Monday, February 23, 2015
Cutting It Short: A Case for Short Swords
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.