Monday, February 23, 2015

Cutting It Short: A Case for Short Swords

OD&D had two classifications for swords: sword, and two-handed sword. AD&D expanded this, in a way that I may eventually write about; in short, the AD&D names for long sword and broad sword are both fairly contentious. But it added one sword type that was added into Moldvay and subsequent versions of Basic/Classic: the short sword.

AD&D defined the short sword as a sword with a blade of 2' (24") or shorter. I'm going to assume that this is generally a good rule of thumb.

There were several interesting swords with blades right around 24" that were made in the period of the "knightly" swords that are the D&D standby. One example, pictured in a 15th century Fechtbuch above, is the großes Messer.

If you know your German, großes Messer just means "big knife." This was something of a fiction, since the Messer was a sword, but it had a couple of interesting features. Instead of the pommel of a knightly sword, it had the full tang that you would often see on a knife, and the pommel would be curved to one side instead of the round, riveted type usually seen on a knightly sword. It was single-edged and often had a Nagel or nail sticking to one side, as a type of handguard. All of this was meant to establish that the Messer was just a knife, so people could go carrying them around but they weren't carrying a "sword." It was a prerogative of knights, generally, to carry swords about, so non-knightly individuals were simply carrying a big "knife." (This would be a great law for a city type campaign.)

But the Messer was an early trend-setter for short blades. The cutlass and the English "hanger" sword were both examples of blades that had the same features: a single-edged blade around 24" long, and a handguard that went beyond simple quillons (the two spurs of the crossguard). These developed out of the longer, heavy falchion (which had a blade around 31" long), and became standard sidearms for much of the age of muskets.

Why would you want a shorter sword? These blades coexisted with the long, heavy knightly swords, particularly the longsword (which AD&D would call a "bastard sword"). They were primarily sidearms, meant for fighting lightly armored opponents, often issued to crossbow or artillery soldiers. As the Messer proves, they were carried around in cities and were good weapons for fighting in closer quarters than the longsword allowed. In an era of plate armor, the sword was no longer an armor-penetrating weapon; you'd use something good and heavy like a warhammer if puncturing armor was your goal. So it makes sense to use a short blade that you can carry pretty well anywhere.

In tight dungeon corridors, the utility of such a blade should be obvious. Thieves in particular would seem to be a great thematic fit for the Messer or cutlass. It really underlines the fact that swords were primarily sidearms, and longer weapons, or ranged weapons, were the primary weapons carried by a soldier.

What, then, about magical swords? After all, this is D&D, not Chainmail; magic weapons are part and parcel of the way the game goes. But it turns out - magical short swords make plenty of sense. The ancient Greek xiphos, the ancient Roman gladius, the leaf-shaped Celtic sword and the Egyptian khopesh are all swords that top out around 24". If your magical swords are properly ancient, why not use one of those as a model instead of the latest trend in knightly blades?

The bronze sword in this blog post over at Tower of the Archmage is a great example of the kind of sword that makes a killer "ancient" looking magic sword. This site has a number of good replica photos, all of which are excellent inspiration for a magical sword that I think will be much more memorable than a typical "sword" with a crossguard and a +1. The khopesh, the Celtic sword, the Spartan sword are all neat looks that will help give magic items a very different feel from the "standard models."

With Moldvay and later classic D&D, magical short swords are also a good way to control "sword inflation" in the game. Since they do on average 1 point less damage than a normal sword, and 2 points less than a 2-handed sword, a short sword +3 is only doing 6.5 damage on an average hit.

Finally, let's not forget the halfling, for whom the short sword is a normal sword.

The moral of this post, of course, is that I really like swords, and I think D&D owes blades other than the classic knightly sword (Oakeshott types X through XIV) some love. As for knightly swords? Look for a post in the future, "R. Ewart Oakeshott vs. E. Gary Gygax." But I really think that there is more potential than most people think for excellent D&D weapons in the short sword, from antiquity right up to the Renaissance.


  1. I took three years of german longsword fencing and my fencing instructor was quite skilled with smaller weapons such as the messer and the dagger. I would rather face him ANY DAY longsword-to-longsword. Whenever he had a messer or dagger he was amazingly skilled at closing the distance and ending the fight - usually within 7 seconds or so.

  2. Don't forget that shorter swords were still used by many peoples allover the world, even up to the 20th century. Swords like the Kris or Bolo, the infamous Khyber Knife, and the Qama were very effective weapons. Just ask the Romans who well they like their gladius.

  3. Spot on! And not just cause you liked to my blog! :-)

    1. Linked to my blog....

      stupid autocorrect...

  4. Short swords shall be called Backswords because they can be kept at the back or under a cloak.

    Long swords shall be called arming swords.

    Two-handers are called claymores.

    1. I'd rather not complicate the terminology overmuch in the case of the term "backsword," which referred to a particular type of single-edged sword. (The "back" has to do not with the wielder's back, but with the blunt back side of the blade.) Backswords were frequently as long as arming swords, and were generally thinner blades than the grosses Messer or the cutlass.

      Arming sword is the current term for knightly single-handed swords from the 10th to the 15th centuries. The thing is, there's a tremendous amount of mystique about such weapons, and "arming sword" just has no romance to it as a term. I prefer knightly sword.

      Claymore of course is a particular term for the Scottish two-handed sword; I actually prefer the German Zweihander. It really underlines that this was a massive battlefield weapon, which was probably used against pikemen. Claymore is sometimes confusingly used to refer to the single handed single edged basket-hilt broadswords that were popular with Scottish gentlemen through the Renaissance and right up into the 18th and 19th centuries.

  5. Back in my larping days I had 2 swords (one slightly longer than the other) a short sword and a dagger. Along with throwing knives and javelins. If I knew we were going .to be inside I would ditch the javelins and one of my swords. The short sword went from almost never being used to being my primary weapon ,in tight quarters a longer sowrd becomes an inferior spear.

  6. From a strictly mechanical standpoint, a shortsword in dungeon exploration might be an incredibly valuable tool simply due to the small distances encounters occur at. Of course, all of this in original D&D is abstract (and why I love it!).

    ...But what if one uses the initiative by weapon length rules in the ready ref sheets? Sure, round one may see the longer swords win. If you can survive to round two, though... and close the distance, as the poster above stated?

    I believe any referee would be well within rights to instate reverse initiative by weapon length in that scenario. Tightly confined quarters, shield-on-shield action... initiative goes to the short and deadly, while larger weapons need the wind-up time. There was a reason the Romans used the gladius!!


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