The Weight of Weapons — For REAL!

Clint Staples

The popular fiction, and it is a fiction, that medieval weapons were heavy and unwieldy things, may not have begun with Bugs Bunny, but most of us remember the 'wascally wabbit' struggling to even lift Sir Osis of the Liver's broadsword, right? Admittedly Bugs is a rabbit and we are bigger and all, but that image, and the fallacy that came with it seems to have stuck around. 

I have heard people bandy about weights of ten or even twenty pounds for realistic weights for medieval weapons. 3.5 and 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and the Pathfinder RPG all have weights of ten or more pounds for two handed weapons. A lot of replica weapons are handsome things that are 50% heavier or more, than the originals. Not being a weapon maker, I can only speculate on why this is, but ease of manufacture and unrealistic expectations on both sides of the cash register probably have a lot to do with it.

Let's think about actual weapon vs. game weapon weights for a bit. Take an example:

D&D Greataxe - listed at 12 pounds. Now - go and get yourself a garden rake and strap an 11 pound frozen turkey to the end. See how well you can swing that around. Come back when you are done. I'll wait.

Back? I hope you didn't actually try it, you might have hurt yourself, and ruined a perfectly good bird. I own a replica of a great axe [viking style], probably something faily similar to what is intended as a greataxe in 4th ed. Mine is 50 inches in height and weighs under 3.5 pounds. It moves very well, very quickly and hits very hard. I have used it to dismember a loading pallet, which it did with one real stroke and a few one handed chops to separate the two-by-fours. I have it on good authority that an identical one owned by a friend of mine actually split riveted chainmail. Incidentally, I do not recommend doing these sorts of things yourself. I'm not saying I'm a professional and your not. I'm saying it is just stupid and dangerous to do. So don't do as I did.

But a turkey on a pole isn't balanced like a weapon you say. True. Because real weapons aren't like that. Nor are they, for the most part 12 or 14 pounds [a few executioner's swords excepting - and if you want to hear how badly executioners bungled numerous jobs over the years, that is the subject for another post]. Weapons need to be balanced, but the balance goes beyond where the mass resides and whether one end is heavier than the other. The balance in a weapon is between speed and mass. Humans being what we are, the more of one you have, the less of the other you are likely to be able to control, or you get a reduction in the final product you are trying for - force.

The balancing act is necessary because a weapon that doesn't hit doesn't do any damage. Speed and ease of manipulation are key factors for weapons, and, depending on the weapon and its intended target, possibly more important than mass and total force. Hitting a normal human, with little or no armour, with a melee weapon generally does not require incredible force to do serious damage. We are just no that big and tough. Hitting an elephant, or a grizzly, or a dragon, probably will require more force, but they all fight back too. If you can't hit it, or it hits you first, you may not get a chance to do any damage with you heavier weapon.

So how much do actual weapons weight? A good, very general, rule of thumb is approximately 1 pound per foot of length for swords, axes and polearms that have a bigger head than a spear.. However this is only a guideline. the weight for a six foot greatsword might be under 5 pounds, or as high as nine and change. I have seen such weights listed for museum examples, and messed around with replicas of some. Let me tell you - for the most part, lighter is better, but then I was sparring with people, not dragons, so your mileage may vary. A 6 pound bastard sword [4th ed] would be very heavy [2.75 to 4.5 are typical], a 4 pound longsword [the one handed d&d weapon, not the medieval weapon of the same name] would too.

Let's look at maces and hammers:

I have a replica warhammer that is 28 inches in length and weighs over 4.5 pounds [yup, over a pound more than my greataxe which is twice as long]. I have never been comfortable wielding the warhammer one handed for anything requiring any sort of finesse, speed or accuracy. On the other hand, in two hands, I and two friends, with almost nothing else for tools, demolished a garage. So there is that. But garages don't fight back, or even try very hard to get out of the way.

Now an example that just about everyone has some experience with:

A baseball bat is, by regulation, no more than 42 inches long. Nowadays they weigh in at 33 ounces [under 2 pounds], give or take, but heavier ones are historically known. Consider the potential energy [damage] of a baseball bat, which as any zombie survival game will inform you, is an excellent makeshift weapon. Now imagine it with metal reinforcement or spikes, or shorter with an all-iron head. You have a mace, which tended, to be honest, toward the heavy end of our 1 pound per linear foot guideline. At two or three pounds it will outperform a baseball bat by a huge degree regarding damage just about every time.

Finally - Why does any of this matter? It is a fantasy game after all. Very true. And if you are happy with the fantasy, that is great. I have played various iterations of D&D for years and had a great time.

I just thought you might find it interesting to know a bit about what lies underneath the hobby we all love is all.