The first weapon that most people today associate with the Middle Ages would probably be the sword. And while most of us know that the fights that are depicted in movies where swords can just cut through plate armor are unrealistic one question still remains. How effective were real medieval swords against the different types of medieval armor?
In the following, I would like to present how effective a sword was against a Gambeson, Chainmail, and Plate armor.
The constant development and adjustment to new developments in armor design made swords highly effective weapons, especially when wielded by a well-trained and experienced swordsman. New sword designs like the Longsword and new fencing techniques like the half-swording even allowed to overcome Plate Armor.
Let`s find out more!
How effective were medieval swords against Gambesons & Chainmail?
When we look at how effective a medieval sword was then we can roughly split these swords into two types.
The first type, the one-handed sword that was used together with a shield, was used during the Early and High Middle Ages. The second type, the two-handed Longsword was developed in the 14th century as a response to the spread of Plate armor against which a one-handed sword was less effective.
Generally, it is important to state that there was a constant race between swordsmiths and armorsmiths to adapt to the newest developments in weapon or armor technology. Because of that, I wrote a sister article where I talk about the effectiveness of medieval armor. You can find that article here.
But let`s start out with the typical one-handed sword that was used during the Early and High Middle Ages.
The typical Early & High medieval sword
By the way, it might come as a surprise to you but swords were not that common, especially not during the Early and parts of the High Middle Ages. For more information on the reasons for that and which weapon instead of swords dominated (and decided) medieval battles you might want to check out my article here.
During the 12th century, the typical sword was one-handed, weighed 2,8 lb (1,3 kg), was roughly 40 in (1 m) long, had a double-edged broad blade, a short tip, and was extremely sharp. It was mostly used to deliver cuts and blows but could also be used for stabs.
Have you heard the myth that medieval swords weren`t sharp at all? Like most myths that one also has a grain of truth to it. You can find out more about that (and whether medieval swords were sharp or not) in my article here.
The most robust armor that that kind of one-handed sword would face were Gambesons or, even more robust, chainmail. Here you can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of medieval armor.
While a one-handed sword was hardly able to cut or pierce through a shirt of chainmail, the so-called hauberk blows and stabs that were delivered with enough force could still cause blunt force impacts or even broken bones. And when an extremely good sword met a hauberk of suboptimal quality then modern tests show that the sword might have cut or pierced the chainmail.
Obviously, the quality (as well as the price, more on that here) of both swords but also armor heavily depended on the skill of the blacksmith. And while modern experiments show that good swords were able to cut through poorly made chainmail, banking on that was usually not wise.
So most swordsmen during the Middle Ages wouldn`t try to cut or stab through armor but would try to attack the less well-armored or even completely unarmored body parts, for example, the legs.
The graves at the battlefield of Visby – insights into how medieval swords were used
That is actually supported by archaeological evidence. Excavations of the mass graves at the battlefield of Visby have shown that about 70% of the 1,200 skeletons show signs of severe injuries to the legs.
Now the number of 1,200 fallen soldiers might sound way too high for a medieval army. But medieval armies could be larger than one might expect, more on that here.
By the way, the mass graves of the battle of Visby are an anomaly since many of the fallen were buried with their armor. The reason for that can probably be found in the sheer number of dead and the warm weather after the battle. Burying the dead as quickly as possible was important to stop the spread of diseases that were the bane of every medieval army!
However, normally one important activity after a battle was to plunder the enemies dead and wounded and take their precious armor. Here you can find out more about that and the other events that happened after a medieval battle had ended. And here you can find out more about how medieval battles were fought in the first place.
But back to why the wounds on the legs are so important for us.
The fact that a majority of skeletons showed wounds at the legs obviously supports the theory that a medieval warrior would try to attack the weakly armored or completely unarmored body parts instead of attacking the torso that was protected by a shield, a gambeson, and sometimes also a shirt of chainmail.
Especially the shield is an often underrated part of the equipment of a medieval soldier. Now one might think that a shield only consists of a few boards that are nailed together but that is wrong! The production of medieval shields was highly sophisticated and resulted in a piece of armor that was highly effective.
However, as armor technology evolved further and Plate armor became more common the shield became more and more obsolete. You can find out more about the point of time when that happened and the reasons for why that happened here.
As a result, the one-handed sword was replaced by two-handed Longswords.
And that brings us to the question of how effective swords were against Plate armor.
How effective were medieval swords against Plate armor?
Around the year 1240, the suits of chainmail were reinforced by adding additional metal plates in crucial areas of the body. That trend continued and developed into suits of Plate armor that covered a man from head to foot in the 15th century.
These suits of plate armor were extremely effective. So the one-handed swords that were used during the Early and High Middle Ages and that were mostly designed to deliver cuts and blows could no longer endanger the wearer of a full suit of plate armor.
As a result, the sword design was adjusted.
Since the plates could not cover certain parts of the body (like the armpits) without impeding the ability to move, two-handed Longswords that were ideal for stabbing into the gaps and less well-armored part of Plate armor were developed.
But to be able to effectively stab into the gaps of the enemies’ Plate armor the blade of a Longsword had to be less flexible than the blade of an Early or High medieval sword and also had to be more tapered towards the tip.
But not only the design of the swords was adjusted to be able to effectively fight men wearing Plate armor. The fighting techniques were also adjusted.
One highly effective technique to overcome Plate armor with a Longsword was called half-swording.
Half-swording was a highly effective technique and meant that the right hand of the swordsman grabbed the hilt of his Longsword so that a stab had enough power behind it, while the left hand gripped the sword at the middle of the blade to better guide the sword tip into the gaps of the Plate armor.
By the way. That technique or more precisely one description of that technique from the late medieval sword master Philippo di Vadi is responsible for the myth that medieval swords weren`t sharp at all. I actually wrote an entire article debunking that myth. Please feel free to check it out here. There you can also find a video that shows the technique of half-swording.
So one can state that even though the late medieval Longsword could not stab through the plates of a suit of Plate armor it was still highly effective in stabbing through the gaps or weaker armored parts (like the armpits) in a full suit of Plate armor!
Generally, swords were extremely effective weapons since they were constantly improved to meet the emerging innovations in armor. A good example is the development of a Longsword that is ideal for stabbing into the gaps of Plate armor as a direct reaction to the development of Plate armor.
However, even during the Late Middle Ages when swords were much more common than during the Early Middle Ages they would not have the decisive role that one might assume. But that is a story for another time. You can find out more about the reasons why swords were not as common as you might think in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).