The Crossguard #2: Who needs to Protect the Hand in a Sword Fight?

This is the second post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The first one was some myth-busting, explaining, why the Crossguard was no design of the Christian faith.

There are some more myths to bust. Let us start with the two most common to which I added a happy “NOT” on the essential claim:

  • The crossguard was NOT developed because of martial or miliary reasons
  • The sword hand has NOT to be protected in every fight

You may tend to contradict here heavily, that’s why I skip the usual Lazy Reader’s Summary of my newer posts, and go directly into what I think are facts.


Losing the hand or parts of it are known risks every carpenter, woodworker, and many more professionals take everyday. In times, when bladed weapons had been on the battlefield, this was a general risk, soldiers took. Like the carpenter they risked their parts of their body they need for their income. It was a known and common risk, like it is today. There are and their had been insurances or guilds partly taking precautions. But often veterans lost everything, when surviving the battle and the wound. They fell into poverty. This still happens to veterans today, who served their country in good faith. It should not happen, not to veterans and not to professionals becoming disabled by their trade.

The Crossguard Was Not Developed Because Reasons

We all like to draw conclusions from the idea that someone had a problem, and then a Gyro Gearloose (Daniel Düsentrieb, Géo Trouvetou, Ciro Peraloca, Giro Sintornillos) constructed a technical solution. But the truth is, that in most cases the solution was there before the problem. The development had been the result of the wish to improve something, that is good, but can be made better because either the methods of production or the quality of the material changed.

There are many musings creating a causality between the sword design and practical applications. They say that the crossbare was developed because of some needs that arised when certain change happened in the military structure. But that is not like, inventions in the military are made. If we would create a scene, we would see the medieval swordsmith sitting in his workshop and thinking something alike.

Hey, my knight has a horse and a sword, how can I invent a better furnace, can improve the water mill hammer to crack more ore, invent the water driven bellows, to get higher temperature, use further water mill hammers, to get better and cleaner iron, and can produce better steel, so I produce many sturdy but not too heavy cross guards, so I can solve the problem of my landlord getting hand hits in close combat?

It is easily to see, that it did not work this way. It is safe to ignore any article or post who comes up with a chain of thoughts, that finally leads to such an absurditiy. Improvements like crossguards are high-end-products on a large chain on improvements and inventions made before. Before there was quality steel available to a larger degree sword guards had been made from various materials like jade, wood, bronze, copper, soft iron, mixed materials in sandwiches etc. None of the none-steel materials could withstand the forces of tougher impacts long enough to keep functional, if it would have been build in a shape a cruciform long crossguard.

Sandwich Crossguard

Swords, as individual and symbolic as they are, are martial and military weapons. General improvements needed to be ready to support a market for hundreds, more likely thousands of users. I will try to give you some impressions in numbers.

From the “Viking” sword Type-H (according to the Jan Peterson typology) common in the 9th up to the 10th century, there are over 700 finds all over Europe (Mauri Kiudsoo, archaeologist and keeper of the archaeological research collection of Tallinn University, in an interview on the hoard find of sword fragments of more than 100 swords in 2019). If we found over 700 swords (some complete, most in fragments) older than thousand years and many of them by coincidence, how many of theses swords would have been produced in these two centuries in Northern Europe? More than half a million would not be exaggerated.

Looking far east: Japan, where some provinces had been flooded with swords, exported in eight missions more than 120 thousands swords (respectively sword blades) from 1432 to 1539 to China.

But how can there bee possible so many swords produced in these “Dark Ages”? That is something to be explained in the following chapters (plural) and posts. For this article it is enough to know, that common sword designs are common because there had been hundreds, thousand or eventually millions made from this design.

Chapter Summary On Martial Or Military Reasons

Modern people seeing the swords in the museums, think that swords or large knifes are rare and precious objects, but that is not true. Common sword designs are not made for few people. If a sword was rare and precious, it was as rare and precious in a way a Rolls Royce was in the 1970s in comparison with the common vehicle on the street.

To supply a mass market with an item, the preconditions for productions in a larger scale must be met. The bigger the market, the more difficult it is to meet the preconditions. Imagine a market interested in one million swords or blades of the very fashioned “Viking” styles in the 9th to 10th century from the White Sea to the Black Sea and all the waters to cross inbetween, and you get closer to understanding.

There is not enough knowledge to be gathered from texts and artifacts to know, how the Parthians had managed to produce enough steel to provide their army and export blades and ingots. But we know of the history of steel and society from three continents to tell, how improvements happened and what they offered to the craftsmen and the final customers. But before we come to the history of steel in some of the upcoming articles, we must look into handguards and hand protection, and how they worked.

The Sword Hand Does Not Need Armour And Crossguard

Before the modern HEMA fencer points me to the pile of broken fingers happening in tournament and sparring, I will humbly beg to read the following statement: Protecting and guarding the hand is an essential part of weapon based fighting. This is not wrong at all. But we need to get the priorities straight, and we need to make one thing clear: you do not need armour to protect the hand!

Protecting The Sword Hand While Learning To Fight

There are two essentials methods of defence in a sword fight: voiding and guarding.

