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History of European Two-Handed Great Swords

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: July 20, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Of all the two-handed swords, none are as impressive as the German zweihander and the Scottish claymore. These early Renaissance swords were longer and more powerful than medieval swords, hence being called great swords. Let us explore the history of the European great swords, their use, and their unique characteristics. 

The Great Swords of Renaissance Europe

In the early Renaissance, the term “great swords” referred to extremely large swords that were designed for two-handed use. While they were not as heavy as they looked, these formidable weapons required strength and skill.

1. Zweihander

German Zweihander (two-handed) Sword of the bodyguard of Duke Julius of Brunswick-Lunüneberg
German Zweihander (two-handed) Sword of the bodyguard of Duke Julius of Brunswick-Lunüneberg – Credits: The Cleveland Museum of Art

The longest European sword of the Renaissance, the zweihander or two-handers could be as long as six feet. During the 15th and 16th centuries, most German Landsknecht mercenaries used pikes, but the doppelsöldners or double-pay men skillfully wielded the weapon to smash their way into enemy ranks. It typically had a long straight blade, sometimes flame-shaped with parrying hooks.

2. Claymore

Claymore 16th–17th century hilt, Scottish; blade, German, Solingen
Claymore, 16th–17th century – Credits: Met Museum

From the 15th to the early 17th centuries, the Scottish Highlanders used their two-handed sword claymore. Its name comes from the Scottish Gaelic claidheamh mór, meaning great sword. It traditionally had downward-sloping quillons ending in quatrefoils. It could be over 4 feet long, making it shorter and lighter than German two-handers. However, the name “claymore” later applied to the 18th-century Scottish broadsword with a basket hilt.

Characteristics of the European Great Swords

Great swords are distinguished by their exceptionally long blades and grips that allow the use of two hands. Today, the term great sword may imply either the Landsknecht’s zweihander or the Highland claymore.

Here are the characteristics of the European two-handed great swords:

Steel and Construction

Medieval and Renaissance swordsmiths were capable of producing steel swords that hold edges. The Landsknecht’s zweihander may not have employed the pattern welding technique of the time, but smiths likely forge-tempered them using excellent German steel.

In Scotland, Scottish swordsmiths also imported sword blades from Germany, mainly Solingen and Passau, and mounted them locally. Hence, most Scottish swords including the claymore had German blades. 

Modern reproduction of European great swords often feature high carbon steel or stainless steel blades, though the latter is only for decorative purposes. In live-action role-playing games or LARP, participants use foam swords with a fiberglass core.

Blade Appearance

Swiss Two-handed swords
Swiss two-handed sword – Credits: Saint Louis Art Museum

The German zweihander is most recognized by its parrying hooks or parierhaken that functioned as a secondary guard for the ricasso, the unsharpened part of the blade. It usually had a slim straight blade with a blunt or sharp tip.

Swiss/German Flammenschwert
Swiss/German Flammenschwert – Credits: Saint Louis Art Museum

Other examples had flame-shaped or flammard blades, usually double-edged. The wavy, undulating blade is appropriately called flambards or flammards—from the German Flammenschwert or flame sword—not flamberge.

Scottish Claymore
Scottish Claymore – Credits: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Scottish claymore had a broad double-edged blade and a rounded tip. It may have had a ricasso but no parrying hooks or lugs. Some historical examples had decorations or incisions on the blade surface and langets, or metal strips extending down the blade. Modern reproductions often feature fullers or grooves to lighten the blade.

Size and Weight

Contrary to popular belief, great swords weighed far lighter than it looked. The Landsknecht two-handed sword usually had an overall length of about 150 to 175 centimeters and a blade length of over 120 centimeters. The actual battlefield version usually weighed between 5 to 7 pounds, but the ceremonial two-handed swords were heavier, about 10 to 15 pounds.

On the other hand, the Highland claymore may have an overall length of 120 to 140 centimeters and weigh around 5.5 pounds, making it smaller and more lightweight than the German zweihander. However, the sword’s blade length does not always determine its weight as its blade design, crossguard, and hilt are factors to consider.

Sword Mounting

Great swords are commonly referred to as two handers, but their grips should not merely accommodate just two hands. The grip should be not less than 25 centimeters long, so that the wielder could easily hold the sword with both hands apart. Most of the time, the length of the hilt was in proportion to its long blade.

Two-handed sword, South German, c.1600
Two-handed sword, South German, c.1600 – Credits: Universalmuseum Joanneum GmbH

The German zweihander usually had a crossguard that curves toward the blade and side rings. However, later examples were more elaborate, usually ornamented with spirals. It usually had a rounded or pear-shaped pommel. Unlike most swords, great swords were not sheathed in traditional scabbards and worn on the belt. Instead, the Landsknechts carried them over the shoulder like a halberd.

