The Arming Sword is also known as the “White Arm” during the Middle Ages as it was a slang used to describe the “hand of God”, where through it, one can spread God’s power and will. With this belief behind it, the Arming Sword completely shaped Europe and the world. When somebody mentions the Dark Middle Ages it is usually connected with the visuals of a knight holding a Knightly Sword. Well, that sword is none other than the Arming Sword.
In this article, we will explore everything about the Arming Sword from its beginnings to how it changed throughout the centuries and how it ended up being in its final form. We will also attempt to clear any confusion or doubt there is regarding the arming sword with other types of swords.
The Arming Sword – What is it?
The classic one-handed sword used by a knight or common foot soldier often used in conjunction with a shield is called an Arming Sword, a name that came about when a soldier is ‘armed’ and wears his sword at his side during combat.
This was especially the case right after the Viking Age when the first swords of this style were introduced to Western Europe. The term Arming Sword will eventually change and have a different meaning.
The Arming Sword was simply ‘’The Sword’’ of the Middle Ages where the term “Arming” was used much later. The name Arming Sword comes from the Latin word ‘arma’, which means weapon. When this term is added next to the Sword, it simply means a weapon by/in your arm, a term that came about as the arming sword was often carried “in” hand at the beginning of the Middle Ages, but by the late Middle Ages, it was “by” the arm as it was carried on belts.
This means that the Arming Sword is a term that covers all of the swords in the Middle-Century, but with time, it changed and the name was used to refer to a specific sword.
Who Used The Arming Swords?
Medieval Arming Swords were highly esteemed weaponry, usually connected and used by higher-ranking warriors. High-quality Arming Swords were costly knightly weapons that were highly valued. On the other hand, shorter and less ornate Arming Swords were used as sidearms by the average footsoldier.
Later on, it would move from mainstream use into the belts of the Medieval Knight. The main users were now the lower classes or better yet, the more regular militia and infantry. That is why in the XV century, the traditional arming sword is named after the man-at-arms. Not only will the name change, but also the structure where it has a shallow double-grooved fuller in the forte and forward-curving quillons. Its double-edged blade and sharp tip made it an effective cutting and thrusting weapon.
How Is An Arming Sword Made?
The Medieval Arming sword may appear simple, yet it is a difficult weapon to create. The smith must forge it from a billet of metal, which is then pounded into form after being heated to become malleable.
A contemporary sword is often produced from a single piece of steel; gone are the days when swords were formed from many rods of iron that were twisted and folded as they were forged into a single blade. The tempering process with careful heating and cooling is also required for the blade as it ensures that the blade is durable and resistant to breaking. If the sword is brittle, it is worthless in combat; similarly, if it is soft and bends readily, it is of little use in combat.
The smith’s craft is to provide the blade with both strength and toughness.
A decent sword should not be too hefty; around 1.2 kg is likely the perfect weight.
A sword‘s balance is vital; the way it tapers towards the tip is important in weighing the blade towards the hilt.
The blade length for the Arming Sword can vary as it was first used as a primary weapon, but its role changed as it became a side arm in the later years. The commonest length for the Arming Sword is around 60cm to 100cm. The total length for the ones that are called Knightly Swords as well as Arming Swords is around 69cm to about 81cm long, with the handle length typically measuring about 13cm long.
The strong blade is made of high carbon steel and features a four-sided triangular profile, a diamond cross-section, an acute tip, and no fuller. The guard is intended to deflect opposing attacks as well as act as an extension of the blade. In close-quarter battles, the guard’s sharp tip was meant to drive through the visor and other gaps in the armor.
The problem with the term Arming Sword generally comes from the writers or scholars from the Late Middle Ages. As you can see, these swords were extremely high class, well designed, and connected with religion and prestige. As a result, researchers sometimes incorrectly and anachronistically refer to these “large swords” as “longswords’’. The arming sword, on the other hand, evolved into the later “shortsword,” which was worn as a sidearm while wielding the two-handed longsword as a primary weapon.
History of The Arming Sword
The Arming Sword specifically tends to stick to the period of the 10/11th centuries until the 15/16th centuries. Referred to as the arming sword in this time period, it stood as a genuinely noble weapon, with the two cutting blades signifying the knight’s responsibility “to defend truth, reason, and justice on all sides without betraying the Christian faith”, a testament to its origins from medieval Europe and its historical phases.