Voiding includes every measure of not being in the reach of the opponent, either by not exposing at all, or removing the exposed body part as fast as possible. Which on the other side of the medal means, the fighter attacking is exposing the hand. Thus, the fighter who attacks the exposed hand of the opponent is exposing his hand as well. This is often seen in sparring done with short bladed weapons like knifes. Even though, the sparring with knifes does not resemble the so called “real fights” recorded by surveillance cameras.

Guarding contains every option of protective equipment or countermeasures by the own weapon in displacing or deflecting the opponent. This already shows, that the protective equipment is only one fraction of the methods. But is is factually the only method, that money can buy without any further effort of the fencer in learning or practicing. Therefore, it is the most favoured method of protecting the hand by the sword fighter, but a less favoured one by the people, who needed to equip an army.

Fighting with swords required learning to fight with sticks or wooden simulators. We have several accounts from wooden training swords and knifes, and using sticks from Antique to Modern times to learn sword fighting. We know of mittens used to protect the hand from the early 16th century, such that even heavier simulators did not break the hand of the working men in times, when complex hilts existed. Thus, we have evidence that the teachers and students of sword fighting knew about the risk of hand injuries and took precautions if needed, either by using light simulators with low risks of heavy injuries, or protective equipment.

Mittens used in Dussak and Messer fencing (Weißkunig, ca. 1512, Cod. 3033, Fol 174b)

We can be sure of the pain, which the students experienced while training. It taught them to guard themselves better, especially in the exposed weapon hand. Because we know that attacking and cutting the sword hand was a taught technique (discussed at this blog). Not only Talhoffer but many more fencing masters of old times recommended to attack the hand. The hand was a valid target of different priority.

Fightbooks are deeply embedded and limited by the social accepted view on violence. They are dedicated to nobles, observed and controlled by officials and sometimes censored by persons or organisations. Therefore they talk about martial sports, knightly duels, and only rarely about “real fights” up to the 17th century. The authors taught his art by putting it into the social accepted context.

On one side, the systematic training would surely have resulted in much better voiding (meaning less exposing) the sword hand, in comparison to training of modern sword fencers and their equipment. On the other side, the threat of sharp swords in a context of real existing violence with these weapons, created a much stronger respect of the incoming attack, than in modern sport plays. This again would create a stronger defensive position and less greed to attack the hand of the incoming blade. The risk of getting killed, while at the same time the opponent’s hand was cut, was real and not to be ignored. Therefore an effective attack to the hand, wrist, or arm of the opponent always needed further defensive measures and preparation; not much less than an attack to another part of the body. An aspect that was reflected in the sport and even in duels in history as I am going to explain in the next chapter.

Summary: sword fighting trains to not expose the hand, but to attack the hand. Attacking the hand was never in high priority as it is in modern sword fighting sports, because it does not guarantee to stop the attack and does not displace the danger of being wounded seriously.

Protecting The Sword Hand In Sport And Duels

We have little but non knowledge about the applied rules in martial sports before the Renaissance. We know that gladiator fights fulfilled multiple roles in Roman society since the 3rd century BCE. Our interest in this chapter is on the sportive aspect only (without fully ignoring the changing context through the history). The reportedly very strict nature of combat rules (lex pugnandi) for gladiator fights could be confirmed by the absence of multiple perimortal traumatized individuals in gladiator remains, showing a lack of the excessive violence commonly observed on medieval battle ground victims. A forensic study on skeletal remains from a mass grave in ancient Ephesus (Turkey) showed few perfectly healed injuries in the arms, but none to the hand (Fabian Kanz, K Grossschmidt, Vienna, 2007). The equipment used by the gladiators of multiple types, proves strong interest of protecting the sword hand of the fighter. It is to assume, that the sword hand was not only guarded by armour but as well by rules. Without starting to speculate, we can state, that there was no wish to end the gladiator’s fight, career or life by a hand hit to the weapon hand. The capability of the individual person (the famous fighter) to compete further in the current and future fights was valued higher, than other factors. A gladiator, who lost his hand as a fighter was not completely out of the game. He could still act as a beast fighter (Venator) or work as a fencing master. But his chances of fame and glory in life or death was lost.

In medieval and renaissance times there was no overarching ruleset for weapon based sport events like the Fechtschul. Sport was distinctly regional in its nature. Villages or towns had their own traditions, rules and versions for sports. But it was a general rule, that attacking the hand in weapon based martial sports was a thing not to do. Rulesets in which these acts had been forbidden do not date earlier than the 17th century. The accident reports, as well as the fragments of rules we have, let us assume, that hand hits had been not allowed already before. Protective mittens had been used sometimes in certain fights like Dussak or Messer to avoid accidents in the 16th century, when the craftsmen fought as sport. The longsword fight was done with light or no gloves. We have several wound reports, but none to the hand (either not needed to mention or it did not happen often and severe enough). In the 17th century the leather glove was not only on the sword hand, but as well on the other hand, which was used in some technique to displace thrusts.

de Scheermeester en’t Scheermschool, 1745, v. Luiken

Other martial sports famous in Renaissance times was done in full torso armour, but often without hand protection to avoid the slip of hands; i.e. the exchange of blows over the barriers.

