Saturday, November 12, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 5

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Room to Maneuver

I'm going to talk about the two-handed great sword here because I think that it illustrates some very important points about swords and their use. Not all two handed swords are great swords. The great sword was (relatively) long and heavy, but it's also what I think a lot of people expect of all swords. However, the two-handed great sword is not at all typical of swords in general.

Take its description from Swords and Hilt Weapons: "Although large, measuring 60-70 in/150-175 cm overall, it was not as hefty as it looked, weighing something of the order of 5-8 lbs/2.3-3.6 kg. In the hands of the Swiss and German infantrymen it was lethal, and its use was considered as special skill, often meriting extra pay."

So, though at it's largest it is longer than 5 1/2 feet it only weighs about 8 lbs. and is firmly at the big-ass end of the spectrum. That's heavy for a sword (remember, average is between 2.5 and 3.5 lbs.), and it required special training even for soldiers. They were used to hack paths through pole-arms wielded by infantry, and to protect said infantry from that same tactic. They were also somewhat more effective against plate armor, but mostly, two-handed swords were for getting through the pikemen. They also had a long "ricasso," which is a flat, blunt section of the sword below the hilt (on the blade side of the guard) which allowed the wielder to hold the sword with the grip in one hand and ricasso in the other. This opened up a range of thrusting techniques, as well as allowing for easy half-swording.

Half-swording is a series of techniques in which a soldier grabs the ricasso in order to thrust the weapon like a halberd or spear, to parry a blow, or sometimes to entrap an opponent's limbs or sword. Not all swords have a ricasso, and most often it was the large swords--often meant to be wielded two-handed--which did. Generally, a sword with a ricasso meant for half-swording will also have a pair of projections above the ricasso which serve to guard the hand used to grasp the ricasso.

Remember also that these huge swords had their downsides: "In the infantry unit, the German and Swiss Landsknechts positioned the Doppelsöldner (Soldiers trained and paid to wield the two-handers) in the front ranks for a long time to strike down the opposing pikes and to hack out breaches into which one's own soldiers could penetrate. However it would become unusable, as soon as the opposing forces collided with one another, and there would be increased pressure from the back ranks onto the front ranks, which created a thick melee." (Kamniker and Krenn, p. 130)

In a close fight, 5 foot of sword isn't as easy to swing as 3 feet, and that's also a consideration if a soldier is fighting inside a building. If you don't have room to swing it, you can't use it as effectively. While a soldier may still be able to thrust--and with the two-handed sword would have had some pole-arm techniques open to them--confined spaces limit mobility, which limits the flexibility of the weapon. That isn't to say that you can't use a sword in a tight space, but it is a consideration, especially if it's not one particularly designed for thrusting. If your hero/ines are wandering through a space so small they can't walk two abreast, obviously a 3 foot long anything is going to be harder to use than a 6 inch anything.

Drawing the weapon is also a consideration. If the sheath is worn on the body, you have to take into account how long the blade is and how long the wielder's arm is, and figure out whether or not the arm is long enough to draw the blade completely from the sheath. I recommend trying this for yourself; take a long stick, broom, etc. and try to draw it like a sword. What length is comfortable (and possible) for someone of your height?

Longer or heavier swords are not always better. (You see my restraint? I'm not making any double entendres here. Not a one! I am calling your attention to that fact, so I suppose I lose some restraint points, but seriously!) In fact, one of the advantages of civilians using rapiers for self-defense was that they killed each other less. It's much easier to pull a blow from a rapier than from a knife. Knives, in close combat, are very lethal. It's pretty easy to stab someone deeply, regardless of training, and while knife fighting has techniques all its own, outside a battlefield knowing how to hold a knife is generally good enough to kill your average person. Much like today, actually. (Although all bets are off if your character takes a running start down the street while screaming threats with the knife raised over their head. :-D )

When considering what types of swords your characters and cultures might use, consider where they most often fight. Guards, for instance, may often be called upon to defend castle corridors as well as courtyards. Soldiers who fight in forests aren't going to want to get their sword caught on a tree, and fighters who spend even part of their time underground will have to take that into consideration as well.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Souls: Stories from Life's Fringe is out!

