Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT heavy! - Sarah Woodbury

Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT heavy!

That medieval swords and armor were ‘heavy’ is one of the strangest misconceptions of medieval life.  These people’s LIVES depended on their agility and ability to survive a fight.  Why would they be wielding 20 pound swords and wearing armor so heavy if they fell of their horse, they’d find themselves as helpless as upturned turtles?

One reason for the confusion comes from the fact that ornamental swords and armor that remain to us often ARE heavier than ones used in battle, secondly, the sport of ‘fencing’ has greatly confused people as to what sword fighting really entailed (the purpose of fencing is to poke your opponent with the tip; the purpose of sword fighting is to get your opponent on the ground and shove your 2 lb. sword through his midsection to kill him), and thirdly, that in the late middle ages, the plate armor knights used specifically for jousting WERE heavier than normal so they could survive a straight shot to the chest from a lance.  I have a children’s book that actually claims that a knight had to be helped onto his horse by two servants and a ladder.

No, no, no, no.

“Perhaps the most infamous example is the notion that “knights had to be hoisted into their saddles with a crane,” which is as absurd as it is persistent even among many historians. In other instances, certain technical details that escape an obvious explanation have become the focus of lurid and fantastically imaginative attempts to explain their original function. Among these, the lance rest, an object protruding from the proper right side of many breastplates, probably holds first place.”

“From ordinary hands-on experience we know full well that swords were not excessively heavy nor did they weigh 10 or 15 pounds and more. There is only so many ways we can repeat how these weapons were not at all heavy or ungainly. Remarkably, while one would think a crucial piece of information as the weight of swords would be of great interest to arms curators and arms historians, there is no major reference book that actually lists the weights of different types. Perhaps this vacuum of documented evidence is part of the very problem surrounding the issue. However, there are a few respected sources that do give some valuable statistics. For example, the lengthy catalog of swords from the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London readily lists dozens of fine specimens among which it is difficult to find any weighing in excess of 4 pounds. Indeed, the majority of specimens, from arming swords to two-handers to rapiers, weigh much less than three pounds.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age) , were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13). Oakeshott, the 20th century’s leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know.”

A major league baseball bat weighs roughly 32 ounces–essentially the same weight as a sword. And no knight is planning on hitting a baseball 200 yards.  Around the world, the new/old practice of ‘European martial arts’ is springing up, because knights were martial artists, with all the maneuvers and kicks and elbow-to-the-nose of Asian martial arts.  I have post about this here:

If you’re interested in Dark Age and Medieval Armor, here’s another post: (Wow!  This was my first post ever!)

Mail is very flexible (which meant that while it was effective against slashes and thrusts from swords, was far less so against forceful blows), and relatively light, with a hauberk weighing roughly twenty pounds.  Plate is heavier, more like 45 pounds for a full suit, but with more evenly distributed weight.  When properly fitted, a knight could move easily and fully in either mail or plate.

“An entire suit of field armor (that is, armor for battle) usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg)—less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century. Moreover, while most modern equipment is chiefly suspended from the shoulders or waist, the weight of a well-fitted armor is distributed all over the body. It was not until the seventeenth century that the weight of field armor was greatly increased in order to render it bulletproof against ever more accurate firearms. At the same time, however, full armor became increasingly rare and only vital parts of the body, such as the head, torso, and hands, remained protected by metal plate.

The notion that the development of plate armor (completed by about 1420–30) greatly impaired a wearer’s mobility is also untrue. A harness of plate armor was made up of individual elements for each limb. Each element in turn consisted of lames (strips of metal) and plates, linked by movable rivets and leather straps, and thus allowing practically all of the body’s movements without any impairment due to rigidity of material. The widely held view that a man in armor could hardly move, and, once he had fallen to the ground, was unable to rise again, is also without foundation. On the contrary, historical sources tell us of the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366–1421), known as Maréchal Boucicault, who, in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands. Furthermore, there are several illustrations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting men-at-arms, squires, or knights, all in full armor, mounting horses without help or instruments such as ladders or cranes. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century armor as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armor can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.”

