The difference between a broadsword, backsword, rapier and a longsword!

A few weeks ago at Medieval Martial Arts, we went through some of the Longsword techniques outlined by George Silver (short-staff techniques) and compared those with elements of the German Longsword and new developments with research into English Longsword.

Here at Medieval Martial Arts, we have an advantage over our colleagues who draw on the works of masters such as Liechtenauer, Fiore, or Talhoffer in so far as our primary source material is at least written in English! That said, the archaic language, spelling, and abbreviations are often bewildering to a new student.

The difference between a broadsword, backsword, rapier and a longsword!

Matters are further complicated by the terms used to describe the actual weapons themselves. These vary significantly across time with the same weapon being known by several different names, while similar terminology can be used to describe completely different types of swords.

Below are just a few examples taken from the works of George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence(1599), and Bref Instructions Upȏ My Paradoxes of Defence (c.1610), along with a description of the weapon and the terms we more commonly use at Medieval Martial Arts.

Short Sword (Broadsword/Backsword)

The term ‘Short Sword’ differentiates this weapon from the ‘Longe Sword’ (see below) and refers to a cut and thrust sword of ‘perfect length’ that is wielded single-handed. The term ‘broadsword’ appears in the 17th century to differentiate the weapon from the slimmer rapier. Although the backsword is of a different design, with a single cutting edge and a triangular cross-section, the techniques are the same as those for the broadsword. Zachary Wylde in The English Master of Defence (1711) presents them as the same.

Long Sword

Not to be confused with the two-handed Longsword, this refers rather to a single-handed sword of ‘imperfect length,’ by which Silver means that once the swords are crossed, the long sword cannot be uncrossed without going backward. The long sword is mentioned alongside the rapier by both Silver and Joseph Swetnam in The School of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617) from which we can infer a blade around 4’ in length.

Two-handed Sword (Longsword)

Although ‘two-handed sword’ is the correct English name for this weapon, it is more commonly referred to these days as the Longsword, particularly by students of the medieval German and Italian traditions who use it as their foundation weapon. Although Silver highly rates this sword, he does not dwell overly on its use.

This may, in part, be due to it having become obsolete as a weapon of war by the time Silver was writing. Three earlier English manuscripts are describing two-handed sword techniques, all thought to date to the 15th century. They are MS Additional Manuscript 39564 (the Ledall), Harleian MS 3542 (Man tool), and Cottonian MS Titus A. xxv (The Strokez Off IJ Hand Swede).

Short Staff (Quarterstaff)

The short staff is an ash or oak staff measuring somewhere between 7’ and 8½’ (as opposed to the long staff measuring around 12’). The more common term quarterstaff is derived from the position of the grip on the first quarter of the weapon.

To hold a staff with a central grip is to half-staff, which can lead to a loss of blood and teeth. Read about 5 element training here.