Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

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Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Vino » 17 Nov 2014 20:16

I just watched Matt's video about the best sword for a one-on-one fight where he talks about how much better basket and sabre hilts are than less protective handguards like a medieval crossguard, and this makes me wonder why these hilts weren't invented much earlier. I guess they would be redundant for a man-at-arms with gauntlets but what about all the other people who used swords?
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby SteelCat » 17 Nov 2014 21:55

Because they regularly used shields for defence?

Complex hilts seems to have become popular around the time when handheld firearms became more and more popular. My guess is that this is not a coincidence but the result of a radically change of armed conflict and warfare. Plus, the complex hilted swords were the gentleman's side arm and in that age I don't see the rich person/nobleman carrying a shield or armour on themselves all the time in case they are involved in a fight anymore.

So, my guess it's the change in society and warfare.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Vino » 17 Nov 2014 22:05

SteelCat wrote:Because they regularly used shields for defence?

Complex hilts seems to have become popular around the time when handheld firearms became more and more popular. My guess is that this is not a coincidence but the result of a radically change of armed conflict and warfare. Plus, the complex hilted swords were the gentleman's side arm and in that age I don't see the rich person/nobleman carrying a shield or armour on themselves all the time in case they are involved in a fight anymore.

So, my guess it's the change in society and warfare.


Even with a shield though I see no reason not to have a more protective hilt, and besides there were plenty of soldiers who didn't have shields like pikemen, archers, halberdiers, etc.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby SteelCat » 17 Nov 2014 22:12

Actually I can see that a large complex hilt like the one on a rapier could get in the way while using stuff like pikes. I mean, the hilt is at the level of the elbow.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby tea » 18 Nov 2014 10:55

Complex hilts are heavier, and different fencing styles can allow you to keep the hands out of the target region. The main thing they permit is keeping the hand forward without exposing it as a target. They also restrict grip changes somewhat, which might be another reason people left them.

Finally, they're quite complex to make, and so if the conventional fencing method keeps the hands fairly safe, and uses lots of grip changes, people may have just looked at them as an unnecessary extra.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby the_last_alive » 18 Nov 2014 18:26

SteelCat wrote:Actually I can see that a large complex hilt like the one on a rapier could get in the way while using stuff like pikes. I mean, the hilt is at the level of the elbow.


If the hilt is at the level of your elbow, you're wearing your sword wrong. Having used a pike while wearing swords, if worn properly they really do no get in the way at all.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby admin » 19 Nov 2014 12:29

The short answer is - we dont know.
The answer as in most things probably comes down to a variety of factors. However, I think it's important to note that complex hilts came about at the same time as civilians started wearing swords around towns more... The civilian fight, or duel, is a very different type of fight to war. If you give people a few seconds to try and kill an opponent (as in war) then they attack more at heads and torsos, mostly with cuts. In duels it is more likely people will take their time, be more cautious and go for disabling blows, such as to the hands and forearms. Also holding your sword arm out in front extended makes more sense in a duel and less sense in war where an attacker at an angle to you might lop your arm off.
So I think that one or the factors behind the adoption of complex hilts, perhaps the most important factor, is the widespread adoption of swords in urban civilian life.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Monzambano » 19 Nov 2014 21:53

With a complex hilt, there is only one way to grip the weapon; with the traditional simple cross-guard only, you remain flexible.
It seems to me that the complex hilt arises after the long-sword loses its pre-eminence. For long-sword, a complex hilt does not work (let's ignore the Swiss Kriegsmesser for the purposes of this argument...). Once you're back to one-handed weapons, there is no reason not to let hilts grow more complex.
Also, with the simple cross-guard, the sword presented as Christian cross, enhancing the symbolism.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Vino » 20 Nov 2014 09:30

Monzambano wrote:With a complex hilt, there is only one way to grip the weapon; with the traditional simple cross-guard only, you remain flexible.
It seems to me that the complex hilt arises after the long-sword loses its pre-eminence. For long-sword, a complex hilt does not work (let's ignore the Swiss Kriegsmesser for the purposes of this argument...). Once you're back to one-handed weapons, there is no reason not to let hilts grow more complex.
Also, with the simple cross-guard, the sword presented as Christian cross, enhancing the symbolism.


Even at the height of longsword usage, one-handed swords like arming swords and falchions were still much more common, so I don't think it can really be explained with the decline of the longsword, you have a point about the Christian symbolism though, I hadn't thought of that.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Sean M » 20 Nov 2014 18:29

admin wrote:The short answer is - we dont know.
The answer as in most things probably comes down to a variety of factors. However, I think it's important to note that complex hilts came about at the same time as civilians started wearing swords around towns more... The civilian fight, or duel, is a very different type of fight to war. If you give people a few seconds to try and kill an opponent (as in war) then they attack more at heads and torsos, mostly with cuts. In duels it is more likely people will take their time, be more cautious and go for disabling blows, such as to the hands and forearms. Also holding your sword arm out in front extended makes more sense in a duel and less sense in war where an attacker at an angle to you might lop your arm off.
So I think that one or the factors behind the adoption of complex hilts, perhaps the most important factor, is the widespread adoption of swords in urban civilian life.

