Medieval Weapons for Beginners

Weapons Glossary

Weapons Glossary
Weapon Analysis
Selecting the Right Weapon for the Job

Weapons were known by a number of different names during the Middle Ages. While this list is by no means exhaustive or absolute, it provides the most often-used names for weapons in general. These weapons may have been named differently depending on the part of the world and the time period of use. Please note that siege weaponry is not covered in this list, unless a name was used for both personal weaponry and siege weaponry.

Arbalest - A heavy type of crossbow. Sometimes used to refer to oversized mounted crossbows meant specifically as siege weapons. See crossbow.

Arming Sword - a Late Medieval name for a one-handed sword, meant to distinguish it from either a longsword, a bastard sword, or a greatsword. Many in the Western Martial Arts community refer to all one-handed swords as "arming swords," but it is fairly likely that one-handed swords were merely referred to as simply "swords" most of the time. The term arming sword seems to be a 15th century name.

Arrow - the missile shot from a bow. An arrow is measured by "draw length," that is to say, the length of the shaft when it is held at full draw on the bowstring with the head of the arrow just clearing the belly of the bow. A common draw length for modern arrows is about 28", although the "cloth yard" seems to have been a popular length for longbow arrows during the Late Middle Ages. This was measured from the outstretched arm to the opposite ear of the archer, and taken from the method of a clothier's measuring process. Also see bolt and bow.

Axe - vying with the spear and club for the title of "oldest weapon", the axe is hafted with a single-edged extruded blade on the end. Although double-bladed axes did exist in other parts of the world, there is no evidence to suggest that they were used for warfare in Europe during the Middle Ages. Axes ranged from the nearly six-foot-long pollaxes to the two-handed long axes made famous by Vikings to smaller throwing axes. Axes remained a favored tool for cracking through plate armor.

Ball and Chain - referring to a particular type of spherical-headed, non-spiked flail, the term "Ball and Chain" seems to have been an invention of later periods in time, and was in all likelihood not used to describe a weapon during the Middle Ages. See flail.

Bastard Sword - sometimes called a "hand-and-a-half-sword," a true bastard sword is a 15th or 16th century sword that is distinguished by a few factors. First, its blade is generally the length of a one-handed sword, although sometimes slightly longer. Secondly, its grip is slightly longer than that of a normal one-handed sword, and is "belted." This means that about halfway down the grip, there is a bulge meant to help the swordsman grip more effectively. Bastard swords' blades usually taper to a sharp point, as opposed to being parallel-edged. Finally, bastard swords tend to feature a diamond cross-section in their blade geometry as opposed to earlier-era flat blades. Without these three features, a sword is not a "bastard sword." Many longswords are mistakenly referred to as bastard swords as a result of misinterpretation by fantasy role-playing games.

Bec de Corbin - literally "Beak of the Crow." This is a special type of two-handed pole-hammer developed during the late 15th century and used into the 16th century. It was mainly used for fighting against armor, as the "hammer" portion of the weapon was composed of multiple small spikes (usually four) on one side, and a long, beak-like spike on the other side. Also see pole hammer and pollaxe.

Bill - sometimes also called the Brown Bill or the Black Bill. An agricultural implement modified for war, the bill was essentially a cleaver blade atop a long staff. There is evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons may have used this weapon, and it continued to be used through the Hundred Years war. Indeed, one of the popular war cries of the English was "Bows and Bills!" Also see guisarme, glaive, fauchard, and halberd.

Bodkin - a name that meant either a small dagger, or a long, pointed, armor-penetrating arrowhead with a square cross-section.

Bolt - a bolt is the projectile fired form a crossbow. Essentially, it is a short arrow, but without a "nock" (the groove in the end into which the string fits). Crossbow bolts have been fletched with feathers, leather and even brass or bronze in later cases. See crossbow.

