Iconic Weapons: History of the Longsword


The longsword is such a classic and iconic symbol that it is used as a generic model for a sword in numerous different mediums of art and culture. Technically, the distinction between the classic “longsword” design and other types of swords such as the arming sword and “shortsword” may be a matter of blade lenght, hilt size, and semantics. The longsword then is that sword of European descent with a cruciform hilt long enough to be used with one or two hands and a straight, double-edged blade between 85-110 centimeters in length. It is probably the epitome of what many think of when they imagine a sword, rivaled only by the katana in the public consciousness of what constitutes this type of weapon. The image of a knight in shining armor with a classic longsword is as timeless and recognizable as the armor of the samurai and their infamous katana design.

Typical shape of the longsword

The longsword became widely popular in Europe during the 14th Century, although the design emerged earlier than that. Some sources claim the weapon first emerged as early as the 12th Century, and others the 13th Century. Regardless of exactly when the first longsword was made, the weapon is noted to have been in common use between the years of 1250-1550. It was used as a service weapon in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Period. After that, it was overtaken by new weapons as technology advanced. Still, the longsword persists to this day as a potent symbol of discipline, honor, and virtue.

Crafting a high-quality longsword required skill beyond that of a simple blacksmith. Each sword had to fine-tuned to provide the perfect balance between flexibility and sturdiness. A sword which was too sturdy would break against a hard surface, but a sword which was too flexible would not be able to cut. A swordsmith would heat up the steel to the right color in a furnace before hammering it into shape. The edges would be hammered to a finer point than the center, forming the edge. The center of the steel would be hammered to flatten it out, but would be left thicker than the edges to provide a strong shape. Ensuring the sword was the proper weight and proportions required great skill and experience, and a swordsmith would need to take into consideration various factors such as the “point of balance,” “vibration nodes,” and “forward/aft pivotpoints” in order to craft the steel into a functional longsword design.

Different cross-sections
The cross-section of a longsword could come in many different shapes.

Tempering the blade also required a lot of experience since there was no way to measure the temperature of the steel. The swordsmith would have to know from experience by looking at the blade that it was the right temperature for tempering before quenching it in water or oil. The steel would also be filed down to craft precise edges and proportions to get the weight and shape just right. Filing would also be done to create the guard, pommel, and any decorations. Some parts of the steel might be hollowed out or filed down to create indentations which helped craft the perfect balance. Some longswords may have been mass-produced without such care or precision in order to equip large armies, producing more crude variants which were not as sturdy or balanced.

Historical training manual
A page from a historical training manual.

The longsword is a legendary symbol of skill and precision not only because of how great skill is required to craft one using traditional methods, but also how great skill is required to wield one. Numerous training manuals from throughout history when the longsword was in common use have been preserved and carried into the modern age. These have been adapted by modern practitioners into newer manuals as well, as the sword is still quite popular for recreational purposes. Learning to use the longsword is also a useful practice for one seeking to gain discipline and self-control.

The longsword design is notorious for being one of the most versatile weapons ever conceived. Every physical part of the weapon has offensive capability from the tip of the blade to the pommel. The hilt was long enough that it could be used with one or two hands, although the classic “longsword” is typically meant to be wielded with two hands. The long, straight blade was used for both cutting and thrusting. The blade itself could be gripped with one hand and stabilized for more precise thrusts, a technique known as “half-swording.” The sword could also be flipped around and held with both hands by the blade and swung like a hammer, striking an opponent with the guard in a technique known as the “murder stroke.” The guard itself was primarily used to protect the hands from strikes. There are even historical manuals which reference unscrewing the pommel and throwing it in the opponent’s face as a distraction before charging in.

Knight combat reenactment
A reenactment of knights engaging in combat with what appear to be a longsword (right) and a short sword or arming sword (left).

Ewart Oakeshott (1916-2002) created a system of typology for different swords of the classic “longsword” design. This system did not exist during the time when longswords were in common use, although it is useful due to the blurred distinction between “longswords” and other swords of similar length and purpose during the time when these swords were in service. Arming swords were very similar in size and purpose to what would be considered a “longsword.” However, the Oakeshott classifications are very distinct and a “Type XVIa” sword is probably the strictest interpretation of what constitutes a longsword in the Oakeshott typology.

There are many famous longswords from history, as these weapons were often preserved as family heirlooms and important cultural artifacts. The Wallace Sword is one such sword housed at the National Wallace Monument in Scotland. While there is reason to believe it is not the original sword, it is preserved as if it were. William Wallace was a Scottish knight who led the resistance against the English occupation of Scotland in the Wars of Scottish Independence. His famous longsword was used during the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Falkirk. It serves to this day as a potent symbol of freedom, liberty, justice, and the need to stand up for these ideals in the face of tyranny.

The Wallace Sword
The Wallace Sword

To me, the longsword is a symbol that is synonymous with courage, bravery, honor, integrity, and ingenuity. I recently started studying to use the longsword and plan to start practicing with one soon. Despite the weapon no longer being in common use and arguably being obsolete, I still want to learn how to wield and maintain the weapon so that I can benefit from the discipline one fosters whenever they learn to wield and maintain a new weapon, as well as so that I can pass the knowledge onto others and preserve the craft of this important symbol from human history.

What do you think about the longsword? Have you ever learned how to wield one? What does the longsword symbolize to you? Feel free to share your thoughts.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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