Nostalgia (December 2014)

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One-hander: 90.5 cm total length. Blade: 1075 spring steel (52 HRC); 73 cm long; 4 cm broad (just after the guard); 4 mm thick (at the guard); battlefield sharp. Guard: mild steel; 18 cm wide. Grip: wood (birch); 12 cm. Pommel: mild steel; 5.5 cm diameter. Remarks: This is what I, when I was a child, believed a sword should look like. Very effective cutting blade. The groove is a bit deep here and there, which is the reason for the “wobbles” in the last picture.

Thomas’ sword (March 2014)

Bastard sword: 105 cm total length. Blade: 1075 spring steel (52 HRC); 81 cm long; 4 cm broad (just after the guard); 4 mm thick (at the guard); battlefield sharp. Guard: mild steel;  23 cm wide; heat-blued. Grip: wood (kind unknown); 17.5 cm. Pommel: mild steel; 5.5 cm diameter. Remarks: the fibres in the wood of the grip run perpendicular to the length of the grip, and I used a steel brush to remove the softer parts of the wood. This gives a surface structure that gives a very good grip, and I think it is also visually nice. I used this technique first in the sword of Chun Fang (see below).

Viking shield

Viking shield: 78 cm diameter; ca. 6 mm thick; two layers of planks perpendicular to one another; random selection of birch, oak and black elder; rim consists of several 1-2 mm thick layers of black elder under a cover of raw hide. Remark: actually, I started this project to clean away some old pieces of wood that remained from the scabbard making.

How to hold a viking sword?

Viking swords tend to have a short grip such that a hand barely fits in. Historically, the grip lengths ranged from 8 to 10 cm. The grip on Chun Fang’s sword (see below) is on the long side. The short grip raises the question how the vikings actually held their swords. There seems to be no historical record on this. Different experts and re-enactors have different theories. The picture on the left shows the “hammer hand”, a very solid grip, but with a short reach. The picture on the top-right shows the “hand shake”, which has a longer reach but becomes unstable at the furthest position where (because of inertia) the swords tends to rotate out of the hand. Also, the friction of the pommel against the base of the thumb can become quite painful.

The “thumb on the flat” in the picture on the bottom-right is my favourite: it is both stable and has a long reach. A possible disadvantage might be that it doesn’t very well close the middle line, i.e., the imaginary line running from you to your opponent. But then again, if you fight with a large round shield (as vikings presumably did), then the shield will take care of that middle line. Also the thumb may seem exposed, but as your opponent’s blade is more likely to slide down along the edge than along the flat of your blade, your thumb may actually be quite safe. Moreover, the shield, and not the sword, was used for blocking, so that blade-on-blade contacts must have been rare relative to later styles of sword fighting. The grip may also have been superior when it comes to reaching out from behind the shield from above, aside or below.

But all this dodges the question why the grip was short in the first place. If the short grip was a constraint, why then not make it longer? Since this was not done, the short grip may very well have been a consequence of, rather than a reason for the “thumb on the flat”. It is instructive to look at the German school of longsword fighting: some 500 years after the viking era, the German masters still used (or reinvented?) a similar grip, even tough the hilt of the longsword easily accommodates two hands. The reason for using the “thumb on the flat” in this case is purely tactical: it allows you to use cuts (such as the “krumhau”) that are quite effective but otherwise difficult or impossible.

So, the vikings may have used the “thumb on the flat” because it gave them a tactical advantage when fighting with the large round shield, in particular when reaching around the shield with cuts and thrusts. The hilt then was shortened to get a tighter grip, preventing the sword from shifting in the hand. Indeed, on the longsword, which is held in two hands, the position of the hands is easily adjusted if so needed. But when your left hand is occupied by a hefty shield, it might be a hassle, or even be dangerous to correct your grip while in a fight. How to prove this other than by experimenting during re-enactment I do not know.

Sword of Chun Fang (“Memory of the North”)

Viking sword: 89 cm total length. Blade: 1075 spring steel (52 HRC); 73.5 cm long; 4 cm broad (just after the guard); 4 mm thick (at the guard); battlefield sharp. Front guard: mild steel;  9 cm wide. Grip: 10 cm; wood (kind unknown). Back guard and pommel: mild steel; heat blued. Remarks: My first viking sword! I cut a corner, though: historically the back guard and the pommel are separate pieces peened together, but here the are one piece.