There are many distinct swords, but they all feature a long two-sided blade with a cross-piece and pommel for the hilt. The pommel might be basic and spherical or it can have a beautiful form. A ridge going along the center of the sword generally stiffens it.
The Viking Age
The seafaring Scandinavians known as Norsemen or Vikings have a particular position in the development of the Arming Sword. They came to symbolize the typical Dark-Age warrior, from the British Isles to the Varangian Guard in Kievan Rus. Striking from the sea in their longboats, they raided the coastlines of Europe before colonizing and settling as far afield as Nova Scotia. They were well-armed, particularly with swords and axes, but also with spears, javelins, and arrows. They carried round shields and very specific types of swords.
10th Century Viking Sword
This iron sword is straight-sided and roughly 90 cm long, as is characteristic of Viking weaponry. It has a two-piece pommel and guard that are inlaid with a crisscross design in brass. One of the blade’s faces features a figure-of-eight mark.
Late Viking Sword
By the late Middle Ages, Viking Swords had begun to lose some of their most distinguishing characteristics, particularly the wide and low-tapering blade with the lobed pommel. Viking swords grew to resemble the typical swords of the broader continent. This is obvious in this sword, which has a brazil-nut pommel and the short thick crossguard seen in previous weapons has thinned and expanded into a typical medieval cruciform. You can see the transition from the image.
Late Viking Sword Hilt
This sword hilt features a traditional Viking rounded pommel and is constructed of copper with silver inlay geometric motifs. The sword is too well-wrought to be used in battle and would have been carried by a Viking leader to demonstrate his position or for ceremonial purposes. This was eventually what the Knights did with the Arming Sword in the later years.
You can clearly see how the Viking Sword has a big resemblance to the Arming Sword. It is clear that they are connected with each other. That is why the Arming sword is oftentimes also called a Transitional Sword. Some people would even go as far as to argue that Arming Swords are actually Viking Swords.
The Arming Sword was the most revered weapon in medieval Europe. It was not only a beautiful weapon of combat, but it had grown into a symbol of status and grandeur; where a knight would carry a sword on his shoulders or belt. Early Knightly Medieval Swords were powerful cutting weapons used for hacking through mail armor. The adoption of highly pointed thrusting Swords with ever longer blades was promoted by the development of high-quality plate armor, thus the Arming Swords.
One of the biggest users of the early Arming Sword in the Middle Ages were the Crusaders. These soldiers relied on a powerful sword and shield with a blade length just enough to injure their opponent. The cruciform symbol even made it more powerful because they felt empowered by the notion that they were accompanied by God in their endeavors.
Evolution to the Arming & Side Sword
As time went on, by the 14th century, the Arming Sword had evolved into the typical Medieval Knight’s sword. The Arming Sword, which was short for close quarter fighting, light, and well balanced, with a sharp taper and strengthened point, proved to be a devastating weapon against the full-plated armor of the period.
The sword‘s severely tapered and narrowing blade provided deadly stabbing power against plated armor while maintaining its catastrophic cutting edge. Because it was a regular weapon among Medieval Knights, the sword became known as the “Arming Sword.” By the 14th century, the Arming Sword had become the weapon of choice for many English, French, and German knights.
When the military revolution that followed the Renaissance increased the importance of weaponry, the cold steel remained the main weapon, particularly for cavalry troops. Most infantry swords from the 16th century onwards were thrusting weapons, but cavalry troops on horseback needed to cut downwards at opponent infantry soldiers, therefore they preferred bigger double-edged swords that could be used against both mounted and unmounted opponents.
That is why the Arming Sword would slowly lose all its meaning and significance. its usage from the 11th through the 16th centuries and the terminology which came with it would slowly fade, and this sword would simply be known as the Short Sword on many occasions.
The Arming Sword was still used in the Renaissance period but mostly as a trophy weapon or a side weapon that could be used in a dire situation. Also, it acts as a status symbol where just unsheathing and showing it off could command more authority and respect than a threat.
Types of Arming Swords
These types of war swords correspond to the Oakeshott types:
Type X – During the 11th century, the Norman sword evolved from the early medieval Viking sword.
Type XII– A tapering blade with a shorter fuller and more developed, it was mostly used during the Crusades up until the 12th century.
