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Arming Sword vs Short Sword: Terms, History, and Use

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: January 21, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The arming and short swords are blades of European origins used by various people, from high-class knights in warfare to low-ranking peasants for daily tasks. 

This article will review their terms, characteristics, history, and impact.

Arming Sword - Comparison
Arming Sword
Short Sword - Comparison
Short Sword
Origin
Arming Sword
10/11th century Europe
Short Sword
16th century BCE 
Use
Arming Sword
Cutting, Thrusting, Warfare, Dueling
Short Sword
Cutting, Thrusting, Warfare 
Average Length
Arming Sword
25.6 to 37.4 inches (60 to 95 cm)
Short Sword
15.7 to 25.6 inches (40 to 65 cm)
Weight
Arming Sword
1.8 to 2.6 lbs (0.8 to 1.2 kg)
Short Sword
1.1 to 2.6 lbs (0.5 to 1.2 kg)
Blade Type
Arming Sword
Straight, Double-Edged
Short Sword
Straight, Single/Double Edged
Handle
Arming Sword
One-Handed, Cruciform Crossguard
Short Sword
One-Handed, Small or No Guard
Construction
Arming Sword
High-Carbon Steel
Short Sword
Copper, Bronze, Iron, High-Carbon Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Arming Sword vs Short Sword Characteristics
The major differences between arming and shortswords

The arming sword derives its name from the Latin arma, meaning weapon, and refers to a war sword from the 11th through the 14th century. Today, it refers to the medieval one-handed double-edged blade with a cruciform crossguard.

The term short sword categorizes most European blades shorter than 25.6 inches (65 cm). Some Renaissance arming swords fall into this category compared to contemporary longswords or greatswords.

Note Block: The arming sword is one specific type of blade, while short swords are specific to swords in one general size.

Blade

Main The Sword of Saint Maurice by Paul Chen Hanwei Sword with Scabbard
The “Holy Roman Empire Coronation Sword” with an early style of arming sword design (Check Product)

The straight blade of the arming sword features two sharpened edges with a pointed or rounded tip. Made from high-carbon steel, a fuller across its center lowers its weight.

As seen in the evolution of medieval swords, the blade of an arming sword changed throughout history. Earlier swords had broader, cut-friendly blades, while later models were tapered and pointy.

The high carbon blade of the short sword can be straight or curved and either double or single-edged, often reinforced for strength at its core with a mid-rib.

Hilt

Main Roman Maintz Gladius Sword by Legacy Arms Gladius Sword with Scabbard
“Roman Maintz Sword,” a functional gladius shortsword without a guard (Check Product)

The European arming sword features a steel cruciform crossguard. Its defining trait can be a straight, narrow, curved, or broadened quillon type.

The short sword has a cruciform handguard but with Renaissance-like hilts such as a cup, basket, or swept-hilt. In some cases, there is no guard.  

Scabbard

Arming Sword and Shortsword Scabbard
A sheathed arming sword on the traditional left side – Credits: Medie World

Arming swords were often carried in a wooden or leather scabbard worn on the user’s left side.

Short swords of the same style were carried in the same fashion. However, they were carried on the right side in some cases due to their smaller size.

Size and Weight

Size and weight differences
The differences between Renaissance (left) swords and ancient (right) short swords next to the arming sword (4th from the right) – Credits: Castrumto Castle

The arming sword varied from  25.6 to 37.4 inches (60 to 95 cm) long, while short swords fell between 15.7 to 25.6 inches (40 to 65 cm).

Arming swords weighed from 1.8 to 2.6 lbs (0.8 to 1.2 kg). Depending on the broadness of the blade and the amount of fittings, the short sword’s weight ranged from 1.1 to 2.6 lbs (0.5 to 1.2 kg).

Historical Significance

Main Ronin Katana One Handed Viking Sword 11 Sword with scabbard
“One Handed Viking Sword” that is a blend between the previous spatha and the arming sword (Check Product)

The first types of swords appeared in the 33rd century BCE, evolving into tools of war with the technological advances in metallurgy during the 16th century. 

Short swords were slightly longer than daggers made from copper, bronze, iron, and eventually steel. Some did not feature a handguard and were used as sidearms.

One of the most significant European shortswords is the Roman gladius which evolved into the spartha with technological advancements and an increase in cavalry.  It then evolved into the Merovingian or Migration sword and again into the Carolingian (Viking) sword in the 9th century CE. These advancements would later inspire the 10th and 11th century arming swords.

The arming sword became the new standard for the medieval European blade, used by warriors from Ireland to the Middle East. With the increase of armor, it grew in size, evolving yet again into the bastard sword, longsword, and greatsword. While it was gradually replaced, no longer the favored sword, it didn’t go out of fashion until the end of the 17th century.

Summary
Emerging in the 33rd century BCE, the short sword evolved into a war tool by the 16th century as it adapted to changing warfare needs. What began a a gladius turned into the spatha, then Merovingian and Carolingian swords, finally culminating into the medieval arming sword, which was predominant through the Middle Ages.

Combat Preference

Arming Sword vs Short Sword Combat Preference
Warriors wielding an arming sword versus an ancient Celtic shortsword – Credits: Brad Sheehan

While sacrificing reach due to its shorter length, the short sword offers a compact, close-quarter style of fighting while also working well in a large battlefield formation as a primary weapon or a sidearm.

Its shorter blade allows for more rigidity and is effective in thrusting or cutting. A prime example is the Iberian falcata, known for smashing through helmets. 

Short swords rely on protection such as the user’s armor, a small buckler, or a large shield. It can be used single-handedly to offer grappling techniques, stabbing, or to find gaps in armor. It can also be an extension of the hand for dual-wielding, such as the butterfly sword.

One-handed arming swords are also effective for cutting and thrusting but are longer, making them easier to maneuver in combat. 

It is more flexible than a short sword during formation on the battlefield or on cavalry for slashing downward. In close-quarter fighting, its ability to be used as a grappling tool makes it ideal for almost any use.

The arming sword has a crossguard, giving the user significant protection compared to a short sword, and can still be combined with a shield. 

Arming Sword vs Short Sword (Duel Winner)
Some consider the arming sword a superior evolution of the short sword, offering longer reach and crossguard protection while maintaining a similar fighting style when on the battlefield or in close combat.  Although short swords are easier to carry, their limited reach is a significant drawback, giving the arming sword the upper hand In a duel.
Sources Cited
  1. Oakeshott, R. E. (1997, January 1). A Knight and His Weapons.
  2. Oakeshott, E. (2012, January 1). European Weapons and Armour. Boydell Press.
  3. Oakeshott, E. (1998, January 1). The Sword in the Age of Chivalry. Boydell Press.
  4. Oakeshott, E. (1991, January 1). Records of the Medieval Sword.
  5. Oakeshott, E. (2001, January 1). Sword in Hand.
  6. Withers, H. J. S., Tabias, W. H. C., & Capwell, T. (2016, January 8). The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Knives, Swords, Spears & Daggers. ILLUSTRATED WORLD ENCYCLOPEDIA.
  7. Woosnam-Savage, R. C. (2017, January 1). Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe.
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