Spotlight: Combination Weapons
An article by Chad Arnow
Weapons have been the companions of mankind since the first sharp rock or sharpened stick was used on prey or on person. Over time, these indispensable items developed into much more than killing tools for the hunt or for combat. Often made of rare and costly materials, these implements evolved into badges of rank, symbols of power, and showcases of wealth for those who could afford them. Perhaps nowhere else is this more evident than in the transition from Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Exquisite weapons were fashioned that still hold their allure centuries after their crafting.
Weapon smiths and armourers often doubled as innovators, called upon to devise new ways to defeat evolving weapons, defenses, and strategies. Far from being unlearned primitives, these men rose constantly to the new challenges given to them by their often-wealthy customers, providing improvements to weapons and defensive systems. In addition to creating arms and armour with improved capabilities, wealthy customers demanded intricate and expensive decorations, designed to let friend and foe alike see their wealth. Though the wear of these items was due in no small part to old-fashioned pride, these displays of wealth could also help an opposing soldier decide whether to kill an aristocrat or to capture them and ransom them back to their families.
The arguable pinnacle of this ingenuity and extravagance came in the 15th and 16th centuries as weapon smiths and armourers explored ever more complicated weapon designs, which increasingly meant combining characteristics of one or more weapons or other implements into a single package. These combination weapons show remarkable creativity and technical ingenuity for their time.
What is a Combination Weapon?
Seemingly, the firearm was most commonly combined with other arms. Many of the early combination weapons are attempts to add this item of growing popularity, but of limited effectiveness early in its development, to already-common battlefield weapons. In fact, noted author Claude Blair notes that "The fact that a comparatively high proportion of the small number of fine-quality firearms surviving from the first half of the sixteenth century are joined to some other weapon suggests that the manufacture of combined arms at this period was due partly to a lingering feeling of doubt about the efficiency of firearms in general." Other weapons, though, are creative combinations of centuries-old weapons or are weapons with hidden extra features. Some combination weapons were obviously designed for use, while many others may have been objects of curiosity.
The sections below will show and discuss a sampling of these weapons, grouping them into three main categories: edged weapons, hafted/impact weapons, and others. In some cases, classification is difficult: a sword cane whose handle has an axe and a hammer head could fit into more than one of those categories. In these cases, they have been classified, as logically as possible, by what may have been their main function.
Edged weapons have long enjoyed popularity among the upper crust of martial society. It is not surprising, then, to find so many exquisite examples of swords and daggers used as the basis for combined weapons.
The earliest combination weapons are what are commonly called sword canes or sword sticks today: a long, slender blade housed in a scabbard that doubled as the shaft of the cane. These appeared in Europe in the 14th century and can still be purchased today in locales where concealed weapons legislation permits them.
A larger and perhaps more important class is comprised of edged weapons combined with firearms. In many cases, the lock mechanism(s) sits near the hilt and the barrel fires to one side of the blade or beneath it. In more extreme cases, the lock could be cleverly housed inside the grip/hilt and the blade itself might be hollow, serving as the barrel. For these last weapons, a removable blade tip plugs the end of the barrel; there is debate as to whether some of these are intended to be fired as projectiles or simply removed to allow a bullet to pass through.
Yet other edged weapons are combined with other implements (clocks, etc.) or have hidden capabilities to surprise an opponent. A spring-loaded extending blade or a sword with a hidden dagger could certainly give the wielder the advantage, assuming that the overall effectiveness of the main weapon was not comprised, which is not always the case. Another popular combination was to incorporate spring-loaded devices designed to catch and/or trap an opponent's blade. These ingenious devices are more often seen in daggers (often called trident daggers due to the separation of the blade into three parts), but swords with spring-loaded parrying appendages were known as well.
Historic Examples of Edged Weapons:
Dated to 1546, this hunting trousse with decorated blade incorporates a wheel-lock pistol. The barrel travels along the back of the blade.
This Italian dagger/pistol dates from circa 1550. The hilt is chiseled steel and is gilt, while the blade and pistol mechanism have etched designs.
Hungarian/Polish saber with firearm from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
Dated to circa 1565, this sword appears to have been a functional weapon and presents a much more workman-like air that many of the others shown here.
Rapier with extending blade and concealed dagger from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This South German rapier of circa 1570 features a spring-loaded blade that extends seven inches when triggered. The grip is hollow and contains the dagger's blade. A spring in the grip extends that dagger out roughly an inch when released; a spring-loaded shell guard and quillons expand into place when it is drawn. With a total weight of over five pounds, the effectiveness of this weapon is doubtful.
