape. Viking era sword development is a topic of much debate among historians. The longsword, which became popular during the Middle Ages (9th century), was an evolution of the Viking Spatha. One strong speculation is that many decorative iron letters were inlaid into some swords from this period as well – though there are few surviving examples to confirm or refute these claims.
Swords in the High Middle Ages
The longsword was gradually developed from Viking swords. The blades and cross guards were lengthened as the Middle Ages progressed. Swords evolved from shorter and stubbish and rapier-like swords into the long, broad bladed swords popularized by religious warriors in Europe. The blades of these great weapons grew to a length of 6 to 7 feet. And though the blade was straight edged, it had a surprisingly upward curve towards its end. In line with mythology adoring Christian lore at this time, many Anglo-Saxon letters featured cross guards that were shaped like Greek crosses or Irish Celtic crosses (both representative symbols).
By the end of the 12th century, European swords had a broad blade with a point at one end and most also had straight guards. Swords began to shrink in length as time passed, ending up as long knives used for bread-cutting by the 14th century.
Late Middle Ages Swords
The longsword reached its peak during the Middle Ages, when it became longer. The average sword during this time period had a blade that was between 110 and 120 cm in length. It took the form of a half-and-half sword by about 1270, before it evolved into the knight’s sword we know today.
As the availability of metal armor increased, and thus its quality as well, sword blades became both heavier and longer. To counteract this, fullers were no longer employed in production; instead, swords sported a tapered profile. Around the 14th century, Italy and France began using sword blades with pointed tips to enable maximum penetration. These swords had an extremely hard steel blade that could easily pierce through armour.
Renaissance / Early Modern Times
Due to the refinement in fencing and military tactics, swords evolved with a gradual change in usage. Simple guards were replaced by more complex handles and hand guards. In the 16th century armor-piercing swords evolved and were used against heavy armored knights.
From 1400 swords were no longer limited to use by knights and nobility. Particularly with the rise of mercenary armies, more soldiers used swords as their weapon of choice over time. One-and-a-half-handed swords became powerful two-handed weapons, but from 1500 blades measuring up to 2 meters in length also appeared. These swords were used mainly by infantry in the field. The typical infantry sword of the 16th century, with an S-shaped cross guard (the Katzbalger), also gained fame.