All posts by Michael Schwarz

Cat Weight and Why Understanding Reality is Important for Writers

When you say “lighter than house cat” what kind of cat do you mean exactly? Because just based on my cats it could be anything from 1kg to 4kg and that kind of makes a difference…

I think I’ve always specified weight before making that comparison in the past. For most domestic cat breeds, 10lbs is the average, healthy, adult weight. Somewhat obviously this will vary, with some breeds being potentially much smaller, and obviously, juveniles will be much smaller (and lighter) than their parents. The extreme edge of this are Siamese, which have some of the smallest kittens among domestic cat breeds, but then grow to be only slightly smaller than most other domestic cats. I’m not sure where you’re finding a 2.2lb adult cat, though that could certainly be an outlier.

The thing is, if we were talking about swords, yeah, that 4kg cat will be heavier than most greatswords. That 1kg cat will be heavier than most sabers, foils, and rapiers, with some other sword variants being slightly heavier.

I feel like a broken record sometimes on this topic. We have a lot of fantasy literature which looks at swords and thinks, “that must be really heavy, so it can hit really hard,” but, that’s not how you use the weapon. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “massive” greatsword or a rapier, swords are precision cutting tools. They are not long axes. They are not sharpened hammers.

Additionally, while a fight will be fairly brief, battles can easily last all day. It’s not a question of whether you can use a weapon once or twice, it’s something you need to be able to do for hours at a time. Swinging around a massive 40lb chunk of steel may be a great workout, but you’re not going to be able to do that for hours without rest, no matter how well conditioned you are.

This gets into another fantasy element. You have fantasy heroes that are outright superhuman swinging around these comically oversized (and more often over weighted) weapons. In some cases, this is technically fine, as the wielder is overtly superhuman, and in others it’s an error by the author.

As I’ve said in the past, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a fictional character having an impractically heavy weapon… if there’s a point to it. If it’s an indication that the character really is superhuman, and we’re supposed to understand that? Cool. If the weapon says something about their personality? That’s fine, it’s a legitimate venue of characterization.

Usually, we prioritize realism, because as the author, you have the choice of when you want to step away from reality to fit your story. However, it is important that you, as the writer, be aware when you’ve done so. You want to make these decisions as informed choices, not something you accidentally stumbled into because you’ve seen it before, and thought, “that’s how it is.” This can become a real problem for writers when they take elements of characterization from a story that inspired them and accidentally graft them into their work.

Another common example is the idea of weapon hyperfocus, where you have characters that only use one specific weapon, and are basically defenseless without it. It doesn’t make any sense from a realistic perspective. It’s not how people are trained. It’s now how these skills work. But, it can be a very significant statement about how your character views the world.

Similarly, in real history, soldiers would carry multiple weapons. That’s the real world, but even in emulating that, you’re informing your audience that your characters are more flexible, and better able to handle a variety of situations.

It’s up to you what you want to do with your characters, but the information is here so you can make that decision. So you don’t think that your character couldn’t wield a sword because they’re not a ‘roided up wall of meat, or don’t accidentally think that all melee weapons are comically heavy and massive, because they weren’t.


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Q&A: Energy Weapons and Penetration

Wouldn’t “lower power” so to speak be desirable to reduce overpenning in urban combat situations? Not necessarily with a large bulky gun, but even SBRs can fit some definitions of “big”.


It depends, but it’s quite possible that penetration may be distinct from overall weapon power. Especially if we’re talking about non-kinetic weapons.

The two examples that come to mind immediately are Babylon 5 and Star Wars. Both settings use plasma based weapons as their dominant hand weapon technology. In B5, this was explicitly stated to be because the PPGs were less likely to rupture starship hulls and cause explosive decompressions.

Of course, in Star Wars, magnetic shielding which turns blasters into a remarkably high stakes version of Pong.

In both cases, you have high power weapons with a low risk of penetration.

This is also often a characteristic of beam weapons in science fiction. Where you have weapons that will selectively discriminately between punching through armor but not burning through unarmored structures or vehicles. In some settings there’s justifications for this, such as advanced computer control systems built into the weapons, or hulls and other objects being constructed out of materials which resist the beam weapons. In others it’s strictly authorial fiat without any in setting justification.

