Two of the most iconic types of sword in Medieval Europe were the arming sword and the longsword. Both types are instantly recognizable as Medieval swords: both were made from steel, both have a long, narrow blade, and both have a hilt consisting of a cross-guard to defend the hand, a hand-grip, and a pommel to balance out the weight of the blade. But the key difference of arming sword vs longsword is very simple: the arming sword has a hilt designed to accommodate one hand, whilst the longsword’s is designed to accommodate two. An average arming sword blade is about 28 to 31 inches in length, whereas that of an average longsword might be between 34 and 38 inches. An arming sword might weigh between 2 and 3 lbs, whereas a longsword might be between 3 and 3.5 lbs. Case closed! Right? Not quite – there’s a lot more to the question of arming sword vs longsword than first might appear. It’s easy for us in the 21st century to put these two weapons next to each other and make simple comparisons, but the arming sword and the longsword both developed in radically different circumstances for very different purposes. Their history, their meaning and their ultimate fate are quite distinct. So here we’ll dive into the controversy: arming sword vs longsword, what’s the difference?

Illustration of some Oakeshotte Typve XVI swords – two arming swords (left) and a longsword (right). Often, swords can be of ambiguous length and configuration, defying our antiquarian categories. (via MyArmoury)

A Question of Definitions

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my discussions about Medieval weaponry, the terms we use to describe the weapons of past are largely antiquarian: that is, they are categorizations that have been imposed on the past from a modern viewpoint, and which would mean little to the people of the Middle Ages. Thus, one answer to ‘arming sword vs longsword’ is largely definitional: longswords and arming swords are whatever modern people apply those words to. This isn’t to say that Medieval people did not have complex and accurate ways of describing their weapons – indeed, understanding of one’s equipment was a critical part of the knightly profession, and would often have made the difference between surviving and perishing in the mass violence of the period. But these period-accurate categorizations have largely slipped away from us in the mists of time, for several reasons.

Is this 15th century German sword a longsword? Or a langes schwert? Or a grand espee de guerre? Or a montante? Or a spada lunga? Historical sword terminology is often very hard to piece together in retrospect. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Firstly, the drift of linguistic change, and our separation from the era of widespread sword usage, has blurred the lines of categorization, with collectors and antiquarians happy to use exotic-sounding terms (eg, ‘bastard sword’), regardless of their appropriateness. Secondly, written sources from the Medieval era were largely written and kept by the clergy – and certainly from the High Medieval period (c. 1000 CE – c. 1250 CE) onward, there were serious social and religious taboos that prevented Churchmen from close personal involvement with arms. Again, the relationship between religion and violence is deeply entangled in the Medieval period, a notable example being the Crusades, and sources from secular noble sources become more common as literacy spreads amongst the nobility in the Late Medieval period – but this non-equivalence between the literate-class and the fighting-class means that primary sources often refer to weaponry and armor with general terms rather than detailed specific terminology. Given this difficulty in reconstructing the culture that surrounded medieval weaponry in close detail, we have to take refuge in antiquarian and archaeological classification to some degree – but we should do so consciously and carefully, gleaning what we can from primary sources.

Common Ancestors

As I said above, the arming sword and the longsword both emerged in very different times – but they had common ancestors. The arming sword as a one-handed blade has much, much older roots than the longsword: the first known swords are the arsenical bronze alloy swords discovered at Arslantepe, dating to about 3,300 BCE. Bronze Age and Iron Age warriors across Europe wielded varieties of sword, and we can see its association with the noble or martial classes across this entire period in surviving art and burial practises. This is probably because effective swords require advanced knowledge of metalwork (either bronze-casting or iron smithing), significant amounts of labour-intensive material and time to create. The widespread systematization of military material culture by the Roman Empire had a big impact on the development of the sword. First the short infantry gladius, and later the long spatha spread throughout Europe, across the Empire itself through troop movements and well outside of its borders via trade and parallel military adaptation. The development of the sword was inseparable from its use as a single-handed weapon in tandem with a shield: in the era before the widespread availability of metal armours, a large wooden shield was easily the most effective form of personal protection available, and thus there is very little evidence of the use of two-handed weaponry in warfare.

The Roman spatha was originally a cavalry sword, but later evolved to become a widespread infantry weapon. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Knights

The immediate ancestor of the true knightly arming sword can be found in the Carolingian era. The post-Roman Frankish Empire was highly successful in preserving and advancing the Celtic traditions of sword-craft that flourished in the Roman period along the Upper Rhine, and so its nobility were equipped with fine ‘Carolingian’ swords similar to the Roman cavalry spatha. Highly coveted by non-Carolingians, these fine weapons found their way into the hands of other peoples of Europe through various legitimate and non-legitimate means. The class of Carolingian militēs, heavily armed mounted warriors equipped with chainmail, lance, sword and shield, were the prototypical Medieval knights: although their precise status is hard to pin down, their existence is attested in a number of royal capitularies (charters) that mandated landowners to provide their equipment for times of war (both civil and external). Some time around the 10th century, the concept of the milēs gradually migrated from being purely a description of a professional soldier to a noble title, with the concept of higher status and heritability: the opportunities for social advancement were provided by the violent instability of the latter part of the Early Medieval period, when royal authorities were far from absolute, and there was much to be gained by the judicious application of force to one’s neighbours. Thus, the idea of a mounted knight, with a single-handed sword – the knightly arming sword – was inseparable from the emergence of this class of professional fighters.

