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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sun 12 Jun, 2011 10:35 am    Post subject: Hypothesis: Brazil Nut-Shaped Pommels         Reply with quote

As everyone who is a fan of the Brazil nut pommel knows, they are among the most common type of pommels seen on 10th through 12th century swords. A lot of people see the appearance of these pommels as an outgrowth of some of the other late Viking forms, and view these pommels as an aesthetic evolution. I would like to offer the hypothesis that Brazil nut pommels may not be merely an aesthetic development, but also a pragmatic one as well.

Looking at some examples of extant illustrations dating from the High Middle Ages, and in particular, images from the 12th century, we find evidence of knights stabbing downwards with two-hands placed upon a single handed sword for greater power. These actions are depicted as being delivered in a manner similar to an overhead icepick blow with a dagger. Obviously, stabs delivered in this manner would have a greater chance of successfully penetrating mail armour and causing injury to their foes.

It seems to me that the shape of a Brazil nut pommel is naturally suited to facilitate this action. Their shape, particularly the longer Type A pommels, allows you to naturally wedge the top of the pommel against the palm of the hand, while easily gripping with your fingers around the flat-bottom of the pommel, permitting a good grasp and control of the sword when thrusting with two hands. The shape of a Brazil nut pommel is very well suited to this sort of action, even more so than the shape of a disk pommel or other, similar such pommels.

As numerous people have observed, wielding a sword and striking with it can feel uncomfortable with a Brazil nut pommel, particularly if you are not used to doing so. Moreover, Brazil nuts can make the sword’s grip feel cramped, particularly with the shorter grips found on many Viking style swords. Given that this is the case, it is natural to wonder why Brazil nuts were so popular; if a sword has a design element that is aesthetically pleasing, but functionally hampers the weapon, it seems unlikely that the design would remain so popular for such a long period of time. After all, when these swords were made, aesthetics were a secondary consideration: the primary concern was how well they functioned as weapons. The hypothesis presented here, although untested and unverified, could go a long way in explaining the popularity of Brazil nut pommels in purely functional terms, since it is well documented that a powerfully placed thrust was one of the most effective ways to defeat mail armour.
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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Sun 12 Jun, 2011 3:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There are a couple of problems with this hypothesis. First, brazil-nut pommels in no way hamper the use of a cutting sword when used in the normal, correct way. Second, most swords with brazil-nut pommels are obvious cutting swords with neither the stiffness nor acute point needed for serious thrusting.
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sun 12 Jun, 2011 5:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Scott Woodruff wrote:
There are a couple of problems with this hypothesis. First, brazil-nut pommels in no way hamper the use of a cutting sword when used in the normal, correct way. Second, most swords with brazil-nut pommels are obvious cutting swords with neither the stiffness nor acute point needed for serious thrusting.


The first point is fair enough. The second point though needs more consideration. It's obvious looking at Type X, Xa, and XI swords that they are cutting swords not well-suited to thrusting. Nevertheless, we find both period artwork and descriptions of combat indicating that they were used for this purpose; merely because they are not so well suited to thrusting as some other types of sword does not mean that they were not used at all. Second, particularly with Type XI blades, the point section is often significantly less spatulate than many of the Type X swords, which is indicative that the makers of these swords and the men that used them were concerned about having points that could deliver a thrust.
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Jeremy V. Krause




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PostPosted: Sun 12 Jun, 2011 8:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:
Scott Woodruff wrote:
There are a couple of problems with this hypothesis. First, brazil-nut pommels in no way hamper the use of a cutting sword when used in the normal, correct way. Second, most swords with brazil-nut pommels are obvious cutting swords with neither the stiffness nor acute point needed for serious thrusting.


