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Medieval Weapons – beyond the sword, lance, and crossbow

Medieval weapons were plentiful and go beyond your garden variety knightly sword. I love them all.

Over time, I’ve accumulated quite a lot of reference material about these weapons that I organised into short cheat sheets to use during my writing. Since a writer can never have enough reference material, I thought these would be great to share with other writers.

The first list I posted (Medieval Weapons – more than swords for fantasy writing) had more of the common weapons and I doubt there were many surprises in there. This list of Medieval weapons is a little more interesting. The names of the weapons won’t be unfamiliar (for the most part), but you don’t often see these ones in stories. I think a lot of these are cool and we could use them more to add flavour and authenticity when we write.

Medieval Weapons Cheat Sheet 2

Back Sword  A sword with only a single cutting edge. The other edge was blunt and the flat back edge opposite the cutting edge gave it its name. Characteristics include a single-handed grip and in later examples, the blunt side was sharpened at the last few inches as an aid in thrusting attacks. Easier and cheaper to make than double-edged swords, these became the favoured sidearm of common infantry. In late 16th century Europe, the back sword was often the secondary weapon of cavalry.

Bill  A staff or polearm weapon similar to a halberd with a curved chopping blade on one end and one or several pointed projections or spikes on the other. Based on the agricultural tool called a hedging bill or billhook, it was used by infantry in Medieval Europe up until about the 17th century. With the stopping power of a spear and the power of an axe, it had an advantage over other polearm weapons of similar design. If a rider wasn’t knocked off their horse by the swing, the hooked blade (the bill) could set into chinks in plate armour and allow the user to drag a cavalryman from his horse into the melee.

Caltrop from Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, before 1609
Caltrop from Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, before 1609

Caltrops  A small, antipersonnel weapon that would be strewn on the ground. Composed of 2 or more upward-facing nails or spikes, they were designed so that no matter which points faced up, they would sit on a stable base. This was a danger to enemies and especially horses and war elephants while particularly dangerous to the soft feet of camels. Romans employed caltrops at least as far back as 53BC. They were used extensively during WWII to burst the tires of military vehicles and are still in use today by law enforcement and special forces. Varying little in design, they’ve remained remarkably similar over history. The greatest variation were those dispersed by explosives or that contained explosives like the exploding gunpowder caltrops from the Yuan Dynasty. Similar antipersonnel weapons based on this original design are seen in modern weapons such as spike strips or dragon’s teeth designed to wedge into tank treads.

Falchion - Venice, Italian, circa 1490, steel and gold
Falchion – Venice, Italian, circa 1490, steel and gold L. 36 in. (91.4 cm); Wt. 2 lb. 3 oz. (981 g)

Falchion  A short single-bladed sword with a curved blade reminiscent of a modern machete or Persian scimitar. Affixed with a crossguard at the hilt, it protected the user’s hand. Its moderate length made it suitable for both thrusting and cutting with several forms in use between the 13th century and into the 16th century in England, France and Italy. Designed for use with one hand with a total weight of approximately 1kg, it combined the power of an axe with the versatility of a sword.

Halberd of the royal bodyguards of Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein (1611-1684). Steel, etched, partly gilt, and wood. German, c. 1632
Halberd of the royal bodyguards of Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein (1611-1684). Steel, etched, partly gilt, and wood. German, c. 1632

Halberd  A polearm weapon that visually appears a combination of a spear and battle axe. A single axe blade (for slicing) slopes off one one side of the head. This is balanced by a hook (for hooking and pulling the enemy) on the other side. It also had a point (for thrusting) at the very top. Sometimes mistaken for a pike, the point at the top of the halberd is very long. Best use of this weapon is in a group or troupe where there’s not a lot of walking around. From a standing formation, the enemy can be engaged from a safe distance, thrusting outward at them to puncture less armoured joints and areas of weakness. The hook can easily jerk an enemy closer without breaking formation. This sets them up to be punctured by the long spike on the halberd of a fellow soldier. Or, while the enemy is jerked off balance and stepping closer, to chop at lower extremities using the angled blade. Using the follow-through of hooking for the downward chop makes for a quick attack without wasted energy.

