The “messer,” meaning “long knife” in German, is a weapon which was prominent in Germanic territories during the Renaissance era. It was called this for its hilt, which was constructed with a full tang and lacked a pommel, making it akin to a very large knife. The weapon was used throughout the 15th and 16th centuries as well as onward. As such, it experienced many different variations and changes in blade length and shape, hilt length, and guard design. The weapon experienced such evolution because it was terrifically effective and incredibly versatile, leading it to be used by commoners and nobility alike, as the utility and effectiveness of its design could not be denied.
The “kleine messer” was a small, dagger-sized version of the messer with a single-edged blade only about 12 inches long and a fine point for thrusting. It was a fighting knife and would not have been long enough to be considered a sword. It made an effective dagger, useful for thrusting between armor when up close or grappling with an opponent.
The “langes messer” is arguably the most iconic design, being the short sword with a knife hilt that was carried by commoners and nobles alike. It had a blade length of around 25 inches with a single cutting edge. These could have one-handed or hand-and-a-half hilts. Later versions added more hand protection in the form of a “nagel” in addition to a crossguard, which is a third stub protruding over the hand out from the flat of the blade instead of the edges.
The “grosse messer” was a longer, two-handed version of this iconic sword design. Meaning “great knife” or “war knife,” this version would not become as popular as the langes messer due to its size making it more of a dedicated battlefield or bodyguard weapon. With a typical blade length of 30 inches or more, this version was a bit too large for the average person to consider carrying daily for self-defense. Nevertheless, mercenaries and others making common use of swords found the grosse messer to be a great weapon of choice for their professional duties.
Prominence of the Langes Messer
The langes messer became very popular and saw widespread usage as both a commoner’s and noble’s weapon of choice due to its exceptional design. The blade has good balance with a full tang, eliminating the need for a pommel to counterbalance the weight of the blade. It has a hefty blade profile for great cutting power, and many had a cut edge to help facilitate thrusting. Its single-edged blade made it cheaper than double-edged swords, and it was a rather short sword, contributing to its lower cost as well. Some sources say that its knife-like hilt also skirting restrictions on civilians carrying swords in some Germanic regions, since it was technically not a sword. It was a “long knife.”
The langes messer had essentially the same blade as a falchion from the medieval period, but with a knife’s hilt rather than the typical cruciform hilt with a pommel of earlier Germanic swords. The edge of the blade could be on the outside or inside of the curve. An outside edge was far more common in the past and today with reproductions, and an outside edge would make for better slicing cuts. However, an inside edge is useful as well, turning the weapon into more of a chopping tool, like an axe. Both types of edges would likely cut just as well, broadly speaking. Although, an inside edge might make the messer more useful as a general tool for chopping wood and meat, in addition to being a great self-defense weapon.
An Exceptional Tool
Like the falchion of the medieval period, the messer could be used as a sidearm, for self-defense, or as a utility tool. It was small and light enough to be carried daily without encumbrance, but big enough to be useful as a versatile weapon rather than a simple cutting tool or just a backup weapon. I do not know if any messers were historically made with a false edge, but one could be added to it to give it even greater versatility in combat at a slightly higher cost. The knife-like hilt design is also unique for a sword and gives the weapon a distinct, aesthetic appeal. These factors no doubt all came together to make the weapon as prominent as it was, since not all weapons throughout history find themselves being employed by the almost the entire society from the richest to the poorest members alike.
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