A Grosse Messer from Cold Steel
A hands-on review by Nathan Robinson
One such example of a weapon evolved to specialization is the grosse messer (meaning "great knife"), a single-edged sword sharing characteristics with both the falchion and the saber. A great variety of sizes can be documented, from single-handed examples, to hand-and-a-half proportions, and even as full-sized two-handers. Many of them were fitted with a straight single-edged blade, others with curved saber blades, while still others had thick blades that swelled towards the point. They were often equipped with a curved cutting edge or a sharpened back-edge.
A common characteristic of the grosse messer is a substantial slab tang with sandwiched scales of wood or horn attached with rivets. Many examples have a pommel shape that is "drawn out" towards the outside of the hiltoften referred to as a "hat-shaped pommel"but there is much variety to be found, with some examples having no real pommel, but rather a butt-cap covering the end of the grip.
These weapons were used by various classes extending from the hired soldier up to the most noble of gentlemen. While it has been written many times that peasants and other common-folk carried various types of messer (knives), it is very unlikely that they were to carry or own a sword of any kind, let alone a grosse messer.
Many surviving pieces exhibit elaborately decorated fittings and expensive materials, while others have a more utilitarian appearance to them. One exquisite sample, made by Hans Sumersperger of Hall in Tyrol for Maximilian I in 1496, features beautiful engravings, inlays of mother-of-pearl and precious metals, and still has its by-knives and scabbard intact.
Cold Steel, a California-based company, has been making performance-oriented production knives for many years. In recent years, they started to offer various lines of swords and historically based replicas. Their Grosse Messer is part of their European line, made in a factory based in India to Cold's Steel's specifications.
I've been unable to find documentation or a photograph of a sword with the exact configuration of Cold Steel's version. Particularly absent from my historical searches is a grosse messer containing a single side ring with no counter-guards. For the most part, the examples for which I have documentation generally have a small shell guard; a looped side ring forming into a finger-ring and then into a counter-guard, often with thumb-ring attached; or no other protection beyond the cross-guard. Some original examples, particularly the shorter variety, have one of the quillons down-turned to form a knuckle-bow.
Not having a specific example to cite, I think it's fair to guess that, based on the blade shape, overall size of the piece, and the existence of a sole side ring, Cold Steel is trying to represent something from the late 15th century.
Maker: Cold Steel of California.
The Grosse Messer was no doubt purpose-built for the powerful cut or chop. Cold Steel's version certainly delivers in this regard. The company claims that they used their offering to cut a phone book in halfa claim that is immediately validated by taking the weapon in-hand and feeling its heft. The blade maintains a lot of blade mass behind its very sharp factory edge.
The extreme sharpness of the edge combined with the mass of the weapon certainly proved devastating in my cutting tests on thick-walled carpet tubing. I found that the sword would cut, or chop, this medium with ease. The Cold Steel Grosse Messer certainly is not a finesse cutter, however, as its heavy weight prevents it from being very responsive to anything but a fully committed cut. Any hopes of a quick recovery and change of direction can be ruled out.
Maintaining proper edge alignment was also made a bit difficult by the weapon's mass, but didn't seem to have any noticeable effect on cutting performance. In fact, it was difficult not to have this beast chop right through whatever was put in front of it. It's also worth noting that a good cut was able to be performed all along the length of the blade and was not limited to just the so-called "sweet spot".
It's important to note that despite this sword's adequate balance, at four pounds, it's simply too heavy. I've taken great efforts to look for documentation and stats for historic swords of this type, and I have been unable to find one that weighs anywhere near this heavy for this size. In fact, I've seen an example weighing nearly 1.5 pounds lighter, despite being 4" longer than Cold Steel's version at 46.5" long. Another example, at nearly the same dimensions of the replica, is documented at 2.9 pounds, and another at 3.2 pounds.
Museum Replicas Limited once had a grosse messer made by Windlass Steelcrafts in their catalog. Their version was a couple inches smaller than the Cold Steel offering and came unsharpened, but weighed a half of a pound lighter. I haven't handled the MRL version, and so cannot comment on its characteristics.
No doubt there was a great diversity in authentic examples of these weapon types, and it's quite likely that a four-pound grosse messer of these dimensions existed. Having said that, I am still of the opinion that it's much too heavy to be an effective weapon of war, despite it being an accomplished cutting sword for the enthusiast.
