Medieval weapons: why so many? And how do they differ?

This is only tangentially related to RPGs, but I thought this would be a good source of erudite responses, and it is close enough to RPG-related that I feel justified in posting this year.

Last night I was thinking about a fantasy story that I'm writing that involves a "seven samurai" group, and how to outfit them in terms of weaponry. I kind of like the idea of an assortment of weapons, but I couldn't help thinking: why not just all swords? What benefit does a battleaxe or warhammer or mace have over a good old longsword? What about longsword vs. great sword? Axe vs hammer? Sword vs axe? Etc.

So that's my question: considering as many medieval/pre-gunpowder weapons as you feel like bringing up, which are best for what situations (e.g. armor, environment, etc). I want realism, not gamism, whether D&D or another RPG (although feel free to mention which game system you think best handles the differences).

Thanks!
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
Just like today, different weapons for different things which you wish to accomplish. If we just look at firearms and the different number of them, there are an enormous amount of them.

Some are because various nations have their favored version or type of firearms for their soldiers. Others are because they want them for various things (to wound or stop, to kill, to blast the biggest wound, to be able to fit different items on it's nozzle, etc). Sometimes it just boils down to preference.

The same could be held for Weapons in the past. An individual in the forest who chops wood may have an axe as the most useful item, plus a small dagger that can be used for many multiple uses as a tool.

Another may be part of the infantry and have polearms or spears to counter charges as well as for reach and stabbing into the enemy lines. They may also have shields to try to counter others trying to stab at them.

Someone may have the job to go after the infantry to ensure the wounded are dead. They may have hammers to hit through bones more efficiently or perhaps small picks and daggers to poke between the joints of armor.

You may have nobles or officers with swords as status symbols.

The ranged infantry will obviously have some sort of missile weapon such as bows.

Finally, perhaps you have someone that just simply prefers to go around with a staff regardless of what is normally best or required.
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
Sword is a status symbol, worn by officers and elite fighters

the most common weapon was really a spear

more practical warriors might prefer axes or hammers (ie tools)

guards would use polearms for both display and to keep enemies at range.
 
One thing to consider is that people don't always use weapons purpose-built as such. A club is just a stick, a staff a stick you walk with, a flail for threshing grain, knives, axes, etc can be tools or weapon, and so forth. Of course, a tool can be adapted to be a better weapon (and vice-versa).

And, the decision to use a weapon could be based on cultural traditions, mistaken assessments of effectiveness, or mystical or religious beliefs, down to the level of superstition. And, of course, skill & confidence with a weapon that's maybe not factually /quite/ as ideal for the purpose as you believe could still lead to victory quite often. 🤷

So, yeah, no reason not to have a variety of weapons, for a variety of reasons, not just for utilitarian purposes.

...unless that's a feature of the culture the characters come from. If everyone - especially everyone of a certain standing - always carries or uses a particular weapon, well then...
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
There really aren't that many weapons when it comes down to it.

You have a variety of sharp things in line with a handle (swords, knives, etc.)
You have choppy things that work by apply force perpendicular to a handle (axes).
You have heavy bashing things (clubs, maces, hammers, etc).
You have those three things on the end of long sticks. Some times those long sticks have all three of the other things on the end.
You have the fancy things that are one of the first three on a rope of some kind.

That's about it in terms of melee weapons. Those broad descriptions can pretty much cover every type of weapon you can think of.

Any differences come down to cultural biases about what works and why.
 
Thanks for the responses so far.

What about specific combat contexts?

All-out warfare (in the field).
Skirmishes.
One-on-one melee.
Inside.
Etc.

And what about specific one-on-one matchups? I realize a spear vs. almost anything else is an advantage, at least at first, but what about axe vs. sword vs. mace? etc.
 

Derren

Adventurer
There are many reasons why there are different weapons.