We see white gloves used in the martial sport of Skirmishing with Bucklers in the 13th century. These gloves are probably made from dyed leather, silk or linen and offer little but no protection to hard strikes to the hand. The game is documented since the 11th century done with sticks and small shields, but the few depictions available do not show gloves. The game was extremely popular in England and developed into the 17th and 18th century staged sword fights of prize-fighters. In no report there are wounds to the hand documented in absence of gloves (or only with light gloves).

Knightly duels had been done under similar but much more stricter rulesets like those in the Fechtschul. The ruleset had been agreed in mutual negotiations, most likely forbidding hand hits. By this we can find depictions of knightly duels with soft or no gloves, while the body was in full armour. Even in duels between fencing masters it was a forbidden move (see duel report from 1444). Knightly duels may have any endings, depending on the agreement negotiated before. It may end without any participant even getting more than some bruises, but it may end with the death.

Personal Duels had been a problem from the 15th century upwards and became a fashion in some regions in Europe up to the 17th century. The fightbooks published did reflect the social changes. Drawing blood in a duel for satisfaction was a common way to avoid to be hanged for murder, as duels had been forbidden in most countries. On the other side, giving blood was an option to avoid severe wounds. Accepting a thrust in the arm or a light cut in the hand, was certainly a thing to be considered. There is a increase in hand attack techniques to be noted with an incensement of the duel culture.

Judicial duels had to be fought without gloves or only with light gloves. The absence of armour is found in any regulations through the centuries. The judicial duel between noble knights could include the usage of armour, but usually it did not.

Protecting The Sword Hand In Battles

Quintilian compares the gladiatorial combat with the actual military combat in the 1st century: “facinus indignum, illum animum, illum ardorem non contigisse castris, non bellicis certaminibus, ubi vera virtus nulla pugnandi lege praecircumscribitur”. Gladiatorial fights was restricted by rules and expected behaviour, whereas actual military single combat and the glory from it, was not limited by anything alike.

Just a flesh wound!

Military thinking is not alike the thinking of the single fighter. It is a riddle of tactics, environment, moral, social aspects, numbers, features, abilities of troops. The protection of the sword hand may be of great interest of the single fighter, but is of little interest of the commanders. For the commander an infantry soldier with a wounded hand during battle is still one man standing and fighting with the other hand for his life and victory. The hand itself is not a typical target in a mass fight, as we have learned from studies of battle remains.

When limited resources dictate the decision, if the torso or the arm of an standard infantry soldier (having two healthy hands) should be protected, it is a not a complicated one for persons responsible for paying the infantry equipment. Even a metal torso armour would be omitted, if that would mean more people having weapons to hit, stab, throw, or shoot with at the enemy.

If we look at special forces like the heavy infantry or cavalry the armour equipment is completely differently evaluated. A well trained elite soldier is of high value, who is an investment of multiple years of training. A rider in the heavy cavalry needs two hands to be useful regardless how versatile he is in communication with the horse by other means than the reins. Therefore, it is of little surprise that we find early armour for the arms with rider units (who had also been often from the social elite and economical capable to pay for the equipment by themselves; which was often required by the law in various epochs at places worldwide). For these and similar highly valued members of an army the protection of the hand was considered an useful invest.

Sasanian era silver plate with gold coating, Azerbaijan Museum, Tabriz, Iran, 7th century

Considerations of reinforcements or replenishment may alter the armour as well. If the reinforcement of capable fighters is not to be expected by far, but metal can be plundered or obtained otherwise, it will be used to produce not only weapons but more armour than commonly used. On the other side of the medal, if people are available to a large a mount, even a body covering armour was not considered to be needed to win the war. A request to protect the hand of the common soldier by any amour would be seen as a nonsense move.

Summary On The Value Of Hand Protection

Resources for armour had been limited, depending which or who was available or was valued highly defined more than anything else the armour of the fighters. High valued fighters like gladiators or elite soldiers/riders had been treated differently than the common people. But craftsmen in the Renaissance valued their hands high and did not want to take risks. Being in the leather business like most of the Marxbrüder Fighter Guild, manufacturing mittens and protective gloves had not been an issue of resources to them. When an abundance of amour materials had been available, the hand protection became an common feature. This was the general rule to the sport fighter as well as the soldier. In summary, we observered that in sport, duels or on the battlefield, the physical hand protection was valued not as high as expected from a modern viewpoint

2 thoughts on “The Crossguard #2: Who needs to Protect the Hand in a Sword Fight?

  1. Not all historic authors agree with you. Manciolino, from Jherek Swanger’s translation on Wiktenauer:

    [7] The wounding of the hand, not of the enemy, is registered in the account of blows in play. Because the hand is the chief in exposing itself, thus in combat for earnest it is the most singular wound, because that member of the enemy must be offended which offends more than others, and this is the hand.

    Tom Leoni’s translation says: “[…] striking the hand is not counted as a hit in a friendly match, […] in a real encounter this type of strike would be most effective.”

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