Sunday, August 21, 2016


I admit, I am crusty where the subject of weapons is concerned.  I don't mean to be.  It's a combination of bickering for the sake of accuracy and frustration that, where weapons is concerned, there is no accuracy.

I grew up in a bickering household.  If anyone made the mistake of saying that an event had taken place on the 18th of June, my mother was sure to remark that it was the 19th.  If a color was described as blue, my father was sure to stipulate that it was more correctly described as azure.  Wrenches were crescent wrenches, cups were mugs, saucepans were skillets and carpets were throw rugs.  This steady habit of correction hammered away at every misconception and slight error, tempering every dinner conversation and every family outing.  It's in my blood.

If this blog seems to consistently fail to put an apostrophe in "its" when presenting the contraction or puts the apostrophe there when describing the genitive case, it isn't that I don't know the difference.  I'm well aware that "your" is genitive and that "you're" is second-person contraction form of the verb "to be" . . . but I make the mistake on the blog all the time because I just don't care when I'm writing a first draft.  It's a question of self-defense.  It would have been so easy for me to slide into the obsessive-compulsive trap, given my upbringing.  In blocking an obsession to get every word exactly right, I write more words per minute.  The error can always be fixed later.  It's only a blog.

What is funny about my upbringing is how often it turned out that my parents were wrong.  I learned this when I got older.  No one really knows what the difference is between a cup and a mug; and very few people care.  It seemed to really matter to my parents.  Only the cosmos knows why.

I began reading about weapons the moment I began playing D&D, very nearly 37 years ago.  I started with the high school library and, when that failed to provide enough, I threw myself wildly into the city public library.  After that, it was the university, where I found shelves of detailed books, many of them copies of medieval and Renaissance texts.  Then there was a long dearth of new knowledge . . . until the internet came along.

It turns out, according to the internet, that every book I ever read about the subject was wrong.  Swords aren't as heavy as scholars think, or they're heavier, or they're longer, or they're made of materials that we didn't know about, etcetera.  Spears are better than swords according to this source, though this source says they aren't, although this other source claims that this is only true when talking about this kind of sword or this kind of spear.  The Katana is the greatest sword ever made, except for the sources that say is wasn't, that the greatest sword was the one made in Scotland or Italy or Spain or . . . well, you can find a source that will say anything you want.  The same is true for every other weapon, as no one agrees on how the weapon was made or how it was used.  People quote contemporary sources and other people point out that the contemporary was known to have lived a soft life and probably never used the weapon in combat.

No one is right.  I don't know how long it's going to take for people to realize this.  The legion of details, vlogs, arguments, websites dedicated to the argument, makers of modern weapons, the SCA, the museums, the archeologists and any other source we can name, have descended to nothing more useful than bickering.  No one knows and no one is right.

Most of the time, when someone tries to clarify a point about weapons, they name one of these sources - but all of these sources are quite clearly biased.  The subject of weapons (and armor, for that matter) has so many amateurs and self-promoting ivory tower seat-warmers muddying up the waters that the discussion is actually dead.

Make the weapon do whatever you want it to do.  I promise, look around the net, you'll find an "expert" that supports your invention.

This is the case because we don't use these weapons.  If we used them as armies hacking away at each other, the answers would be sorted pretty quickly.  We'd have legitimate army training manuals - the sort that are written in this modern century, not the clumsy opinionated nonsense that calls itself scholarship in the 15th century - defining exactly what weapon should be used, by what combatants and in what theaters.  Unfortunately, no one has employed these weapons seriously since before the rise of the gas-propelled projectile.  And no culture familiar with the comprehension of science, observation and conclusion, has ever used these weapons.

So give it up.  Quit arguing.  Quit proposing that such-and-such said this, so this must be true, because it isn't.  It can't be.  We have no evidence that anything that has ever been written on the subject is true, nor do we have any evidence that any of the writers were in a position to know.

Stop bickering.  Please.


Homer2101 said...

Trouble is that in this case we have pretty good evidence on what weapons weighed and how they were used. An opinion is not a fact, and asserting it does not make it more factual or true. Folk can assert whatever they want, and have been doing so since well before the Internet. The Internet just makes their opinions louder. But it does not make them any more true.

1. We know the approximate weight of just about every weapon ever used in human history. We know this because we have three thousand years of archaeological record, and can weigh the weapons dug up by archaeologists or preserved by collectors or as heirlooms. In the West, swords were produced for military purpose until 1914; in Japan, until 1945. The typical melee weapon designed principally for one hand weighed about 3 pounds, regardless of time period. The average weapon for two hands weighed about 6 pounds.