1. Effectiveness.
A sword is good against lightly armored enemies, but fares poorly against heavy armor. An axe is better in that situation, but has only limited ways of how you can attack with it. Maces are even better against armor but otherwise rather bad. Sames for daggers because if their short range.
Spears are good when fielded in large numbers. Some weapons are specifically made to counter certain types of equipment like curved blades that go around shields.
And of course when you do not have a shield you can use different weapons than with a shield or when you use them from horseback.

2. Production
Some weapons are harder to make than others. Making a sword requires a lot of knowledge so often people made axes instead. Spears are easy to make so thats another reason why they are used so much.
Often people tended to weaponize the tools they had which resulted in things like scythes reforged into polearms.

3. Cultural/Regional specialities
Some cultures found a tactic that worked for them, either to counter the other nations around them or because it matched their social structure and equipped their armies accirdingly. For example the Romans with their gladius+square shield combination or Huns and Mongols with mounted archers. But warfare never stopped to evolve so the weapons evolved with it.
The samurai evolved from mounted archers, thus they only used 2 handed weapons (I think the only culture that did not use some sort of shield?).
But it was not only because of culture. For example Japan had poor iron. Thus swords were harder to make, making them more expensive and a status symbol but also meant you won't meet many enemies with metal armor.

4. Lack if standartization
Except for highly organized nations there usually was no standartization. Tell ten smiths to make a stick with a blade on the end and you end up with 10 different weapons. Word of mouth might lead to some regional standartization but you still end up with one weapon type per region which is basically the same thing but different enough to have its own name.
That was for example a big problem once ships started to carry cannons as they ended up with 10 different calibers and had to match the cannon balls to the cannons which tended to be all of a different length and even a mix of muzzle and breech loader.
 
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aramis erak

Adventurer
This is only tangentially related to RPGs, but I thought this would be a good source of erudite responses, and it is close enough to RPG-related that I feel justified in posting this year.

Last night I was thinking about a fantasy story that I'm writing that involves a "seven samurai" group, and how to outfit them in terms of weaponry. I kind of like the idea of an assortment of weapons, but I couldn't help thinking: why not just all swords? What benefit does a battleaxe or warhammer or mace have over a good old longsword? What about longsword vs. great sword? Axe vs hammer? Sword vs axe? Etc.

So that's my question: considering as many medieval/pre-gunpowder weapons as you feel like bringing up, which are best for what situations (e.g. armor, environment, etc). I want realism, not gamism, whether D&D or another RPG (although feel free to mention which game system you think best handles the differences).

Thanks!
The panoply of weapons, especially the lists in AD&D, are generally done from ignorance... attributing regional names for multiple weapons that are considered the same thing both in the period of use and in informed history.

For example, naginata and glaive - they are functionally the same weapon: A meat-cleaver on a stick with a thrusting point. The minor differences in appearance hide the unity of use.

The basic concepts:
all melee weapon use boils down to putting energy into a target for effect.
Penetration of armor relies upon maximum force on minimum area.
Damage to tissue requires dumping force into the target.
Swing of arms, and twist of hips, allows using the principle of the lever to amplify generated force.
Push and pull are weak, with their strongest being a forward thrust into the center of the target; most of the time, they're attacks of opportunity a miss.
Armor works by preventing penetration via skip-off or spreading the force, and by absorbing some energy.

Axes put a heavy mass at the end of the lever, and the swing accelerates it, and concentrates all that mass onto the very narrow contact patch along the blade edge. Good for denting plate armor, and can rend muscles through soft armors. Only does blunt force to chain, unless it manages to pop the links.

Maces put a heavy mass at the end of the lever. Less damage than an axe, but does more painful bruising. Not good versus plate, and weak vs chain.

Knives, awls, forks, thrusting tip swords, spear-tipped polearms, and thrusting spears concentrate force of a thrust, rather than a swing. Great for popping even riveted ring. If not dead on, can be deflected easily. The classic thrust sword is the rapier, and the knife is the dagger. Can get stuck in plate or ribs.