Bow - the oldest and most widely used projectile weapon, the bow came in may forms. Consisting of a curved stave and a string, the bow. In Europe, the long bow, composite bow and crossbow were the most common types of bow (with the long bow being the most widely used both geographically and chronologically). Bows shoot arrows. See also short bow, long bow, composite bow and crossbow.

Broadsword - although not a medieval weapon, it is included in this list in order to help clarify some misunderstandings. Because of widely-spread Victorian misinformation and the profligate use of the term in fantasy literature and in role-playing games, "broadsword" is sometimes mistakenly thought to mean "medieval sword" or "one-handed sword." However, the name "broadsword" refers to a specific category of late Renaissance basket-hilted and cage-hilted one-handed swords. The most popular example of a true broadsword is the Scottish Basket-Hilted Claymore.

Bullet - usually made of lead, a bullet was the name of the ammunition shot from a sling. See sling.

Claymore - literally "sword big." Commonly identified with the 17th and 18th century basket-hilted sword or the large two-handed Scottish sword of the same time period. The term seems to be a linguistic artifact resulting from communication between Hihgland and Lowland Scots of the 17th and 18th centuries, and therefore does not accurately describe a medieval weapon. Scottish two-handed swords of the medieval period are really just greatswords.

Club - probably humanity's oldest weapon, the club is simply a weighted stick with a heavy end and a grip. The club is the forerunner of the mace. Although the club itself was not widely used during the Middle Ages, its descendants saw great success as armor-defeating weapons. See mace.

Composite Bow - a type of bow made from more than one material. Although not generally used in Europe during the Middle Ages, composite bows made of wood and horn did see some use in the Byzantine Empire. Composite bows were more likely to "recurve" than standard all-wood "self" bows. See also bow.

Crossbow - a mechanized bow in which the stave is attached to a stock (sometimes braced against the shoulder). Crossbows were used as early as the days of the Roman Empire and still see use as a hunting implement. Early crossbows were "spanned" (drawn) by hand, later crossbows used gear-powered mechanical "crannequins" or "windlasses" to draw the strings back. Some crossbows were so strong that one medieval Pope banned their use for war, insisting that their continued use would bring about the end of Christendom. Also see arbalest.

Dagger - a long knife. Daggers were generally double-edged. Daggers saw use throughout all of the medieval period. Indeed, in the High and Late Middle Ages, they were worn by nearly everybody - from peasant to king. Daggers were seen as particularly vicious weapons, and their use by spies and assassins was high as a dagger is much more easily concealed than other weapons. In his 1467 treatise on combat, Hans Talhoffer says "Now we come to the dagger; God preserve us all!" reflecting a commonly held opinion of the dagger's lethal effectiveness. See also dirk, misericorde, poniard, rondel dagger, and scramasax.

Dirk - a dagger, usually in reference to 17th and 18th century Scottish daggers.

Estoc - a type of sword meant solely for thrusting. It has an unsharpened blade of square cross-section, coming to a strong point. Estocs were meant for stabbing through armor, and were referred to as tucks by the English.

Falchion - a type of broad-bladed European one-edged sword. The blade was generally slightly curved, although straight-backed falchions are not unheard of. A falchion's tip end is broader than its grip end, making for tip-heavier balance. Related to the German Messer, the falchion is the only type of European sword known to have been taught for occasional use with one in each hand. Also see Messer.

Fauchard - a single-bladed staff weapon. A fauchard commonly featured a long-cleaver-like blade on one side and sharpened prongs on the backside. Absolute definition of this weapon is difficult, as authorities tend to disagree. The fauchard was a 16th century weapon. Also see bill, halberd.

Flail - like the Bill, an agricultural tool modified for war. Developed from a tool used for threshing what, the flail is simply a handle connected by a chain to a striking surface - either a weighted bar or partially spherical head. Flails could be spiked, studded or plain, with one head, two heads, or even three. The chain connecting head to handle could be anywhere from a single link in length to nearly a cubit long (those used by horsemen generally tended to feature shorter chains). See holy water sprinkler, morning star, and ball and chain.

