The original thought for what follows was to seek weapons of perfect length for own purposes. This would be not to go out and actually acquire said weapons, but to examine the lengths and compare them to the ones that I am currently using. Instead, I thought it would be more useful to examine various theorists’ preferences for weapon length, and what follows is not an exhaustive list of weapons or theorists. This can then move on to a discussion of other things related to weapon length such as weapon proportion and its importance.
With regard to weapon length preference, there is a general organisation between determined and proportional for the examination of the theorist’s preferences. There will also be the question of the importance of choosing a weapon length as several theorists do not designate a weapon preference, the reasons for the choice of weapon length, and how the weapon length relates to both the form of combat and its foundation.
With regard to the evidence presented, some will come from primary texts and others will come from secondary texts, based on primary texts. The conclusions drawn from the evidence and discussion made with regard to reasons for these choices of weapon length are, however, my own and based upon my own understanding of the various weapons and their use. Please excuse the lack of bibliographical details where they have not been included, in most cases period works simply are referenced by author and date.
What is most interesting is that some theorists discussed weapon length while others did not. More interestingly is that there is a clear trend for theorists not to discuss the dimensions of the weapon rather than to discuss them. This could come down to a couple of reasons, either the length of the weapon was not considered important, or that the student should be appropriately fitted for his weapon before consulting with the teacher. Another reason could also be is that the weapon length could be decided for a duel, so weapon length would be up to the chooser and thus not appropriate to be discussed in the context of learning. In any case, what will be found below is a mix of weapons proportional and also simply determined.
The length of a weapon could be chosen for different reasons. The proportional measurement of weapons makes most sense as this fits the weapon to the individual who would be using it and thus, by rationale make it the most suitable weapon for the individual to use. Other measurements of weapons however are simply determined by the author. Swetnam states "thy weapon fowre foot long or there about," (Swetnam, 1617). He gives no rationale simply a statement of fact. It would be assumed that this length of weapon is the one that either he is most comfortable with or has found most suitable for what he is teaching. What is most interesting is that a similar determination for length is also made with regard to the Spanish Tradition.
While Swetnam gives a weapon length approximate and would seem to indicate a weapon length which may be longer, the Spanish seem to go in the other direction determining the maximum length of the weapon. “According to the canonical authors, the length of the weapon should be no longer than 5/4 vara. That’s an upper limit just a bit over 41 inches.” (Curtis, 2010). This indicates that a weapon should have a maximum length, but a preference for a shorter one. The weapon length determined here is echoed by Pacheco de Narváez and Francisco Lórenz de Rada (Curtis, 2010). This would indicate that for the Spanish tradition it is better to have a weapon shorter than longer, this weapon preference and choice of form and method of play have a clear relation to one another.
To broaden the scope and moving on to a shorter, but equally essential weapon, examination needs to be made of Vadi’s determination for dagger length. The length of this weapon is proportional to the user, as are all Vadi’s weapons. He states that “The length of the dagger should be just to the elbow, with an edge and two corners. The grip should be the length of the fist, as the shape is shown depicted here below.” (Windsor, 2012:173). This keeps the dagger proportional to the user, a shorter dagger would not cover the forearm for some of Vadi’s defences and a longer one would likely get in the way.
Vadi applies a similar reasoning with regard to proportionality with regard to his primary weapon the longsword, “proportionate to the wielder, reaching from the ground to the armpit, with a long hilt, rounded pommel and an equally long, squared and pointed cross guard.” (Porzio and Mele, 2002:12). Clearly the weapon is proportional to the user of the weapon as determined by the length of the weapon overall. What is also noted is that such proportionality in the weapon is further highlighted in the formation of the hilt. The handle is determined to be a span long, and the cross guard, the same length as the handle and pommel together (Porzio and Mele, 2002:45).
Even George Silver states that the two-handed sword needs to be proportional to the user’s other weapons, “The perfect length of your two handed sword is, the blade to be the length of the blade of your single sword.” (Silver, 1599). It should be noted that there was little considered difference between the long and two-handed swords in their description in the treatises. Needless to say, with all of his vehemence against the long Italian weapons, he makes clear statement as to the perfect length of his single sword.
“To know the perfect length of your sword, you shall stand with your sword and dagger drawn, as you see this picture, keeping out straight your dagger arm, drawing back your sword as far as conveniently you can, not opening the elbow joint of your sword arm, and look what you can draw within your dagger, that is the just length of your sword, to be made according to your own stature.” (Silver, 1599)
In some ways, and at the other end of the length question is found Ridolfo Capo Ferro, whose determination for the length of a weapon is at the highest end of length of all weapons. Capo Ferro’s weapon is quite long and eminently suited to the point-orientated system which he presents in his treatise. For him the weapon can be determined by three different measurements.
"Therefore the sword has as much for its length as twice that of the arm, and as much as my extraordinary step, which length corresponds equally to that which is from the placement of my foot, as far as it is beneath the armpit." (Capo Ferro, 1610)
Once again the weapon is proportional to the user of the weapon, however in his measurements, some of them do not always correspond to one another and the reader is left to either determine which is best or average out the results. Regardless of the mathematical determination, the weapon ends up being quite long and most suited to the form of fencing which is presented in his manual.
In a similar method of measurement Girard Thibault determines that the cross-guard should be at the navel of the fencer and the blade length goes so that the tip touches the floor (Thibault, 1628). Obviously this makes a clearly shorter weapon than Capo Ferro however it does present a weapon proportional to the user. The shorter weapon can also be attributed to Thibault’s use of the Spanish system of fence.
The perfect weapon length was either determined by a specific length, as described by Swetnam and some of the Spanish, or left to be measured to be proportional to the user, as described by Vadi, Silver, Capo Ferro and Thibault. These two methods of determining weapon length result in different weapons used for different purposes. Even within these determinations there are clear differences in preference for weapon length, the clearest being the shorter weapon of Silver and the much longer weapon of Capo Ferro, both determined by proportionality.
Essentially one determination of dagger length, two for longsword and a couple more have been presented for the single handed sword, rapier or otherwise. This is not a complete catalogue of weapons in any way shape or form. Nor is it a complete catalogue of all of the theorists and their various measurements of weapons and off-hand devices. What have been presented are some ideas about why the various lengths and determining factors were used by various theorists. How this information is used is entirely up to the reader, practitioner, and swordsman.
The search for the perfect weapon length is a slow process, and for the most part while information can be found in manuals of the period, it is really up to the user to determine the weapon which is the most appropriate to their use at the time, and in the style which they are using. This is evident by the clear difference in length as determined by the proponents of the various schools which have been presented. Finding your own perfect weapon length is a matter of using different weapons and finding the one which suits you best. Advice can be gained from different sources, but in the end it is your weapon and you will be using it.
Curtis, P. (2010) Destreza: Choosing a Weapon for the Spanish Tradition http://www.puckandmary.com/blog_puck/2010/12/destreza-choosing-a-weapon-for-the-spanish-tradition/
Porzio, L. and Mele, G. (2002) Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi, Chivalry Bookshelf, Union City
Windsor, G. (2012) Veni Vadi Vici: A Transcription and Commentary of Philippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, The School of European Swordsmanship