Tag Archives: zweihander

Q&A: Bastard Swords and Zweihanders

bastard swords and zweihanders are so massive, they have to be carried either at the side of a giant or extremely tall character, of on a person’s back. as well, how well do they work? is it a matter of fighting style, terrain, opponents, all the above? they look so cool and awesome, but are also just so big

So, it’s probably worth saying, up front, the bastard sword is, basically, a modern term. Not, a modern invention per say. The term itself is also not new. But, the way it’s applied today is less than 200 years old.

The bastard sword is just a different name for a longsword. Usually the definition would be, “a longsword with a two handed grip,” but, really, that is most longswords.

So, you’re talking about a sword with a 28″-36″ blade, and a grip you can hold in both hands, or use one handed. Historically, these would have just been called “swords.” Nothing particularly special about them.

As much as I like “zweihander” as a term, it’s probably worth remembering that this is, just, German for “two handed.” They’re long blades, usually around 48″ inches, though they do come longer. They also have a longer grip, to give the user more leverage. These are going to be heavier than a normal sword, but it’ll still be less than your average, domestic house cat.

In general, the etymology of most European two handed swords boils down to, “hey, it’s a big sword.” Even the Claymore is basically just, “hey, it’s a big sword,” in Gaelic. The zweihander is just, “hey, you’re going to need more than one hand to use this,” in German. (Incidentally, there are alternate German names for large swords including bihander. I’ve never come across the German Grossschwert, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s an acceptable term as well.)

Beyond that, a zweihander is still a sword, you use it like a sword. This means the normal strike patterns for a blade still work. It’s been scaled up, but not to the point that it’s become unmanageable. The point is to make a sword that can win a game of bleed tag, not turn it into a roving slab you can’t get moving before your opponent has run you through.

Because of the longer grip, two-handed swords do allow for some more fluid, circular strike patterns. From what I know, these were mostly practiced by Spanish and Portuguese schools. If I understand correctly, schools in that region viewed greatswords as a tool for dealing with multiple attackers. I’m not entirely sure if this was simply a drill technique, to get the swordsman used to the idea of moving between opponents, or if they really intended these guys to take on multiple opponents simultaneously. The former seems far more likely, and is a useful skill to cultivate for any combatant.

The major difference between a longsword and a zweihander is reach. A zweihander will let you strike at foes who are not close enough to attack with their blades, while still giving you a way to keep them at range, and punishing them for attempting to close. This is especially true of thrusts with a zweihander, which can vastly exceed what you’d see from a “normal,” longsword.

In most cases two handed swords could be used one handed, but because of the extra weight it was exhausting and the user would sacrifice some fine control over the blade.

You are right about the blade length. At least with the Zweihander. These were long blades, and if you were traveling, you’d probably want to wrap it, and carry across your back or along side your pack. If you were traveling with a horse, you would probably leave that on your horse. If you were expecting trouble, you’d need to get it ready before things got out of hand, because you wouldn’t get the opportunity in the moment. Also, unlike large axes, polearms, or staves, you couldn’t really use on as a walking aid when not in use. And, yes, just because you can’t draw a sword from your back doesn’t mean you can’t keep one there for later.

-Starke

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Speaking of sexist fighting advice! There’s this really great fiction writing advice blog I read years ago, written by a lady, shut down ages ago. But it claimed a few times that there was no way a woman could physically handle a zweihander or the like. I’ve always had a feeling that’s nonsense, but confirmation from a good source such as yourself would be great.

Consider this: the zweihander weighs seven pounds. The display version is ten pounds. If you can lift a backpack crammed with textbooks, you can lift a zweihander. House cats weigh more than a sword.

The issue with the zweihander is length, not weight. It is not a heavy sword. No swords are actually all that heavy, because weight defeats the purpose of the weapon. The heavier it is, then the faster your arms wear out and grow tired. This is a terrible, terrible thing.

Combat is highly frenetic. An easy comparison is sprinting, and it’s not just a regular sprint but wind sprints. You gotta go, go, go. You need to be able to move. So, a heavy weapon is detrimental to the goal of being able to fight as long as possible. Especially when that weapon is designed to give you an edge in reach, and counter pole arms. You want to be able to swing the weapon around for long periods of time because if you wear out first, you’re dead.

Endurance, not strength, is the great necessity for any warrior. So, everything your PE teacher punished you with is what you’re looking for (except dialed to eleven). Once you understand fighting is about going for as long as possible between energetic bursts, combat starts to make more sense. This is also why most action movies feature the pressure cooker, the slow grind down of the protagonist by giving them little to no rest between fights as they accumulate more injuries.

So, when people say strength in regards to combat, they don’t usually mean physical strength in what you can lift. They mean how long you can go, what you can endure before finally keeling over. This gets misinterpreted, mixed in with the confusion by historians about parade swords (which were incredibly heavy and often the only surviving weapons) and we get the beefcake barbarian.

Like all swords, and even shields, the zweihander is awkward to use if you don’t know how to wield it or have never held one before. This has to do with its balance point. Swords feel heavier than they actually are when we hold them because the balance is midway up the blade and that strains the wrist, which strains the arm, and causes the whole thing to tilt forward. Sometimes, the sword even gets dropped. You’ve got to learn how to account for it.

When you’re looking at actual combat considerations on weight, that’s in the armor. Armor is comparatively heavy, the warrior has to get used to carrying around fifteen to twenty or so pounds, or more depending on what gear they’re lugging with them between battles. So, if you’ve got a character going into battle without plate then they’re not going to have those weight considerations. Even if they are, the point of training is to build your body up to be able to handle it.

At the end of the day, its important to remember that, historically, large scale combat has been about being able to get the most bodies on the field as possible. You ran the gamut between trained warriors and farmers yanked off their fields with a hastily cludged together pole arm thrust into their hands. There are plenty of people who went into battle with no freakin’ clue what they were doing. The concept of a military as we know it today is a mostly modern invention.

The mystique of the knight and others like them came with their training, which is… they had some. Whatever they’d have liked us to think, there was nothing different about them compared to the farmers except the money, the (sometime) power, the time, and the “luck” of their birth. In the end, it’s less about what humans can or can’t do but what society corrals them from learning. It’s easier to control your population when only the powerful have access to weapons, educations, and castles.

So, yeah, a woman can use a zweihander if she trains on the zweihander. It also won’t be her only weapon, mostly because one never knows when they’ll have to fight indoors. (That’s a joke, HEMA peeps. I know half-holds are a thing, and it’s not a katana so it can strike straight.)

-Michi

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