False Edge Cuts, True Edge 'Switching,' and Complex Hilts

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False Edge Cuts, True Edge 'Switching,' and Complex Hilts

Postby henri de la garde » 09 Jun 2016 06:45

Hello all. A loooong time since my last post.......but I just wanted to start a discussion related to the use of complex hilts and the very nature of the true and false edges of swords for serious cutting.

Matt put out a great video analyzing some of the reasons why swords did not develop complex hilts earlier in history. I think he hit on something noting that the first swords with knucklebows were messers and falchions: single edged weapons.

The video was:


I wanted to hear from some of the people here on their opinions of double edges and the false edge cuts.

Caveat: Please note, I am a student of the German school. I use false edge cuts in my meisterhau, in my cheap shots at the hands if someone comes in on my Alber from on high, and a few other places (i.e. whenever I can make it work). I do not have any intention of disputing the importance of false edge cutting. As someone noted in an earlier thread, if you are cutting bottles, paper, or single rolled tatami, most of the time the sharpness of the edge and the edge alignment of the cut are more significant factors of success in a cut than whether it is true edge or false edge.

But just the same, let me run this by you, and give me your reaction:

It's not a popular view, but the truth is, but my interpretation is that false edge cuts were not the reason swords were double edged from ancient times. Bear with me for a second here, but imagine that we see with the longsword schools a new way of thinking with much more use of the false edge. In battlefield combat, the notion of cutting through leather, gambeson, and clothing with a false edge cut is not worth much (try this with a zwerchau or a quick upward cut from Alber with the false edge; works great on skin or light clothing, but on gambeson or leather not so much). Hopefully, false edge cuts could be used as a quick injury to be immediately followed up on with a killing blow or thrust (and I think this is borne out in the treatises).

So why were swords double edged, at least at first, before false edge cuts became more common?
I think the ancient period began with single edged, simple tools for warfare. In even the Bronze age, we see double edged weapons. This is, in my view only, predominantly because of the reasons illuminated in Matt's other video on sword edge damage (with striking maille): edge damage will happen. In the bronze age, edges became dull quite quickly. Iron age swords had some of the same weakness. So the use of the back edge of the sword as a shaped and sharpened cutting edge came about not because of the need to cut with the false edge, but because of the need to flip the sword around and be able to have a fresh, sharp cutting edge halfway through a confrontation. False edge cuts became a fringe benefit later on (false edge strikes with single-handed/arming sword and buckler are hinted at in Ringeck and shown in Talhoffer), and in the age of the longsword, where two hands could provide a degree of significant leverage not previously experienced with single-handed weapons, really came into their own. Particularly because the longsword age saw a democratization of the sword as a weapon of the common freeman (a trend attested to as the High Middle Ages progressed) and thus likely to see action in Blossfechten.

So adding a complex hilt to any weapon immediately sacrifices the ability to carry two fresh, sharp, and true edges into a confrontation that could see some amount of diminishing of the cutting ability of the weapon. It's no coincidence I think that plenty of the weapons that developed complex hilts were much more likely to serve in the role of sidearms than their predecessors, given the other more potent weapons that appeared in specialized battlefield roles in those eras. Your basket hilted broadsword could have a true edge folded and chipped a bit in the course of a battle, meaning you would be limited to false edge cuts after some time, or thrusts, or just budgeoning someone (all good Scottish pastimes) But several centuries earlier, your average single-handed sword could see a decent amount of action in the day, and when things start getting a bit disappointing on the cutting front, voila, flip the blade over in your hand, and away you go. Matt's explanation in the video of the first complex development on sword hilts, the finger ring, bears this out nicely: they quickly became ambidextrous finger rings. The next development he mentions, the knucklebow, supports this too: some of the first weapons to see knucklebows were falchions and messers (single edge), where it doesn't matter anyway.

Just a theory though. And impossible to substantiate with decent historical evidence. But I think the HEMA community needs to take a more realistic look at the combative effectiveness of false edge cuts. A wise fencer in the German tradition would use light and conservative strikes (only a Buffalo launches a huge cleaving blow with the true edge against a defending opponent), whether false edge or true edge, to probe and engage his opponent, hoping to wound him and then follow up with a killing blow. Talhoffer features several plates with this kind of thinking; a wounding blow followed by a serious cleaving strike. I think we would be smart to keep false edge cuts (including the meisterhau which feature them) in the right context.