The first point is fair enough. The second point though needs more consideration. It's obvious looking at Type X, Xa, and XI swords that they are cutting swords not well-suited to thrusting. Nevertheless, we find both period artwork and descriptions of combat indicating that they were used for this purpose; merely because they are not so well suited to thrusting as some other types of sword does not mean that they were not used at all. Second, particularly with Type XI blades, the point section is often significantly less spatulate than many of the Type X swords, which is indicative that the makers of these swords and the men that used them were concerned about having points that could deliver a thrust.


Well against cloth armour or bare flesh the points of many type X's, Xa's, and XI's would work fine but I can't see most doing squat facing mail. These blades tend to be quite flexible in addition to having a less than most effective stabbing point. I know that all of mine are (Reene and Barta type XI) I have a Norman which shares the blade of the Gaddjhalt and this is quite flexible as well.

Also you never know what's accurate and what is poetic license in historic illuminations/manuscripts.
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Eric Meulemans
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PostPosted: Sun 12 Jun, 2011 9:07 pm    Post subject: Re: Hypothesis: Brazil Nut-Shaped Pommels         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:

As numerous people have observed, wielding a sword and striking with it can feel uncomfortable with a Brazil nut pommel...


Clearly I am not one of these persons, as I've never thought a Brazil nut to be a hindrance to such use. Quite the opposite in fact, as I feel it to be an elegant form quite well suited to striking. So this leaves me somewhat confused as to the origin of your hypothesis. That is, I don't see that there is a problem here that requires a solution.

I am interested however to know more about these numerous accounts, from a general standpoint. It's honestly something that has just never occurred to me.
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Sean Hendriks





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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jun, 2011 12:22 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Any difficulty probably arises from using an improper grip, given the reference to a cramped grip.
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Mon 13 Jun, 2011 3:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeremy,

Regardless of poetic license in medieval illustrations, if we have a single image of a knight stabbing another knight wearing mail armour, we have evidence that thrusts were used for attacks. Whether they are exaggerated or not is irrelevant; it is the fact that they were used that matters.

As it turns out, we do have an image illustrating this, which dates from the first half of the 12th century. I also have seen at least one other 12th century image, although I am not sure how easy it will be to relocate it.

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Jeremy V. Krause




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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jun, 2011 8:21 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

That's a neat manuscript illustration. I don't think I've seen it before. I wonder if you would have access to a larger/clearer pic. This is around my favorite period. Thanks for sharing!
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Johan Gemvik




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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jun, 2011 6:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig, also see page 212 in The Archaeology of Weapons by Eart Oakeshott for another image of knights thrusting with what seems to be type X or near type swords. The original work is cited by Oakeshott to be "The vicotry of Humility over Pride" from the the "Jung frauenshpiegel" ca 1200.

Dan Dickinson posted this photo of it on SFI some time ago:


I'll be on the lookout for more images on the subject, I've seen at least a score. Probably the Macieowski bible is a good place to search, and it's on the web in full to browse. (Forgive my spelling if I got it wrong off the top of my head, one of the hardest names in history to get right IMO)

Regarding the dicussed flexibility of type X and near type blades I think we also need to consider that modern replicas are often not the same as histoircal originals just because they look like it. Some blades at least like this were historically tempered differently in the tip compared to the forte, making them stiffer tipped than the ones we play and cut stuff with today. Which supports your, or should I say our, idea that they were indeed used for thrusting, or some were meant to be able to do it reasonably at least.

Something else to consider is that if you twist a thrust you stiffen the blade a great deal. This would probably allow even a fairly flexible tip to be stiff enough to peirce at least non-tempered iron maille as long as the person behind it can generate the force required.

"The Dwarf sees farther than the Giant when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on" -Coleridge
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Jeremy V. Krause




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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jun, 2011 9:39 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Johan Gemvik wrote:

Regarding the dicussed flexibility of type X and near type blades I think we also need to consider that modern replicas are often not the same as histoircal originals just because they look like it. Some blades at least like this were historically tempered differently in the tip compared to the forte, making them stiffer tipped than the ones we play and cut stuff with today. Which supports your, or should I say our, idea that they were indeed used for thrusting, or some were meant to be able to do it reasonably at least.