Okay, so it's actually been out for a little bit, but between internet troubles (now fixed!) that kept me off the net for 3 whole days (nearly lost my mind!) and NaNo (I'm currently at 9,209 and aiming for 12,500 today!) and packing (we're getting there!) and editing on Getting Ahead (meep.) I haven't had much time to do anything but sleep and eat!

A collection of three ghost stories about the souls on life's fringes: Blood Home (12,000 words) in which Addison tries to go home after the death of his brother, only to find that the ghosts of his past won't be easily laid to rest; Digging (2,500 words) in which Devin meets an unlikely friend in an unlikely place; and The Things We Pass On (flash) in which Samuel does not deal well with his father's death.

$.99 and available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 4

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Cutting vs Thrusting

Most fighting swords compromised between cutting and thrusting, and there are tons of ways to make a blade so that it can both cut and thrust. There are so many variations in sword shape that it's impossible to talk about them all here, but generally speaking blades curve in different ways to create different advantages, and to better balance the weapon or distribute its weight into a given area. As an example, some swords were designed to have a curved edge with a straight back, so that it had the cutting edge of a saber, but also a thrusting point.

There were, of course, those that specialized in one or the other, but who uses what is largely a matter of the needs, preferences, the style of the person wielding it, and the people against whom they most often fight. Even within a given culture and time period, there are often different styles of sword used by different people, just because the different weapons suit the different people. A weapon that can do both cutting and thrusting effectively is, obviously, more flexible than a weapon that can only do one, no matter which one it can do. If your soldiers need to be versatile they're more likely to have a sword that both cuts and thrusts. If they're dedicated to a single style of combat--mounted combat, for instance--or if individual types of troops dedicate themselves to specific techniques--i.e. this soldier is heavy cavalry and those are the tactics they know--you're more likely to get specialized weapons meant for that style.

A great example of a specialized weapon is the two-handed great sword, which was meant for the very specific purpose of cutting through, and defending against, pikemen. That's what it does. The length of the sword gives it reach, the design of the sword (specifically the ricasso, which is a flat, dull bit of metal on the blade side of the crossguard meant to allow half-swording) makes it possible to wield it somewhat like a pike or spear, and the thrusting point allows for good stabbing action. Yet, even with this specialized weapon, it can and would both cut and thrust.

This brings me to the topic of mounted combat because, generally speaking, thrusting from a horse is harder than slashing from a horse. That's just because when thrusting you have a smaller surface area that will do damage and it requires very good aim to hit the target where you want to. Plus, if you add the momentum of the horse into the equation, a slash can be more effective and not require the same precise aim that a thrust might need. There's more cutting area than thrusting area to a blade. A thrust goes deeper and is harder to treat than a slash, so it is more lethal

Another factor to take into account is the type of armor worn by the opponent. Thrusting into a lightly or unarmored opponent can also lead to getting your sword trapped and, if you're mounted, ripped out of your hand because it's buried in somebody's body. The same can be true of chain armors. Thrust the wrong sword into chain armor, and you'll have a hell of a time pulling it back out. Chain can trap blades that do manage to make it through the small gaps in the rings, and blades aren't going to cut through the rings.

However, you're unlikely to penetrate plate armor with either a thrust or a slash, that's kind of the point of plate armor. So if your thrust isn't going to penetrate the armor, and you're basically hoping to knock your opponent around, or get them off their horse, a slash is often your best bet. Making sure you hit the opponent and deliver enough force to give them a concussion, knock them to the ground, or batter them inside their armor is more important than attempting to pierce what will not be pierced. A thrust can do a similar job, but there's a reason lances were invented for thrusting into a mounted target.

Curved swords were preferred by most cavalry and mounted soldiers simply because the curve creates more slashing edge for cutting, which is easier to aim than a thrusting sword. This doesn't mean that all curved swords are meant solely for cutting. As I've said, most swords were designed to give some sort of balance between the two techniques. It's just more flexible that way.

In discussing these things with other writers, I've occasionally run into the perception that curved swords are "eastern," or create the impression of a more "eastern" culture. This is a ridiculous preconception. There are a variety of curved European swords (including the falchion, malchus, storta and messer) and many straight-edged swords developed by non-European cultures. The design of the sword is about what it's meant to do, not where it comes from. Beyond that, who cares? No, seriously, you're creating a culture here. If it makes more sense for them to use a curved sword (for instance if they often fight mounted) then that's what they should use, regardless.