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Sword Staff Unveiled: A Deep Look into the Scandinavian Polearm

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: June 16, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The Scandinavian polearm, sometimes called svärdstav, became the inspiration for several fantasy swords. The staff weapon features a sword-shaped blade, hence called a sword staff. Unlike other polearms, it is distinguishable for its cross, similar to the cross guards of European swords.

Let’s explore the origin and history of the sword staff and what makes it unique among other types of polearms.

Characteristics of the Svärdstav

3D model Sword Staff
3D model of a Sword Staff ( Source)

Since the svärdstav features a sword blade at the end of the staff, it has the advantage of a short sword and the range of a polearm. It is therefore not surprising that the Scandinavian polearm also matched the more refined swords in battles.

Here are the unique characteristics of the sword staff:

Type of Metal

Some believe that the historical sword staffs utilized sword blades from battle swords, and swordsmiths only remounted them into the haft. The Nordic people had excellent steel resources in the North, so these weapons, including other types of swords and spears, were crafted from high-quality materials. On the other hand, the crossguard was made of wrought iron metalwork. Today, swordsmiths create replicas from various materials, including high carbon steel.

Blade Appearance

3D model Sword Staff
( Source)

The blade resembles a double-edged short sword and is quite broad and long. Some examples had a rough and uneven blade surface, though modern replicas often have polished blades. 

Size and Length

The sword staff has an overall length ranging from 236 to 248 centimeters, with its blade measuring about 48 to 55 centimeters long. It also features a crossguard shorter than the blade, about 40 to 50 centimeters long. Given its massive measurements, the weapon may weigh around 6lbs.

Sword Mounting

Swordstaff mounting
( Source)

Under the blade, the weapon features an s-shaped or straight crossguard, giving its sword-like appearance. Instead of a full-tang blade, it features two languets or thick strips of metal fastened to the haft. Extending from the head of the weapon, the languets are secured with nails or screws to prevent breakage of the haft. 

The sword staff generally has a tang of about 16 centimeters long, but it’s languets are longer, about 57 centimeters. These parts support and strengthen the whole weapon and keep it from being chopped off by a halberd. Generally, the sturdy haft serves as a counterbalance to the crossguard and blade part of the weapon.

Facts About the Swordstaff

Throughout history, swords were expensive weapons affordable only to wealthy officers, so polearms equipped ordinary foot soldiers. When wielded with strength and speed, the sword staff can be a ferocious deadly weapon. 

Here are the things you need to know about the Scandinavian polearm:

The sword staff originated from Sweden.

The term Scandinavian refers to the countries of the peninsula in northern Europe, particularly Sweden and Norway, as well as Denmark. On the other hand, the term Nordic refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula, including Iceland and Finland. In the 16th century, the Swedish peasant army used the sword staff against the Danish army.

The Nordic people had the means to produce high-quality weapons.

In the 16th century, the Scandinavian Peninsula and other regions in the North had an abundant resource of excellent steel, which supported the need for weapons like swords, spears, helmets, and armor. Experts suggest that the swordsmiths purposely crafted the sword staff to look the way it looked and function as a weapon for peasant armies.

Most information about the sword staff comes from a German Landsknecht’s military sketchbook.

Two soldiers in battle at Old Älvsborg Castle in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden
Two soldiers in battle at Old Älvsborg Castle in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden ( Source)

The Landsknechts were German Renaissance mercenaries recognized for their well-trained armies on battlefields of Europe. Landsknecht Paul Dolnstein, who participated in the Danish army, captured his wartime experience in sketches and texts and noted that the Swedish peasants carried good pikes made from swords, which we call today the sword staff. He also drew several sketches from the Swedish campaign, particularly battle and siege scenes.

The Landsknechts fought in phalanxes of pike.

Battle at Old Älvsborg Castle in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden
Battle at Old Älvsborg Castle in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden ( Source)

In the military, the phalanx refers to the tactical formation of troops, which march closely and ready to fight. The Landsknechts imitated Swiss warfare methods and incorporated the pikes in their arsenal. Unlike spears, pikes are long thrusting spears but not intended to be thrown.

As seen in Paul Dolnstein’s sketch, the Landsknechts used their pikes against the swordstaffs of the Swedish peasants. Still, the peasant army utilized the sword staff in a tightly packed formation, so it had a defensive advantage against enemies’ polearms.