That's interesting Johan,

I have never read or heard this before. Where have you read this?

Have others heard of this phenomena in historical swords?

If it is true, it would make for an interesting dynamic to incorperate into a reproduction.
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Johan Gemvik




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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jun, 2011 7:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeremy V. Krause wrote:
Johan Gemvik wrote:

Regarding the dicussed flexibility of type X and near type blades I think we also need to consider that modern replicas are often not the same as histoircal originals just because they look like it. Some blades at least like this were historically tempered differently in the tip compared to the forte, making them stiffer tipped than the ones we play and cut stuff with today. Which supports your, or should I say our, idea that they were indeed used for thrusting, or some were meant to be able to do it reasonably at least.


That's interesting Johan,

I have never read or heard this before. Where have you read this?

Have others heard of this phenomena in historical swords?

If it is true, it would make for an interesting dynamic to incorperate into a reproduction.


Do you mean the twisting thrust or the varying tempering along the blade?

Twisting to stiffen a blade during a thrust is commonly known from both modern HEMA and sport rapier fencing, but I've also tried it with real blades. It risks damaging the tip but makes the thrust stiffer, in some cases quite a bit. My brother's seen a friend who's an historical fencer put a common training sport raiper straight through a bathroom door, just thrusting it without twisting with the same force simply bent the blade against the door with little or no damage to it.
Wide blades may catch on maille links or other armour going in of course, possibly damaging the tip or warp the blade even, but it'd make them stiffer during the thrust.

The varying temper along at least one specific blade was written about an historic sword spotlighted here on on myArmoury. I'll see if I can find it and post a link.

"The Dwarf sees farther than the Giant when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on" -Coleridge
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Tue 14 Jun, 2011 8:03 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Another image of a thrust through mail armour, dating from the 12th C. Despite the obviously fantastic elements, it must be at least plausible that a sword could thrust into and penetrate mail armour.

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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Wed 15 Jun, 2011 3:53 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig, I have no doubt that type XI's and XII's were indeed regularly used in thrusting. I can easily thrust through a truck tire with my very long and floppy sword (sort of an XI/XII/XIII hybrid.) What doesn't make sense to me is the type of thrusting you described. All of the ms. showing thrusts show a typical thrust, not a thrust with the off hand against the proximal end of the pommel. If this were a valid technique I would expect to see brazil-nut pommels on a lot of stiff thrusting swords, which is something you almost never see. I see the brazil-nut pommels as perfect for a single-handed cutting sword and that is precisely the type of sword that they are almost always found on.

Johan, I have never heard of twisting in thrust and am very keen to learn more. How exactly is this done? I am eager to experiment with this as I often feel like I want a stiffer blade when thrusting.
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J.D. Crawford




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PostPosted: Sat 18 Jun, 2011 4:04 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Caig, I would think that in the age of the BN pommel's greatest popularity the foot-soldier's non-dominant hand would often be holding a shield. But when it was not, yes, why wouldn't one push on the pommel to give greater force? Probably everything that could happen on a battle field did happen. Whether this situation was frequent enought to shape the preference for the pommel shape is hard to say - but it would explain why brazil nuts were more popular than cocked hat pommels or type M. So I have to give you that.

On the other hand I must agree with Scott that BN pommels are incredibly comfortable to use when one gets used to them. Its important to have the right grip length (for me 3.6-3.7" is perfect) and pommel curvature / flatness for your particular hand, but I love the way they feel against my hand and the way they support the weight of the sword in both the hammer and handshake grip. There had to be more than one reason this was the most popular type for hundreds of years.