Javelin  A spear designed to be thrown rather than thrust. Lighter than a regular spear, historically, it was a ranged weapon. Unlike slingshots or a bow and arrow that shoot projectiles, a javelin was almost always thrown by hand. Javelins and throwing sticks were in use as far back as 400,000 to 500,000 years ago. A simple weapon, a javelin consists of a long, thin shaft often tipped with a leaf-shaped or pointed head.

Agrianian Peltast with javelin
Agrianian Peltast with javelin

Javelins were carried by Egyptian light infantry as their main weapon often along with a shield. Also sometimes carried by Egyptian war chariots. Ancient Greek infantry (peltasts) threw javelins at heavier troops to break lines ahead of hoptites who would destroy the weakened enemy formation.

From the 3rd century BCE, skirmishers were added to the Roman legion who carried javelins along with a short sword and small round shield.

Anglo Saxon soldiers in the Middle Ages formed a shield wall and used heavy weapons like axes, swords and spears along with javelins as offensive weapons thrown from behind the shield wall. During the same time, the Northern Welsh used javelins as one of their main weapons. Their battle tactic was to send a hail of javelins down onto the more heavily armed English troops and then fade back into the forest before the English could attack them and with little damage to themselves.

Morning Star  A club-like hand-held weapon consisting of a shaft with a ball affixed to one end. Visually similar to a mace or club, the distinguishing feature is the ball with the addition of spikes (as opposed to flanges or knobs on a mace). This meant the weapon could be used for both blunt force and puncture damage.

One of the group of bludgeoning weapons, a morning star always has a spiked head which distinguishes it from a flail or mace, which instead have knobs or flanges. Of note, a spike always extends straight up from the top of the head of a morning star. Though similar in design, the mace and morning star developed separately. Over time, the mace’s construction became entirely of metal while the morning star retained its wooden haft. Longer than a mace, typical length for a morning star could be anywhere from a couple of feet to in the realm of 6-ft or more with some examples nearly 8-ft. The distinguishing centre spike could also reach extreme lengths of nearly 2-ft, easily allowing a soldier the advantage of a long reach while staying out of harm’s way.

Italian Pike, steel and wood (ash), probably 1600
Italian Pike, steel and wood (ash), probably 1600, L. 77 1/2 in. (196.9 cm); L. of head 6 3/8 in. (16.2 cm), Wt. 2 lbs. 2 oz. (963.9 g)

Pike  Grouped together with spears, pole-arm and pole-axe weapons, similarly, a pike is a pole weapon with a small, often leaf-shaped steel head affixed to a long wooden shaft. It could be between ten and twenty feet in length and the pole was most often made of ash wood. Mainly used by Medieval infantry, this two-handed weapon was used for thrusting and gave the pikemen the ability to inflict damage at a distance. It took training and strength to wield due to the extreme length, which made it difficult to control for all those, but this highly trained group. The pike was not popular until the High and Late Medieval period.

Prior to the appearance of socket bayonets in the 1700s, tight formations of soldiers angling pikes outward created a spear or spike wall that made even mounted knight attacks and cavalry charges almost impossible. Highly effective for a time, as Medieval battle tactics developed, armies began using archers to take down tight packed groups of pikemen. Even improvements to armour could not make these stationary groups of men holding a spear wall impervious to arrows. Later changes in tactic saw, under certain conditions, the pike used effectively in attack, taking the battle to the enemy, rather than in maintaining a stationary spike wall.

Rapier  A long, thin and light sword used predominantly for thrusting. Earlier centuries had bladed rapiers, but the cutting blade became less and less used over time. For civilians, a lighter, shorter rapier developed as a weapon of self-defence and used for duelling. During the 1600s and the rise of the small sword, military rapiers developed into the Colichemarde with a uniquely shaped blade, wide at one end and tapering down the length.