That said, high energy weapons could easily end up in a situation where you don’t have much power, while the weapon is still pretty heavy. This is the reason we don’t have things like hand-held laser weapons in the real world. You simply can’t generate enough power to create a functional weapon with current power sources. If you want a hand laser that can vaporise someone, it will need a power reserve greater than the output of a major hydroelectric facility for each shot. You could carry something very heavy (or vehicle mounted) which would mildly inconvenience (or blind) someone, but it would be significantly less effective than just bringing in a conventional rifle.

That’s part of why, “heavy, low power weapons,” wouldn’t be a thing. If your weapon is heavy and is low power, you’d revert back to the lighter, higher power weapon. If you have a setting where your basic energy weapons are very heavy, and less powerful than kinetics, you’d see people using projectile firearms.

There’s one major caveat to this. If you have highly specialized weapons, like some kind of EMP projector, you might see something that is technically low power, but is being used in a specific support role. Especially in anti-material roles.

For an example of this, you can look at Aliens. If you pay attention to the background details, you’ll see the Sulaco carries a wide range of energy weapons, including particle beams (for electronic warfare) and even uses lasers for its point defense weapons. But, the Marines use M41a Pulse Rifles (which are kinetic auto rifles) and the support gunners use M56 Smart Gun (which are a target assisted autogun.)

Also, in the Aliens example, the kinetic weapons are designed to minimize structural damage. Both the Pulse Rifles and Smart Guns are loaded with 10mm explosive tip caseless rounds, which were intended for dealing with lightly armored foes, but not intended for punching through walls, or armored vehicles. (Though, they still do some structural damage.)

Even in the modern world, it’s becoming possible to separate penetration from power. Frangible rounds, like Glaser Safety Slugs are designed to shatter into dust on impact with a hard surface, making them less likely to cause structural damage, while still being an effective weapon.


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Q&A: The Physics of Recoil and Science Fiction Guns

I’m creating sci-fi guns. Is it possible to simply say this gun is pretty much has no recoil? In fact, what causes recoil? Could some advance tech simply doesn’t have recoil or recoil cushion kind of thing? Also is it ever possible that huge guns have little recoil and tiny guns with huge recoil? Or big guns with little power and tiny ones with huge power?

So, as the second question, it’s Newtonian physics. Specifically, “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” Recoil experienced by the user is the result of the powder burn in the chamber. Often times, it’s partially mitigated by mechanical considerations in the gun, but at the same time, bolt travel can also contribute to experienced recoil.

Recoil compensation systems exist. These can include gas vents designed to counteract climb, mechanical buffers, and counterweight systems. Part of the problem with recoil management is, simply, the technology we’re using (and have been using for over a thousand years at this point.) When gunpowder burns, it causes gasses to expand rapidly in all directions. This is what propels the bullet down range, but also applies force to the user.

(And, yes, that over a thousand years. The first firearms date back to the 12th or 13th centuries, but the use of gunpowder in China dates back to the first millennia.)

So, even with modern technology, you can significantly reduce experienced recoil. Some of this is physics, but you can redirect that force, though you still have to deal with it.

So, can you do away with recoil entirely? Technically, probably not, but you could potentially reduce it to the point that it is undetectable by the user.

High energy weapons, such as lasers, plasma projectors or particle beams technically would probably have at least some theoretical degree of recoil, even if it was just from the user pulling the trigger. But, we’re not talking about enough to be meaningful. Gauss weapons would probably also have some recoil from accelerating the physical projectile, but in comparison to dealing with burning powder, it’s mild enough that t you could (probably) mitigate perceived recoil entirely.

As for the question of big guns that are weak, why would you do that to yourself? A larger weapon will be more awkward to carry, more difficult to use, harder to manage when not in use. There’s really no point here. You can, technically see this, with antique artillery pieces, which are inferior to their modern counterparts.

That’s the one time when I could legitimately say you might something like a big, heavy, gun that’s underpowered. If it’s technologically inferior to more recent developments.

As for powerful small guns? Yeah, that’s a thing that can happen. Especially when you’re comparing more modern weapons to older ones.

This gets a little awkward because there’s no meaningful way to quantify damage output from firearms. Even a musket can kill you. It’s a question of what the bullet damages. The real advancements have been to things like range, accuracy, capacity, the ability to quickly reload, and long range optics.

A modern subcompact Glock is considerably more lethal than a Napoleonic era musket. But, that’s not because the bullet itself does more damage (in fact it might not.) It’s because the pistol is effective at ranges where the musket’s accuracy is unreliable, and it can easily dump 8 rounds into the user’s target while they’re foe is still reloading for a second shot.

