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Sword Pommel: Types and Functions

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: June 13, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

A pommel is a shaped protrusion at the end of a sword hilt, and it plays a crucial role in the weapon’s functionality, balance, and aesthetics. The sword pommel varies greatly depending on the sword type, historical period, and cultural influences. Apart from its practical functions, it can also serve as an artistic expression and showcase the craftsmanship of various cultures.

Let’s explore the various types of pommels, their functions in different swords, and how they are utilized in combat techniques.

Material and Construction

Sword of the Achtkantschwert Type 13th Century BCE
Sword of the Achtkantschwert Type, 13th Century BCE – Credits: Met Museum

Pommels widely varied in material and construction, depending on technological advancements and cultural preferences. Cast bronze pommels were widespread during the Bronze Age period. Some were made of organic materials like bone, ivory, or wood. As metalworking techniques developed, iron and steel pommels became common.

Pommels were attached to swords using various methods, such as hammering, welding, riveting, or screwing. Early medieval sword pommels were typically fastened directly over the tang, while later ones often came with a small metal bolt, also called a tang button or nut that secured the pommel to the tang and held both the handle and guard in place.

Design and Decoration

Rapier 1600
Rapier, c. 1600 – Credits: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Sword pommels widely varied in form, structure, and shape. Some were designed for single-handed swords, such as arming swords, and were more comfortable when gripped against the palm. For instance, flat pommels were possibly intended to be used with armored gauntlets instead of bare hands. Also, others were more suited to two-handed swords and larger blades.

Sword Pommel with the Arms of Pierre de Dreux ca. 1187–1250
Sword Pommel with the Arms of Pierre de Dreux (ca. 1187–1250) – Credits: Met Museum

Some swords such as crusader swords, often had pommels decorated with coats of arms. Artisans also used various decorative techniques to transform pommels into works of art. Pommels were often decorated with intricate engravings, gildings of gold or silver, enamel, filigree work, and such. Some were even shaped into unique forms, including animal heads and anthropomorphic designs.

Function

A pommel often functions as a counterbalance to the blade, allowing the hand to grip or rest on it, and it can even serve as a backstop to the hand.

A Counterbalance to the Blade

In most swords, a pommel serves as a counterweight to the blade, ensuring proper balance for the weapon. However, the point of balance in a sword varies, depending on its intended use. 

If the point of balance is located further down the blade, the sword tends to favor strong cutting or chopping actions and powerful thrusts. On the contrary, if the point of balance is closer to the guard, the sword feels more agile, easier to maneuver, and allows quick changes in direction.

Therefore, early medieval swords primarily designed for cutting had a different balance than the rapiers and smallswords which required quick manipulation of the point.

Extension of the Grip

The pommel may provide an extended grip beyond the handle in certain swords. A fencer can achieve additional reach by sliding their hand down to the pommel when striking with a cutting blade. However, not all pommel forms and shapes are suitable for this purpose.

Backstop for the Hand

An oversized pommel typically functions as a backstop for the hand, preventing the sword from slipping off the grip when striking. One notable example is the large, spherical pommel on the Roman gladius sword.

A Decorative Element

Hunting sword ca. 1740 with grips of ivory cropped
Hunting sword (ca. 1740) with grips of ivory – Credits: Met Museum

Sword pommels can be highly ornate and decorative, showcasing the craftsmanship of various cultures. Swords with the most elaborate pommel include European hunting swords and ceremonial swords. Additionally, animal and bird-head pommels have been used in Europe and Asia since ancient times.

Improvised Striking Weapon

Sometimes, a pommel can be an improvised striking weapon in close-quarters combat. Some sword fighting techniques involve utilizing the sword as a sledgehammer by holding the blade with both hands and striking with the pommel.

Medieval Sword Pommel Forms

During the Middle Ages, a wide range of pommel forms developed on European swords, with many being influenced by fashion and personal preference. Their names are modern designations given by collectors and curators.

1. Brazil-Nut Pommel

Viking sword 1000 1099
Viking sword, 1000-1099 – Credits: Powerhouse Collection

As the name suggests, the brazil-nut pommel resembles the shape of a Brazil nut. It has different variations, with the base varying in degrees of curvature. This pommel type is a development of the earlier Viking pommel forms. 

The use of brazil-nut pommels can be traced back to as early as the 10th century and became characteristic of 12th-century swords, especially in Germany. These pommels were mainly found in northeastern, central, and eastern Europe.

2. Mushroom or Tea-Cozy Pommel

10th Century Viking Sword
10th Century Viking Sword – Credits: Met Museum

The so-called “mushroom” or “tea-cozy” pommel is not perfectly circular like an actual mushroom. It features a straight lower edge and sharp corners, which can lead to discomfort when gripping the sword. This pommel design developed during the 10th century but was less favored than the brazil-nut pommel with curved corners. It was commonly found on Viking swords and remained popular in paintings and sculptures until around 1160, though its frequency decreased after 1100.

3. Cocked Hat Pommel

An Anglo Saxon sword pommel late 9th Century cropped
An Anglo-Saxon sword pommel, late 9th Century – Credits: Met Museum

The cocked hat pommel is characterized by its hat-like shape. It was widespread on Viking, Anglo-Saxon, and Carolingian swords and continued to be used throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. Some variations of the cocked hat pommel had a taller crown while others were stouter and bulkier.

4. Disc-Shaped or Wheel Pommel

13th Century sword with wheel pommel type
13th Century sword with wheel pommel type – Credits: Met Museum

The disc-shaped pommel emerged in the 10th century and remained in use until the 16th century. It has several variations, the earliest being plain discs and the later ones shaped like a wheel. Among these variations, pommels with cut-off edges were widespread in knightly swords. The 15th-century Italian designs even featured flower motifs on the disc surface.

