The European longsword saw its heyday between the mid 14th to mid 16th centuries, during the close of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Usually weighing 5 to 8 pounds, longswords are characterized, as the name indicates, by their length, with straight and double-edged blades measuring between 33 inches to four feet in length, plus long handles designed for a two-handed grip, of between 6 to 15 inches. The longsword’s other distinguishing feature is its cruciform hilt, which gave the weapon a pronounced cross shape.
Longswords were designed to deal with the emergence of increasingly tougher armor, particularly plate armor, that standard sword such as the knightly or arming swords could not deal with. In proficient hands, the longsword could defeat such armor. They first emerged in the opening stages of the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), and for the following two centuries they were used by knights in plate armor, whether from horseback or on foot. By the late 14th century, the longsword’s use had begun to spread to unarmored foot soldiers as well – a usage first pioneered by Swiss mercenaries.
The longsword is a cut and thrust weapon, with a light point and cutting edges designed for targets unarmored and armored. Against the latter, blows were ineffective at slicing or cutting, but could nonetheless prove telling when applied with sufficient force to deliver a concussive impact to stun and disorient the armored opponent, and leave him temporarily vulnerable to a more lethal follow up. Notwithstanding its size, in the hands of a competent user the longsword was a quick and versatile weapon that could effectively deal out lethal thrusts, slices, and cuts.
By the late 1300s, codified systems of longsword combat had emerged throughout Europe, and in its heyday, various fighting schools and fighting styles sprouted to instruct on the martial art of longsword fighting. Such schools seem to have been especially popular in Germany, which produced the most renowned longsword teachers and fight masters.
The longsword’s long handle was designed for a two-handed grip that could deliver powerful cuts and thrusts, and longsword fighting featured a variety of moves, ranging from straightforward swordplay with stabbing, hacking, and slicing, to complex martial art maneuvers that entailed wrestling, grappling, and disarmament techniques. In the hands of wielders with armored gloves protecting their hands, the longsword could also be employed in a manner known as “half-swording“, whereby the user kept one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade to deliver well-controlled and powerful jabs and thrusts. Longswords, especially those with a diamond cross-section, could penetrate plate armor with a well-applied half-sword thrust.
Lethal usage was not restricted to the longsword’s blade, and techniques were taught whereby the pronounced crossguard could be used to trip the foe or knock him off balance, to jab into the opponent’s face, or swinging the sword by the blade like a hammer, the crossguard could also be used to pierce the enemy’s helmet and skull. The pommel could also be used after a swing in a quick reverse jab to the opponent’s head or body, or more straightforwardly applied with brute force to pummel and smash in his helmet and head.
After a centuries-long heyday, changing tactics and developments ended the longsword’s battlefield utility. By the mid-1500s, projectile weapons such as crossbows whose bolts could pierce armor, and the newly introduced firearms, had come to rule the battlefield and made plate armor obsolete, and the wielders of such weapons were protected by blocks of infantry wielding pikes. Against that combination, and with the disappearance of the plate armor that had given rise to longswords, longswords ceased to offer any particular advantage. By the late 16th century, the longsword had become militarily obsolete since there was no longer a need for its power and reach on the battlefield. Thus, swords became smaller and went back to normal lengths, while longswords were relegated to sporting competitions and knightly duels.