In the end, a bullet is a bullet. If it connects and damages something you need to maintain a pulse, you’ll die. More bullets means that’s more likely for that to happen. While concepts like flatness and stopping power have a reality to them, they’re not good comparative tools to determining whether a gun can kill someone. And, quantified, numerical damage, is a fantasy.


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Q&A: How do we Define Two Handed Weapons

Exactly what makes weapons one handed or two handed, if it isn`t the weight?

It is the weight, kind of.

Okay, so the real answer would be stability and leverage. Normally, if you have the option to, you’ll want to two hand most weapons. This includes things like, “one handed,” swords.

The heavier a weapon is, the harder it will be to stabilize it with one hand. So, like I said, it is “kind of,” the weight. You may not need a second hand to operate a sword (and this includes things like the greatswords), but a second hand on the hilt will make the weapon much easier to control.

It’s important to remember that weapons (especially melee weapons) aren’t particularly heavy. When we’re talking about something like a greatsword, it’s going to weigh less than your house cats. It will weigh significantly more than a sword or bastard sword. But, if there’s one takeaway, it’s that swords, axes, and the suite of other melee weapons, are all light enough to use all day. They’re light enough to carry for miles as you travel to the battle, and light enough to kill people for hours at a time. A truly heavy weapon will wear its wielder out before they even reach the front lines. Carrying a forty pound greatsword to battle would see your soldiers arriving already fatigued, and they’d be exhausted before the battle’s first hour had passed. (In fairness, your heavy infantry would be carrying that much weight in their armor, but they’d also have extensive conditioning. And, unironically, when you do see the weight inflation of weapons in fiction, you almost always see similar degrees of inflation for their armor; So you end up with situations where your character’s weapons and armor weigh more than they do. There’s issues here.)

So, being able to hold a weapon with both hands will make it significantly more stable, and if your hands are separated by any significant distance, that will also help with leverage (which further improves stability.) These both improve precision and control.

This is part of why modern handguns are two handed weapons. They’re remarkably lightweight, usually under 2lbs. However, your off-hand will help stabilize your grip, dramatically improving your accuracy. (It also helps deal with recoil, which is an entirely separate discussion.)

There is a point with an extremely light and fast weapon, where you don’t get any significant benefit from an off hand. The examples that come to mind are knifes, foils, and rapiers. In these cases, you have a weapon that can be easily controlled by a single hand, and trying to two-hand it would only slow you down. Frequently, these kinds of weapons have grips that aren’t designed to accommodate a second hand, which further limits your ability to two-hand them.

So, it is, kind of, the weight. But, that’s almost more of a byproduct, most two handed weapons are still light enough that you could potentially use them in one hand. The important question is how well you can control it with one hand, and whether you need your second hand to stabilize and guide it.


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Q&A: What You Can Learn From Weapon Triangles

Hello, I could have sworn you’ve answered this already, but I can’t find the post, so I’m asking anyway. Is there any validity to the weapons triangle from Fire Emblem? Swords have advantage against Axes, Axes have advantage against Lances, Lances have advantage against Swords. I understand that reach is very important so Lances “beating” Swords makes sense, but I feel like the other two are arbitrary.

I know we’ve touched on this in the past, but it’s probably been years. The answer is, “kinda, sorta, not exactly.” These kinds of simple triangles tend to be more about gameplay, and less about reality.

There are specific weapon priorities. A classic example is polearms offering an extremely effective counter to cavalry. Historically, cavalry dominated forces frequently had serious difficulty when fighting against foes who prioritized spears as their main infantry units. Similarly, cavalry are extremely effective against most melee infantry. So we have two parts of a triangle… except, it doesn’t really close. Sword infantry doesn’t dominate polearm infantry. You can bring archers into the mix, and they will be more effective against unshielded infantry than shielded infantry. Your sword infantry are likely to be using shields, while your spear users are less likely to be doing so (though, this isn’t always going to be the case.) So, you start to have a four sided priority “triangle.” Except it doesn’t work that way, because your shielded infantry is going to get stuck in the tarpit of frontline melee, so, if the archers are significantly behind the lines, they’re more vulnerable to skirmishing cavalry, not the infantry they’re less effective against.