I can see a test cut with an Albion longsword making it through five or six rolled tatami in a row with a serious Zornhau. With a quick Zwerchau, not so much.....

Any thoughts?
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Re: False Edge Cuts, True Edge 'Switching,' and Complex Hilt

Postby tea » 09 Jun 2016 18:43

1. With good edge alignment and body structure, a short edge cut can cleave through tatami just as easily as a long edge one. The schilhaw is a particularly good one to demonstrate this with. Fast weak cuts can be easily performed with either edge as well.

2. If the double-edged sword is an answer to edge damage making a single edge useless, why do we see the coexistence of single and double edged swords throughout history? The falcata, the messer, the falchion, the seax: all of these are single-edged long bladed weapons that would have met armoured foes, and were used alongside double-edged blades.

3. If the double-edged sword is an answer to edge damage making a single edge useless, why do we see extensive use of double-edged swords when most combatants aren't wearing armour? Viking age swords would be one excellent example here, Iron-age celtic swords another, the 'sidesword' of sixteenth century Italian civilians a third.

4. We don't have a fencing system recorded for the falchion (Guy Windsor's excellent joke last year notwithstanding). However, we do have extensive material for the messer as a weapon, and this makes regular use of the short edge, including for hewing cuts. This is borne out by the regular presence of a sharpened short edge on surviving examples.

5. The knucklebow first appears on single-edged swords, but it's adopted on double-edged swords (up to and including longswords) fairly swiftly. If double-edged swords become damaged quickly and need to change edges, why would the complex hilt become regularly used on them well before armour disappeared from the battlefield?

6. A buffel does use violent strength to try and win: but this doesn't mean that everyone who delivers a powerful cut to their opponent is a buffel. Time and time again throughout the manuals of the Liechtenauer tradition, the fencer is instructed to use the full force of their body, to hew in with strength, to attack directly and boldly to the opponent, and so on. A slow approach that carefully unpicks the opponent's defences before finally engaging is not the only way to fence, and it is not clear that it's what the early L. tradition manuals advocate.

7. Furthermore, the fünf hawe are seen on horseback as well as on foot (including the short-edge cuts). When fencing on horseback, a slower approach to entering the fight is simply impossible: by the time you've carried out your various preparatory and exploratory actions, your opponent has simply ridden past* and is safely on their way. This compels you to engage more directly, and make every attack count.
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Re: False Edge Cuts, True Edge 'Switching,' and Complex Hilt

Postby KeithFarrell » 11 Jun 2016 18:23

It's an interesting theory, thank you for sharing. There might be something in the notion that a sword with two useful edges has two opportunities to present a sharp front edge, in case of damage to one of the edges.

However, I would disagree with the notion that you cannot land a forceful hit with the short edge of a longsword or single-handed sword. Force is produced by your mechanics; if you have poor mechanics, you produce little force with little follow-through; with good mechanics, you produce lots of force with plentiful follow-through. It is quite easy for me to send a Zwerhaw or a Schilhaw through someone's guard or parry if my cutting mechanics are better than their parrying mechanics!

If you watch some of the test cutting competitions from the American HEMA events, you will see people cut tatami successfully, in complicated patterns, with both edges. In fact, sometimes they do this against two (or more) rolls of tatami, or against a roll of tatami wrapped in one or more layers of linen. It's really not a problem to do this (without relying on strength) if your mechanics are good enough.

It's not necessarily a buffalo who fights with strength - sure, a buffalo "takes his mastery from violent strength rather than from art" (to paraphrase the quote as best I remember it), but a good fencer will still "fight with the strength of your whole body". In my opinion, practising 15th century HEMA systems, we should be seeking cleaving hits wherever possible, rather than silly light touches that wouldn't do anything to a person in bare skin, let alone wearing a shirt or doublet.

I would also point out that the short edge flick upwards from Alber into the hands of an oncoming attacker is never described anywhere in the sources, and tends to be a resounding failure if someone makes a proper, committed attack at your head; it's a pet peeve of mine that people still do this, since it just isn't in the German sources. While one might justify it in this way or that way, the nub of the matter is that one *shouldn't* do it, because there are better things to do that Liechtenauer describes and says are better things to do.
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