Bows use leverage and tension to time compress the energy of the draw to make a very fast acceleration of a light projectile. Very similar to knives. late medieval breastplates can be nearly impossible to penetrate

Maces and hammers: Larger contact patches than axes, but similar lever force. Larger contact patch, often causes VERY painful bruising. Can trigger compartment syndrome, break bones. Dumps more energy into the target, but at a penetration penalty.

Military hammers: some hammers are customized for war... they often have prongs on the corners of a square head in order to penetrate metal. Versus soft armors, can do a bunch of bruise and open 1-4 small punctures, too.

Spears: Dagger on a stick. Not great for slashing, but can thrust well. Functionally, a dagger you wield from 3-5 feet (1-1.5m) back.

Bec, pick: a dagger awl thrusting to the side on a stick, allowing a HUGE energy to dump. Bec's are curved, picks aren't

Polearm with a hook: The hook is for pulling on the target... including pulling passing knights off-horse, and footmen's legs.

Polearms, general: two handed axes, picks, forks, and/or cleavers on a stick. If it's got an axe head, it's an axe. If it's got a pick, it's a pick. If theres a thrusting tip, it is a spear.

Swords: good at chops, pushes, pulls, and slices, but not best at any.
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
A lot of weapons will come from farming implementations. (staffs, knives, clubs, flails, scythes, sickles, pitchforks etc). Sometimes the peasants were not allowed to own weapons, so they were stuck with using their farming tools for defence. Spears and bows for hunting.

Then those with money buy something more fancier (like a sword) to show off how wealthy they are. New ways of fighting ensue from that. For example you fight differently with a Longsword if the opponent is wearing (metal) armour than you do if he does not. Also you will need different weapons depending on how you wage wars.

And then you get the increments of time. Person A wants to inflict bodily harm to Bastard B. B does of course not want to get his head bashed in or be slashed open so he gets something to protect him. A finds that his weapon of choice doesn't work so well, so modifies it to overcome the weakness of B's armour. B in turn modifies the armour to better protect against the new weapon. Rinse and repeat... ;)

Standardization of weapons and armour will not come unless you have a large need for it. If your tribe goes on a cattle-raid against the neighbouring tribe, you grab whatever you have. Once you start having standing armies, then it makes sense that you want everyone to have similar equipment (differences for size might factor in of course), because if everyone has the same weapons then if your weapon or armour breaks, then it is easier to replace or repair, and you can probably make the manufacturing of the equipment easier as well..
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
I think you're forgetting the most important aspect of weapons for writing in a fantasy setting: it can add character. The type of weapon a person wields should say something about the character. A large man swinging a great hammer like an ogre, for example, paints a different picture than the same man who expertly spins a bo staff with precision and poise.

If you're opting to give everyone a sword, however, then you are emphasising that their weapons and fighting styles are not important for the story, which is fine, of course. Fantasy stories, like rpgs, don't need to be all about combat. ;)
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
Thanks for the responses so far.

What about specific combat contexts?

All-out warfare (in the field).
Skirmishes.
One-on-one melee.
Inside.
Etc.

And what about specific one-on-one matchups? I realize a spear vs. almost anything else is an advantage, at least at first, but what about axe vs. sword vs. mace? etc.
A weapon with longer reach has an advantage in keeping the opponent further away. As long as the opponent cant move the dangerous end away from him, and then step up inside your reach..

And longer weapons tend to need much more space to use efficiently. So there the problem is how quick can you turn it around. Or adapt your grip to be efficient at the closer distance.
 
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Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
4. Lack if standartization
Except for highly organized nations there usually was no standartization. Tell ten smiths to make a stick with a blade on the end and you end up with 10 different weapons. Word of mouth might lead to some regional standartization but you still end up with one weapon type per region which is basically the same thing but different enough to have its own name.
That was for example a big problem once ships started to carry cannons as they ended up with 10 different calibers and had to match the cannon balls to the cannons which tended to be all of a different length and even a mix of muzzle and breech loader.
Which is of course the reason in the early modern period governments started to produce requirements and contract out to makers that could meet the requirements, instead just buying what was available.

