Longsword vs shield—who would win?

You’ve heard it on so many documentaries, “when he swings his big, heavy sword at me, I’ll just stick my shield in the way, block it and hit him with my own sword and he will be dead.” That basically never happens.

Using a sword in two hands against someone with a shield and some kind of one-handed weapon is a really interesting situation. I’d like to challenge the seemingly prevailing notion that it’s already a foregone conclusion and the longsworder is doomed. There are so many factors at play, so let’s unpack them.

In the above scenario, we make two common misconceptions about longswords. One, that they’re heavy and hard to use. Think about this. You have two hands on the weapon. It can be much heavier and still feel easier to wield because of that. Take into account that most longswords don’t weigh too much more than a one-handed sword, so using two hands to control them makes them incredibly agile. This leads me to two. The idea that a longsworder’s first attack is a powerful but obvious blow which can be easily discerned and blocked by a shield is rubbish. When fighting someone with a shield, you quickly learn not to attack the shield itself but to go around it. The longsworder will do everything they can to avoid the shield which means trying to catch the blow is easier said than done.

So what do they do then? Well, my experience tells me the best thing for the longsworder is to be just within the range where they can hit their opponent and not be hit themselves. If you are in a range where you can hit your opponent, you’re “in measure”. The longer your blade is relative to your opponent’s, the sooner you are in measure and the more measure you have relative to your opponent. This means not only can you be further away and still hit them, but they need to travel a greater distance to reach you. Obviously, having a longer sword means it will be a bit heavier but it’s worth it up to a point.

Look at this from the shield-person’s perspective for a second and you start to see how the fight really plays  out. If they stand so far back that neither one is in measure, then they’re both safe. At some point, however, the shield-person needs to cross through the distance where they can be hit but can’t hit back. Then if they get close enough, both can hit each other but the shield-person has a smaller, quicker weapon as well as a shield so they’re at an advantage. The biggest game that’s played, between these two opponents, even more than skill and technique, is therefore one of managing distance: the longsworder wants to keep the shield-person in their optimum measure and the shield-person wants to be in it for the shortest time possible. This is why, to my mind, the single biggest factor assuming the opponents are of equal skill, is the length of the longsworder’s blade. It’s the key thing that determines the disproportionate measure between both fighters and therefore how unfair the fight will be.

Is that it though? Surely other things affect the outcome too. Yes, they do. The type of shield and how it is used, for one. If it’s a big Roman-type shield, it’s not so manoeuvrable but it covers more. If it’s a small buckler, then it’s much more manoeuvrable but it needs to be because it doesn’t cover much. Generally, a bigger shield is harder to get around and a smaller one is more vulnerable to feints but, of course, there are always exceptions.

Another thing to consider is the weapon bind. If the shield-person’s weapon binds the longsworder’s you’d think this was a good thing for them because it gives them a chance to close in. That’s true, but the normal bind rules of “feeling” are skewed in the longsworder’s favour as they have greater leverage and sensitivity. Quite often, they can push the opponent’s weapon wherever they like, or even disarm them if they know what they’re doing. So, while it looks like the shield-person has the advantage, it quite often goes the other way.

But what about the proverbial elephant in the room? I’m talking about the one stampeding towards you. All the shield-person needs is half a second to charge in and they’re on top of you. You’d think that would be game over at that point, but even then it’s not. If they’re trying to hit you with the shield, bear in mind a sharp sword is more dangerous than even a heavy shield. Most people charging in are still using their shield to protect themselves. If they try too hard to strike you with it, they could end up getting stabbed while you get knocked over. What if they cover themselves and strike with their weapon then? This is much more effective but if they haven’t managed to pin your sword with their shield, quite often you can get back to the bind by parrying their attack. Even up close, there’s a chance you can win.

What’s the verdict then? Well, there are so many variables even assuming equal skill levels, but my point is simply this: it’s not an easy fight for either person and nor is it a foregone conclusion. What I’ve done here is emphasise the advantages of the longsworder to bring this debate back to where it belongs; in the centre. Either fighter could win and quite often it comes down to luck on the day if both know what they’re doing. As a longsworder myself, I’ll admit the shield-person probably, most of the time, has a slight advantage overall. But don’t tell them that, or their arrogance will be their undoing…

(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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