Glaive - a staff-weapon featuring a long, broad blade at its end in which the front edge curves towards the straight back edge until reaching a point. Glaives were used in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Greatsword - any sword (generally of the 14th century and beyond) large enough to require the use of both hands. Usually measuring between 52" and 58" in length. While not yet the gigantic two-handed swords of the Renaissance, Greatswords were a separate class from the lighter, smaller longswords and bastard swords.

Guisarm - a staff weapon popular from the 11th to the 15th centuries under a variety of names. It was probably a weapon with a forked head, in which one "fork" was made of a curved, sharpened blade and the other "fork" was a long spike. This is probably what 16th century author George Silver calls the "Welsh Hook" and lauds as "the most perfect weapon." Also see military fork.

Halberd - a long staff weapon with an axe-head on one side, a spike on the backside, and a long thrusting spike at its tip between the two. Halberds are most closely related to the bill, and while used as early as the 13th century, were carried by officers in the British army into the 18th century. In Late Medieval halberds, the shafts below the heads were often reinforced with iron to prevent the heads from being chopped off. Halberds saw great use as ceremonial weapons for nobility during the early Renaissance. See bill.

Hammer - any weapon with a blunt primary head at the end of a shaft. Hammers ranged from one-handed war hammers meant to be used primarily from horseback to long, two-handed pole hammers very reminiscent of pollaxes. Hammers were crushing weapons meant to defeat armor, and often featured a spike on the opposite site of the crushing head. See war hammer and pole hammer.

Hand-and-a-Half Sword - a more modern name for a bastard sword or long sword.

Holy Water Sprinkler - a colorful name given to either a spiked flail or a spiked mace.

Hurlbat - a weapon shaped like an axe, but made entirely of metal. Either end of the shaft ends in a spike, and the opposite side of the axe-head is spiked as well. Hurlbats were meant to be thrown, in hopes that no matter which part of the hurlbat that hit, it would cause injury.

Javelin - a spear designed specifically for throwing. Javelins were generally shorter than spears meant for foot-combat. See spear.

Lance - a horseman's spear. Earlier lances were identical to normal footmen's spears. However, by the 14th century, lances had developed a protective concave cone over the lancer's hand and a butt behind the grip. The word "lance" was occasionally used to simply mean spear.

Long Axe - made famous by Viking raiders and almost exclusively identified with Scandinavian and Saxon footmen, the long axe had a haft of about four feet with a single-bladed axe head at its end.

Longbow - a "self" bow made of a single stave of wood, the longbow saw most use in Scandinavia, Wales and England. It was commonly made either of yew, ash or elm. Longbows stood as tall as the archer for whom they were made, and were drawn to the ear. Because of the power given by this draw, longbows proved to be effective armor-piercing weapons. Though used by the English for centuries, they became more widely-appreciated after the English King Edward I ("Longshanks") fought against Welsh longbowmen in his campaign to subjugate Wales. They later played much-celebrated roles in key battles of the Hundred Years war. The battle cry "Bows and Bills" refers in part to the longbow. The term longbow first appears at the very end of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, to distinguish it from the crossbow, and not, as previously thought, to distinguish it from the mythical short bow. Before that, it was more commonly called a bend bow, a hand bow, the English bow, or the crooked stick.

Longsword - a sword meant for use with either one or two hands. Most extant medieval and Renaissance fencing treatises deal with the use of the longsword. The earliest longswords appear around 1150, and continue to see an increase in use throughout the Middle Ages. A longsword may have either flat or diamond-cross section blade geometry. Its edges are generally parallel, as opposed to the sharply-tapering bastard swords. Sometimes referred to by the more modern name hand-and-a-half sword. The term "longsword" is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to an arming sword as a result of misuse by some fantasy novels and role-playing games.

Mace - a club-like weapon either made entirely of metal or with a metal head atop a wooden shaft. Maces were favored during the Middle Ages as excellent crushing weapons to be used against armored opponents. Maces could either be plain, studded, spiked, or flanged. Besides being highly favored by knights, maces were also used as symbols of authority, and eventually evolved into the scepter - one of the key pieces of royal regalia. See club.

