Sep 242012

There has been talk on a few of the blogs I follow – and even in a forum thread or two - about the feasibility of using anything like a long sword in a dungeon environment. There are ways to make a hand-and-a-half sword, or even a two handed sword, still a viable weapon for a fight in an enclosed space. This week we are talking about the Murder Strike.

The image above shows this move in action. As you can see, the sword is pretty long, but held half way down the blade, so that the arc needed to swing is reduced. Now, some of you out there may be wondering why there’s any point swinging the sword in such a way, instead of using the blade. To answer this, first we need to understand how a medieval war-hammer actually works. If you’re thinking Mjölnir, you’re a little bit out. No, the war 

hammer that would be used by footmen against knights in armour is a little bit more like this–>. Note the sharpened back end of the weapon. Now, I have been lucky enough to see what such a weapon, correctly forged, can do to a steel chest plate. Trust me on this, the two large holes where the spike punched several inches through the metal to where the ribs would be were very worrying indeed. 

The cross guards on medieval long swords – the bits that stopped an attacking blade sliding down your own and slicing your fingers off – were often molded into points. This was not purely for decorative purposes, as you can imagine when performing the murder strike. This would be performed as a two handed strike, so imagine the force with which the cross guard would hit the armour of your opponent. Even if you were unlucky, and didn’t get the clean hit needed to punch a large hole in the metal, and the flesh beneath, you would still have a chance to knock them back, maybe even off their feet.

If you scroll back up to the top image, you will notice that not only is the man performing the murder strike gripping his sword blade with open hands, but the poor chap on the receiving end is also grasping his blade when defending. This is another interesting aspect of medieval sword fighting. The blades, although when swung with enough force could do massive damage were rarely, if ever, honed to razor sharpness. There were at least two reasons for this, the first being that it was unnecessary. The amount of pressure over a surface required to cut flesh was easily taken care off without needing an razor edged blade when a sword was swung with enough force. It was also a waste to try and keep the blade that sharp, as after a few swings at another blade, or maybe the armour of your opponent, the edge would quickly dull.

This does give you edge in a close quarters fight with limited room to swing or use a shield, as it allows the defender to hold the blade firmly to parry and block blows with much greater ease than if the sword was held in one hand. If the user is proficient enough, this defensive stance an also allow a quick and deadly riposte. Don’t forget that the Romans perfected a method of sword fighting that used the point of the sword to great effect. When using a long sword in a closed space, use your off hand to hold the blade as you would when using to block, and if you turn aside a blow, drive the point of your sword forward, the accuracy you gain from holding the blade in both hands means a high chance of hitting a gap in your opponent’s armour with a good deal of force.

I hope some of the above has been useful for you all, and if you have any tips of your own, please share below.

  31 Responses to “The Murder Strike – and other historical ways to get more use of a long sword.”

  1. That was an interesting read, I didn’t know about war hammers, at least not in so many details. I wish I could use my knowledge in my 7th Sea game because it’s such a cool move, but we have no-one who fights with a longsword (any more, at least). But it has given me some nice, evil ideas about improvised weapons.

  2. Good article! It really gets rid of a wide-spread gaming cliché!

  3. It should be noted that not only is the quillons a viable weapon like the spike of a warhammer, but the pommel can act as an impromptu version of the hammer end in a similar attack to the specific variant of mortschlag you’re referencing. Getting beaned on the head with the pommel, even while wearing a helmet, is enough to strongly disorient and injure a man (if not kill him outright san the helmet)!

    Halfswording with the blade point (not to be confused with the pommel point or quillons points, which together make up the four points of the weapon – each rather dangerous in its own right) especially, as you mention, would be particularly handy in the cramped environment of the typical fantasy dungeon, where you could use the sword as a short spear, most especially against armored enemies and while wearing armor yourself.

