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.