Type XIII– The common knightly sword in the late 13th century. This form of sword has long broad blades with parallel edges that end in a rounded or spatulate tip and a lens-shaped cross-section. The hilts are lengthened by roughly 15 cm to allow for occasional two-handed usage. The pommels are generally in the shape of a brazil nut or a disk. This eventually evolved into the Longsword.
Uses of the Arming Sword
The Arming Sword handles nicely since it was built primarily for close-quarter fighting. A responsive sword that feels “alive” and light in your palm, the Arming Sword‘s features make it a medieval weapon of choice for all soldiers, even in rookie peasant hands. The sword‘s balance is ideal for quick movement and forceful delivery in both cut and thrust actions.
The Arming Sword may be used against both armored and unarmored opponents with equal efficiency. This was intentional, as the wielder would be facing both armored knights and lightly armored soldiers. As a consequence, the Arming Sword was created to be a flexible weapon capable of handling a wide range of combat circumstances.
The high medieval one-handed Arming Sword was typically used with a shield or buckler. In the absence of a shield, the empty (usually left) hand might be used to grapple or capture opponents.
A knight wore the arming sword even when not wearing armor, and he would be deemed ‘undressed’ in public if he did not have it. It was sort of a thing that you can see in American western movies where people can show off their revolvers. Each high-ranking soldier had an expensive well-decorated Scabbard and an Arming Sword in their armory.
Buckler or Shield
An Arming Sword was frequently used in conjunction with a miniature buckler shield, which was fastened to the soldier’s arm and shoulder. The shield deflected the enemy’s assaults, allowing the sword to thrust or slice.
It could have been placed in any sort of position and the user would still be battle ready. No matter if it was high from the ground or low, the whole point was to have a quick defense but be followed by a very quick and deadly attack.
When used with the Arming Sword, the Buckler was usually created by using light materials. It is often made of wood, leather, and iron strips for reinforcement. This made it lighter to use and much more efficient.
The scabbard was actually at times more important than the actual Arming Sword. The main reason for this is that with time, the Arming Sword was being replaced by the Longsword, Broadsword, Greatsword, etc. But the significance that the Arming Sword had, usually meant that it just had to be seen by the public.
That is why the Scabbard was crucial for knights. They often had intricately decorated Scabbards while walking around festivals or even in villages as it represented wealth and authority, and when combined with a quality stainless steel Arming Sword, it meant respect from others.
When the Arming Sword started being used as a Side Weapon, it meant that it was mostly sheathed in the Scabbard, but always at the battle ready. Its use as a secondary weapon meant that it was often used in dire situations.
Was the Arming Sword the Katana of the West?
Maybe. They were both the same length and used in the same situations. The Katana was made for fast strikes that were not very powerful at times but could be deadly if precise and well calculated. That could be said about the Arming Sword as well.
Seeing as how all the other knightly weapons evolved and started developing into much stronger deadly weapons while also gaining a lot of reach by getting longer, albeit slower, the Arming Sword remained a fast and precise sword of the West, just like the Katana was in the Far East.
What Is The Difference Between An Arming Sword and a Broadsword?
The difference between the Arming Sword and a Broadsword comes mostly from the Hilt and how they were both used for different combat scenarios. The problem comes with their connotation:
Some historians will say that the Broadsword is actually a broader version of the Arming Sword. Others claim that the Broadsword only came about after the Arming Sword around the 16th and 17th centuries and was mostly used for fencing or duels as portrayed by modern media.
“Broadsword” primarily refers to a weapon of Scottish provenance from the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Tips are often less sharp than the most pointed arming swords. Contrary to popular belief, broadswords are not any broader than the Arming Sword, as the term “broad” comes from the rough Gaelic-Scottish translation of its name.
The Broadsword is also a basket hilt sword, meaning that it couldn’t be turned around and switched to any position you would want it to be just by moving your thumb. The design with the hilt is clearly made for duels where you will be facing your opponent head-on and right in front of you while being safe from the sides. This is more commonly known as a duel.
The Arming sword, on the other hand, was specifically designed to catch the enemy off-guard in awkward positions or dealing with multiple enemies if needed. Also, the passive protection of the shield or buckler meant that it was created purely for real fighting.
What Is The Difference Between An Arming Sword and a Longsword?