  4. Oh definitely. There are like 6-8 medieval weapons myths that every D&D person I’ve met seems to subscribe religiously to that I’d love to do away with. To wit:

    1.) Crossbows had pistol grips and triggers, just a modern gun: No they didn’t. They had a lever, roughly parallel to the stock. Here:

    2.) Slings are swung in a circle over the head, then released: Really? Put a billiard ball in a sock and try this. How easy is it to control where the billiard ball/sock goes? Not easy at all. Rather, slings were swung *once*, in a downward diagonal movement from over the right shoulder, downward toward the left hip, with one strap released just before the apogee of the swing. The best analogy is a baseball pitcher. Except that a sling effectively lengthens the throwing arm, giving greater speed and range. (It bugged me to DEATH in Princess Mononoke when someone used a sling in the swing-round-the-head-5-times style).

    3.) Slings are not very damaging: Sling stones? Possibly. But sling *bullets* were cast out of lead and were roughly shaped like tiny footballs. They would tumble end-over-end through the air and we have ample historical and archaeological evidence that they could do *major* damage upon impact. Upon a bare skull, they could crack the bone. Upon a helmet, they could easily dent it in, possibly cracking the bone as well. Slings should be 1d8 damage.

    4.) Thrown daggers are effective weapons: No they aren’t. During the mid-Vietnam War years, the U.S. Green Berets actually had a program to try and teach men to throw knives with deadly force and accuracy. The result: It really cannot be done. A knife is simply too light-weight and a human arm is too weak to accelerate it to sufficient force to drive it in. Most men in the program had difficulty killing *rabbits* with thrown knives, much less human-analog targets.

    5.) Swords are sharp: As you said here, Western swords were rarely sharpened to razor edges. Scimitars in the Near East, Persia and India? Sometimes. Katanas in Japan? Yes, definitely. But a Western sword was aimed less to cut than to break bones and dislocate joints. And for this reason, it was left about as sharp as a butter knife. Same thing with battle-axes. Is the splitting maul in your garage sharp? No. Does it still split wood? Yes. Think it would also split a human skull? I rest my case.

    6.) Dual wielding is practical: No it isn’t. There are almost no examples of dual-wielding warriors in human history. The only two are later 17th- and 18th-century fencers, who used a main-gauche dagger along with their rapier–and that was strictly as a blocking implement–and 20th-century Russian Spetznatz, who carried two combat knives. And there’s some question of how actually-effective that training was. And just intuitively, dual-wielding–especially of anything bigger than a dagger–strikes me as awkward and bad. Certainly *not* a case of it being twice as good as a regular weapon. Two warriors who train for 5 years, one with a single sword and one with 2 swords would not be that different. In fact, I almost think I’d best on the single-sword guy. Same thing with guns. Guns have *recoil*. Big-time. It’s incredibly hard to aim a handgun with two hands on ONE gun. Mostly dual-wielding strikes me as a cheap visual trick to try and make things look more exciting or exotic.

    • I was reading that, agreeing with everything until you got to the dual weapon bit, was about to get all high horsey, until you qualified it with the Main Gauche. You know your stuff mate, is it casual interest or have you studied it?

      Oh, and good point on the sling. The Roman’s did very well with these indeed!

      • I just play a lot of D&D and Pathfinder and read a lot of those Osprey Press military books.

        Like I said, dual-wielding bugs me because not only does it strike me as impractical but it’s also become like the high-fructose corn syrup of action movies and games: *Every* hero now has two swords or two guns and is like a combat ballerina with them.

        • The Osprey books are surprisingly good for the cost, and are often written, or at least co-written, by very well regarded academics. I wouldn’t quote from one for my dissertation, but I did in a few seminars I ran and such like.

          • To come totally clean, I’m mostly sick of every single 4E campaign of mine having at least one dual-bastard-sword-wielding Ranger in it. That an Avengers, Avengers, Avengers. I mean, the last 3 times these guys were TPK’d because nobody wanted to run a character with any healing powers, but nevermind that, here we go again with a party of nothing but melee Strikers . . .

    • Oh and meant to add, re dual-wielding: I can’t express how dumb the Diablo III Demon Hunter looks dual-wielding *crossbows*. How is *that* supposed to work? You shoot twice–badly, because, again recoil–and then . . . put one down the ground and reload the first one, put *that* one down on the ground and pick up and load the second one, etc. You lose more time to reload than you would with a single crossbow. It’s just silly and gimmicky from start to finish. (Oh and no, a ‘repeating’ crossbow would not solve this problem: The Chinese chu ke nu crossbow still needed two hands to work. In fact, it needed two hands to *fire*, not just reload.)