Messer-literally, "knife." A Germanic single-edged sword with a curving edge. Most closely related to the falchion. Messers came in one- and two-handed varieties, and are often depicted in German fencing treatises as slicing off hands. See falchion.

Military Fork - a weapon consisting of a pronged pair of blades or spikes affixed to the end of a long staff. Military forks were of fairly low popularity, but could easily be adapted from agricultural implements. They were influenced by the Trident, which although not a medieval weapon was remembered as a gladiatorial weapon. Also see guisarm.

Misericorde - a long, pointed dagger, called the "dagger of mercy." Intended almost solely for thrusting.

Morning Star - A weapon of 4 to six feet in length, consisting of a wooden shaft topped by a ball of either wood or metal, from which several steel or iron spikes protrude. This term is often misused as a synonym for a spiked flail (often perpetuated by movies, games, etc...).

Partisan - a long-bladed pole-arm in which a ridged, central blade is flanked by a pair of symmetrically placed curved branching blades. It saw use in the 16th century and is most famous as being the weapon still carried by the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London.

Pike - a very long pole-weapon with a broad blade at the end. Early pikes used in the Greek phalanx were extremely long. By the 15th century they had been shortened to 18 feet in length. This is probably what George Silver refers to as the "long staff."

Pole Hammer - a hammer mounted at the end of a pole - usually at least 5 feet in length. Pole hammers were very popular for use as anti-armor weapons in the 16th century. They generally featured a hammer head on the primary face, a butt spike behind the hammer-head, and a long stabbing spike at the tip of the shaft. The bec de corbin is a type of pole-hammer. Pole-hammers are illustrated in a number of 15th and 16th century fighting treatises. During the Late Middle Ages, they were often referred to as pollaxes despite not being true axes.

Pollaxe - derived from the measurement "poll" meaning the distance from the ground to the middle of a horse's head. Often mistakenly referred to as a "pole-axe." Pollaxes feature a long shaft - generally of at least five feet. The shaft is often square, and topped with an axe head. Behind the axe head is a hammer-head made of several blunt spikes. The shaft is generally tipped on either end with a stabbing spike. The pollaxe proved very effective at defeating armor, and was a favorite for use in tourneys and pas d'armes. The term pollaxe was sometimes used in the Middle Ages to refer to pole hammers as well.

Poniard - a square or triangular-bladed thrusting dagger popular from the 12th-14th centuries.

Quarter Staff - a name that actually refers to the way in which a staff is used - being gripped upon the bottom quarter. The method of fighting so often seen in Robin Hood films in which the staff is gripped in the center is actually called "half-staff." Quarter-staff fighting is generally done with a staff of eight or nine feet in length (George Silver's "short staff.") The six-foot quarterstaves familiar to modern audiences are based upon the shorter sport-fighting sticks popularized in the 1800's when quasi-medieval sport-fighting enjoyed a curious revival. See staff.

Rondel Dagger - a dagger with a round disc-like guard and pommel used is the 15th and 16th centuries. This dagger is often seen illustrated in Late Medieval fighting treatises.

Scramasax - a long, broad-bladed dagger thought to be either Anglo-Saxon or Frankish in origin, having a single edge and grooves on either face of the blade. Probably related to the seax.

Seax - an Anglo-Saxon sword having a single, curved edge. The blade itself is not curved, but the cutting edge curves towards the back edge until it reaches a point. Seaxes often resemble Viking swords in their construction but for their single-edged blade.

Short Bow - this term seems to be a product of flawed research that once suggested that early medieval bows were shorter and weaker than the much-celebrated longbows. Recent research suggests that the longbow was the bow used by most countries at most times, and that the myth of "pulling the bow to the chest" that repeatedly surfaces in discussion of "short bows" carries very little credence. Due to years of reliance on easily-misinterpreted iconography by experts and the use of the term by many role-playing games, "short bow" has become a commonly accepted term, but one that is generally inaccurate when discussing medieval bows, and should be discarded.

