Finding the Reality in Fantasy

Finding the Reality in Fantasy: Weapons


Weapons are one of the most important aspects of the MMCG’s operation. After all, the “C” in MMCG stands for “combat.” We are a fighting-focused organization, and most of our events revolve around battles, duels or tournaments of some sort. While the need for research into historically accurate manners of combat has been discussed in "Fighting by the Book," the need for reasonably accurate weapons is equally important—in some ways more so.

So, to kick things off, let’s look at fantasy barbarians. Kull of Atlantis, Conan, Red Sonja and Wulfgar of Ten Towns are all examples of fantasy barbarians. Weapons commonly include a large double-bladed axe, a giant club, a giant sword, large hammers (sledge-hammer sized) and possibly something with spikes on it made from bone. Below is a pretty normal sampling of fantasy barbarian stuff:
Typical fantasy barbarian weapons. Note the preponderance of spikes, and the emphasis on size.
Fantasy Barbarian Weapons

Entertaining? Sure. Impressive? Oh, yeah. Practical? Doubtful. Historical? Not remotely. It’s clear to anybody who has flipped through book of historical weaponry or visited a museum displaying such that these commercially-available props aren’t the sort of thing that people actually carried into battle. However, a brief look at any illustration by Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo will generally turn up some iron-thewed barely-clad monstrosity holding something akin to these in a blood-soaked paw.

If you get your kicks imagining yourself as a barbarian in the Middle Ages, here are some tips for making historically-appropriate weapons that still retain some of the feel of the weapons above.

Step 1: Look at the weapon. Determine its defining features (i.e., “big”, “spiky”, “two-handed”), etc… Ask yourself, “If this was a real weapon meant to be used by real people, what would its purpose be? What is absolutely necessary for this weapon to function, and what is pure decoration?” From that, form some basic criteria to describe a weapon that is similar to its fantasy counterpart.

Step 2: Find out who the historical barbarians were (Vikings, Scots, Mongols, etc…) and look for weapons used by those cultures that match the basic criteria you established in step 1. Many cultures used the same sorts of weapons (maces, for example). Is there anything about a particular society’s weapons that distinguish it from others’?

Step 3: Now that you’ve eliminated unnecessary frills and matched real-world equivalents to the fantasy templates, narrow down your search by time period. For example, if you decided that you wanted to fight as a 13th century Scottish barbarian in the MMCG, the weapons you would use might look something like this:
Medieval Scottish weaponry approximating the characteristics of the "Barbarian" fantasy weapons above. Note that the lines are cleaner and more straightforward.
Medieval Scottish Weapons

Step 4: Find culturally appropriate decorations. “Medieval” doesn’t automatically equate to “austere”—quite the opposite in many cases. Medieval craftsmen and artisans were quite fond of adding flairs and flourishes to their work. It makes your weapon look all the more interesting and imposing if it is decorated—just try to avoid slipping back into fantasy stereotypes when doing so. Medieval swords tended not to have a great deal of writing on the blade, jewels on the hilt, or highly-sculpted ornamental crosspieces. While exceptions can be found, remember that weapons of the Middle Ages were tools first and foremost.

Example of Fantasy Weapon Conversion: Soulcrusher, the Demon Sword

Record of Lodoss War is one of my favorite fantasy anime. Not surprisingly, some of the weapons and armor designs created by the talented artists who brought these novels to life are pretty far from the historical reality of professional men at arms who lived and worked with actual weapons and armor. A good example of this disconnect is the villain’s sword: Soulcrusher.
Soulcrusher, the Demon Sword.

So, step 1, what are its defining features? It looks like it could be used one-or-two handed. It has a wide, decorative crosspiece. Its blade has a medial ridge which is cut into by a narrow fuller. Its pommel is wide, bulbous and slightly flat.

That’s a pretty specific list of attributes. There’s no need to get so specific if you don’t want to, but for the purposes of this conversion, it will do.

Step 2, narrow down to a culture. Sir Ashram, the character who wields the sword, is of the knightly class, and fights in full plate. That narrows the field a bit, but not a lot. It’s sufficient to say that the character is a European-style knight.

Step 3, narrow down the time period. Based on the medial ridge present on the sword and the full plate worn by the character, we can concur that a real-world equivalent would be located some time around 1450—1500 A.D.

So, armed with these attributes and restrictions, is it possible to find a historical sword that approximates the characteristics of the fantasy sword Soulcrusher? Absolutely.
Albion's Viceroy, a pretty good conversion from the fantasy template.

The above sword is an Oakeshott type XXa sword dated to the late 1400’s based on a sword from the Zurich Museum. With this weapon in mind (and its stats readily available at Albion Swords), it is fully possible to make a padded facsimile for use in the MMCG.

One historically-appropriate Soulcrusher stand-in: check.

These steps can be applied to any fantasy weapons with a fair degree of success. Obviously, some fantasy weapons simply cannot be converted to historically appropriate analogues. As an example, double-bladed swords (that is a weapon with a sword blade at each end of a central handle) have no basis in medieval Europe, although similar weapons may have seen use in oriental cultures at some time.

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