The Length is what makes the Arming Sword different from the Longsword. The Arming Sword has a length of about 69/70cm to about a 100cm at times, while the Longsword can have a length of around 100cm to 130cm, with the longest one being a meter and a half!
The weight of them is naturally different because of this too. The Arming Sword weighs around 1kg while the Long Sword will be around 1.1kg to about 2.0 kg at times.
The Arming Swords might have started out as the typical medieval sword but as time went on it became the Side-Sword and differentiated itself from the Longsword in size, weight, power, and uses. The Longsword would become the next most used weapon.
The Arming Sword was used in battle as sort of a backup weapon in the late middle ages. It was kept as a defensive weapon to catch your opponent off-guard. On the other hand, the Longsword was used as a two-handed primary weapon specifically designed for offensive scenarios. This was especially the case at the end of the 15th century, particularly in Germany.
What Is The Difference Between An Arming Sword and a Short Sword?
The difference would be in the early stages of the Arming Sword, where literally every type of one-handed European sword with the cruciform went by this name. But around the 15th and 16th centuries when bigger swords predominated, the Short Sword and the Arming Swords were seen as the same sword. This is, of course, misleading.
That is why the biggest difference between the Arming Sword and the Short Sword is the terminology. The Arming Sword didn’t start as short to begin with but eventually became unanimous with the term over time as other types of swords evolved into much bigger ones.
The Arming Sword has been used as a side weapon from the 15th century onwards and so were the Short Swords. The Short Sword had a length of around 40cm to 70cm, while the Arming Sword was around 70cm to a meter long.
Especially in the Renaissance times, arming swords were called Short Swords as most types of cold steel weapons became two-handed, broad, and lengthy.
Short swords or Arming Swords are sometimes placed together in the group of “riding swords”. These single-handed forms of weapons are inextricably linked with the concept of the “knightly sword or knight’s sword.
Is The Arming Sword Beginner Friendly?
It has very little to almost no resistance because of how compact it is. It handles well with one hand, allowing the use of a shield. If you are a beginner thinking of using this sword, be sure to do so as it is an extremely good sword to start with.
You can also see a lot of re-enactments by medieval enthusiasts using the Arming Sword on lots of occasions. In almost every LARP (live-action roleplay) that you’ll see, there will be a soldier reenactor who will be wielding the buckler and the Arming Sword. Most of the time, you will see them with their sword in scabbards too.
If you are looking into buying a sword, the Arming Sword is highly recommended as they are still being created, making them easy to find as the demand for these swords are very high.
If you are looking for a good starting tutorial combined with all the basic moves, we highly recommend checking out Federico Malagutti on YouTube. He is an expert with the Arming Sword as you can clearly see in his video.
The Arming Sword is a medieval weapon collector’s joy. It is simply an amazing war sword. It gives both rookies and experienced users a very good performing combat-ready weapon that will readily cut and thrust through almost anything. Easily wieldable and extremely sensitive, it is a really great sword to use for training too. Not only was it used as a weapon for mass destruction, but just having it on knight’s belts symbolized power and authority. There was even a saying that a Knight is naked if he is without it!
Ford, Roger. Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor. DK Pub., 2006. Accessed 18 August 2022.
Withers, Harvey J. S., and Tobias Capwell. The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Knives, Swords, Spears and Daggers: Through History in Over 1500 Photographs. Anness Publishing, 2016. Accessed 18 August 2022.
Nicolle, David. Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia. Greenhill Books, 1999. Accessed 18 August 2022.
McGlynn, Sean. By Sword and Fire. Orion Publishing Group, 2009.
Norman, A. Vesey B., and Vesey Norman. The Medieval Soldier. Pen & Sword Military, 2010.
A dedicated historian through and through, David is a 26-year-old history graduate with numerous certificates to his name. In college, he excelled in the study of ancient, medieval, and modern history, consistently achieving top grades. His interest in history and swords was ignited by his father, a retired blacksmith who skillfully worked with various types of iron and steel to produce knife and sword blades of all sizes.
Juliana has been writing for nearly thirty years and concentrates on Tudor and Medieval history. She has written for Tudor Dynasty, Tudor Writing Circle, Historian Matt Lewis, and others. Juliana currently writes for Pen and Sword Publishers and is the author of several books, including Medicine in the Middle Ages and A History of Insanity and the Asylum.