Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Ranger's sword hilt

Aragorn of the Dunedain, as
portrayed by Viggo Mortensen
My blog posts are often somewhat geeky, but this one may just be the most bizarrely geeky ever.

Consider the Dungeons and Dragons character class, the Ranger. The class is (in my opinion) essentially based on Aragorn of the Dunedain from the Lord of the Rings. The ranger is an often solitary wanderer of wilderness areas, away from inhabited areas for weeks at a time. Therefore, everything which the Ranger carries must be strictly necessary; they will have to make compromises to keep their entire pack light enough to manage. The ranger is skilled at observation and tracking, but also at concealment and at moving quietly. Consequently, when faced with potential opponents they cannot beat, the ranger will probably remain in concealment and avoid conflict. The potential opponents in the wilderness are likely, in any case, also to be travelling light; the chances of meeting a heavily armoured opponent are slim.

The ranger must carry a bow, since a lot of their subsistence will come from hunting. They must be very skilled with it. When faced with an armed human (or anthropoform) enemy, the bow is likely to be the first and primary weapon, since if you can do  injury to your enemy before they are close enough to do injury to you, your chances in combat are that much better. However, when the distance closes sufficiently that melee weapons can be used, the bow ceases to be very useful, either for attack or defence. So a sword as a secondary weapon makes sense (an axe might make more sense, since it can do dual duty in gathering firewood, but the preponderance of swords over axes in medieval weaponry implies that, in a fight between a sword and an axe, the sword must generally have won; and it's clearly a more nimble weapon, so this is understandable). A quarterstaff - a fairly stout pole of hardwood a little longer than a man is tall - might make sense for reasons I'm going to come to later, but like any pole arm it's an awkward thing to carry (although it could do double duty as a walking stick). In any case, I'm going to assume my ranger carries a sword.

A shield is a large, awkward, clumsy thing, as well as probably quite heavy. It cannot readily do double duty as anything else. I'm going to assume my ranger does not carry a shield. A buckler is possible but in the moment of throwing aside the bow and equipping melee weapons, it's one more thing you would have to be carrying and would have to equip; so I'm going to guess that my ranger doesn't carry a buckler, either. That means that, in melee combat, the ranger has both hands free to handle weapons.

Two styles of fighting are possible. One is sword and dagger, in the renaissance Italian style, where the sword is something probably approaching a rapier. But the rapier is not a versatile sword: it is primarily a thrusting weapon. It could not be used for cutting firewood, or opening a path through a thorn thicket. The other is a cut and thrust sword.

Our ranger is necessarily lightly armoured, since lugging heavy armour through the wilderness for at best very occasional use doesn't make sense, and it's noisy and takes a lot of maintenance, and you almost certainly wouldn't be wearing it on the very rare occasions when you needed it. If you're not armoured, then you don't want your enemy to get close enough to make effective use of their weapons, so you want as much reach as you can achieve (sorry, Arya Stark, that Needle won't help you much - and this is also where the quarter staff might make sense). So a longsword, or at least a 'bastard', hand and a half style sword, is the most appropriate sword. It has greater reach and, wielded with two hands, can land a more powerful blow than a single handed sword. In keeping with this argument, Aragorn's sword, Anduril, is a longsword. However, for the ranger in the wilderness, the slightly shorter bastard sword may be a better compromise, given that it is a (hopefully) infrequently used secondary weapon.

OK, so that solves the problem, nothing more to think about.

No?

Well, no, I don't think so. Because our ranger's primary weapon is the bow, and, when an enemy closes to melee range, the change from bow to melee weapon has to be quite swift. Medieval swords from Christian Europe generally had straight crossguards, which offer little or no protection for the hand against a thrust. I suspect part of the reason was that the sword with the perfectly straight crossguard at right angles to the blade made an extemporary Christian symbol - could be used as a portable temporary altar for a quick pre-combat prayer - was part of the reason for this very simple design, but another reason is that the sword was expected to be used with gauntlets.

The quillons - arms - of the guard are there to prevent your opponent's blade sliding up yours and either cutting into your hand, or, if deflected from the hand, entering another part of your body. Therefore it makes sense in a non-Christian culture to have quillons at least somewhat angled or curved towards the opponent, and, unsurprisingly, the quillons of many Islamic swords of the period are made precisely like this - but that's an aside.

The main point I want to make here is that an archer cannot wear gauntlets - certainly not on the hand used to draw the string, typically the user's dominant hand, which will typically be the hand closest to the enemy on the haft of the sword. So the classic medieval two handed sword with its simple cross guard leaves our ranger's dominant hand unprotected in a vulnerable position. This is precisely why small swords - gentlemens' dress swords, used on social occasions when armour wouldn't normally be worn - have much more elaborate hilts from the late medieval period; and why, by the time firearms had become the primary weapon of most soldiers, all swords had more elaborate hilts. The protection had migrated from the hand to the weapon.

Reproduction Swiss-style
hand-and-a-half sabre with simple
basket hilt.
So the guard needs to be extended at least to some degree. A basket hilted two handed sword is possible - examples (mainly from the sixteenth century) exist in both Switzerland and Germany, both with a basket protecting only the primary hand, and with a basket extending the full length of the hilt; and many of these, also, have finger guards. A basket hilt, of course, offers only limited protection against thrusts towards the hands; examples with shell guards also exist from Holland and Scotland, again around the sixteenth century, with the Dutch example having both a shell and a basket. Another interesting hilt design which might be considered is the 'Sinclair hilt', a (probably) Scottish design comprising a simple basket with a finger bar in the plane of the quillons and blade, with a plate metal loop at right angles to the quillons protecting the back of the hand.

Reproduction Sinclair hilt
More protection on the hilt necessarily makes a sword heavier, all other things being equal. Obviously, it adds the extra weight to the hilt, bringing the point of balance of the sword back towards the hand and reducing its angular inertia in cutting; it tends to orient the blade more towards thrusting than towards cutting. And a symmetrical basket hilt is said to be awkward to wear, because part of it necessarily projects in towards the torso when worn on a belt. However, if the basket is to cover both hands it must be to an extent symmetrical, at least sufficiently to be awkward in this way. So I think what we're looking at something between a Swiss hand-and-a-half sabre hilt, and bastard sword with a Sinclair hilt protecting only the primary hand, but the haft and pommel extending beyond the basket to allow grip by the other hand. Of the two, the Swiss sabre style would be lighter; the Sinclair style would offer more protection. My instinct is that the ranger would prefer the Swiss style, both for lighter weight and for better cutting.

It's worth noting here that once a basket hilt has evolved, one edge is always the primary edge of the blade, and most swords then quite quickly evolve towards single edged and subsequently curved; but straight double edged swords with basket hilts were in use in Scotland for at least three hundred years, and aesthetically (knowing very little about practical sword fighting) I prefer the look of a straight symmetrical blade.

Having said all this: in a fantasy environment we are not limited by what has been used historically. However, one thing we know about historical designs which were in use for a significant period is that they work and are practical.

So my ranger will carry a straight, double edged hand-and-a-half bastard sword, with an asymmetric half-basket hilt derived from the Swiss sabre illustrated above.


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