Oh, right, and those spear infantry that are so effective against cavalry? The best tool to deal with them is, ironically, cavalry. Get the polearm fighters tied up in melee with friendly infantry, then get your skirmishing cavalry around behind them, and charge into their rear. (This is why protecting your flanks and keeping skirmishers from getting behind your front lines is so important. Once you have skirmishers, especially fast moving ones, loose behind the lines, it’s over.)

If the above borders on impenetrable, that’s why many games use much simpler triangles. It’s not replicating reality, but it is replicating the concept that certain kinds of units serve different functions, and a battlefield is about getting different units to operate in tandem with each other.

A famous quote from Sid Meier holds that, games are about making a series of interesting choices. That’s the point of the triangle. It’s turning strategy into a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Without any kind of priority, it’s very easy to create mono-unit forces that will steamroll anything in their path. Ironically, some of Sid Meier’s Civilization series are guilty of this. But, I’m also specifically remembering the armies of six Terminator squads, with Assault Cannons in one of the Dawn of War expansions. (I don’t remember which one had no recruitment limits, it’s not Dark Crusade.)

Introducing priority systems (even if they’re a natural interaction of unit stats) can go a long way towards forcing players to make “an interesting decision,” when assembling their army. It’s not enough to just load up on super heavy infantry, or cavalry, and roll the map without a second thought. Now you need to consider what enemies you’re going to face, and set up your army accordingly.

The irony is that, Sid Meier’s advice works for writing. Stories are a series of interesting choices made by your characters. The idea of a triangle is simple, but it’s also good advice for building your characters, if your character excels against one kind of foe, it stands to reason there are other threats out there they’re unprepared for. If your character is some kind of hotshot cavalry officer, putting them in a jungle fight would be an absolute nightmare. If your character is an archer, putting them in an overrun fortress, fighting to escape in close quarters, really plays against their strengths.

Triangles may be simple, but they are an abstract concept you can adapt for your writing.


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Q&A: I have no strong Feelings About Your Character

It is better for my female character to fight with a bow or with a sword?

If I’m being completely honest, I don’t have any particular preference. It’s your character, so, you need to be the judge of what’s an appropriate armament.

Having said that, both is a viable option, if that’s the route you want to go. It’s entirely reasonable for an archer to carry a sidearm, and the sword was a sidearm. Depending on the setting, it may not be the most appropriate weapon, but depending on the setting, a bow may not be a good choice either.

Normally, the sword is a badge of nobility or heroism in fiction. Historically, it was more of the nobility side, though later on it’s use would expand dramatically. This may not apply for your setting, especially if you have a fantasy land loaded with sword wielding adventurers.

The bow’s a similar situation. If your character is a hunter or military archer, then it would make perfect sense for her to carry a bow. While it has less historical validity, it’s also possible your character is a fantasy sniper, or assassin who makes use of a bow.

With that in mind, all of the examples I just listed for archers would also benefit from carrying a sidearm and dagger or knife. Now, if your character is a hunter, with no noble background, and no other reason to carry one, it might make more sense for them to carry a handaxe (and skinning knife.) It’s a natural tool for them to have with them in the wild, as it would help them start fires, and still be effective as a weapon if they found themselves in melee combat. Though, they could carry the axe in addition to a sword. (It depends on how they’re carrying the weapons, and which ones are quickly available in a struggle.)

Ultimately, it’s up to you. She’s your character, not mine. I know what weapons my characters carry, and I know why. But, I don’t know the first thing about your world, I don’t know your character, and I’m in no position to judge how they should arm themselves, just offer suggestions. If she can reasonably carry multiple weapons (which, she should be able to), then having more options is better than less, and there’s no reason one person could not use both a bow and sword.


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Q&A: Throwing Knives: A Limited Tool in Both D&D and in Reality

How feasible would throwing knives be in such a scenario in real life? In D&D for example, the dagger can be used both as melee and as short-range thrown weapons, but I suspect throwing knives is an entirely different skillset from shanking and stabbing and cutting throats so most knife fighters might not be any good at throwing them. To say nothing of the danger in giving up your weapon for only a chance to score a hit.


About as viable as they are in D&D (assuming your DM isn’t giving you an infinite supply of knives and forgetting that you’re handing out murder party favors.)

