One-Handed vs Two-Handed: Sword Types, History and Combat
One and two-handed swords are bladed, edged weapons of war used with either one or two hands based on their hilt sizes. They originated worldwide, and their usage differs, drastically impacting everything about the blade, from aesthetics to function. While being unique, both types of swords have positive and negative attributes.
This article will examine the differences between these two types of swords, which go beyond the size of the hilt.
Terms, Types, Characteristics, and Design Differences
One-handed swords are blades that can be used with a single hand, whereas two-handed swords can be used with both. They are named as such due to their combat techniques. However, both can be held with one or two hands in some cases.
Some one-handed swords offer little to no protection and should be used with a shield in combat, whereas others excel as dueling weapons. They also vary in terms of their slashing or thrusting capability depending on the type of hilt.
Two-handed swords are also different from each other. Some of them are greatswords and only used as situational tools. Some have polearm-like hilts that give them the advantage of a sword-like spear.
Both sword groups have straight blades that end with a pointed or slightly rounded tip and one or two sharpened edges.
Their blades, such as the unsharpened ricasso, can feature two sets of grooves, which reduce the sword’s general weight, making them easier to handle.
The blades of one-handed swords are generally shorter to correspond to their smaller hilts, although exceptions like the European rapier do exist.
The average blade length of a one-handed sword is between 18 and 35 inches (45 and 90 cm), while the two-handed blade can reach a colossal 51-inch mark (130 cm).
The one-handed sword’s hilt is shorter and often made in direct proportion to the user’s hand. It can feature a larger pommel to give it back support along with its guard.
Two-handed hilts are larger and usually able to accommodate both hands snuggly, while others give enough space between the hands for more versatility.
The average one-handed handle is between four and six inches (10 to 15 cm), while two-handed handles range from 8 to 16 inches (20 to 41 cm).
Handles can be made from quality tightly wrapped silk, leather, or wire cords to give the two-handed user more leverage and security. Handles can also feature a ridge or bump in the center.
One-handed hilts have more complex guards offering protection due to their shorter reach. The style of this guard varies from metal bars, full or half baskets, or cruciform quillons, while some swords have no guard.
The one-handed sword inside its scabbard often hangs from the user’s waist. While most hang from the left side, the gladius hangs from the right.
Two-handed swords can also be carried on the waist, but this is less practical. They can also be handheld, rest on one’s shoulder like a rifle, or be strapped to the user’s back.
Size and Weight
Two-handed swords are generally larger than one-handed swords and, therefore, heavier but not as awkward to hold with two hands.
The length of a two-handed sword can range from 47 to 67 inches (120 to 170 cm). One-handed swords usually run between 20 to 49 (50 to 125 cm) inches.
A two-handed sword’s weight ranges from 2.2 to 5 lbs (1 to 2.3 kg), while a one-handed sword ranges from 1.3 to 3.1 lbs (0.7 to 1.4 kg).
Historical Significance and Impact
Swords are bladed primary or sidearm weapons representing higher social status throughout history.
The first European swords were initially one-handed, limited by metallurgical capabilities, and made from bronze. This changed during the 12th to 6th century BCE with the introduction of iron.
Advancements in ironworking from the 3rd BCE to the 2nd CE led to the first real development of durable one-handed blades, such as the Roman gladius. These advancements also led to the use of practical two-handed swords, such as the Dacian/Thracian rhomphaia or falx.
Two-handed swords were situational and rare, with the biggest factor being the economic need. True two-handed swords emerged in these times of need in the post-ancient era and the Middle Ages, especially from the 15th century and beyond, with models such as the iconic longsword, claymore, or zweihander.
With the increase of armor, they gained some prevalence. However, with the decrease of armor and the introduction of firearms, one-handed single-edged swords remained globally dominant as they were lighter to carry, cheaper to create, easier to master, and could more adequately save one’s life in combat.
Two-handed swords had a bigger reach advantage due to their longer blades. They emphasized this advantage, combined with a bigger striking impact, and used it as their core in the techniques of attacking or defending.
Both types of swords were versatile in their own way. The two-handed were more capable of versatile offense or defense due to their larger hilt. One-handed swords allow for a free hand to carry a protective shield.
One-handed swords excel in tight-compact formation fighting, which made them popular throughout combat history.
They are also faster due to the shorter recovery time after each strike, with a smaller chance of the blade getting stuck on its target. The compact size of the one-handed sword made it easier to carry. One-handed swords have more room to adapt to certain combat situations. They are easier to unsheath and can be used from horseback or on foot, as well as in compact areas.
- Burton, R. F. (1884, January 1). The Book of the Sword. London : Chatto & Windus.
- Grant, R. G. (2010, January 1). Warrior. Dk Pub.
- Woosnam-Savage, R. C. (2017, January 1). Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe.
- Oakeshott, E. (2001, January 1). Sword in Hand.
- Oakeshott, E. (2012, January 1). European Weapons and Armour. Boydell Press.
- Anglim, S. (2002, January 1). Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000 BC – AD 500.
- Wilhalm, J. (2021, December 30). Renaissance Combat. Greenhill Books.