    • I’m totally guilty of loving throwing knives a bit too much, especially in 7th Sea, where they do a fair amount of damage. But at least I do know that it’s wrong (and 7th Sea after all is a hero game, so I think they can be forgiven for overpowering some weapons).

      Certain types of slingshots are actually illegal here in Germany and I absolutely get why. I’ve seen a friend fire a lead bullet from a perfectly legal slingshot and the results were…damaging. Totally a weapon I plan to carry with some character or other.

      • What’s odd, is that for all it’s faults, there’s some great stuff in 7th Sea heavily inspired by actual history. Then there’s the silly stuff…

        • It’s best to just take 7th Sea for the occassionally (??) over the top game that it is. We pratically outlawed discussions in our group that involve the words “historically correct” because it just makes no sense and only leads to frustration.
          We’re all having way too much fun swinging on chandeliers and duelling in the rigging of a three-master to care anyway.

    • I’m curious on throwing knives – given that there are knives that lack any sort of crosspiece, grip or pommel, and there are folks who train on being accurate at throwing these weighted devices, how much damage should they be able to do?

      I’m curious what the overall take is, so I can see if my game system of choice, noted for realism, is remotely close to accurate.

      Also, yes, crossbows work best for rapid fire when you have more than one, and teams of men to reload them.

      As for dual wielding – I like systems that will let you get good enough to carry more than one weapon, and even to attack with either at roughly the same level of skill, but not those that assume you can attack with both without leaving yourself open to easy exploitation. Some systems (Legend/Runequest) demand that the off-hand weapon be smaller/lighter than the other. Others (GURPS) let you do what you like as far as weapon types, limited by strength, but force you to take significant penalties, or outright leave yourself defenseless, to attack with both in the same maneuver.

      • Disclaimer: I’ve never thrown a knife for real. I just read a lot. So feel free to correct me if I get things wrong.

        From what I’ve read, I’ve gathered that the balance between weight and throwability is fairly fragile, so most throwing knives are rather lightweight (around 200 gramm for modern throwing knives). If you have a heavier knife, you need more strength to throw it and it’s even harder to accurately control where and how the knife will hit.

        So my take would be that a skilled person with a heavy knife could wound his opponent, not usually not seriously and not kill them, unless you go for the freak accident. In a realistic system, I’d rather handle throwing knives as a way to distract the opponent than as a way to do serious damage.

    • One of the few notable examples of “dual wielding” that I can think of is that of using two rapiers from di Grasse’s treatise. All in all, though, I of course agree that it was historically rather unpopular and for good reason – it wasn’t very easy to do and wasn’t all that effective anyway! Though, if you think about it, a shield of small or moderate size is basically as much “dual wielding” as a parrying dagger is, given how both are used for a similar purpose (parrying, or rarely hitting).

    • “But a Western sword was aimed less to cut than to break bones and dislocate joints.”

      That’s not even true for a specific time period and location, much less the whole of European swords throughout history.

      “There are almost no examples of dual-wielding warriors in human history. The only two are later 17th- and 18th-century fencers, who used a main-gauche dagger along with their rapier–and that was strictly as a blocking implement”

      Again, that’s not even true for Europe, much less the entirety of human history. Just in Italy, lots of authors of fighting manuals actually mention how to fight with two swords – Manciolino, Marozzo, Altoni, Agrippa, DiGrassi, Lovino, etc. Fighting with sword and dagger was common for hundreds of years in Europe, dating at least back to the 15th century, and it was not at all only for blocking. Hell, even a buckler wasn’t only for blocking.

      • Came here to say this.

        If I hear another person describe a longsword as a bludgeon, I’m going to scream… This smacks seriously of katana-fetish – of course katanas are sharpened, but not longswords…


        • Yup, but the edge you needed on a broadsword was no where near as fine as you’d think. It’s all about force applied over an area, and the weight of the heavier steel weapon swung with more force – and thus momentum – would do a hell of a lot of damage.

    • 1, 2, and 3 – I totally agree. Especially regarding slings. Having made and used my own sling, I would *really* hate to get hit with a stone out of one of those. Cripes!

