So, you want to learn how to wield a longsword like a pro! That is most excellent! The first step in that journey is to go find a good club that can get you there, because no matter how good an internet guide may be, it is no substitute for live practice and coaching. Here is a good tool if you don’t know where to start, but generally just googling “HEMA [town/country]” should prove to be sufficient.
Now to tackle what a longsword is… Quite simply, it is a sword that is long. But not the longest. Those are montantes or zweihanders (or bidenhanders, however you want to call them). The defining feature is that you wield it using both hands in most cases, which means that the hilt has to be long enough to comfortably fit them. While the Italian school does show longswords being used single-handed, such instances are very rare in the German tradition, and usually done with the back hand instead of the leading hand. The upper limit is more blurred, however, Generally, longswords were also used in civilian life as sidearms, whereas larger swords were not, which means longswords had to be short enough to still be practical. Furthermore, after a certain length and weight, the optimal technique changes as well. An approximation for the cutoff would be 140cm, but again – the line is blurred, and the feel of the weapon is what matters more than the actual size.
Lastly, what we generally use in HEMA are practice swords called Federschwerter, or feders for short. They have a narrower blade that is made to be as safe as possible without losing the handling characteristics of actual swords too much – except where safety is concerned. Generally, feders are a better choice than blunt swords, even when the blunt swords are sufficiently flexible, since they allow for better weight distribution while keeping thicker edges.
1.1. Parts of a feder/longsword
Before we move on to actual swordsmanship, let’s examine parts of the feder. Some of the German terms may be different depending on if the source you are using.
- Klinge / The blade:
- Ort / Point
- Lange Schneide / Long Edge
- Kurtze Schneide / Short edge
- Schilt (feder only)
- Gehülcz / The hilt:
- Kreutz / Crossguard
- Bindt / grip
- Knoppf / pommel
Here’s an image with the marked parts:
HROARR, one of the best sites for HEMA articles, also has a wonderful poster made by Chris So. You might notice that some of the nomenclature is different – all is correct, though.
The long and short edge are also part of every sword, but they can change. These terms are connected to the grip of the sword. If you hold a sword in a normal handshake or hammer grip and extend your index finger, it will point in the direction the long edge is facing. The thumb will be where the short edge is. Should you flip the sword, the long edge is still where the index finger is facing, while the short is still at the thumb.
The Schilt and Fuller are two things that are not present on every sword. Most Federschwerter will have a schilt – it is the flared part of the blade right next to the crossguard. Its function is to help keep your fingers safe. The Fuller is the groove that is used to lighten a sword – it has nothing to do with blood.
Everything that’s not the blade is the hilt. It consists of the crossguard, which can be either of a simple cruciform shape, or a more complex one with various rings. While the rings do help somewhat with keeping your hands safe, they are rare in surviving examples of swords, and usually consist of more than just a ring on either or both sides of the sword. You may also not be able to fit your thumb through them in the gloves necessary for sparring.
The grip is the part between the crossguard and the pommel, usually wrapped in leather or cord. It can be waisted or not, with some risers or none, which is all down to preference.
The pommel is the bulbous metal end of the sword. We know of several different shapes of pommels:
- Wheel pommel
- Fishtail pommel
- Scent-stopper pommel
- Pear pommel
- Faceted pommel
- Globe pommel
The best pommel is again tied to the individual using the sword.
1.2 Construction of a sword
First, we have to know what a proper sword is made of. Any sword that will be used for its intended purpose must be made of carbon steel with at 0.45-0.95 % carbon content. Stainless steels are not for functional swords. Some common steel grades that are appropriate for sword are EN45, EN60, EN95, AISI 5160 and AISI 6150. AISI 9260 (CAREFUL: these namings are region-specific, and might have different designations in different parts of the world). The crossguard and pommel are commonly made of mild steel, since they are thicker.
Whether a sword is made by stock removal (cut out from a larger plate, then ground down and forged) or forged from scratch does not affect its final quality. In fact, stock removal may be slightly more reliable. What is important is that the blade is one piece from the tip to the pommel of the sword. The part of the blade from the crossguard to the pommel is called the tang, and should be made from one piece. Rarely, a functional sword has a threaded part welded on towards the pommel. If a sword has a so-called rat-tail tang, avoid it at all costs. The part where the blade transitions into the tang is called the shoulder. It is very important that this part is rounded, otherwise the blade is likely to break at that point.
