Three Swords from the Higgins Armory Museum
An article by Alexi Goranov

The wealthy Worcester industrialist John Woodman Higgins spent a lifetime acquiring arms and armour. In the 1930s he commissioned the construction of a new building to house his collection. Upon his death in 1961, his collection and the museum were opened to the public, and a public board has governed the museum since 1979. The museum houses more than 8,000 pieces, with the European collection consisting of about 3,000 armours and components, 500 swords and daggers, 1,000 other weapons and accessories, tapestries, woodcarvings and other items. Additionally, there are around 1,000 weapons and armour pieces from Africa and Asia.

The Higgins Armory Museum prides itself on being one of the few museums in the northern hemisphere dedicated entirely to the collection, preservation, and study of arms and armour. Since one of the aims of this museum is to further research and education, its staff helped me find swords of interest in the museum stock room and allowed me to study them.

Currently, the museum owns about 15 swords dated to the 14th century or earlier. These swords are in excavated condition and as such are not recommended for much handling. Since I was interested in actually handling swords and measuring them in detail, I had to select examples that were in a well-preserved state. Luckily, the museum possesses many such swords dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. I chose to study three: a hand-and-a-half 15th century sword (HAM# .75), a 16th century single-handed sword with complex hilt (HAM# 3846), and a bearing sword from the 14-15th century (HAM# 3133).

Historical Background
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Large cutting swords with a long blade and a hand-and-a-half grip are generally called war swords or grand espee la guerre. The popularity of these swords started in the mid 13th century and lasted until the mid-14th century. The blades of most such war swords had medium to no profile taper and are usually classified as Oakeshott Type XIIa or Type XIIIa depending on the degree of taper. Such war swords were not intended for civil wear. They were usually between three and four pounds and could deliver devastating cuts. Their use declined after 1350 as the abundance and type of available armour defenses improved. The use of Oakeshott Type XIIa and Type XIIIa increased again during the 15th and early 16th century as civilian versions gained in popularity. The swords were usually slimmer and lighter, making carrying easy. The 15th-16th century Type XIIa and Type XIIIa swords were designed with swiftness in mind as compared to their 13th-14th century counterparts. This is due to the different manner in which the swords were to be used: during duels or defense against other civilians. The HAM# .75 sword belongs to this class of civilian swords. It is a large sword of the hand-and-a-half type with long blade and almost no profile taper. The relatively thin edge geometry, light weight, and responsive handling underline the characteristics of what a civilian sword should be.

Single-hand swords were also in use during the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the tendencies of the evolution of the sword during this time was the development of more thrust-oriented blades and complex hilts that provide extra protection of the hand. This underscores the transition from the sword to rapier. The HAM# 3846 sword only displays the latter characteristic of having a complex hilt, for its blade is very cut-oriented. The parallel edges and the heavy blade can deal serious cuts. The robust edges could withstand use against armoured opponents without taking much damage. This sword can be termed a "typical" renaissance war sword.

A much less discussed, but always present type of sword is the so-called "bearing sword." Its purpose is rather simple: to display the wealth and importance of particular noble during parades. These swords were used from the early days of the Byzantine Empire until the 18th century. The bearing sword often looks like a typical sword in shape, but its size is often as much as doubled. These swords usually possess enormous blades that could be seen from afar and are lavishly decorated to illustrate the taste and possessions of the noble. The HAM# 3133 sword is an example of a typical bearing sword that would have been used during processions and various ceremonies.

The Swords
Included here is a detailed record of the three studied swords, each of which is presented with the comments provided by the museum first followed by the author's own observations.