Short Sword - a sword specifically meant for one-handed use and with a short blade. Short swords saw limited use throughout the Middle Ages, although they were wildly popular with the earlier Roman Empire. Although the short sword continued to be used in Europe in the Middle Ages, the simple one-handed sword and arming sword replaced it as the weapon of choice for most.

Sling - one of the earliest ranged weapons, a sling is merely a piece of rope with a pouch in the middle. A stone is placed in the pouch, and the sling is twirled around in a circle until one end is released, throwing the stone. While not especially popular during the High and Late Middle Ages, the sling was still used in the Early Middle Ages for ranged attacks.

Spear - competing with the club and the axe for oldest weapon, the spear is simply a long staff with a sharpened blade on the end of it. Early spears were as simple as wooden poles with one end sharpened to a point and fire-hardened. By the Middle Ages, spears were equipped with iron or steel heads socketed onto shafts usually made of ash. Because of their relative simplicity of use and construction, spears were far and away the most widely-used medieval weapon. Whether used for throwing, foot combat, or both, the spear was a simple and deadly weapon. See javelin and lance.

Staff - a staff is a long pole, and in its earliest and later forms was used both as a walking stick and as a weapon. Because staves were ubiquitous amongst poorer travelers and pilgrims, they enjoyed continued use all the way back through the Biblical era and up until the present time. However, because they are of less use in hunting, staves are not as old as spears, axes and clubs. The most commonly used fighting staff was of around eight or nine feet in length, and may have been pointed at either end (although not nearly as dramatically as a spear tip). Contemporary artwork often depicts staves as being significantly thicker at the base as well. See quarterstaff.

Sword - of all the weapons of the Middle Ages, the sword is the most famous. Although the sword itself is ancient, it was not until shortly before the Middle Ages that advances in metallurgy truly allowed it come into its own. While never the first choice for combat in war, the sword symbolized rank and authority. It was also difficult and expensive to make, and as a result, it was generally only affordable by the rich upper classes (although this gradually changed in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance). Swords could be used with either one or two hands, and came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from single-edged to double-edged, straight-bladed to curved. At the beginning of the Late Middle Ages, blade geometry underwent a change in response to the improvements in armor. Where before swords had been primarily cutting weapons with broad, parallel-edged blades and relatively flat cross-sections, they now became more sharply tapered with diamond cross-sections, and more suitable for thrusting in between gaps in armor. Indeed, some special thrusting-only swords were developed, although both cutting and thrusting always remained an important part of all swordplay. Also see arming sword, bastard sword, estoc, falchion, greatsword, longsword, Messer, seax, short sword , two-handed sword, and tuck.

Throwing Axe - especially popular with Franks of the Early Middle Ages, throwing axes saw use throughout Europe while armor was still relatively light and flexible. Although later advances in armor rendered them more or less obsolete, throwing axes were often used in initial storms of ranged weaponry in early medieval encounters, along with slings, arrows and even sometimes thrown maces. Also see hurlbat.

Tuck - the English name for an estoc.

Two-Handed Sword - a term used to describe a large sword meant to be used exclusively with two hands. Although the term is used in general throughout many medieval texts, it has now come to mean a specific subclass of swords that emerged during the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages. The giant wavy-bladed swords oft-pictured in use by Germanic Landesknechts are of this variety, as is the Portugese Montante. A true Two-Handed sword can measure up to 5 feet long--much larger than either the greatsword or longsword. Also see greatsword.

Voulge - a staff weapon that is an earlier form of the halberd or fauchard. A voulge is generally attached to the end of the staff in two places with a cutout in between. Voulges sometimes have backspikes, as a fauchard, but their blade geometry is more closely related to a glaive.

War Hammer - a type of one-handed hammer favored by knights as an effective anti-armor weapon for use from horseback. War hammers were generally made completely of metal, with a hammerhead on one face and a long backspike behind it.

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