A SCOTTISH CLAYMORE IN 16TH CENTURY STYLE
Scottish Claymore in 16th Century Style – Credits: Bonhams

On the other hand, the Highland claymore features quatrefoil design at the end of the quillons, the arms of the crossguard. It has an openwork design, pierced with four holes. It usually had an iron hilt, a wooden grip covered in leather, and a wheel-shaped pommel. The Scots carried their great swords on their backs, usually with a shoulder sheath.

Facts About the Great Swords

The terminology used to identify various swords varied widely over time. Some broadly accepted names are also relatively modern and not historical terms. Today, great sword generally refers to large swords with an extremely long blade, such as the zweihander and claymore.

Here are the things you need to know about the European great swords:

The German great swords were originally called doppelhänder or bihänder.

The term doppelhänder literally means double-hander, while bidenhänder translates as both-hander. Nowadays, these swords are known as zweihander which means two-hander, but it is actually a relatively modern name.

The term claymore became a generic name for different Scottish two-handed swords.

The name claymore is an English version of the Gaelic term claidheamh mór, which translates as great sword. Due to the term great, many believe that it applies to the 16th-century Scottish two-handed sword of which there were three types: the Highland claymore, the Lowland sword, and the lesser-known clamshell claymore with guards resembling an open clam.

The Lowland sword is the largest and heaviest of all Scottish two-handed swords.

Scottish Lowland Claymore
Scottish Lowland Claymore – Credits: National Museums Scotland

Sometimes called a Lowland claymore, the Lowland sword is larger than its Highland counterpart, usually over five feet long. It has a grip and pommel similar to the other, but it’s crossguard is slender and straight, with sharply downward-turned terminals. However, there remains a debate whether it should be called a claymore or not, as many consider the Highland two-hander as the true Scottish claymore.

The famous Wallace sword is a Lowland claymore.

the Wallace Sword
Wallace Sword – Credits: Legends at the Monument

In Stirling, Scotland; the Wallace sword serves as the symbol of the Scottish hero William Wallace, who fought for freedom from English rule. It is a Lowland sword or sometimes called a Lowland claymore. There is some debate if the so-called Wallace sword belonged to Scotland’s national hero, as Wallace died at least 200 years before the sword was made.

The Scots and German Landsknechts armed themselves for war.

The German Landsknechts usually earned about four guilders monthly, a good income at the time, but they had to provide their own equipment. So, the majority had pikes, which were less expensive, about one guilder. However, the doppelsöldner in the advancing military force was armed with a two-handed great sword. Based on a militia system, the Scots forces also equipped themselves with various weapons including claymores, longbows, crossbows, spears, pikes, halberds, and axes.

Renaissance warfare required two-handed swords to chop off enemies’ pole weapons.

In the early Renaissance, fighting against pike formations was common. So, armies needed bladed weapons that could reach and cut off the shafts of long pole weapons such as pikes, glaives, and halberds. The doppelsöldners of the German Landsknechts used the zweihander and independently attacked the enemy’s pikemen. No wonder they earned their extra wages for their bravery.

The German great sword later became a ceremonial weapon.

Two-Handed Sword for the Bodyguard of Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Prince of Wolfenbüttel
Two-Handed Sword for the Bodyguard of Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Prince of Wolfenbüttel – Credits: Art Institute Chicago

When two-handed great swords had lost their role on the battlefield, they survived as bearing swords or parade swords called paratschwerter. Most of them were too huge and heavy if not too delicate, to be considered a weapon. The Swiss also used ceremonial zweihanders with ornately etched designs and lettering.

The name claymore also refers to the 18th-century Scottish broadsword.

18th-century Scottish broadsword
18th-century Scottish broadsword – Credits: Otago Museum

The basket-hilted broadswords later replaced the original claymore. However, it is a single-handed sword with a shorter blade, and does not live up to the name claymore or great sword. In fact, it was originally known as claybeg or claidheamh beag, meaning small sword. The name change was probably because some old claymore blades were converted to broadswords with basket hilts.

Outside Europe, the Japanese also had an extremely long sword called nodachi.

The samurai may be known for their katana, but their longest sword was the nodachi, ranging from 130 to 160 centimeters. The name nodachi means field sword, but it is also called odachi, meaning great tachi. The warriors traditionally carried it across the back, but it later became impractical on the battlefield, so it served as offerings in shrines and temples.

European great swords inspired several fantasy weapons in films and role-playing games.

Based on the story of William Wallace, the Braveheart film sparks interest not only in medieval longswords but also in Scottish claymore swords. On the other hand, the German zweihander is one of the best weapons in famous video games like Elden Ring, Dark Souls, and others.

German Zweihander vs. Scottish Claymore

When comparing both, the German great sword or two-hander is generally larger and heavier than the Scottish Highlander claymore. The former had straight or flammard blades with parrying hooks, but the latter only had straight blades without the lugs. The flammard blades of the zweihander are visually striking but not necessarily more efficient than a straight one.