With a relatively long blade, a typical rapier example was roughly 104cm (41in) in length. Rapiers are characterised by a protective hilt to protect the hand and a blade ending in a sharply pointed tip. A typical rapier weighed approximately 1kg (2.2lb) with a blade of only 2.5cm (.98in) in width. Italian examples into the 17th century are well over 115cm (45in) to as long as 130cm (51in) in length.

A development of the Spanish dress sword, rapiers were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries as a thrusting sword used in unarmoured combat. Rapiers encompass a variety of styles often influenced by their country of use and into the Renaissance, rapier swords were generally lighter than their Medieval counterparts. In the late 16th century, while the musket was the prime weapon of French Musketeers, difficult and clumsy to load and fire, a rapier made a necessary secondary weapon.

Rondel Dagger  Worn on the belt at the waist, from the Middle Ages (14th century onward), the rondel dagger was widely used in Europe. Long and slim, the distinctive look of this blade saw it taper to a needle point. As the name suggests, the dagger gets its name from the round (or a similar octagonal-shaped) hand guard and spherical pommel. The blade measured 30cm (12in) and the overall dagger might be as long as 50cm (20in).

Rondel Dagger, possibly British, 14th century, steel
Rondel Dagger, possibly British, 14th century, steel

The blade’s tang extended through the cylindrical handle normally carved from wood or bone. Primarily designed for use with a stabbing action using an ice pick grip overhand or in a reversed grip underarm. The long, straight blade didn’t lend itself to slashing. In battle, a rondel dagger could puncture chain mail, though not plate armour. Small and easy to manoeuvre, it was ideal for forcing between the joints of armour and helmets. Precursor of the stiletto which made its appearance by the 16th century, the rondel evolved in the 14th century from the earlier knightly dagger of the 12th and 13th centuries, keeping pace with advancements in plate armour. The standard side-arm of knights by the 15th century, rondel daggers were carried into battle as a knight’s back-up weapon during hand-to-hand combat. Rondel daggers also became popular with the emerging middle class and were worn by merchants and tradesmen on a belt at the waist.

Palestinian shepherd boy using a sling, circa between 1900 and 1920
Palestinian shepherd boy using a sling, circa between 1900 and 1920

Sling (also known as the shepherd’s sling)  Inexpensive and easy to manufacture, a sling is an ancient projectile weapon with evidence pointing to its use back to at least 10,000B.C. A sling is used to throw a blunt projectile like a stone, lead shot (a sling “bullet”) or lumps of baked clay. Animal hide for the pouch to hold the shot and woven hairs or sinews for the cord meant an ancient warrior could easily construct one himself while projectiles were easy to find among the smooth stones of rivers, streams or other bodies of water.

Its range was vastly improved by about 3000 B.C. when clay munitions or stones were routinely made into uniform spherical shapes. In use for millennium due to their effectiveness, the small size of the projectiles made them nearly invisible to an enemy at any range and they reached such high velocities when released, it made them difficult to defend against.

Simple yet highly effective, a sling is made of nothing more than a pouch to hold the shot between two lengths of cord. A loop on one end of the cord fits over the middle finger or thumb while a tab on the other end of the cord is gripped between the forefinger and thumb. When swung in an arc, releasing the tab at a precise moment frees the shot to hurtle it toward the target. Essentially an extension of the human arm, it increases the range a human could throw a projectile considerably. Much like bowmen, slingers of ancient armies could hurtle shot over defensive walls where swords or spears could never reach. The simple technology of the sling was developed on a massive scale into siege weapons like onagers or trebuchets.


Image credits

Falchion – Venice, Italian, circa 1490, steel and gold – via Wikimedia Commons. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58746292

Italian Pike – appox 1600, steel and ashwood – via Wikimedia Commons. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58747642

Halberd of the royal bodyguards of Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein By Fordmadoxfraud – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4813460

Roundel dagger – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58758114


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Medieval Weapons – more than swords for fantasy writing

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