What is a Broadsword?

The straight-bladed, two-edged European sword can trace it’s origin back into the Celtic Iron Age. Although the length varied slightly, profile changed with both desired use and improvements in metallurgy, and the hilt design changed considerably with both fashion and innovation, at a fundamental level there is little about the Highland Broadsword of 1745 that would not familiar to an ancient Celt, Viking warrior or medieval Crusader.

The sword was primarily a cutting weapon, with a broad, thin blade that, if swung correctly, could remove heads and limbs, and even slice through mail shirts and steel helmets. They generally weighed in the 1.2-1.3kg range, and a well-balanced sword could cut or thrust with equal ease and remarkable swiftness. By the 12th century European metallurgy had reached the point where high quality steel swords could be manufactured relatively cheaply, making the weapon quite readily available.

The next great technological innovation was the invention of the “basket hilt” to protect the hand, in place of a separate armoured glove or gauntlet. Although varieties of close-hilted swords were used throughout Europe, the origins of the basket-hilt itself would appear to lie within Britain. By 1540 fully developed basket-hilts in the classic “Scottish” style are seen in paintings.[1] While the earliest surviving examples of such hilts are of English manufacture, it is worth noting that both the English and Lowland Scots were of the opinion that this style of sword was of Highland origin, and by the end of the century they were universally referred to as “heland hiltis” in Scotland,[2] or “Irishe hilts” in England[3] (who called the Highland Gaels “Irish”).

During the 16th century these weapons were usually called “Short Swords”, a term that contrasted it to the two-handed “longsword” and the “long rapier.”[4] During the 17th century the word “Broadsword” first appears as a proper name, associated specifically with the basket-hilted Highland weapon or “Claymore.”[5]

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Figure 1: A Highland Broadsword, 1785 Pattern

Another name associated with the basket-hilt is the “Back Sword,” indicating a weapons with a single edge and thick back. Although the name “Backsword” became associated with the basket-hilt during the 18th century, single-edge swords predate the invention of the full basket hilt, and it’s likely the name “Backsword” is of earlier origin. It’s worth pointing out that the majority of pre-1600 English basket-hilted swords are, in fact, broadswords,[6] and both Broadswords and Backswords are commonly referred to in both nations.

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Figure 2: A “Wakefield” Backsword, c.1450

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Figure 3: A mid-18th century English backsword

Another weapon in common use was the Singlestick. Singlesticks were wooden sticks about thirty-five inches in length, with a rigid leather or cane basket to protect the hand, and were used in both a sporting context and a weapon in it’s own right, on the understanding that “the basket hilted cudgel was a rough-and-ready substitute for a sword.” Cudgelling was an ancient art; from 1483 one source records:

“it is the particular delight of this race [the English] that on holidays their youths should fight up and down the streets clashing on their shields with blunted swords or stout staves in place of swords.”

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Figure 4: British Naval Singlestick Practice

 

The Scottish smallsword master Sir William Hope described a variety of weapons in his 1687 fencing manual;31

“There are different kinds of Sword-Blades, some whereof are only for Thrusting, such as the Rapier, Koningsberg, and Narrow Three-Cornered Blade, which is the most proper Walking-Sword of all the Three, being by far the lightest; Others again are chiefly for the Blow, or Striking, such as the Symiter, Sabre, and Double-edged Highland Broadsword; and there is a Third Sort, which is both for Striking & Thrusting, such as the Broad Three-Cornered Blade, the Sheering-Sword with two Edges, but not quit so Broad as the aforementn’d Highland Broad Sword; and the English Back-Sword with a thick back”32

The curved sabre became incorporated into the British armoury towards the end of the 18th century, when a number of fencing manuals were published with titles such as

“The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre”, “Hungarian and Highland Broadsword” and “The art of defence on foot with the broad sword and sabre, uniting the Scotch and Austrian methods into one regular system. To which are added remarks on the spadroon.” These manuals covered the use of a variety of swords, straight and curved, heavy and light, reflecting the variety of swords used at the time, and led to the adoption of the “Broadsword Exercise” as a standard method of training British soldiers in their use.

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Figure 5: A 1796 pattern Light Cavalry Sabre

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Figure 6: A 1796 pattern Infantry Officers Sword

In the early 19th century, the British Army had largely adopted a compromise cut-and-thrust blade with a very slight curve, which was simply called a “Broadsword.” The Scottish style basket-hilts, still used in Highland Regiments, were “Claymores.” More importantly, the “Broadsword Exercise” lent it’s name to the art, and you could be “doing Broadsword” regardless of what weapon was in your hand.

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Figure 7: A 1822 pattern Infantry Officers Sword

REFERENCES

[1] Blair, Claude “The Early Basket Hilt in Britain” in Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800 ed David Caldwell, 1981.

[2] The earliest mention of a “Highland hilt” comes from 1576, where the Inverness burgh records mention “ane pair of Heland hiltis wyth the plwmet tairof…to be put on ane sourd bled”( Blair, Claude “The Early Basket Hilt in Britain” in Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800 ed David Caldwell, 1981, p.157)

[3] The earliest mention of an “Irish hilt” comes from the accounts of the Master of the Armouries in 1607, referring to “one thowsande sowrdes furnished sent into the Realme of Irelande for his Mates service…Armynge Swordes wth Irish hiltes” (Blair, Claude “The Early Basket Hilt in Britain” in Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800 ed David Caldwell, 1981, p.162)

[4] See also Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617), p.187. During the 16th century the basket-hilted broadsword favoured by the “reivers” of the Scottish borders was called the “Skottisch short sworde” (Fraser, George MacDonald, Steel Bonnets, 1971).

[5] Wagner, Paul, and Thompson, Chris, “The words claymore and broadsword” in Spada, Vol.2

[6] See examples in Blair, Claude “The Early Basket Hilt in Britain” in Scottish Weapons and Fortifications 1100-1800 ed David Caldwell, 1981.

 

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