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Medieval Weapons – more than swords for fantasy writing

Medieval weapons and those that evolved from them are more plentiful than you might be aware. When writing fantasy and historical fantasy stories, in our often fascination with swords, it’s easy to forget there are a plethora of other Medieval weapons to choose from. Creating a rich backdrop with this type of interesting detail adds a layer of believability and authenticity and can help bring a story to life.

The devil is in the details, as they say.

We fantasy, and particularly historical fantasy, writers tend to use a lot of Medieval weapons in our stories. As you can imagine, over time, I’ve accumulated stacks of info about them. They interest me and oh, how I love to read about them. On the plus side, this comes in pretty handy when I want to write about a battle or a fight.  But I have a terrible memory for some of the details when I’m all head-up in creation mode. To get around that, I make myself cheat sheets that remind me of those details that I can refer to while I work. Keeps me from having to come out of writing mode to go look something up, so I don’t break my concentration.

Hey, it works. I can’t argue with that.

This isn’t a complete list by any stretch of the imagination, but these are some of the more common Medieval weapons. I get a lot of use out of this quick hit list myself and I’m sure most if not all of these will be familiar. This list also reminds me to vary my weapon references so everything isn’t only about swords and helps me add a little interest. Great for battle scenes. Maybe this list of Medieval weapons might spark some interesting ideas for you, too.

Note: No, the images aren’t entirely accurate, though some are.

Common Medieval Weapons Cheat Sheet

medieval weapons - chainmail and swordArming Sword  The most common type of sword across Europe during the High Middle Ages (from the 10th to 13th centuries). It was a straight, double-edge weapon with a single-handed cross-shaped hilt, a late form of the Knightly Sword, it was carried as a sidearm.

The length was about 28-31 inches with a pronounced tip. When you think of Medieval knights, this is the typical sword image that comes to mind. It was used for cutting and thrusting.

Club  An early weapon typically made of wood, in an arsenal of Medieval weapons, it was used as a percussive striking weapon held in one hand. The design kept pace with changes in armour technology and later clubs contained spikes designed to pierce armour and cause maximum damage to enemies. Long before swords were popular, this ancient weapon pre-dated suit armour. Used throughout many ancient cultures, it extended the reach of any user and allowed them to crush enemies. Later designs, like the Medieval war club, had blackened iron bands circling the weapon that were secured on a seared wood handle of about 25” in length.

Crossbow  A ranged weapon (can engage targets at a distance) that shoots projectiles called bolts or quarrels. Differing from a traditional longbow, it was medieval weapons - crossbowheld horizontally rather than vertically with a bow, spanning 2-3 feet, mounted onto a stock. Later, much larger versions of the crossbow like the arbalest were considered unfair weapons that allowed an untrained soldier to kill a knight in full armour who’d had a lifetime of training. Due to this, they were considered weapons without honour that were even banned by the Pope.

Early crossbows could penetrate armour from distances up to about 200 yards (later versions had a range of 350-400 yards), though their slow firing rate (2 bolts per minute by an experienced crossbowman) was a disadvantage and they were supplanted by the longbow that had a firing rate of 10-12 arrows per minute. Later crossbow developments included those made with steel parts and mechanical windlass (winding apparatus) and trigger systems. The earliest crossbows were invented in Ancient China around 600BC and were also used by the Greeks and Romans. The Medieval crossbow was introduced by William the Conqueror in 1066AD.

Dagger  There is no set definition of what sets a dagger apart from a sword. The length of a blade, the way the weapon was used or even the type of hilt medieval weapons - daggercouldn’t definitively classify a weapon a sword, so making it even more difficult to pinpoint sole characteristics of a dagger. Depending on the region or country, some bladed weapons were referred to as swords that would be called daggers elsewhere. If someone carried a sword, any shorter, thrusting blade they carried in addition to it could be referred to as a dagger.

The simplest description might be a small sword worn on the waist on the opposite side from a sword having a sharp point and that could be more easily concealed than a sword and held in one hand to use as a thrusting or defensive weapon.

Some daggers had no sharpened edges at all while others did. Daggers were symmetrical giving them a distinctive shape, with both edges tapering down into a point. The length of a dagger blade could vary greatly. The Roman pugio dagger issued to legionaries had a blade between 7-12 inches. Early Medieval daggers had a blade from 5-10 inches long, though some later Medieval daggers were known to be as long as 20-25 inches.

Lance  Designed for use on horseback, a lance was a long, strong spear-like weapon. Developed from the spear, the Medieval lance meant a knight could take advantage of his elevated position a safe distance from the enemy while still striking a lethal blow. A thrusting weapon, it was typically about fourteen feet long and could either inflict damage or unhorse another rider, bringing him down to the ground where ground troops could engage him. The Sarmatian and Parthian knights were said to have used the lance and less lethal variations were used for jousting.