We can derive the same averages by looking to biomechanics, physics, and material science. In brief, the penetrating power of a weapon is based on its momentum -- the product of an object's mass & velocity. The weapon itself must be strong enough to withstand the rigors of combat, and as long as possible to minimize the user's exposure. But humans have a limited capacity for manipulating mass, so there's a tradeoff between mass and the human ability to manipulate it as a usable weapon. Put all of those together, and the sweet spot seems to be somewhere at around 3lb for one-hand weapons and around 6lb for two-hand weapons.

2. We also have a pretty good idea of how these weapons were used. Swords and lances were a standard part of cavalry arsenal until WWI, and the United States was training cavalry units as late as 1941 -- for defense of its southern border. We have centuries' worth of manuals on how melee weapons were to be used as practical tools of war.


The 1914 Sabre Exercise Manual (US War Department):
The 1907 Sabre Exercise Manual (US War Department):

Sometimes we don't have detailed manuals with explanations, in which case we can look to the context and human biomechanics. The human body can put particular weapons through a finite set of movements, which are further constrained by such necessities as expeditiously gutting the opponent without getting gutted in return or allowing the opponent's buddy to do the same. Put two men in reasonable replica of period armor, armed with period weapons, and it will quickly become apparent which maneuvers will get one killed in very short order, and which maneuvers might have actually been used by practitioners. We have about forty years of folk working on the problem, so we have a decent idea of what medieval combat looked like even when we do not have detailed instructions, as we do for sabres and lances.

3. Greatest sword --- well those discussions are actually a waste of time, usually, because weapons are designed for a specific context and purpose. Arguing over whether one weapon or another is 'better' without putting them into their contexts is just intellectual masturbation. And if we do go to the trouble of looking at weapons and armor within their contexts, then usually turns out they were all quite good at achieving their objectives.

Like the Shotel ( Out of context, is might seem like a pretty awful sword. But it's quite good at reaching around shields to stab opponents in the kidneys, or dragging riders off horses. Which is what it was designed to do and how it was used.

ANYways. We do have a pretty decent idea of what weapons weighed, and how they were used. Just because folk are too lazy to do the research and pull things from their asses, does not mean we have to listen to them or imitate them.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Homer. Every statement you just made exactly relates to the sort of bickering I'm describing. I know that you think you've just made an argument and backed it with sources, but I will remind you that I stated in the blog post that all the sources have reasoned to be biased about their OPINIONS.

Where you say "we're pretty sure," I hear, no one has any actual idea. This is the problem. Thinking that we're pretty sure of anything.

I want demonstrable, scientific proof that any of the weapons that have ever been weighed have, in fact, been a) used as weapons; b) considered to be quality by the people who used them.

We don't actually have evidence of this. The fact that a weapon was made does not, except in opinion, make it a quality weapon. The fact that a lot of weapons of a particular type was made does not make that argument either.

Here's what I want. Stage a war. Fight it only with 14th century pre-gunpowder weapons. Take notes. Collect evidence.

Until then? You're just repeating someone else's opinion.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Yep. I'm with you (though my past blog posts might appear otherwise).

ScrivenerB said...

Do we KNOW? No, surely not. The AD&D weapon type vs. Armor type modifiers are probably a prime example of the sort of hubris you're talking about here. So, EGG, you somehow know that a lucern hammer has a relative advantage vs. banded mail compared to vs. platemail? Really? As an assessment of historical anything that's just so unsupportable in so many ways I don't even know where to begin.

But in the end we're talking about a game where, as written, combat is the single most "ruled" aspect of the existence of the characters. The weapons should matter, somehow. I can only believe the choice of weapons mattered to the people using them when warhammers and swords were actually used to settle disputes, so I feel like the choice should matter in the game.

This is why the WFRP approach of abstracting so much into the generic "hand weapon" is somewhat unsatisfying. But what I aim for is to make the choice of weapon interesting and meaningful within the mechanics of the game (which implicitly means there is no one best weapon). Whether the attributes I impute to them are "true", yes, is not really my concern. This is a place where truthiness really is enough. Maybe the only place.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I am so completely in agreement with you with regard to the mechanics of the game, Scrivener, that I wonder if I didn't write your comment in my sleep.