Dating to circa 1570, this Italian parrying dagger's blade features a spring mechanism that splits it into three parts. This trident configuration might give the wielder the ability to trap his opponent's blade more easily.
This German sword dates circa 1575 and marries a wheel-lock to a rapier/side sword. The blade, barrel, and lock are richly engraved.
Sword cane/warhammer from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
Dated to circa 1580-1590, this sword cane incorporates a warhammer into its hilt configuration, complete with hammer head and backspike.
"Trident" dagger from the from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
Made circa 1585, this dagger was presented as gift to Elector Christian I of Saxony by Vincenzo I of Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua in 1587. Its blade springs apart into three arms and its all-metal hilt is richly decorated.
Dagger with wheel-lock pistol from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In this example from the late 16th century, the hollow blade serves as the barrel for the pistol. The removable tip serves as a cap for the barrel, a spanner, and perhaps a projectile of its own.
Dating to late 16th century, this German dagger/pistol features extensive etching on the blade and lock.
Rapier with wheel-lock firearm of Elector Christian I of Saxony from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This exquisite rapier/firearm from circa 1590 has a blued hilt inset with gilt brass medallions. Part of the blade and lock are etched and gilt. The barrel is along the back of the blade.
This swept-hilt rapier, by Ottmar Wetter, was made in Dresden in 1594. A blade can be extended from the pommel.
Dated to the end of the 16th century, this sword cane (already a combination weapon) also incorporates a wheel-lock firearm.
This weapon from the end of the 16th century combines a sword with a walking stick, hammer head and spike, and its end-cap is large and forked to be used as a musket rest.
Rapier and dagger with clock pommels from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This exquisite rapier and dagger set dates to 1610, when it was presented to Elector Christian II of Saxony. The hilts are of gilt cast brass and the pommels of both feature clocks. The rapier's clock displays the hours and I-XII and 13 to 24 and has a hinged cover that the hour hand shows through when on one of the numbers. The rear of the rapier's pommel has a lid through which the hour chime can be heard.
This German dagger from the 1st half of the 17th century has a spring-loaded blade that splits into three parts for parrying. The grip is wire-wrapped.
Rapier with expandable parrying device from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
From circa 1640, this rapier has an expandable set of lugs used for trapping a blade. It was made in Solingen by Paulus Willems.
This combination percussion cap pistol and knife blade is one of 150 such weapons ordered by the US Navy in 1833 for an expedition to the south seas.
The blade of the dagger is straddled by two barrels and dates to the late 19th century.
Another staple of the fighting classes were weapons designed primarily to crush rather than cut. Known today as impact weapons, axes, maces, warhammers, and similar items had grown in popularity with the increasing use of armour. As with edged weapons, it was only natural to see experimentation with these tried and true forms.
Just as with swords and daggers, combining impact weapons with firearms proved to be popular, with both visible and hidden locks being employed. Single-handed weapons of the horseman were popular and many are richly decorated. Longer hafted weapons also were subject to these combinations, resulting in yet more unique creations.
Weapons that incorporated elements of surprise were also popular, with extending blades being popular. One type of this weapon, called a brandistock, consists of a haft that conceals spikes (usually three) or a blade that can be extended out from the haft, locking into place, and creating a serviceable polearm.
Historic Examples of Hafted/Impact Weapons:
Holy water sprinkler with three gun barrels from the Tower of London
Dating from the 16th century and credited as Henry VIII's walking staff, this pole weapon combines three match-lock guns, complete with coverings for the charges, with a multi-spiked head.
Dated to the early to mid 16th century, these are early wheel-lock mechanisms mated to horsemen's axes.
Warhammer with wheel-lock pistol from Schloss Konopitě, Czech Republic
This Italian gilt warhammer has an integrated pistol and dates from the second quarter of the 16th century.
Axe with wheel-lock firearm from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This ornately decorated French axe/gun dates to the mid 16th century. In this example, the entire wheel-lock is contained in the wide cylinder atop the grip. The haft is hollowed for the bullet's passage.
Belonging to Philip II of Spain, this combined axe/pistol dates to 1551.
Boar spear with wheel-lock firearm from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This decorated boar spear was made by Peter Peck of Munich, circa 1560. A barrel flanks each face of the spearhead.
Partisan with two wheel-lock firearms the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This southern German partisan dates to circa 1560 and features two wheel-lock firearms, one on either side of the blade.
Dated to 1574, the stock of this wheel-lock firearm/axe combination is inlaid and is highly decorated.
Axe with wheel-lock firearm from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
Dating from circa 1580, this blackened, etched, and gilt axe has a wheel-lock mounted into its grip. Removing the top spike reveals the hollow haft that doubles as a barrel.