At any rate AD&D's weapon list is a massive list of silliness because its a bunch of things that are the same weapon functionally, if not in specific design.

For example a halberd is a spear point, a pick, and an axe on a a pole. No matter the size or shape of each item it's still a halberd. A poleaxe is basically a footman's warhammer on a pole, they don't necessarily have an axehead (weird right?), this is functionally the same weapon as a lucerne hammer, a bec-de-corbin, or a bunch of other hammers on a long stick. There are regional and cultural differences in the design, but in the end it was used by soldiers on foot as a hammer on a long stick.

Another good example is the naginata and the sovnya (a Russian pole weapon). Both are poles with what amounts to a single edge sword on the dangerous end. The two look different, but would be used the same way as a weapon. Both are variants of the more broad European weapon the glaive.

I suppose my general point is that if you're writing fiction pick a type of weapon you want to focus on, and find an appropriate name that you like.
 
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Last night I was thinking about a fantasy story that I'm writing that involves a "seven samurai" group, and how to outfit them in terms of weaponry. I kind of like the idea of an assortment of weapons, but I couldn't help thinking: why not just all swords?
Each of your “seven samurai” should probably carry a number of different weapons, including swords (and perhaps more than one sword).

The following quote is from an answer to the question What would have been the preferred weapons of dismounted English men-at-arms in the 14th and 15th centuries? on r/askhistorians.
MI13 said:
A man-at-arms- and medieval warriors as a whole- would be trained to use multiple kinds of weapons and would switch between them as the situation warranted…

For a dismounted man-at-arms specifically, the most likely individual choice would be a poleaxe: wielded two-handed without a shield. Pretty much all men-at-arms would also have a sword and dagger belted at their sides. Another common choice would be the cavalry lance. Remember, dismounted men-at-arms would still have brought horses to the fight and would sometimes remount if the situation called for it. For dismounted fighting, men-at-arms would sometimes cut down their lances to a more practical length for infantry combat.

Knights often carried two types of swords, the 'Grete' sword… which could be used with both hands, together with a shorter sword. A knight, David Holgrave, is described in 1372 with 'one on the belt and the other at the arçon of the saddle'.​
- Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe (2017) Robert Woosnam-Savage​

Some mounted warriors carried even more weapons.

On his person, the katafraktos carried two swords hung from shoulder straps: a straight double-edged spathion, and a slightly curved single-edged paramêrion. He had two maces in holsters on either side of the front of his saddle to fall back on, and would commence a sally with either a spear, mace or axe in hand.​
- Byzantine Cavalryman c.900 – 1204 (2009) Timothy Dawson​

The following image is from Weapons of the Viking Warrior (2019) Gareth Williams. Both of the warriors wielding a two-handed axe are also carrying a one-handed sword and a fighting knife, sheathed.

Screenshot (158).png
 
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Celebrim

Legend
Lots of good answers.

The vast variety of D&D weapons can be attributed to a number of factors:

1) Changing technological abilities: D&D weaponry tends to cover weapons used for a period that varies between 500 and 2000 years, depending on just how broadly you are looking. Over that period, not only did the materials you could make a weapon out of change owing to technological advancement, but the relative costs of producing a weapon out of that material changed. This changed what sort of weapon was most cost effective to produce, as well as what sort of weapon could be produced. For example, axes were often favored as relatively inexpensive weapons. You don't need nearly as good of quality of metal to make an effective ax or spear, nor nearly as much of it, as is required by an effective sword.