My son informs me that a few years ago when he downloaded a patch for a game–Skyrim–it finally made weapons and armor the proper weight.  Apparently, the original game had swords weighing 10 pounds!

14 Replies to “Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT heavy!”

  1. I forget the particular institution, but as you say, they had tried armour from the period and they found people with mail and breastplate could vault onto horses, not just climb, and could even do sommersaults.

    On the other hand, I’ve tried on period iron mail and the weight sitting on your shoulders gets old fast. The underlayer would have helped with padding. One trick I was shown was that you gathered up some of the mail around your gut (like a fat belly) and wrapped a leather belt around you and tightened it up and the belt helped take some of the weight off your shoulders.

    I think there are probably some mobility impacts of armour – tight armour might limit some of your rotations of the sternum a bit, but it sure isn’t going to prohibit you moving in a fight. That said, weight does have some reality – an unarmoured man will move quicker and be able to react faster (all things being equal) than an armoured one.

    And as a friend of mine who was serving in Iraq said: “People wonder why we don’t catch insurgents when they run… they have a robe, maybe sandals, and an AK they can jettison if they must. I’m wearing hardshell armour, a load bearing vest with ammo, medkit, water, and so on, a rifle, maybe some hand grenades, a tactical radio, a small engineer’s toolkit, and a sidearm and most have a knife. My weight is upwards of 50 pounds of gear and if they’re going over fences, if they’re crawling in our out of small windows or the like, there are places where my size and the weight of my gear slow me down despite being in good physical shape. ” I’d infer that some of that would apply for someone in heavier armour though in many situations you’d still be able to move decently and do things you needed to in the sort of combat that occurred in the medeival period. Foot chases and manouvers through close spaces probably still favour the lightly dressed individual.

    1. Oh absolutely! You’re very much right. That’s often why guerillas were less heavily armed. Taking potshots from the woods is very different from meeting on a field of battle. Knights were on horseback or in a melee on a battlefield, so they were armed accordingly. They needed to survive, not run anyone down on foot. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Im guessing your talking about tempered steel platemail as yes that does weigh between 30-55 pounds for a set but(and this is a massive but) how much do you think a full set of platemail is going to weigh? thats going to be 40 kilograms(88 pounds or more) or more. There have been platemail weighing over 100 pounds and no, Im not talking jousting gear either.

  3. “A major league baseball bat weighs less than a pound–10 ounces or so–and so in comparison, swords are ‘heavy’.”

    MLB regulations require a minimum bat weight of 32 ounces (2 lbs). Heavy bats can weigh as much as 54 ounces (3.4 lbs). So, a baseball bat is comparable in weight to a medieval sword.

    1. Oh wow. I wrote that post so long ago, I don’t know where I heard the 10 oz, but thank you for pointing it out! I have updated the text.

  4. Very interesting. I always suspected that suits of armor couldn’t be nearly as heavy as Hollywood depicted. The turtle on its back example makes a lot of sense.
    I’m curious. What metal was used? I would imagine it was iron. I’d love to make a suit of armor for cosplay, but I’d like to use something much lighter. I don’t think walking around all day with an extra 50 lbs sounds that fun, but I could probably easily manage an extra 20 lbs. Maybe aluminum? Just curious what your thoughts might be. You can email me directly if you prefer.

    1. They used iron–steel later in the Middle Ages. I think aluminum would be far easier to shape for cosplay purposes!

    2. I do understand the reaction. Fortunately, I write it for my American characters, who would use it continuously. It is really an extremely common word in the US, and for my medieval characters, who would of course have used it routinely as well. That said, I carefully censor it these days for the books I am writing now because I don’t want to put up barriers between my books and my UK readers 🙂

  5. I have been watching HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Watching all the swordplay in the series, prompted my curiosity,

  6. Very interesting! Looks like I got my facts straight when I wrote the jousting action in my medieval mystery romance novel (The Heart of Darkness). My Sir Richard got on his horse without the use of a crane. I think ‘historical facts’ like that get repeated over and not because they are true, but because they are entertaining. The thought of a knight having to be hoisted onto his horse is pretty funny, after all!

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