The crossguard is put on the blade, usually while it’s still hot, so that it contracts when cooled for a better fit. Some smiths use extra steps to help with crossguard rattle, such as wedges or plates welded to the crossguard and fixed to the tang. You should still expect that the crossguard will get bent and rattle at some point, and shouldn’t be worried about it.
There are two main ways of solidly attaching the pommel to the blade – the full peen and the screw-on pommel. In both cases, the blade takes the full length of the sword, with the part that goes through the handle being called the tang. In both cases, the crossguard rests on the shoulders of the blade (the part where the tang meets the weak of the blade), which must be slightly rounded to avoid breakage. The difference lies in the way the pommel is affixed to the blade.
- Full peen: The pommel is drilled through and put on the tang so that a small part of the tang is sticking out. This is then heated and hammered down, thus securing the pommel. The method is more secure, but when a blade breaks, you need a new sword in its entirety.
- Threaded pommel: The end of the tang is threaded, so the pommel can be simply screwed on. Often, a bolt will also be used so that the assembly does not come apart as easily during use. Typically, the crossguard will be held on by the force the handle and pommel exert on it, which is not the case with a full peen. With a threaded pommel, substances such as Locktite or other glues meant to secure threaded nuts can be used to make them more secure. It is best if the thread goes through the pommel and is fixed with an extra nut.
1.3 How to choose a longsword
To understand how a longsword should handle, there are a few things to be kept in mind. You can use these to see if a longsword is good for use in HEMA and that it will not result in an injury. A lot is left to personal taste, but these are the guidelines.
- Length – historically, most longswords seem to have been about 115cm (though there is need for more data points here). This has several explanations. First, the technology of early middle ages meant that longer swords were very difficult to make in a way where they would be reliable. Once the technology advanced enough, it likely turned out that about 115cm is a practical size for a sword you would carry with you. However, the standard length in HEMA is 130-140cm. Due to our equipment, longer handles are very useful, and since we don’t carry it everywhere, size isn’t a limiting factor. Anything larger, and the sword type changes.
- Weight – Generally speaking, you want your sword to be somewhere between 1.35 – 1.8kg, depending on other factors. While there are examples of heavier longswords, especially for lengths common in hema, even 1.8kg can result in dangerously hard hits. Generally speaking, the heavier the sword, the more flex and closer PoB it needs to have to be safe.
- Point of Balance (PoB) – balance a sword on your finger. The point where it’s in balance is, unsurprisingly, the Point of Balance! It is measured by how many centimeters from the crossguard it is located. The closer it is, the easier it will be to change the direction of the sword and the less hard it will hit, but you won’t be able to feel where your blade is as much. The further out it is, the more powerful your strikes will be, but it will require some more effort to change direction. The generally accepted range for a PoB is 4-9cm from the crossguard.
- Vibrational nodes – take your sword, hold it with your lead hand by the crossguard, and slap it! Slap it like you mean it! Now, observe where the sword stays still. Those two points are the forward and back vibrational nodes. The front one should be at the last third of the blade, but the more important one is the one on the grip. It should be the heel of your hand where you hold the sword. The closer to that point it is, the less strain your hand will have when fighting with the sword. If the node is in the crossguard, for example, you can expect wrist pain after intense sessions.
- Forward rotational node – hold your sword by the crossguard and waggle it left and right. Now observe where the center of the circle is. This is the forward rotational node. The closer to the point it is, the easier it will be to keep the point where you want it to be in stabs and most stances.
- Point – is it thick enough to be safe in the thrust? Swollen points are better than rolled ones, since rolled tips can break.
- Spiky bits – how spiky is the schilt? What about the crossguard? If those are spiky or axe-like, they might cause some serious damage in wrestling at the sword.
- Flex – how much will the sword flex in a stab and what is the curve of the flex like? Generally, we want it to flex mostly in the last third of the blade, but gradually. So the strong of the blade should be relatively stiff, the middle should show a bit of flex, and the last third most of the flex. You can measure flex by pressing it on a scale until it just starts flexing, then reset the scale, and press it all the way down until the numbers stop increasing. The two numbers should give you a decent idea of the flex of a sword. (a good range is 5.5/10kg to 11/19kg on the stiffer side)