Monday, September 27, 2010

Edge or Flat?

While giving a talk on pirate weapons, someone volunteered that parries were always done with the flat of the sword instead of with the edge. This probably came from Mythbusters. They had a segment on trying to cut through one sword with another and they stated that parries were always done with the flat. You can see the segment here. Around 4:30 in they say, "In real life you never block an edge with an edge."

They in turn, probably got it from ARMA (the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts). You can read their essay on the subject here.

The thing is, they are specifically talking about 15th century and earlier techniques. The essay makes this clear in the first two paragraphs.

Many historical fencing enthusiasts do not grasp the concepts of parrying against cuts with cutting swords as described in numerous Medieval and Renaissance fighting manuals.  These texts teach the concept of defending by counter-striking or by receiving blows on the flat portion of the blade. As will become clear, edge-on-edge parrying was not taught as doctrine.  In fact, defense, or warding of cutting blows, is described in many ways in 15th century fencing texts by many masters and never as a direct resistant block of deliberate opposition of sharp edge on sharp edge (so common in stage-combat and sport fencing and derived from 18th and 19th century methods of swordplay). 
There is a tremendous, if not outright complete, lack of any support for doing so that can be found within any of the source literature (at least prior to the 17th century).
Since the GAoP starts in the last quarter of the 17th century, it is clearly outside of ARMA's essay. Fencing manuals from the early 17th century clearly show edge on edge parries. Here are some (rather explicit) examples.

Not only is the edge shown facing the opposing blade but the wrist is straight.

So, combat styles changed between the 15th and the 17th  centuries. This should not come as a surprise. Everything else changed. The 15th century swords were big heavy bars of iron. They were used two-handed, often against an armored enemy. By the 17th century, guns made armor too heavy to wear. Swords got lighter and the steel they were made from got better.

What about marks on surviving swords? A few points here. I have done edge on edge combat with real swords as well as schlager blades which are close to real weight. A tempered steel blade does not show much damage. Blades that have not been tempered do show significant notching. Those are the ones that would not have survived. Remember that only a fraction of swords have survived, mainly dress swords that never got near actual combat.

Even when an edge is notched, it isn't that hard to fix. I have had to take notches out of my pruning shears. You can get rid of most of the damage quickly with a hammer and anvil.

A final note - the Mythbusters declared it a myth that you can cut one sword with another. They did it several times but they disqualified these because the sword broke instead of being cut. I'm not sure I agree with their assessment. If I hit someone's sword and it separates into two pieces, I don't really care if I cut it or broke it.

1 comment:

Michael Parker said...

Hey, this is a nice blog and I agree with your statement that sometimes edge parries are appropriate. I just disagree with your characterization of 15th century swords as "heavy bars of iron" and your statement that swords got lighter by the 17th century. I think if we looked at catalogs of antique swords from both periods we would find that that's too broad a statement considering how many different sizes and kinds of swords there were in both time periods. However, if we compare swords of similar purpose then it looks pretty similar to me.

If we compare a single handed double-edged knightly sword with a 17th century mortuary sword like a cavalryman might use, I don't think you'd find a significant difference in average weight. I suppose that pirates had different taste in weapons than cavalry soldiers, but I don't think from the 15th to 17th century the weights of all swords went down. The only significant differences I see is that various backswords became quite popular with the military, complex hilts or basket hilts became more common on swords, and that swords that required two hands went out of fashion.

Longswords weighing between 3 and 4 pounds were often used in unarmored judicial duels during the 15th c, so the weight of these weapons wasn't meant for cutting through armor. When they were used by men in armor on the battlefield they didn't even use the edge of the sword to cut, preferring to stab to gaps with the point, bash with the pommel, or hook and trip with the crossguard. Two-handed swords or Zweihanders weighing between 5 and 10 pounds were a very extreme and specialist development of the sword that were used for a very short period in pike warfare and shouldn't be confused with typical 15th century longswords.

For this reason, most regular sized longswords were not weighted with the intention of hacking at armor using the edge, but instead had heavy hilts for pommel strikes and reinforced points for thrusting at armor.

I'm sorry if this criticism comes out rude, because that's not my intention. I'm just trying to share knowledge about a period you might not have studied as much as the 17h century, and I'm sure I could learn a thing or two from you about pirate-style swordsmanship. Thanks for reading.