Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Noble Falchion: A Brief Overview for Martial Artists

Single-edged and curved swords have existed in Europe alongside all other swords from time immemorial. For various reasons, overall, they have never been as preferred as straight and double edged blades prior to the modern era, but that does not mean that they have never been common nor popular. Seaxes, falchions, messers, badelairs, backswords, sabers, cutlasses and all their kin. All weapons with a designated primary cutting edge, oriented towards increased cutting effectiveness; agile and exceedingly sharp. Though some had a mild curvature, deeply curved blades were almost non-existent in Europe, presumably for the long-held knowledge of the ease and deadliness of the thrust in conjunction with the consistently advanced armours of the West.

The falchion has a noble lineage dating back to classical times. The origin of the weapons nomenclature stems from the classical and fearsome falx of Dacian fame, used most notoriously against the Romans.

Defining single-edged European weaponry:

Defining these weapons is very simple (a little less simple would be an attempt at specific stylistic blade-form classification among falchions, such as the Oakshott typology for straight, double-edged European swords). Yet, the common definitions in dictionaries and encyclopedias are generally erroneous given our current resources of knowledge about these swords. Even many swordsmen disagree over definitions, though I have yet to see an argument that is unflawed. In light of that, I offer the definitions that I find self evident and use in my school.

Here are the primary families of these weapons:

Falchion: The primary family of Medieval European “single-edged” swords. They are defined by a primary designated cutting edge on a broad blade. They comprise a wide range of stylistically different though effectively identical blade forms, including some ethnic/stylistic sub-classes (such as the messer and badelair). Most are straight, though some had a mild curvature. Though generally single-edged, many had a sharp false-edge for part of their length. They were generally, though not necessarily, somewhat shorter than the common straight bladed swords in order to compensate for having less tapered blades.

A few falchions, particularly among the earlier medieval types, have distinctively flared blades, particularly on the forward edge. The majority however, identical to the messers in the Germanic martial treatises, had broad, non-flared yet non-tapering blades.

Modern myths of the falchion:

The falchion is the victim of many erroneous modern assumptions. The most common is that they were heavy. I recall a current MRL offering in which they describe it as “heavy” no less than three times in their pitch. It has been said that this was so that they could cut through armour (yes, the old Twain cliché). Contrary to those assumptions, they were not heavy. They were generally the same weight as a regular straight bladed sword, and they were no more designed to cut through any armour than any other sword.

It has also been said that they doubled as tools to the common soldier. This is also absolutely false. They were quality weapons designed for combat and the shearing of flesh and bone, and would have been destroyed if used for digging or wood chopping, just as any other sword (if not worse). This parallels the myth of the battle-axe, which in reality was also too thin to be used for such labor. They were fighting weapons through and through. These myths are made apparent with some knowledge of the weapons construction and geometry, which is elaborated on below.

Additionally, it has been commonly said that it was not a weapon of the nobility; a commoner’s weapon. In reality, this is also far from the truth. There was no such stigma associated with this weapon. In fact, some of the surviving original falchions are weapons originally owned by high-born men, and some of the world’s greatest works of art to boot.

Messer: Falchion, or something else?

The Germanic messer is firmly in the falchion category, but some hold it as something unique, so it is deserving of special mention and explanation, particularly as it is a primary traditional weapon in the Germanic martial literature.

The messer as depicted in the martial literature has many blade forms, straight and curve-bladed, straight-pointed, clip-pointed, and double-clipped. All of these blade forms fit neatly into the falchion definition, and are only stylistic variants. Additionally, surviving blades match those depictions and surviving blades from falchions elsewhere in Europe.

Some attempt to define the messer as entirely separate from the falchion based upon its hilt. The Germanic messer possesses a particular ethnic hilt design, consisting of an asymmetrical pommel (as do many falchions), scaled grips, and often, a nagel (side guard). These, however, are ethnic, stylistic variants effectively identical to other European falchion hilts. Therefore, claiming that the messer is not a falchion is identical to claiming that the Scottish claymore is not a two-handed sword. They are weapons identical to their kin elsewhere in Europe with the exception of ethnically stylistic hilts. The claymore is a two-hand sword, and the messer is a falchion, but due to those stylistic hilts, a falchion is not necessarily a messer, and a two-hand sword is not necessarily a claymore.

It has been said that the messer is not a falchion (nor even a sword) because it does not have a pommel. This is erroneous. I have never seen a messer in art, nor in the flesh, so to speak, that did not have a pommel. I’m not sure where this idea originated, but it can be safely ignored.