HAM# .75 — Blade: German; Pommel: Perhaps Italian
Museum Description: Steel double-edged flattened section blade tapering gently at 1/2 its length becoming lozenge section to spear point. Both forte faces have brass inlaid stylized "A" crossed at their apex. Restored cross-guard, arms curving towards blade and expanding into squared terminals. These are deeply chisel-roped on obverse. Two-stage wooden grip wrapped in dark brown leather with spiraled cord beneath. Iron square flattened hexagonal section pommel with traces of black paint. Pommel possibly 15th c. Italian. Restored composite possibly 19th century.
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There are several comments that I need to add to the museum's description. The blade has a fuller that runs for two-thirds of its length. The last third of the blade has a very flat diamond cross-section. The profile taper of the blade is also minimal. The edges were rather thin and formed by a straight line running from the ridges of the fuller or the medial ridge to the edge. There was no indication of an "apple seed" edge. The edges were badly nicked by other sharp objects. This indicated to me that the sword was most likely used in a conflict at one time. The edges within the last half-inch behind the point were much thicker than what is found on the rest of the blade.

The flats on the blade displayed some rippling and unevenness, but it is hard to judge whether the blade was made like that or this occurred during the centuries of storage. The blade also had a minor bend one third of its length below the guard. Around six inches from the guard, spanning the width of the fuller on each side, is the maker's mark, inlaid in brass. There is a similar mark on a German rondel dagger from the 15th century.
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The hilt components of this sword are loose. The pommel peening is rather crude and sloppy. The grip is comfortable, but the spiraling cord beneath was very unevenly done. Much of the black paint on the pommel remains.

If this sword were to be judged only by the measurements provided below, one may walk away thinking that this is a large and fairly heavy sword. After all, 3.4lb (1548g) is a substantial mass, and a Point of Balance of 7 inches from the guard seems to make this sword very blade-heavy. However, when I first handled the weapon, I thought that it was certainly less than three pounds. Its 39.4 inch blade moved swiftly and easily from guard to guard. It was rather surprising to see its actual weight after I handled it for awhile. This is one of the perfect examples where simple statistical measurements do not give an accurate view of the whole picture.

This sword, in my opinion, is either a Type XIIa or Type XIIIa according to Oakeshott's typology for medieval swords, which in any case is of only limited application for later weapons. Its profile does taper, but only minimally. The pommel is of a type not easily categorized by Oakeshott's typology.

HAM# 3836 — German
Museum Description: Composite, steel, double-edge straight blade probably cut down form two-handed sword. Both faces with medial group of three crude deep narrow pointed fullers from shoulders to mid-point and an isolated shorter fuller at one edge. On obverse are traces of large edged orb mark. Blade tapers to spear point. Leather-covered ricasso. Steel guard form rapier, of type now identified with group from Schloss Ambras. Straight cross-guard. Recurved perpendicular to plane of the blade with swollen conical terminals. Large arms of the hilt bent to fit present blade and supporting an asymmetrical pair of open side rings swollen at middle. Three-branch inner-guard with a thumb-ring. Iron wire-wrapped, restored wood grip with recessed faces and tapering to pommel. Large globose steel pommel with a short wide base, and slightly tapering to a short flattened button. Hilt, Circa 1560-1570. Cf. HAM# 208.2.a. See Norman & Barne, The Rapier and Small-Sword, 1460-1820, pp111, 223, 243; Duffy, European Weapons & Daggers, plate 21(d).
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The blade of this sword has a lenticular cross-section, with even and well-defined edges of "apple seed" cross-section close to the guard. This is in marked contrast to the lower three-fourths of the blade's edges, which have been reground to a pronounced secondary bevel. I have little doubt that these are not the original edges of the sword. The grinding is crude and uneven on both edges and both faces, with grinding marks still clearly visible. There is no nicking or any sign of use on the blade. This is not a solid indication of the lack of military use of this sword, given the apparent regrinding of the blade.

This blade's three fullers are slightly uneven and wavy, which is why they were termed "crude". The middle fuller extends an inch farther toward the point than the other two. The etched maker's mark is on only one side, at the top of the middle fuller. It consists of an orb (two concentric circles with a diameter of approximately 1.25") topped with a stylized cross. There was no sign of inlays. This mark is reminiscent of similar orb marks on German blades from the mid-16th century. At least seven similar, but not identical, marks are present on 16th century swords in The Wallace Collection.
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The ricasso of this sword is almost entirely covered with leather, and no grind marks of any sort were visible to indicate that the blade was adapted from a larger weapon as suggested in the Armoury's description. On the other hand, the blade might have shortened at its lower end, leaving the original ricasso intact. This would be consistent with the crude grinding of the lower portion of the blade.