Axe with multi-barreled firearm from the Tower of London
This unique weapon, made in Germany and dated circa 1580, combines an axe with six barrels. Two locks are present, a wheel-lock and a matchlock; the other four barrels were to be lit with a handheld match.
Dated to circa 1580, this interesting combination is thought to be a hunting weapon. The pistol barrel passes along the right side of the halberd's head.
Poleaxe with extending top spike from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
At first appearance, this looks to be a relatively ordinary northern Italian poleaxe from the end of the 16th century, but it has a top spike that retracts into its haft that extends and locks into place.
Poleaxe with extending top spike from a private collection
This poleaxe, circa 1650, features two heads: one of a fairly typical form and the other in the shape of a rooster's claw. A retractable spike rests within a section of the head and can be released with a flick of the wrist. A small hinged plate covers the spike while it is hidden.
Warhammer with extendable thrusting blade from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This German warhammer/axe from 1593 is etched all over and features gilt brass accents. The top spike stays hidden in the haft until the pommel is turned.
This fairly typical brandistock dates to circa 1600 and features three blades that extend from the haft, locking into place.
This Italian carbine of circa 1685 has a hammer attachment on the barrel.
Miscellaneous Combination Weapons
This last category covers weapons and defensive items that don't easily fit elsewhere in this article. These could be shields (combined with guns, lanterns, or edged weapons), or other varieties of weapons whose creativity deserves recognition, but whose classification is unusual or unclear.
Historic Examples of Miscellaneous Combination Weapons:
Crossbow with wheel-lock firearm from the Doge's Palace Armoury, Venice
This Italian crossbow from the first half of the 16th century integrates a wheel-lock pistol with a crossbow.
Shield with sword blade and two sword catchers from the Historisches Museum, Dresden
This target from the first quarter of the 16th century features an extendable sword blade.
This unusual Italian creation seeks to combine many offensive and defensive capabilities into one package. It dates to the first half of the 16th century and combines a shield with multiple blades and an armoured gauntlet.
This Italian shield and matchlock gun date from between 1540 and 1547. Inventories from the Tower of London show that dozens of these shields existed and were likely purchased by Henry VIII.
Shield with matchlock gun from the Art Institute of Chicago
Dating from circa 1540-50 and being likely of English origin, this example is a shield coupled to a breech-loading matchlock pistol.
This is a beautifully detailed eating set from circa 1740 with flintlock pistols in the handles.
Certainly not a weapon of war, this curious weapon features a flintlock firearm attached to each cover. There are inlets on the fake pages into which the locks fit, allowing the book to close fully.
Many books are available to us that cover swords, daggers, impact weapons, and armour in great detail, but combination weapons, if covered at all, are given a handful of pages and a smattering of pictures. Many museum catalogues list combination weapons as part of their inventory, but overall, sources of comprehensive scholarship on this topic are lacking. One book that is devoted entirely to combination weapons is a rare title by Heinz-Werner Lewerken: Kombinationswaffen des 15.-19. Jahrhunderts (Combination Weapons of the 15th-19th Centuries). Although relatively expensive and only available in German, it is a fascinating and worthwhile pictorial reference. Hopefully, further scholarship in this area will help bring more information on these interesting weapons to light.
In their day, combined weapons were a niche market, catering to the wealthy. While their effectiveness as weapons and overall historical importance are debatable, they are a fascinating study. In these creations, we see an irrepressible spirit of creativity and art, resulting in weapons of undeniable ingenuity and admirable beauty.
About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.
Armi Bianche Italiane, by Boccia, Lionello G. ; Coelho, Eduardo T.
Arms and Armor Annual Volume 1, by Robert Held
European & American Arms, c. 1100-1850, by Claude Blair
Illustriertes Lexikon der hieb- Stich-Waffen, by Jan Sach
Fine Arms and Armor: Treasures in the Dresden Collection, by Johannes Schobel
Kombinationswaffen des 15.-19. Jahrhunderts, by Heinz-Werner Lewerken
Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court 1580-1620, by Dirk Syndram and Antje Scherner (editors)
Swords and Hilt Weapons, by Peter Connolly, Michael D. Coe, Anthony Harding, Victor Harris
Treasures from the Tower of London: Arms and Armour, by A. Vesey B. Norman, G. M. Wilson
White Arms of the Royal Armoury, by Nordstrom, Lena
Photographs copyright The Art Institute of Chicago, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Doge's Palace Armoury of Venice, Dresden Historisches Museum, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nationalmuseet Copenhagen, The Royal Armoury Stockholm, The Wallace Collection