The Knightly Sword

For much of this period, the arming sword remained a flexible cutting sword, designed for use from horseback against unarmored or poorly-armoured opponents, with little capability to deliver thrusting blows. But around the 10th century, the escalation of noble violence can be seen reflected in the design of the knightly arming sword: since knights were more often fighting other knights who were much better armored in chainmail, swords capable of bursting chainmail with thrusts begin to emerge, much thicker with sharper points.

The Arming Sword
Darksword Armory’s stunning Arming Sword is a fantastic example of the apogee of the knightly arming sword: designed to both cut and thrust, it was a formidable weapon of the 11th-14th centuries. (via Darksword Armory)

Accordingly, as the knightly traditions of chivalry (literally, ‘horsemanship’) spread across Europe, the arming sword as the weapon of these French knights became the ultimate symbol of noble virtue, representing the chivalric ideals of righteous violence and social order. Initially, these arming swords remained very much the province of the elite: the enormous investment of time, materials and expertise required to forge a resilient war blade meant that they were high-status objects only accessible to the wealthiest nobles and their retinues. As the Medieval economies of Europe developed, metalwork and bladecraft became more common, simple blades became more affordable to the general populace. But we forget that even before the end of the Medieval era, the arming sword became virtually obsolete as a battlefield weapon: the late 13th century saw the emergence of massed spear and pike formations that effectively countered the dominance of mounted knights, and the systematic usage of gunpowder weaponry and artillery from the 15th century began to make swords look antiquated even to contemporaries. But as a potent symbol of the aristocratic elite, they survived all: indeed, they still retain a central ceremonial role in dress uniforms and state occasions today.

The Birth of the Longsword

It was the rapidly evolving cauldron of High and Late Medieval warfare that birthed the longsword. The 12th and 13th centuries saw the mass availability of chainmail armor, and the development of castles with armouries across Europe meant that even hastily levied troops could be equipped reasonably well at short notice. At the same time, knightly panoplies of chainmail had extended to cover the whole body, including the hands and feet, and extremely protective helmets featuring multiple layers of steel and padding, such as the great helm, had developed. In a simple mechanical sense, there is a maximum ceiling for the amount of physical force that can be exerted with a one-handed sword, regardless of how well it is designed to puncture armor. Thus, weapon-makers and their users began to explore two-handed weaponry as a means of circumventing this problem. Initially, it seems that one solution was a blade of arming sword length, with an extended grip: this can be seen in illuminated manuscripts and on contemporary tomb effigies from the middle of the 13th century.

This miniature from the Alphonso Psalter (13th century) shows a knight using an early long-hilted sword with his shield slung over his shoulder on a guige strap. (via British Library)

Eventually, sword-smiths perfected new configurations of blade manufacture: moving away from the thin, lenticular blades that prioritized flexibility and cutting power, they began to forge in diamond cross-section, creating stiff blades that were less effective at cutting, but exponentially more powerful in the thrust. This process both drove, and was driven by, the concomitant experimentation with transitional armour forms (eg. Reinforced leather, splinted maille, coats of plates etc), and the eventual emergence of armor made from solid steel plates. This improved armor also reduced the danger posed by discarding one’s shield: since one effectively wore one’s shields on one’s body, a knight’s hands could now be freed for the use of powerful two-handed weaponry, such as great hammers, pole-axes or longswords. The longsword survived as a battlefield weapon far into the age of pike and gunpowder, for example the Zweihander-wielding Doppelsoldner amongst 16th century German pike formations, smashing pike staves and creating openings for their comrades – or even the Scottish claymores used in one last mad charge at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 during the Jacobite rebellions. The arming sword as a primary battlefield weapon was obsolete – but its successors survived: the spada da lato or sidesword evolved as a smaller back-up weapon for use as a weapon of last resort, and the katzbalger (‘cat-fighter’ or ‘cat-gutter’). Eventually, as plate armor was outclassed by ever more powerful gunpowder weapons, even the longsword lost its anti-armor battlefield use, ushering in a new era of rapier and saber – though the knightly sword and longsword would never be resurrected.

The Battle of Killiecrankie (depicted here in a 20th century painting) saw the last massed charge of the Scottish claymore. (via The Times)

So, when we look down the foreshortening telescope of history, it is easy to compare arming sword vs longsword. But these comparisons are essentially antiquarian: they are a modern contrivance which does not make sense when viewed against actual history. The contexts in which each of these weapons evolved is wildly different: the question of arming sword vs longsword is a question of a world of armored knights on horseback involved in small-scale seigneurial disputes, verses a world of primitive firearms, pike formations and plate armor. They are different weapons, for different purposes, because their respective worlds was fundamentally different. As for which is better, you need ask only one question: which do you think looks better on your wall?


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.