I would like to see the blade's distal taper increased substantially, the profile taper modified, and the pommel (weighing nearly a full pound) substantially reduced in weight. These modifications, if done appropriately, could be made to maintain cutting ability while making it substantially more wieldable and responsive.
Fit and Finish
The sword is constructed tightly without any rattles or movement of its pieces. Any gaps have been filled with some sort of wood putty or other soft filler. The hilt pieces show no pitting, scratches, or obvious flaws. The rosewood handle slabs are quite attractive. The rivets used on the grip have odd concentric circles on their faces and are very modern looking. Overall, it's a well-assembled piece that seems rock-solid.
The steel furniture on the hilt and scabbard are blued to a nice dark gray color and, though just the slightest bit splotchy, is extremely attractive. The pommel is very nicely shaped and exhibits the gradual flair and grace of form that can be seen on antiques. Any subtlety found with the pommel is completely lost on the cross-guard. In fact, the cross and side ring look like a piece of flat metal stamped out of a larger piece of flat metal. It's been left flat with relatively sharp edges and lacks any and all of the subtle details found on antique sword fittings. The cross-guard is the most disappointing element of this grosse messer package.
Though the pommel is a very pleasing shape, the method of attachment is something worth examining. Despite the sword having a full slab tang construction, there is a small threaded rod brazed at its end to which the pommel is threaded. The knife industry has been using this sort of construction method for years with great success. In fact, the brazed end is most likely extremely strong and unlikely to break, but one must still wonder why Cold Steel chose this technique on this piece. I've seen historic samples that have a hollowed pommel that simply fits over the scales, acting more like a butt-cap than a large counter-balancing solid pommel. If this sword were to utilize this method, the blade's mass could be substantially reduced, producing a better-handling weapon entirely.
Speaking of the blade, its finish is quite nice. The polish is very even, nearly mirror-like without a single noticeable flaw. The fullers are deep, wide, and executed very well. They're also perfectly even on both faces of the blade. The point is quite sharp, as are the edges. The blade is the best part of the package, and this is a good thing, as it's perhaps the most important aspect of a sword.
Cold Steel includes a well-made scabbard. It's made from a very thin and nicely shaped wooden core, covered in leather, and finished with blued steel fittings. The quality of the scabbard is definitely a notch above most production-quality pieces that are included with sword purchases. My only complaint, and it's a big one, is that it's simply far too tight to be effectively used. Most well made scabbards are made to "grab" the blade only at the tip and throat, creating a tight fit only when the blade is fully inserted. This one is tight all along its length, requiring quite a bit more effort than it should when removing and inserting the blade.
All in all, the Cold Steel Grosse Messer is a tight, well-made sword in terms of construction and materials. I can't imagine it taking much damage from anything put in front of it. If the potential buyer is looking for a tough-as-nails sword capable of devastating cuts on fixed targets, this sword just might fit that bill rather well. There are very few production-made swords of this style available, and this is certainly a good attempt to fill that niche.
The quality of heat-treat on the blade, the edge geometry, and tight overall build tolerances will be enough for many buyers to want to consider this an addition to their collection.
If the buyer is looking for a historically accurate grosse messer that handles with agility and ease while maintaining cutting power, this sword will not fit that order. There are too many inconsistencies present when compared to historical counterparts. The extreme weight and sluggish handling prevents it from being considered a weapon for martial arts use, and the lack of subtlety of form and line will keep it from being appealing to the collector looking for an authentic replica.
The suggested retail price on the sword is $300 USD. The notion of value is entirely subjective, but I simply cannot state that I feel this sword is worth that asking price. Luckily, it can be found for substantially less from many on-line sellers. At a bit less than $200, I'd say it would be a good buy for those happy with what this sword can offer. For me, and my collecting tastes, this piece simply doesn't meet enough of my needs.
About the Author
Nathan Robinson has been interested in history and the hobby of reproduction arms and armour collecting for well over a decade. A professional Web developer in San Francisco, he started myArmoury.com as a resource for like-minded people and hopes to help educate and entertain enthusiasts and consumers alike. He strives to push the sword community forward, helping create a healthy market with functional and historically-researched pieces available for us all.
Photographer: Nathan Robinson