2) Evolving Defenses: Offensive arms are always in a race with defensive armor. Over the course of those same 2000 years, what you could make armor out of, how much it cost to make armor, and the actual sophistication of the armor evolved. Weapons evolved in response to specifically counter the sorts of armor that they faced, which in turn lead to further evolution in the armor to counter those specific weapons. So for example, mail offered very good protection against slashing weapons, but this protection could be overcome by sturdy thrusting weapons. Plate armor on the other hand, not only protected against slashing attacks, but all but the heaviest thrusting blows. Faced with different sorts of opponents, warriors used weapons intended to overcome the armor of the opponents they expected to face. Quick and wieldy weapons make sense against unarmored or lightly armored foes, while heavier weapons capable of crushing blows make more sense against heavily armored foes. Weapons like military picks, bec-de-corbins, warhammers, and maces evolved to face plated armored foes.

3) Different Purposes: Just as today, a weapon can exist for either military or civilian purposes. Most militaries are armed with assault rifles, but most civilians prefer handguns for self-defense because they do not expect to regularly be in a full combat situation and want a more readily concealable and easily carried weapon. In the same way, medieval and early modern battlefields were dominated by pole weapons of various sorts - spears, lances, poleaxes, halberds, pikes, and so forth - but civilians tended to prefer much less bulky weapons for self-defense - usually a variety of daggers or short swords. And, as in the modern world, laws regarding what sort of weapons a civilian could carry, further inspired the creation of new weaponry that could skirt the law and allow self-defense to groups otherwise denied that privilege. For example, the staff or stick is a simple tool that can double as an effective weapon, and so many cultures have a long history of martial arts around staff and stick fighting. Many of the Eastern weapons we are familiar with are evolved from weaponized civilian tools, and this is also true of many Western medieval weapons. Peasants took up arms to defend themselves or to revolt, and these resulting weaponized tools inspired purpose built military weapons. So you see a lot of medieval pole arms that are of the form: "tool on a staff", such as "hammer on a staff", "axe on a staff", "pruning hook on a staff", "cleaver on a staff", "knife on a staff", "scythe on a staff", "sickle on a staff", etc. where the original weapon may well have been that very thing, slightly modified and strapped on to a peasant's staff. Likewise, just as a modern soldier may carry an assortment of weapons for special purposes, a medieval knight may have carried a lance as a primary weapon, and one or more sidearms to serve in different circumstances, such as the lance breaking or needing to fight dismounted.
 

Derren

Adventurer
Yes, I forgot that. D&D compressing several centuries of worth of technological advancement into one setting for the "rule of cool" certainly also inflates the number of weapons.
 
considering as many medieval/pre-gunpowder weapons as you feel like bringing up, which are best for what situations (e.g. armor, environment, etc).
A question almost identical to yours on r/askhistorians - Can you explain why such a wide variety of weapons (swords, axes, maces, etc) were used during Medieval times in Europe? The answer covers the use of swords (including two-handed swords), axes and maces.

The answer to this question considers the effectiveness of many different medieval weapons against armour - If spears and poles can’t penetrate steel plates then how were heavy armed soldiers killed back then?


Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe (2017) Robert Woosnam-Savage

Special hunting spears developed for use against large and dangerous animals such as the boar and bear. Spears, with lashed on bone (or boar tusk) toggles, and later wings or lugs at the base of the spearhead, prevented the spear from penetrating too deeply into the beast, thus keeping the animal at a safe distance.​
Swords with longer and heavier blades, such as two-handed swords, appeared before the mid 14th century, and together with axes, flanged maces, war hammers and the pollaxe… were designed to attack and defeat plate armour by hacking and crushing it.​
The halberd had an axe-like blade with a fluke at the back and a spike at the top… and could keep mounted men-at-arms at bay, as well as hook and unhorse them.​
One weapon that was particularly useful both for stabbing and for attacking gaps in armour (such as the sights of a helmet) was the long rondel dagger.​