Yes, its worth saying that combat on foot with a single sword against another single sword was not a common scenario in many cultures. Often the sword was a status symbol, or a tool, or a weapon to use in the melee once the spears were lost or broken.

Every sword wearer will notice that a complex hilt adds weight and bulk, many will notice that it costs money and needs cleaning, and a few will have it save their hand from a cut.
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby admin » 21 Nov 2014 13:17

Vino wrote:
Monzambano wrote:With a complex hilt, there is only one way to grip the weapon; with the traditional simple cross-guard only, you remain flexible.
It seems to me that the complex hilt arises after the long-sword loses its pre-eminence. For long-sword, a complex hilt does not work (let's ignore the Swiss Kriegsmesser for the purposes of this argument...). Once you're back to one-handed weapons, there is no reason not to let hilts grow more complex.
Also, with the simple cross-guard, the sword presented as Christian cross, enhancing the symbolism.


Even at the height of longsword usage, one-handed swords like arming swords and falchions were still much more common, so I don't think it can really be explained with the decline of the longsword, you have a point about the Christian symbolism though, I hadn't thought of that.


I agree - longswords are not a factor here. Not to mention that complex hilts started to develop in the mid-1400s, when the longsword was supposedly at its height, and in the 16th century lots of longswords had complex hilts! :)
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Martin Greywolf » 28 Nov 2014 11:31

I mostly agree with Matt here, but for slightly different reason.

Before complex hilts, swords were meant as weapons of war in the first place, not something meant for civilians - fighting on the street was frowned upon (and by frowned upon, I mean illegal as hell), so only time you'd use your sword (well, legally) would be in war or judicial duel (and those were not as common as you might think).

That means one important thing - you had time to put gloves on. Whether metal gauntlets, or padded gloves (I have a padded armor with gloves, reinforced by inserting leather into it, it works well enough to stop blunt axe from breaking my fingers), they offer very good hand protection.

As swords and fashions shifted more into civilian wear and duel use, hand protection shifted from armor to the hilt itself, as you don't want to wear metal gauntlets when buying fresh vegetables. This, incidentally, might well be why longswords never developed the degree of hand protection seen on rapiers - they are meant to be used in war, and therefore (not necessarily heavily) armored.

Last thing to keep in mind is that hand protection on dueling weapons is a European quirk - albeit very useful one. Edo period bananas, some types of jian and many more types of sword used primarily for self-defense and duels don't have any significant hand protection (not even a proper crossguard, sometimes).
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Sean M » 29 Nov 2014 09:10

Martin Greywolf wrote:That means one important thing - you had time to put gloves on. Whether metal gauntlets, or padded gloves (I have a padded armor with gloves, reinforced by inserting leather into it, it works well enough to stop blunt axe from breaking my fingers), they offer very good hand protection.

As swords and fashions shifted more into civilian wear and duel use, hand protection shifted from armor to the hilt itself, as you don't want to wear metal gauntlets when buying fresh vegetables. This, incidentally, might well be why longswords never developed the degree of hand protection seen on rapiers - they are meant to be used in war, and therefore (not necessarily heavily) armored.

That's a curious one. Medieval Latins seem to start wearing gloves or gauntlets to fight in the middle of the thirteenth century, although from the end of the twelfth some of the richest soldiers had worn long mail sleeves which ended in mittens. Before that, its very hard to find evidence for any kind of soldier wearing any kind of hand protection, even light leather gloves, anywhere in the world. A few Roman infantry and more Chorasmian-influenced cavalry wore metal hand armour. So in the centuries that European swords acquired complex hilts, Europeans were much more likely to have hand armour than the average sword-wearer! Meanwhile soldiers with gauntlets and vambraces happily wore long complex-hilted swords in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because rapiers were fashionable.

Matt's “we don't know” is still the best short answer.

Edit: Anyone who wants to test my claims can see basic books on armour such as Claude Blair's "European Armour" and Bishop and Coulston's "Roman Military Equipment."
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Re: Why were complex hilts not invented earlier?

Postby Vino » 20 Dec 2014 19:44

Martin Greywolf wrote:I mostly agree with Matt here, but for slightly different reason.

Before complex hilts, swords were meant as weapons of war in the first place, not something meant for civilians - fighting on the street was frowned upon (and by frowned upon, I mean illegal as hell), so only time you'd use your sword (well, legally) would be in war or judicial duel (and those were not as common as you might think).


Weren't swords also carried by travellers for self-defense? Like the pilgrims with swords and bucklers in "The Canterbury Tales".
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