Regarding thrusting through mail - Dan Howard would not agree: http://www.myArmoury.com/feature_mail.html

However I'm inclined to think never say never. The laws of physics say you could shoot a soft-boiled egg through mail if it reached high enough velocity, so its really a question of what humans can do under the right conditions. I can see a large strong warrior, trained their entire life, and under the influence of a PCP-like berserker rage, occassionally doing things that would seem impossible for a person of today calmly doing tests in their backyard.
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Robert Brandt




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PostPosted: Sat 18 Jun, 2011 8:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:
Another image of a thrust through mail armour, dating from the 12th C. Despite the obviously fantastic elements, it must be at least plausible that a sword could thrust into and penetrate mail armour.



Craig,

I envision a contemporary knight walking by this depiction and shaking his head the same way I do when I watch modern movies depict handguns blowing people back through the air or curving the path of a bullet by twisting the gun as it's fired. Given the limitations of an underhanded thrust and the fastasty elements, I don't think it necessitates the plausibility of thrusting through mail at all. However...

I made my first suit of mail in 1983 and have done quite alot of penetration testing on a great variety of mail types over the intervening years and I do believe that two-handed thrusting through mail against defensless opponents is practical, and a brazil nut pommel is quite an effective shape for delivering a two-handed Coup de Grace with a single handed blade. It would not facilitate the twisting of the blade as described earlier though (which is a fanscinating technique I intend to learn more about), nor does it answer the question about whether contemporary type X and XIs were stiff enough to deliver the required force. Type Xs are a current weak spot in my collection, but my observations of modern reproductions that I have handled leave me in doubt about those modern replicas' suitability. I do think that the replica industry sometimes trends toward lighter than necessary blades for a couple reasons that I wont go into here. So maybe many originals were stiff enough to support a good two-handed thrust without risking damage. I wouldn't be surprised.

I think your hypothesis that the shape is a practical evolution is plausible.
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Johan Gemvik




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PostPosted: Sun 19 Jun, 2011 4:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jermey, as answer to your earlier question, I believe it was the Turin sword that was being decribed here in a feature article as having a higher degree of tempering at the tip and a lower one at the forte. Among other things this would affect the thrusting characteristic as the tip would be less bendy that it would seem from the blade geometry alone.
"The Dwarf sees farther than the Giant when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on" -Coleridge
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Sun 19 Jun, 2011 5:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I heard some swordsmiths saying that heat treatment doesn't have noticeable effect on the flexibility of blade. Is it true? Than hardened tip would be as flexible as an anealed one...
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Johan Gemvik




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PostPosted: Mon 20 Jun, 2011 3:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Luka Borscak wrote:
I heard some swordsmiths saying that heat treatment doesn't have noticeable effect on the flexibility of blade. Is it true? Than hardened tip would be as flexible as an anealed one...


*Re-edited after some further musings in the matter* Wink

This would depend on the material used of course. Wrought Iron as some smiths use for core material in high end viking and earlier type swords cannot be tempered by quenching for starters, so an iron core sword would only retain increased stiffness in the edge and that wouldn't be all that much noticeable. Low carbon steel won't get much temper either. If either of these are used for the core of a sword then yes, it can't be tempered in the core and can only retain hardness in the edge. Monosteel or semi- to high carbon core swords can though.

To my experience blade stiffness is affected to some degree by material hardness, but perhaps as you say, it woun't be enough to be readily noticeable from ordinalry handling or even something that would really mattter enough when thrusting to make a big difference. Certainly you can harden to a higher degree throughout the extended tip area, overharden it as it were or rather only lightly anneal it in practice, but you'd also risk the tip shattering then. Some swordsmen might have preferred that, others wouldn't.
Cross section geometry matters to a far greater degree and will be immeditately obvious from just trying to lightly poke at an inanimate object or flex the blade slightly to one side. Especially a high ridged hollow diamond cross section makes a blade far less bendy than a flatter blade with the same cross section area. But we don't see these in Oakeshott type X or any typical brazil nut swords.

"The Dwarf sees farther than the Giant when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on" -Coleridge
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