Well, here’s the thing about swords (and all weapons, really), wielding them isn’t about strength. It’s a fallacy perpetrated by games like D&D, where the combat stats are governed by strength and some historians confusing the gilded twenty pound parade swords for actual combat weapons. But don’t take just my word for it, here’s the awesome Scholagladitoria talking about misconceptions and stereotypes regarding both bow and the sword in fiction. (Also the difference between a war bow and the hunting bow, plus some talk about draw weight.)
The average longsword will weigh between four and six pounds. So, saying your character has to worry about sword weight is like you saying you can’t pick up a chair or your laptop. A backpack laden with binders and books can run up to around around 15 to 20 pounds, what you carry/carried to school every day on your back is heavier than a sword. It really doesn’t take much strength to lift them. (Yes, even a Claymore.)
Now, what gets most people in trouble when they have no experience and try to lift a blade is balance issues. Swords are awkward. A major part of the training is molding the body to compensate for the different balance. This is learning the positions, grips, footwork, stances, and striking patterns; developing muscular endurance and flexibility in the core, the upper, and lower body, along with strengthening the hands, wrists, and ankles.
Remember, the point of training is developing the muscles and building endurance. As you can see in this lovely chart, the way those muscles are developed through different kinds of activity will change the physical appearance of the body. As scholagladitoria says in his video above, your farm girl is used to wielding a hunting bow, not a war bow so it’s unlikely she’ll have large, strong muscles in the back and shoulders necessary to handle the 50 to 60 pounds of draw weight and wield it effectively (never mind aiming). You do need heavier arrows with larger metal tips to take on armored opponents and a stronger bow than a hunting bow to get the speed/momentum necessary to puncture and penetrate the armor.
Fighting with a sword isn’t about swinging it as hard as you can. Using a any sword requires precision and control, the ability to generate, balance, and control your momentum. The longsword in particular because is usually used with two hands is a good example of this. The second hand handles the rotation of the blade, creating more power, while the other hand guides it. What she’s going to need to build (and what her training master will require from her) is endurance. Beyond just learning how to wield the sword, she’ll also learn how to stand, how to breathe, exercises to develop balance, mental exercises to develop hand and eye coordination, and others in a similar vein. If she has the option, she’ll train on multiple different kinds of terrain. Not just fighting, but running, exercising, and practicing her footwork. Fighting on sand, in water, on mud are useful for teaching her all the different ways she’ll have to adjust herself and how different surfaces can tire you faster.
So, which sword should she use?
The one which is most common and makes the most sense for her social class, aka the one she has easiest access to. If you’re basing your setting somewhere similar to Medieval Europe or using characters who are European influenced, I suggest sticking with European weapons. You can’t really drop a katana into the Middle Ages and expect it to make sense (or be automatically awesome).
The arming sword, the sword and buckler were common self-defense weapons of the peasantry or the Non-Nobility but, really, pick a period in history and research both it and the weapon before making your decision. Not all swords make sense in all periods (though the longsword was a staple in Europe for hundreds of years). The kind of opponents your character is facing will do more to decide what she carries than personal preference. It’s important to assess what your options are, so you can choose what you like and what fits her best while also staying true and respecting the weapon’s history (both cultural and martial).
Links! (A jumping off point for your research needs.)
Scholagladitoria on bullshit perceptions of “manliness” and “unmanliness” of the longsword and the rapier (aka why you shouldn’t just go with the rapier/smallsword, because general perceptions says it’s “more feminine/girly”/lighter/easier), this video, where he discusses the evolution of the sword and different kinds of swords in European history, this video where he talks about the historical position of arming sword/sword and buckler versus the longsword. Actually, just go through his YouTube portfolio if you’re doing anything regarding European/Medieval weaponry and want to better understand it’s historical applications connotations and how some of it has been reflected in media. His breakdowns of different movie fight scenes is interesting and worth looking at for comparing the difference between Hollywood presentation and Historical accuracy.
ARMA instructor John Clements demos engages and disarms, here is the ARMA website with tons of videos talking about the historical ways of wielding Medieval and Renaissance weapons. It’s mostly the long sword, but there’s a lot of good stuff there.
This training montage with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderes from the Mask of Zorro might help when figuring out training sequences. However, be warned, the movie switches between the foil and the sabre at random. (The sabre is generally regarded as the most visually entertaining of the three European fencing blades (foil, epee, sabre) because of the larger movements and circular patterns.)
Wikitenaur is a great place to go to look at different historical fighting manuals. However, I don’t recommend it as a starting entry point until you familiarize yourself with the time period. I really suggest starting with Scholagladitoria’s videos and working your way down. When you’re ready to start going in depth, here’s where you can go to read translations of instruction manuals written by the historical Masters.
I would take anything that John Clements says with a grain of salt, but this is generally solid advice. However, your best bet when looking into these things is to find your local HEMA enthusiasts and ask to go play with them. Many of them love to talk and show of their toys. And… Well… While four to six pounds doesn’t sound that heavy it becomes surprisingly so in usage because of things like leverage. You’ll also find that you use a lot of different muscles than you would normally. When researching this subject use many sources and talk to several people because there really isn’t a continuous line from period to now and everyone is trying to piece things together. Many things are not agreed upon and there are some in the community whose thoughts and advice should really be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. And hey, you may find a new thing that you like. I know Neal Stephenson is active in the HEMA community and the man is most certainly a writer.
As for bows, the SCA or other groups that use traditional bows may be a good place to start. I know that most SCA groups will have loaner gear and many have someone who has done research into the use and effectiveness of bows in period for both war and hunting. They should also be able to talk about the differences between types of bows (like how short recurved horse bows are harder to see accurate with at short distance because of more wobble) and many even make all of their own gear.
Honestly, always take any advice from anyone with a grain of salt. Always double check all references, see what other people are saying, including counter opinions. Every single martial arts community is full of a great many divisive opinions and (almost) all of them actually do have some weight. kaioraya is right, you’re best bet is always going to be to find a local group in your area and test it out yourself, that way you can judge for yourself who you think is right and who is not.