      5 and 6, though, you’re perpetuating some myths yourself. Western swords were indeed sharp, saying otherwise is hogwash. It’s true that their piercing points became more and more important as plate armour became more common, but they never lost their edge. Sometimes they would have an unsharpened part partway down to facilitate half-swording, but they were definitely sharp – at least near the end.

      And there are numerous examples of dual-wielding. Not dual-wielding full-size swords (although one manual mentions that if you have a second sword, you should throw it at your opponent!).

      If you can conceive of using a shield or buckler and a sword, why can’t you conceive of using a dagger and a sword? I’ve seen people fight with these techniques – they work.

  5. Now there’s a hell of a thing. Warhammers had a sharpened edge, a pick on the back and a flat front? Jesus, I need to bring this up in my next 3.5 ed campaign. That’s bludgeoning, slashing and piercing for one low, low enchantment cost…

    • If you want to get really fancy your typical two handed sword (termed by modern scholars a “longsword”, not to be confused with what D&D calls a longsword, which is really an arming sword) is capable of all three as well. The quillons or blade point would be easily described as “piercing”, the blade edge would be “slashing”, and the pommel mortschlag would most certainly be “bludgeoning”.

      The longsword in particular is notable for being such a jack of all trades weapon (unfortunately it is only reasonably passable at each method compared to a dedicated counterpart), and since it is two-handed it is your shield (augmented, prreferably, by armor) as well! That’s really one of the biggest reasons it made such a good backup weapon on the battlefield – it could reasonably deal with any threat, even if it wasn’t specialized like a spear or hammer.

  6. [...] The Murder Strike by Shortymonster [...]

  7. My realism bugbear is that when you have a shield you catch a lot of blows on your shield. If I was forced to fight a single combat with either armor or a shield, I’d take the shield every time.

    Repeating crossbows in most games are difficult to learn how to use and and as powerful as regular crossbows. In reality the cho-no-ku was really easy to use, but it was a very weak bow and inaccurate. It was used by masses of peasants and the bolts were usually poisoned to make them effective.

    On the other hand what type of game are you playing? Are you doing an accurate simulation of real medieval combat? (in which case if you aren’t using Sword’s Path/Glory you are a piker) Or are you trying to simulate fantasy fiction and movies? Yes, dual-wielding is impractical in real life. But I’m playing a game with elves and wizards and monsters and dual-wielding fits right in.

  8. [...] The Murder Strike – and other historical ways to get more use of a long sword. ( [...]

  9. I typically disallow dual wielding in my campaigns excepting special circumstance:

    You are a martial artist whose training involves simultaneous use of small bladed weapons. Even then, weapons will be treated as bonuses to normal unarmed combat (i.e. a monk’s attack represents a handful of punches ‘ora ora ora!’, but uses one attack roll unless using a special ability). So, in this case, “dual wielding” does not mean “Get two attacks for no good reason”. If the blades are poison or magic, however, the effects may double up; a ‘hit’ for the martial artist would count as a both hands having struck a foe.

    One thing I have not seen much mechanic for is the use of a primary weapon or even something like a main gauche for blocking (aside from in something like Elder Scrolls). The passivity of defense in a lot of rpgs kind of annoys me.

  10. […] have written in the past about ways to get more use out of a longer sword whilst fighting in confined quarters, but swords of […]

  11. I’d just like to point out that Filipino martial arts tend to involve dual wielding of machete length blades. Sure, not the full sized swords that some seem to think is an awesome idea, but with shorter blades it can work. It can make it easier to parry larger cutting weapons, give your enemy two weapons to think about instead of one and allow for both left handed and right handed attacks – the latter one being rather useful against someone who is used to only fighting right handers, which is the majority of combatants. Chinese martial arts also include hook blades and butterfly swords, which were also commonly used in pairs. Japanese and Western martial arts? Not so much; the main gauche was mentioned; primarily used because the early rapiers were actually rather hard to parry and riposte with; double rapier happened occasionally, and in Japan, while there were some people who were good at using a katana and a wakizashi simultaneously, they were quite rare; most would just use one or the other. People using two katanas were even rarer still, and with good reason.

    My point? I’m not sure there was one, beyond the fact that historically dual wielding was used to good effect, but only with a very small selection of weaponry.

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