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.

-Starke

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