So, the D&D problem is that dagger doesn’t do much damage. They’re something in the range of 1d4+Str, which is marginally better than just punching someone. If you have Weapon Finesse, you’re going to be using the exact same stat block to fight in melee or throw them, so it’s effectively the same skill. You can’t throw one without provoking an attack of opportunity. So, realistically, you get a single 1d4 attack against an enemy at range, and afterwards you no longer have a weapon.

Yeah, that sounds about right. You might get lucky throwing a knife, but you’ll probably hit with less effectiveness. Unlike in D&D, throwing a knife accurately is an entirely different skill from stabbing someone. There’s overlap in understanding anatomy, but being able to reliably put a knife where you want it is very different if you’re still holding the weapon.

Of course, if you throw your weapon, you no longer have your weapon. And, if you throw your weapon and one of your foes retrieves it, they now have a weapon. In fact, it’s entirely possible to accidentally arm your enemies with this tactic. Sort of like an incredibly aggressive version of Santa Claus.

The major difference is that you could potentially kill (or at least seriously injure) someone with a thrown knife, which isn’t a danger in D&D, as the rules are written. This also applies even more if you’re still holding onto the blade, as a knife can be quite lethal in experienced hands, though not so much in D&D. In order to make a knife an effective weapon choice in that game, you’ll need a mix of class features (mostly sneak attack, though there are some other avenues) and feats. Without that, the dagger will likely remain the weakest weapon your character has proficiency in.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in the real world, as a primary combat weapon, the knife is very limited. It’s effective as an ambush tool, for parrying, and as a close quarters opportunistic option, but it’s not a good weapon to base your entire combat style around, because it’s far too easy to “hard counter.” Against aware enemies armed with conventional infantry weapons or sidearms, your knife fighter is screwed. (As a reminder, I mean, axes, swords, spears, ect. Not guns, though, again, if you bring a knife to a gunfight, that’s not a wise choice.)

The irony with the D&D example is that they’re two completely different roads to the same point. The dagger is a poor front line combat option in both cases, and a poor ranged weapon, but the logic isn’t the same.


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Q&A: Followup: Greatswords in Cramped Spaces

Have the fight in a narrow alley, a small room, or any other setting where it’s impossible to effectively swing a greatsword. You can grab a greatsword by the blade and shorten its arc, but that’s awkward at best and the knife will be more agile in that situation.


This isn’t how you use a greatsword. Weapons like the Claymore and Zweihander were deployed in regimental formations. That means, greatsword wielders fighting shoulder to shoulder, which starts to illustrate why putting one in a tight alleyway is more beneficial for the sword wielder than your knife fighter. If the space is tight enough it becomes impossible to flank the swordsman unless you come at them from behind.

Similarly, the agility of the knife really doesn’t matter in this situation. I know it’s one of these David and Goliath scenarios that play really well in the romantic mind, but it doesn’t work in a fight. What will actually happen is more akin to the scene in Indiana Jones, where the swordsman comes out, demonstrates his skill with the blade and gets casually gunned down from a safe distance. More specifically, your knife fighter “has a more agile blade,” (whatever that means), but gets run through by the greatsword at a range where they never had a chance to attack their foe. Here’s the problem, your dagger may be more agile, but the dagger user doesn’t magically become more agile because they’re holding a knife.

It’s cute to think about situations where your character can duck under the blade, or climb the walls and drop from above. But, unless your character has superpowers, they won’t be nearly fast enough to execute those kinds of maneuvers. If your character were to try to dodge past the blade, they’d just end up with six feet of steel fatally perforating their body.


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Q&A: Never Bring a Knife to a Swordfight

Hello! I have a quick question. I want to write a fight scene between two characters, one with a dagger and one with a sword. For the sake of the plot, the dagger wins, and due to the backstory, those are the weapons that make the most sense for them. Is it possible for a dagger to win against a sword, and if so, how?

Shank them. Knife them in the kidney, slit their throat, whatever, but kill them before they have a chance to draw their sword. Failing that, nope, outside of an extremely contrived scenario, they’re pretty much screwed.

So, we’ve talked about this in passing recently. In fairness to the author of this question, this ask came in before this week’s greatsword question. It’s not a case where they saw that and asked anyway.

As an open combat tool, the knife is remarkably for niche how ubiquitous it is. It has utility as a non-combat tool, it’s small and lightweight, so it’s entirely reasonable for any combatant (and even a lot of non-combatants) to carry knives on their person. Half of the jobs I’ve had as an adult seriously benefitted from carrying a knife, for the utility.

