Medieval Weapons: why a sword over a warhammer?


All over the shop
Validated User

I've had an idea for a war-torn fantasy setting using technology of around 1500 western. I love the idea of arquebuses, pikemen, the armour of the period with the really cool sallet, and I know there were all manner of specialist weapons designed to penetrate the armour of the period and do other nasty things.

I haven't settled on a rules system yet, but the crunchier end would be Reign/ORE and on the lighter probably FATE, using an adaptation of Diaspora's less cinematic rules. So I'm looking for a way of capturing the flavour of these different armours and weapons without adding too much crunch.

I'm generally fairly ignorant about all the pros and cons of various weapons, but I get that warhammers were designed to penetrate armour, and to an extent maces and axes had a similar advantage, so I thought a bonus to armour penetration is in order.

So what advantage does an arming sword have over any of these? The only thing I could come up with is balance, perhaps reflected by a penalty to parrying with an axe, mace or warhammer? Or are there advantages with a sword against an unarmoured opponent that a mace doesn't have?

To be clear, I'm looking for a nice simple way of flavouring weapons to reflect the specialised roles these held at the time, while at the same time trading realism for mechanical balance - ideally, I'd like advantages in certain circumstances off set by disadvantages in another area, so choice of weapon is tactical rather than resulting in an all-round better weapon.

Also, any links to cool late 15th-century arms and armour (or dress!) would be most welcome. :)

Edit: I may have my answer: according to wikipedia, the arming sword was a relic by 1500, in favour of two-handed longswords.
Last edited:


Retired User
Well, swords, generally speaking, are more versatile than maces or axes. After all, there's a reason why almost all of the dueling manuals during this time period were for swords, though there were a few for pole axes if I remember correctly.

Also, while learning how to use an ax or mace was fairly simple(for the basics, anyway) learning how to use a sword with utmost efficiency would essentially never end.

You also have to take into consideration that, while the knights were heavily armored in the late 15th/early16th century, the pikemen and arquebusiers would surely be less protected, making using the armor penetrating abilities of a mace or ax somewhat redundant. And, as infantry would be the most abundant enemy of the field, swords still retained their popular use.


Swords are versatile and fast. You can also wield one with smaller arms (a hammer is pretty heavy). And, of course, there's the easy bits. Nobody ever ran themselves into a hammer. A hammer requires more energy behind it to work.

But other than that, a sword has very little "advantage" since it's not great at piercing armor (since armor was made to stop it. that would be like saying that a baseball is good at getting through a batter's helmet).


Retired User
Note that the sword has a lot of prestige as a weapon. It's the weapon of Nobles, Gentlemen, the elite. Not something for the rabble. It's a lot of the times, more of a status symbol than an actual weapon.


Validated User
Warhammers, maces, and axes did not so much penetrate armour as they bruised through it. The preferred weapon of a fully-armoured knight was the mace, since it was best at denting and bruising other fully-armoured knights. The technique was the same as boxing; hit them in the stomach or ribs to ruin their breathing (and the bruise would rub against the dented plate with every breath); or ding them in the head if they lower their guard. It's only when they're reeling do you use your military pick (or spike or awl) to penetrate their armour.


You die as you live.
Validated User
In single combat a sword is far more versatile. by 1500 you're looking at Bastard Swords capable of being 'half-swording' to penetrate armor when called for.

Against an unbalanced weapon like an axe, hammer, pick or mace a sword was much easier to maneuver which means better accuracy since they can't intercept your sword and better parrying since you can more easily intercept their hafted weapon. You'd rather have a pollaxe in to fight other knights but its heavier, has no ability to be used one-handed and has less reach than a bastard sword.

In the general case swords are better suited to killing lightly armored infantrymen. The pollaxe is not bad at doing this but you can't use it one-handed while mounted, its a strictly unmounted weapon.

In essence every weapon other than a sword is designed to be better at its specific purpose but the sword is usually second best in any situation and not bad to have ever. I well equipped warrior would want to have a lance (and shield while mounted), a mace/hammer/etc, as well as a sword and a dagger.


Retired User
I really don't think its better versus armor. It is however better at versus between armor. If you can get a good stab between the armor, you can potentially bring down an opponent faster than wailing with a heavy weapon on top of their armor.
Also the speed factor can have many advantages. One major one is deflecting blows, and possibly disarming the opponent. A heavy weapon usually requires more full of a swing in order to be effective, and thus leave themselves open. Even if armored, a strike to the inner will almost always throw off their swing. Also with the speed thing, it should be easier for an opponent to dodge a slower weapon (I don't think its very substantial though).


Burning Kine
A bit of a tangent maybe?

I remember seeing a show (Discovery?) where they set up a test with ballistic gel, plate armor, and impact indicators and then smashed into the armor with a hammer/mace/something.

The result was a shockwave of kinetic energy that was transferred through the armor and into the gel setting off the impact indicators.

Ultimately the indicators read massive internal bleeding and ruptured organs.

The damage to the armor would also cause problems for the wearer if they managed to survive a full force hit.


New member
Put a steel bucket on your head. Have a friend with good aim throw a knife at your head. Note the distressingly loud but otherwise harmless noise from inside. Have same friend take a good wind up and throw a steel hammer at your head. Note (should you come around) the superb "armour-penetrating" capabilities of the hammer.

So it really does depend who you're fighting. Plate mail will help somewhat against a warhammer as it distributes the impact (assuming they hit a plated part of you). Chainmail would just make the bruises a funny ring pattern on your skin. You basically want some sort of dual armour rating, e.g. impact and penetrating ratings. Some armours might have both quite high (e.g. plate), others might only have one high (e.g. chain).

But there's one important extra to add to what others have said regarding the usage of swords vs. maces or axes. If your galloping about all afternoon in a medieval battle killing peasants from the back of your horse, well it's going to be bloody exhausting work regardless but trust me, your arm will be less knackered at the end of it if you've been using a cavalry sabre than a heavy lump of iron on the end of a thick piece of hardwood. Any kid who's spent his summer working manual labour jobs knows how it works.

Edit: I was going to add a disclaimer about the "getting a friend to throw knives at you" part for the sake of any lawyers... And then I thought, 'hey, they're lawyers.' ;)
Last edited:


New member
Sword not only are status weapons but they provide better defensive capabilities (both from parries and from the more flexible combat style) and are as good as a warhammer against soft targets (like infantry)

A warhammer (which is not a Thor's hammer but instead has a club end a little like a work hammer and spike in case anyone does not know) concentrates a lot of force in small area and is ideal against armor but lacks the swords advantages
Top Bottom