Longbow  The iconic image from Robin Hood we think of when we envision a bow, the traditional vertically held English bow was referred to as a longbow. Bowmen and bows have been around for at least several millennium and they dominated as the preferred weapon of battle, allowing damage to be inflicted from a safe distance and made for safer hunting. The heyday of the traditional English longbow was between the 13th and 16th centuries.

longbow archer

The length of this bow was (and still is today) variable at roughly 6-feet or more or created about as tall as the archer. This allowed for a fairly long draw (and so, more energy behind the arrow when released). This made it a powerful weapon. It made Welsh bowmen renowned for their skill for a very long while and they were highly sought out as allies on the battlefield.

According to Wikipedia, “The earliest longbow known from England, found at Ashcott Heath, Somerset, is dated to 2665 BC”. Yew wood was the preferred material for traditional longbows, though they were also made from elm, ash or even bone and it could take 4 years to create one. The longer length made them easier to shoot with a smooth draw back as the bow weight was dispersed over a larger area. Along with traditional yew wood, modern longbows are now also made from maple, rosewood, walnut or even fiberglass with wood laminate.

On average, draw weights were estimated at 90–110 pounds-force until examples recovered from the warship Mary Rose from Henry VIII’s time corrected the real pounds-force at a much higher 150-160 and even up to 185 pounds. Together with recovered descriptions of training on them from the same Medieval period, we now know that archers trained long years on lighter bows while working their way up to longbows with those substantial poundages and that the lifelong investment to learning made them skilled professionals of the highest calibre.

Mace  A hand-held weapon much like a club, but having an end that was either ball-shaped or flanged. It could be mounted on a long (5-foot) or short (1-foot) pole. The end was often made of solid steel or stone.

It emerged during the Middle Ages in response to metal armour and chain mail that inhibited edged weapons. The weight of a mace swung from horseback or on the ground could apply tremendous force to a plate-covered warrior, even enough to reduce the effectiveness of his shield. The addition of spikes or nobs ensured maximum damage could be inflicted whenever it connected. Maces belong to a class of weapons referred to as Bludgeoning Weapons.

Polearm  A polearm refers to a group of weapons that, aptly enough, are all attached to a pole.  Not much of a stretch there. This could very well be the oldest weapon used by mankind. A simple spear, in use since cavemen were around, is a type of polearm.  During the Medieval period, there were several imaginative and deadly varieties which included:

pole axe

Poleaxe  A pole weapon with an axe blade balanced by either a spike or a hammer. Often a poleaxe had a spiked point at the end.

Ranseur  A pole arm weapon with three points. The center point was spear-like and extended further than the two secondary points. Often very similar to a trident. The secondary points could be of various shapes and lengths and often the ranseur was used to capture and break an enemy’s weapon by catching it between blades and twisting.

Runka  A polearm consisting of three spikes at the end. The central spike was a long blade and the two other spikes were at about 45 degree angles to the main blade.

medieval spears and shieldsSpear  A pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head used for thrusting. Primarily, it was a held weapon, but could also be used for throwing as in pre-historic times when used for hunting. Heidelberg man is credited with the invention of the spear about 500,000 years ago.

Spears were prevalent during the early Middle Ages among Medieval armies and remained as hunting tools and military instruments until the advent of firearms. Cheap to produce and requiring little training to use, it meant conscripts could be trained and outfitted in a short time at low cost. An Angon was a throwing spear used during the Medieval era. Almost identical to the Roman Pilum, the Angon was a 6 foot long spear with a slender iron neck featuring a barbed head.

War Hammer (armour-piercing weapons)  Any short handled hammer used as a percussive weapon. These came in a variety of designs with specific uses, arising against the variety of armours that developed over the Middle Ages. Also an effective pole weapon when mounted on a long pole allowing reach over top of shields on the battlefield.

war hammerBec-de-corbin  A pole weapon popular in medieval Europe with a hammer head modified to include a spike. Unlike most war hammers, the spike was the primary striking weapon with the hammer just a counterweight. The name is Old French for “raven’s beak” and exactly how it looked. The beak was stout with no curve, designed for tearing padded jacks, chainmail or through thinner plate armour.

Bec-de-faucon  A more deadly war hammer from the 14th century with a similar design to bec-de-corbin. The back side of the hammer was shaped into a long fluke curved to a sharp point to form a “falcon’s beak”. A horseman’s hammer on a long pole, the spike pierced armour while the hammer head could crush at a distance.

Lucerne Hammer  A polearm weapon with a hammer head shaped into 2 or 3 distinct spikes – often a clawed flute opposite the shaped hammer with a spike on top. The spiked hammer was not large enough to be a counter-weight, but acted as a hook. Much thinner than other war hammers like bec-de-corbin, the long haft of about 7 feet allowed greater range and a long swing from the back of a horse to tear armour or still deliver a percussive blow.

Not enough for you? Wait, there’s more! Stay tuned for more in this series on Medieval weapons.

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