So, how do you use a knife in a fight? The knife is very effective against an unarmed foe. It is very effective against a foe armed with a knife. You may have realized, if your knife is highly effective against a foe with a knife, what about theirs? Yeah, you’re probably both going to die. It is incredibly easy for both participants in a knife fight to suffer fatal injuries. The knife (depending on the design) can be useful as an off-hand parrying tool. You’re not planning to actually kill someone with it, the goal is to tie up their weapon allowing you to finish them off with your sword, however, if the opportunity presents itself, you can still stab them.

The final situation where a knife can be effective in combat is as a surprise. In rare situations where you can get within knife range and just pull it and stab them before they realize it’s there. The problem is, this is a lot closer to the ideal use of a knife, outside of combat.

The knife excels as an ambush weapon. If you want to kill someone before they realize anything’s happening, that’s when the knife really shines. You have a blade; it is the bare minimum of what you need to get at vital organs. You can easily hide it. Hell, you can easily hide it’s profile behind your arm. You can quickly deploy it. You can put an end to an unaware foe before they realize anything’s wrong, and you can do it quietly. In the hands of someone who understands how the human body is put together, the knife is an amazing assassination tool. And an absolutely terrible battlefield weapon.

The biggest problem with this match up is reach. A greatsword is going to be at least five feet long. That’s five feet your knife wielder needs to be able to be able to move through, to attack, without being able to effectively defend themselves. The greatsword wielder simply needs to keep their blade between themselves and the knife fighter, and the knife fighter cannot approach (or attack) without being impaled. Worse, if the swordsman half-hands their blade, it’s entirely possible that they can safely thrust while keeping their blade too stable to effectively parry with a knife.

There is an inverse to this, because if a knife fighter can close the distance, the greatsword is useless. It’s nearly impossible to use a sword (of any kind) against someone who is less than a foot from your face. This is the one serious advantage of the knife, it has a minimum effective distance of zero.

When we’re talking about reach, there is both a minimum and maximum effective range for any weapon. Maximum effective range will be the furthest the weapon can successfully land a strike. (Note: This is slightly different for firearms, as they’ll have a maximum effective range, and a maximum range.) If an enemy is within that range, you can attack them, and potentially injure or kill your foe. If an enemy is within the minimum range, you can’t effectively attack them. For most swords, if a foe is within arms reach, you’re going to have a very difficult time striking effectively. If someone is literally laying on top of you, you can’t really use the sword. You might be able to punch them with the cross guard, or bash them with the hilt, but, there’s no way to get at them with the blade, they’re too close.

So, with a greatsword, you have a weapon that is highly effective at ranges from about 2-3ft to 7-10ft If you step into that range, you’ll be cut down.

With a dagger, you have an effective range of 0 to your extended arm’s length. (And, you start losing options at a distance greater than your shoulder to elbow.) This gives you marginally more reach than an unarmed fighter, but it’s not a significant jump.

So, for your knife fighter to win, they need to get past the sword, and they don’t have a way to do that if these characters are fighting each other. They don’t have the reach. They don’t have the leverage to effectively parry. They don’t have the superhuman mobility needed to close that gap without the sword user repositioning.

If, instead of a knife, your “knife fighter,” was using a sword and board, they could block strikes coming in on the left, or protect themselves from thrusting attacks. Worst case, they could parry on the right, and the close and bash with the shield.

If your knife fighter was using a sword in their main-hand, and the dagger was a parrying tool they could punish any attempt to half-hand, as it would put the greatsword user within thrusting range. This would force the greatsword wielder to keep both hands on the grip, limiting their leverage, and it’s possible your knife fighter could parry the weak of the blade. It’s still a messy match up, but it’s not suicidal.

If your knife fighter carries a pistol, they could put a shot into the greatsword user, then finishing them off before the fight began. If you’re sitting there thinking, “that’s a random suggestion,” it’s the greatsword. The first greatswords date to the 15th century. There was never a time in the real world where greatswords existed independent of early firearms. The metallurgical and forging advances which opened the door to seven foot swords came after gunpowder started seeing widespread use in warfare.