The Scots traditionally armed themselves with claymore and other weapons, and their so-called great sword was not exclusive to a specific rank or purpose. In fact, the claymore served as a combat weapon for warfare and personal defense, especially during the clan feuds between 1400 and 1700.

On the other hand, the German two-handers developed in response to a specific need, particularly lopping off the shafts of the enemy’s pikes. The doppelsöldner was the fiercest soldier who wielded the zweihander, not all the Landsknechts. Also, the Landsknechts carried the zweihander over their shoulders, the same manner they carried a halberd, but the Scots carried the claymore in a sheath across their backs.

History of the European Great Swords

European swords adapted to changes in armor and battlefield tactics of the time. During the Middle Ages, most infantry swords were easier to wield. By the late 15th century, heavier weapons and the so-called great swords became popular, particularly in Scotland and Germany.

The Medieval Swords of Knights

Arming Sword, 1520/30, Probably Italian
Arming Sword, Probably Italian – Credits: Art Institute Chicago

The knights were the elite fighting men of medieval Europe and remained a dominant force until the 16th century. Medieval knights used the arming sword, a single-handed cut-and-thrust weapon, which allowed the use of bucklers or a small round shield on the other hand. As body armor became heavier, the arming swords also featured longer and heavier blades.

Hand-and-a-Half Sword 15th century European or possibly British
Hand-and-a-Half Sword 15th century European or possibly British – Credits: Met Museum

The knights also used the hand-and-a-half sword for thrusting against the lightly armored archers from horseback and a mix of knight and infantry force. Also called bastard sword, it was neither a one-handed nor a two-handed sword. Primarily gripped one-handed, its longer handle allowed the knight to grasp it with two or three fingers from the left hand when necessary.

War Hammer, ca. 1450, French
War Hammer, ca. 1450, French – Credits: Met Museum

By the 13th and 14th centuries, plate armor became widespread on the battlefield. Unlike the mail armor composed of interlinking rings, it was dismissive of slashing blows, so knights used longswords and blade designs that are efficient in the thrust rather than the cut. Longswords allowed a two-handed use but were lightweight enough to wield with one hand. Their weapons also included maces and war hammers for breaking armor.

Evolution of the Scottish Swords

In the Middle Ages, the typical Scottish sword was a flat-bladed chopping weapon, even during the times that thrusting swords became common in some parts of Europe. Some of them had lobated pommels similar to Viking swords.

From the 14th or 15th century, Scottish swords featured heavy wheel-shaped pommels and downward sloping quillons—or arms of the crossguard. The Highland two-handed sword later emerged with quatrefoils, reminiscent of early Christian stone crosses in Scotland.

The Two-Handed Great Sword in Scotland

After the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the Scottish government required its men to be armed with two-handed weapons, including the claymore. Battle-axes were associated with the fighting techniques of the Scots, and the Scottish commanders must have realized that the two-handed swords suited the attacking tactics of their men. Later, two-handed swords also became the weapon of choice against the armored knights of England.

The German Landsknechts on the Battlefield

The Landsknechts were mercenary fighters recruited mostly from the Holy Roman Empire, which comprised much of modern-day Germany. Emperor Maximilian I hired them in 1486, as he wanted his own infantry force to match the Swiss pikemen who were the elites of European battlefields at the time.

The core of Landsknechts battlefield formation was a phalanx of pikemen, but the doppelsöldners used the zweihander to strike aside enemy pikes and break up infantry formations. Some soldiers also carried a short sword, the katzbalger which had characteristic S-shaped quillons and used various weapons like crossbows, halberds, and other polearms.

By the 16th century, pike formations became unsuitable on the battlefield, mainly due to the advances in gunpowder. Hence, the zweihander functioned more as a ceremonial weapon, carried on parades and formal processions. Unlike the two-handers used on the battlefield, parade swords were often heavier and more ornate.

Great Swords vs. Longswords

Unlike the medieval longsword, the Renaissance two-handed great swords were too large to be worn on the belt. While the former required the use of both hands, hence the name two-hander, the longsword was lightweight enough to be used single-handed, yet its long grip could accommodate two hands. They were also not wielded the same way, as their length and weight required different movements.

Longswords may have had blades longer than other swords, but they did not have the superior reach of the Scottish Highland claymore and German zweihander. The knights traditionally carried their longswords in scabbards, fastened to the skirt of their armor. On the other hand, the Renaissance soldiers carried the great swords across the back or over the shoulders.

Conclusion

The European two-handed great swords were some of the most formidable weapons in history. The German zweihander and the Scottish claymore remind us of the military prowess of the Renaissance armies and how their skill and bravery shaped the European battlefields. Today, great swords remain a popular theme in pop culture, often seen in films, animations, video games, and LARP.

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