Other European “single-edged” Swords:

Backsword: This is a later weapon (largely post-15th c.) than the falchion, primarily differing in that it was more similar to regular swords, being narrower and longer than any falchion, and possessing no curvature and no clipping of the point. Essentially a single-edged version of a standard sword, often indistinguishable in profile.

Saber: This is most commonly a modern weapon, but also existed from early times in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. It is essentially a mildly curved backsword, fitting the same criteria with the exception of the curve.

Some modern cavalry weapons that do not fit this criteria have been commonly referred to as sabers. This is because such weapons had become so closely associated with cavalry in the modern era, any cavalry sword was often referred to as such.

Cutlass: Relatively modern naval terminology for weapons firmly within the falchion family. Favored for naval use due to their ability to easily deliver effective cuts (regardless of skill), coupled with the shorter length convenient for use in the close-confines of ships. They are the latest extant falchions.

The purpose of the falchion:

The falchion has a particular general design. Obviously, it has this unique design for a purpose. As with any unique weapon design, it is a trade-off of factors that brings certain things to the fight at the cost of others. The blade is broad and single-edged with little, if any taper (occasionally including a broadening of the blade toward the point) in order to support a geometrically very sharp edge for the purpose of more easily delivering highly-effective cuts.

Though generally as broad as a broad double-edged sword, the falchion can be geometrically sharper (I.e. thinner) because, by comparison, each edge of a double-edged sword must taper toward the edge from the center of the blade, while the single-edged falchion can taper more gradually from one side of the blade to the opposite, rather than to the center. This keeps the edge thinner over a greater distance, making it geometrically sharper (a basic principle of the weapons design not generally realized in modern replicas). This comes at the cost of the versatility of a second edge.

In addition, the lack of taper, or slight flaring of the blade allows it to deliver those highly effective cutting actions along most of the blade, as opposed to a more tapered sword that has less mass and relatively thicker cross-section nearer the narrower point. Naturally, this comes at the cost of a more agile and narrower point that could more easily pierce various targets. Additionally, the falchion is often shorter than the more common double-edged swords as compensation for having a broad blade with little taper. This keeps the mass similar to that of a double-edged sword in order to keep the balance and handling characteristics optimal, but at the cost of length.

Further Reading:

A brief but informative article on the Conyers Falchion...


Copyright March 2010, Casper Bradak


Joel Norman said...

How about Dussacks? Falchion or no. I'm thinking you have to say they are, with your definition.

Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Hey, Joel.

I think the mighty dussack definetly falls somewhere within the falchion family. There are surviving examples made of steel.


Samuel said...

Hello folks,

To offer some food for your pan-European thought , we (Slavs of east-central Europe ) call the messer-like weapons "tesák"(or alternatively tasak in polish, note the similarity with the later Dussage) and I would also like to disagree (if I may) with the notion that its strictly a "Germanic" type of weapon since the whole of Slavic(and party Hungarian and other...) east-central Europe used such weapons until cca late 15/16c (thereafter swords and tesaks being replaced by sabres). Also to my layman eyes it seems that in terms of blade proportions the western falchions tend to feature a "clipped" back-edge , whereas messer-blades seem to be more "smooth". Hope I didn't confuse the matter further (albeit I know I did anyway..:D)
Overall a fine article , I myself am fascinated by the falchion and this piece debunks some "heavy" myths..

Greetings from Slovakia

Samuel Beňa

Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Joel, I agree. Under my definition, I would definitely count the dussack as a particular breed of falchion. Now, in either case, whether I personally believe that the dussack amounted to much more than a falchion-foil is another matter...

Samuel, thank you for your knowledgable input. Consider my reference to "Germanic" as referring more to the focus in the martial arts literature, rather than saying that the messer-type weapons existed only about Germany. They can even be found referenced and depicted in medieval England.
As to the clipping of the back edges, many earlier falchions are depicted as having straight spines and curved edges, and most messers are depicted, at least in the martial arts literature, as most often having a single clip on the false edge, if not two, though some have a straight spine. Hence a more general familial approach in my definitions. All breeds of falchion seem to have a great stylistic variety.


Samuel said...

That's very true Casper , there are quite a lot of exceptions to this (it seems I have fallen for the "over-generalisation" trap). From the top of my head works of Lecküchner and Dürer feature such clipped blades.
As to messers in England, Henry the VIII's sword is quite a fascinating piece,albeit its allegedly dubbed as a "sabre" (no wonder since many early 16th c sabres have a riveted and slightly canted hilt as well; though in my eyes the visible lack of any pommel cap would put this into the "knife" category)