This isn’t a consideration in fantasy settings, particularly ones with advanced magic, however in historical settings (and also low fantasy settings), it is a serious consideration. If your character has a greatsword, they should be living in a world with muzzle loading, smoothbore firearms. They would also be living in a world with plate armor sturdy enough to deflect limited gunfire. The Greatsword was not an iron age weapon. As I’ve mentioned before, the German Zweihander and Scottish Claymore represent two of the most advanced “heavy,” sword designs ever fielded. (I’m also not trying to be exclusive here. The Spanish had the Spadone, for example, and there are a number of other European greatswords. The Claymore and Zweihander are probably the best known varieties, but there were others. There’s also the French Flamberge, but that’s slightly more complicated subject, as the name referred to an undulating blade style which appeared on everything from daggers up to greatswords.)

So, your character’s best, and probably only, hope is to shank the greatsword wielder before they know they’re there.


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Q&A: Using a Greatsword With One Hand

Hi, I’m writing a story where one of the main characters carries a greatsword. I understand swords shouldn’t be heavy by nature (…right?) But what would be the scenario if the OC was super strong and the sword would be heavier than average? Could it be wielded was a broadsword?

You’re correct about sword weights, they’re not particularly heavy. The exceptions to that rule are decorative pieces, not combat weapons. With greatswords you’re probably looking at around 5-8lbs.

Using a greatsword with one hand isn’t a strength issue, it’s an issue with leverage and control. The weapon isn’t especially heavy, it’s simply awkward, and having a second hand on the grip is a massive help in controlling the blade.

It probably should be mentioned that greatsword not a historical term. The weapons we class a greatswords today, such as the German Zweihander and Scottish Claymore were distinct weapons. Now, in a fantasy setting, this isn’t an issue, you can define the greatsword as a very specific weapon type (and many writers do), but it’s worth remembering that wasn’t a term. I can’t even find an academic entomology of, “greatsword,” which makes me think the word only dates back to the late 20th century.

Similarly, broadsword is a term that kinda means whatever the author wants. I’ve seen everything from a gladius, some variants of arming swords, a falchion, and even some saber variants called broadswords. In fact, the Claymore was described as a broadsword in literature of its era. The term is not precise, and all it really means is that the sword has a broad blade. Outside of something like the estoc, I suspect most greatswords would also be broadswords.

Now, I suspect you mean some variant of longsword, though, again, longsword is not a historical term. This gets into larger discussion, I don’t think you really signed up for, about how modern antiquarians (mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) heavily segmented and categorized the various types of swords throughout history, and then fantasy authors (and also quite a few game designers) have served to standardize that terminology. It’s not a problem until it is, and unfortunately, the broadsword is one of those awkward moments when the whole thing starts to fall apart.

So, if you’re looking at the idea of a character being strong enough to use a greatsword like a longsword? The answer would be, “Kinda, sorta, not exactly.” At the risk of sounding like game advice, the sword isn’t really a strength weapon. You have a razer blade that is somewhere between three and six feet long. Your goal is to preserve that edge to the best of your ability. Just sinking your weapon into someone with as much force as possible is axe work. You want to open them up and take them apart. That means cutting, and slicing, not hacking. You can do that with one hand, but it will be much easier to get that precision when you have both hands on the weapon.

Notice that I did not say both hands on the hilt or grip. Some strikes (Called: “Half-handing”) involve gripping the flat of the blade above the guard, for more precision in a thrust. The user is sacrificing reach for control, and can deliver a lot of force on a very precise point while doing so.

It’s also worth remembering that if you have a sword and your opponent has plate armor you’re not hacking through that. A sword wielder needs to work around their enemy’s armor. They need to find gaps and weak points. They can’t just bash their way in. Attempting to do so will damage (or destroy) their blade. (Note: there is a technique which appears in some surviving training manuals where the swordsman will grip the flat of the blade with both hands and beat on their opponent using the guard or pommel. So, there is an exception to the above statement.)

Now before someone says, “not all swords,” they’re correct. Swords evolved into many highly specialized variants. Ironically, there are swords deigned to deliver a lot of brute force into the target, such as the previously mentioned falchions. The greatswords are highly specialized variants. They’re designed to keep enemy combatants at a safe distance while dispatching them. If you’re armed with a longsword (or something shorter) you do not have any tools to effectively counter a greatsword.

If you have a character using a greatsword, they can take a hand off the weapon and still use it one handed. It’s not a strength question. They simply have no leverage, but they can still swing it, they can keep someone at blade point. They’ll just be less effective than if they were still holding it with both hands.


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