The sword staff was an efficient weapon even for those who lacked soldier training.

As a foot soldier’s weapon, the length of the sword staff made it efficient for fighting the enemies riding on horseback. At the same time, the blade was practical enough for close combat. Unlike a spear that relies on its sharp tip, the sword staff was more efficient for fighting heavy-armed opponents. 

Also, the long shaft provides a greater distance between a fighter and an opponent and allows quick thrusts and sweeping cuts. Even if the peasants lacked the training of a typical soldier, they armed themselves with the sword staff and went off to war.

The Swedish armies likely utilized the weapon’s crossguard to ward off enemies’ weapons.

The appearance of the crossguard suggests that the Swedish peasant armies used it to displace incoming polearms like halberds. One could catch the enemy’s weapon and then counter with a quick slash with the blade. Experts also suggest that it might have functioned as a trapping and hooking weapon for the opponent’s arms and legs. The Swedish army probably utilized the sword staff in mass formations, in which the crossguard functioned as a shield.

There are several types of polearms across the world.

In Europe, the infantry used the glaive, fauchard, and guisarme against the cavalry. By the 14th century, the halberd, featuring a pike and an ax blade, became the primary weapon of the early Swiss armies. A traditional weapon in Chinese martial arts, the guandao is a polearm with a long crescent-shaped blade. The Japanese also had their naginata polearm, equipped with blades similar to katana swords.

History of the Scandinavian Polearm

The svärdstav played a significant role during the Danish-Swedish war of 1501 to 1512. The sword staff also appeared in some works of art.

In Icelandic Sagas

Icelandic sagas mention several pole weapons, but their names are often translated as a halberd or bill, probably due to lack of a better word. These literary works describe events that occurred in the Viking Age, during the 9th and 11th centuries. Some believe that the sword staff was a late variation of some weapons that appeared in these sagas.

The hewing spear höggspjót seems to be similar to the swordstaff’s function as a weapon. However, its shape and appearance remains a mystery. Its name comes from höggva, a verb that means to strike, and spjót, a common term to describe a spear. It implies that the höggspjót occasionally served as a cutting weapon yet closely related to a spear.

None of the sagas described the appearance of the atgeir, but its name suggests its close association with a spear. Based on the description of its use, the atgeir had wings on its shaft, similar to the cross guards of the sword staff. Also, it served as a battle spear efficient for both thrusting and cutting, so some suggest that it may be a variety of the hewing spear.

The Battle at Old Älvsborg Castle

Old Älvsborg Castle under siege in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden
Old Älvsborg Castle under siege in 1502, Västergötland, Sweden ( Source)

When John I was elected king of Denmark, he also became King of Sweden and Norway according to the terms of the Kalmar Union, which merged the three countries. However, Sweden denied his rule, so the king and his son Christian hired Scottish and German mercenaries to suppress a rebellion in the country.

In 1502, the Swedish peasant armies used their sword staff to fight the Danish armies. However, the Danish seized two fortresses in Västergötland, including the Old Älvsborg Castle. The Älvsborg is now part of modern-day Västra Götaland county. The capital is Gothenburg, which is the second-largest city of Sweden.

In 1562 Mad Meg Painting

Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) c. 1562 Oil on panel
( Source)

The famous painting Mad Meg by Pieter Bruegel depicted soldiers wielding the sword staff. However, the artist gave no clue regarding the meaning or narrative of his work, which art historians have debated ever since. Some scholars interpreted the art as a symbol of disorder and violence due to the chaotic theme, strange creatures, and weird structures in painting.

Svärdstav-Inspired Weapons in Pop Culture

The Scandinavian polearm has gained several modern interpretations in films, anime, and video games. In most cases, many creatives incorporate the concept of staff weapons that also function as a sword. In the Dragon Age II video game, character Hawke wields a spear-like staff, though it lacks the traditional crossguard of the Scandinavian polearm.

In The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings film series, the character Gandalf owns a Glamdring sword as one of his primary weapons. Gandalf’s sword is double-edged with a crossguard, resembling the blade part of the sword staff.

Conclusion

The svärdstav was the Swedish peasant army’s weapon during the 16th century. Today, the Scandinavian polearm remains one of the unique and impressive weapons in history. No wonder it inspired several fantasy swords in our modern time.

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