5. Lobed Pommel

Sword 10th Century featuring a lobed pommel
Sword (10th Century) featuring a lobed pommel – Credits: The British Museum

The lobed pommel is the late development of the old Viking multi-lobed pommel. It was popular in England and Scotland from the 13th to 14th centuries. Some of its popular depictions can be seen on the effigy of Robert of Normandy in the Gloucester Cathedral.

6. Floral Pommels

An example of a floral sword pommel 12 13th Century
An example of a floral sword pommel (12-13th Century) – Credits: Met Museum

A floral pommel features scallops or lobes around it and seems to have been used from the 13th to the 14th century. It is among the distinct sword pommels dating back to the Crusades. Most were found in the Middle East region, known during the medieval period as the Holy Land.

7. Spherical Pommel

Spherical pommel in an early sword ca. 1500
Spherical pommel in an early sword (ca. 1500) – Credits: Met Museum

As its name suggests, a spherical pommel is globular in shape. While most examples originate from the 9th through the 10th centuries, there are examples from as late as the 16th century. Therefore, it can be found in single-handed swords, hand-and-a-half swords, two-handed swords, basket-hilted swords, and such.

8. Scent Stopper Pommel

Hand and a half sword ca. 1500 1525
Hand and a half sword, ca. 1500-1525 – Credits: Met Museum

Scent stopper pommels widely vary in design, including faceted, truncated-wedge, fig-shaped, cork-like, and pear-shaped variants. They were common across Western Europe from the 14th century through the 16th century, especially on longswords or hand-and-a-half swords.

9. Key-Shaped Pommel

English longsword c. 1450
English longsword, c. 1450 – Credits: myArmoury.com

The key-shaped pommel resembles the watch keys of the 19th century and can also be described as a flattened pear shape. It gained popularity during the 15th century, with the finest examples being sculpted or painted.

10. Fish-Tail Pommel

Italian sword with fish tail pommel type
Italian sword with fish-tail pommel type – Credits: The Wallace Collection

The fish-tail pommel was primarily used in Northwestern Europe during the 15th century. Its Italian variation features concave edges that flare out and taper toward the bottom. While relatively rare, it can be seen on single-handed and two-handed swords.

11. Cat’s Head Pommel

18th Century Italian Broadsword cropped
18th Century Italian Broadsword – Credits: Met Museum

The cat’s head pommel seems to be a distinctively Venetian design, often with animal representation on its face. Its earliest use can be traced back to the 14th century great swords (grete swerdes) of Oakeshott Type XIIIa. This pommel form survived into the 18th century, becoming the most common pommel used in the Venetian basket-hilted broadsword known as the schiavona, utilized by the Slavonic Dalmatian troops.

Facts About the Sword Pommel

The term pommel is Latin for little apple, a reference to the resemblance of many to an apple. Certain pommel styles are associated with specific sword types, historical periods, and cultural influences. The pommel can also be used for attacks in some sword types and techniques.

  • Pommels have been used in the classification of sword types.

The typology of medieval swords is based mainly on the morphology of their hilt components, including the pommel. The most popular are those suggested by Ewart Oakeshott, Jan Petersen, and Alfred Geibig. Oakeshott developed his pommel typology based on the pommel designs found on the descendants of the Viking sword.

  • The sword pommel plays a crucial role in the dating of swords.

The sword pommel is the most prone to changes in fashion or style, making them valuable indicators of the sword’s age and origin. However, pommels are the easiest to be replaced to give the sword a better balance or suit the owner’s taste, so they aren’t conclusive dating indicators on their own.

  • Striking with the sword pommel is often referred to as a murder strike.

The sword can sometimes be used as an improvised war hammer by holding the blade with both hands and striking with the pommel. The technique is known by the historical names mordhau and mortschlag, both meaning murder strike. It appears in historical manuals on fencing with armored opponents and is widespread in modern longsword fencing. However, it is considered  quite an insignificant technique.

  • Throwing the pommel at an opponent was used as a distraction in dueling.

The unusual pommel throw technique was popularized by the 15th-century German Gladiatoria manuscripts. It was utilized in formal duels in full armor, equipped with longswords, daggers, bucklers, and spears. 

A duelist unscrews his sword pommel and throws it at the opponent to distract him, and then he attacks with a sword or spear. However, the technique would require a specially-made dueling sword, as 15th-century pommels were generally secured by a tang button or nut that cannot be unscrewed by hand.

  • The pommel cap of Japanese swords is called kashira.
16th Century sword hilt collar and pommel fuchigashira
16th Century sword-hilt collar and pommel (fuchigashira) – Credits: Met Museum

The pommel cap on the katana and the short sword wakizashi is called kashira, which often features elaborate engravings and decoration. It often matched other sword fittings, such as the fuchi collar on the grip, and is a significant part of a complete functional sword mounting called koshirae. However, the pommel of the earlier sword tachi is called kabutogane.

  • Some swords are recognized for their distinctive pommel design.
Kasthane sword with a pommel that resembles the head of a lion simha cropped
Kasthane sword with a pommel that resembles the head of a lion (simha) – Credits: Met Museum

Some pommel designs reflect their respective origins’ cultural, religious, artistic, and historical influences. Among them are the Sri Lankan kastane with a stylized lion (simha) pommel, the Indian talwar with a disc pommel and a spike, and the Venetian schiavona with a cat’s head pommel.

Sources Cited
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