Weapons of the Viking Warrior (2019) Gareth Williams

The large axes of the late 10th and 11th centuries could deliver a devastating impact, but they required space to use effectively, and while the shaft could be used to block blows, and even to strike with the butt-end as well as the head, the axe-wielder was vulnerable to counter-attacks from smaller, faster weapons, as well as to missiles... It seems likely that they were developed as anti-cavalry weapons, as the impact that they could deliver would be sufficient to kill or maim a horse with a single blow. They could not be used flexibly in formation because of the space required to swing them, but they had the force to smash through a shield-wall, and this is another possible function which might explain their development.​
The short sax, or fighting knife, was ideal for use in close formation, as it could be used to great effect without significant movements.​


Warfare in Medieval Europe c.400 – c.1453 (2017) Bernard Bachrach and David Bachrach

Although swords and spears were the primary weapons throughout most of post-Roman Europe, the situation was somewhat different in Scandinavia. Here, long-handled axes, sometimes denoted by scholars as battle-axes, were an important adjunct to the armament of northern fighting men… Following the conquest of much of England by Scandinavian invaders during the course of the ninth century, the axe also was adopted by many professional Anglo-Saxon fighting men.​

The above quote demonstrates that use of a particular weapon may be determined by region of origin. If one of your “seven samurai” is a viking-type then he might use an axe simply because he’s a viking.

Up through the mid-ninth century, foot soldiers in the Carolingian Empire were armed primarily with short swords of various type, often denoted as a seax or gladius. By contrast, mounted troops possessed both a short sword, for dismounted combat in a phalanx, and a long sword, the spatha, which was a slashing weapon for mounted combat...​
However the spatha underwent substantial improvement over the course of the ninth century as sword smiths experimented with tapering blades from hilt to tip. The result was that the centre of gravity of the weapon moved backwards towards the hand-grip, making the weapon much more manoeuverable… As a consequence the spatha… made the short sword redundant for use on foot. Because these weapons had a sharp point, they could be used effectively in a phalanx as a thrusting weapon, whereas slashing was more likely to hurt friend than foe. Increasingly from the mid-ninth century, therefore, professional soldiers and wealthier members of the expeditionary levy came to be equipped with the improved spatha.​
By the later fifteenth century, some swords also were being produced for a market of aristocrats and wealthier merchants… These swords were intended to be worn on a daily basis. Consequently, the weapons were constructed so as to be comfortable when worn during the course of a normal day’s activities, and developed into very slender blades, which were not useful for the battlefield, but which could be used in duels by men who were not wearing armour.​
Perhaps the most striking development with respect to the production of swords in the later Middle Ages was the two-handed long sword utilized most famously by German mercenary troops known as Landsknechte. These swords were almost two metres long, and were intended for use against enemy pike men, and particularly to cut off the metal heads of their pole weapons such as halberds.​
During the later Middle Ages, foot soldiers… increasingly were equipped with arms that were an amalgamation of the spear and the axe. These weapons gave foot soldiers the option of either thrusting or slashing at an opponent, particularly a mounted opponent, before he had a chance to strike with his sword… In addition the continuing development of the infantry phalanx to stop charges by heavy cavalry equipped with long lances… led to the broad introduction of the long pike.​
 
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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
It's simple. Each medieval weapons manufacturer wants to lock you into its own proprietary ecosystem for add-ons, embellishments, upgrades, and enchantments. Therefore you have a wide range of different, yet very similar weapons, none of which are compatible with each other. There have been some attempts to create Universal Sharpeners and the like, but generally you have to stick with the accessories designed for that particular brand of weapon.
 
It's simple. Each medieval weapons manufacturer wants to lock you into its own proprietary ecosystem for add-ons, embellishments, upgrades, and enchantments. Therefore you have a wide range of different, yet very similar weapons, none of which are compatible with each other. There have been some attempts to create Universal Sharpeners and the like, but generally you have to stick with the accessories designed for that particular brand of weapon.
And this quickly evolves into SaaS (Sidearms as a Service), where you pay a monthly subscription for your weapons, rather than owning them outright. This is much more convenient for the average user, as they can get the latest patches and upgrades as they become available.
 

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