The grip is heavily soiled and worn, but very comfortable. Its wire-wrap is still very tight and there is a Turk's head knot at each end. The grip is of roughly round cross-section, with four grooves on each side that give it a more rectangular shape.

This sword has a massive presence when held. It is solidly built, with a very stiff blade and a Center of Percussion (CoP) at approximately mid-point on the blade. I am tempted to describe the blade of this sword as an Oakeshott Type XIII due to its broad, lenticular cross-section and lack of profile taper.

HAM# 3133 — Blade Only — German (probably Passau)
Museum Description:Steel. Very long double-edged blade, edges curving gently to a rounded point. About half its length of both faces is decorated asymmetrically with brass inlaid cross motifs within narrow framing borders. Both faces have stylized running wolf design reminiscent of Passau-made blades. A 1983 examination of the MMA records showed that this as ex-04.3.61. At the time the photograph was made the sword blade was with a hilt. The MMA records showed the sword as "German, 2nd half of 15th c. style" but noted as modern. It was an MMA purchase in 1903 from the di Dino collection (his F.5) with funds from the Rogers fund. Note by JWK suggest that the sword appears to be an original.
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This sword is enormous, though it can be carried upright without too much difficulty. In fact, that is how it was meant to be carried because it is a type known as a "bearing sword"—a symbol of status and power to be used on formal occasions rather than in combat.

The blade features three fullers that merge into two about halfway down the blade. The two remaining fullers terminate about three inches from the tip. Small cuts made for inlays are still clearly visible, but much of the brass inlay has fallen out.

Sword Statistics
The following statistical categories are based on the documentation recommendations of the The Oakeshott Institute.

  HAM# .75 HAM# 3836 HAM# 3133
General Dimensions  
Overall Length 123.2 cm 105.4 cm 226.7 cm
Weight 1548 g 1641.5 g > 4000 g
Point of Balance 19 cm 10.5 cm  
Center of Percussion ~ 73.0 cm ~ 33.7 cm  

Hilt Dimensions
Grip Length 18.8 cm 11.4 cm  
Guard Width 21.9 cm 26.7 cm  
Guard Height at Center 9 mm 16.5 mm  
Guard Thickness at Center 10 mm 17.5 mm  
Pommel Width 57.1 mm 43.5 mm  
Pommel Height 35 mm 56 mm  
Pommel Thickness at Center 21 mm 43.5 mm  
Pommel Thickness at Edge 10 mm    

Blade Dimensions
Blade Length from Base 100 cm 82.6 cm 170 cm
Blade Width at Base 49 mm 55 mm 89 mm
Blade Width at Midpoint 41 mm 49 mm  
Blade Width 2 Inches from Tip 3 mm 3.9 mm  
Fuller Length 59.6 cm 32.7 cm  
Fuller Width 15.5 mm 18 mm  
Ricasso Length   50.8 mm  
Ricasso Width at Base   19 mm  
Ricasso Thickness at Base   8 mm  
Oakeshott Blade Type XIIIa (?) XIIIb (?)  

The study of medieval history, warfare, and weapons takes various forms and shapes. Reading the primary and secondary literature, discussing matters with peers, studying the ancient martial arts, collecting accurate replicas of period weapons, and studying original surviving weapons are all examples of our struggle to understand our history and past and experience a little part of it. None of these examples of approaches to studying history are supreme by themselves when compared to the others. It is the combination of a few of these approaches that helps us further and deepens our understanding. Luckily, museums are keen on furthering our understanding of arms and armour. Consequently, they readily provide us with the means to test and improve our current understanding of the sword by allowing us to study surviving examples. It's my hope that the trend of people taking advantage of what the museums have to offer will only increase.

About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.

I want to extend my gratitude to Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng and Cristina Bauer of The Higgins Armory Museum for allowing me access to museum items and for all their valuable help and comments.

Photographs taken by Alexi Goranov and reproduced by permission of The Higgins Armory Museum.


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