What is the special grip needed for a narrow hilt viking sword?

In your review of Ronin Katana's Euro sword line, you mentioned that the hilt on the model 8 was roomier than on a traditional Viking sword and that the smaller version required a specialist grip that most casual collectors are unaware of. I was looking for more information on that particular topic, if that's possible.

Comments for What is the special grip needed for a narrow hilt viking sword?

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Certainly
by: Paul

You can find more information (quite a bit of it actually) right here on the SBG Sword Forum.

Hope this helps.

- Paul

Sword grip
by: Kveldulf

The purpose of the short grip on a viking sword was to make the user move his index finger over the guard. This results in a faster, more powerful
swing.

I have a rather old Indian tulwar with a disk-shaped pommel that prevents you from even sliding your little finger backward, while the guard is smooth and indented where the index finger crosses it.

This grip enhances the balance and performance of any edge-oriented sword (and is the reason I have no use for katanas). Try it and you will find the sword comes alive in your hand.

Viking sword grip
by: Adam Pendragwn

For those who don’t know, I have been a Medieval Historian for almost 40 years, and the world’s foremost leading authority on Western European swords between AD 900 and AD 1200. I know this time period is a little late but it doesn’t matter. So-called "Viking" swords had very short grips compared to today’s swords, not because people were smaller but because the hand was intended to be squeezed into the grip between the guard and pommel to lock the hand in place. This way you don’t have to hold onto it so tightly and it keeps the hand and wrist from becoming too fatigued. Today’s manufacturers don’t know this so they make most sword grips—of any type—too long for most men’s hands—one size fits all. So, the proper length grip should be only 3 to 3/12 inches long for most men, not the typical 5 inch grips they make today. As to wrapping the index finger over the guard, that would be fine if you don’t mind loosing that finger; however, this method was not used with Medieval swords but rather later rapiers and fencing swords. Doing this does offer more control over the sword; but swords of the Dark Ages and early High Middle Ages were too heavy and not balanced correctly to do this with—the balance being around 5 inches down the blade as opposed to in the cross guard of most rapiers. Most correctly, for a Viking sword the grip should be as short as possible, and forget about trying to wrap your finger around that massive guard—you’ll just loose control, your finger will hurt, and your hand will get real tired real quickly—and you might also get that finger crushed or cut off! Rapiers have some kind of guard protecting the finger, and the blade is never sharp there—remember, Medieval swords were sharp all the way down, or at least enough to cut your finger off if it were to come in contact with the edge of someone’s shield, that kind of thing. But this is only if you intend to use the sword the way in which it was intended. Hope this helps.

More about grips
by: Kveldulf

Adam Pendragwn, thank you for your expertise on sword grips. I wrote my earlier comments based on a sword book I read as a teenager half-a-century ago when I had never held a real or reproduction sword and had seen only those few on display in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The first time I ever held a real sword was at age 26 when a co-worker brought in one he had bought from a Tuareg in North Africa. In style it resembled a Medieval arming sword except for having a carp's tongue point. When I first picked it up, I held it in the normal manner. It felt very awkward. Then I stretched my finger over the guard as that long-ago book had suggested and the sword immediately felt like an extension of my arm.

I mentioned before an Indian tulwar in my possession. I just measured it: three inch grip on a light 22 inch blade. It is all but impossible to fit my hand into the grip and certainly not comfortable. It was very clearly designed to be held with three fingers on the grip and the index finger over the guard.

My only other genuine swords are a Turkish yataghan with a roomy but awkward grip (I swear it was designed to be held sideways) and a late nineteenth century French cavalry sabre. Neither has a cross guard.

I do have a few Windlass replicas, a Viking sword, a bastard sword, and a shamshir. The first two both feel better held finger over guard while the shamshir is indifferent. However, I gave a different Viking sword to my niece and a Roman gladius to my brother and neither works my way.

My conclusion (and I know I am not qualified to disagree with you, yet I do) is that early swords were so weak that they were never used in parrying so it was safe to use the stronger grip. When steel became strong enough to withstand the shock, the over-the-guard grip went out of fashion.

Kveldulf’s comment
by: Adam Pendragwn

Kveldulf, I was referring only to "Viking" swords—I’m not familiar with the ones you mentioned. Considering "Viking" swords often had quite thick cross guards, it would take an incredibly long index finger to wrap around it in the first place; and, as I said, without some kind of additional guard to cover said finger, it would be unprotected and easily cut off. These swords were simply not designed to be used that way. All early Medieval swords were designed for slashing and chopping, not poking (thrusting)—that’s why the tips were most always rounded and not pointed, and why they were more "end heavy" than later thrusting swords. In other words: more meat cleaver, less filet knife. I’m not sure what you meant about the blade strength, but if you meant they were not strong enough to be used for chopping that’s just not true. Most Medieval sword steel was superior to most of the sword steel we have today—partly because it contained silicon. Finally, we don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are. Which means, Medieval swords were not made to beat on car tires for hours on end, like today, they were made to chop through wooden shields to get to the man underneath. And, although you may prefer holding a Medieval swords like a fencing sword—which is your prerogative—most of us don’t. Early Medieval swords were not meant to be held that way—that would come a few hundred years later when blades became narrower and lighter. And by the way, those old books about sword fighting, the reprints of which are so popular today, were written in the sixteenth century not the ninth, and are about fencing or sword sport—which is why they’re standing inside little fences—not sword fighting in Medieval battles. A lot of people don’t get that. And I don’t take offense to anything you’ve written—everyone has the right to an opinion and the sharing of information.

reply to Adam Pendragwn
by: Kveldulf

Adam, so kind of you to respond. Allow me to introduce myself formally. I am a retired man, sixty-nine years old, named David Saunders and I live in Kitchener, an hour’s drive west of Toronto, Canada. I claim absolutely no expertise in either swords or history but would consider myself well-read in both subjects. I adopted the name "Kveldulf" after reading my first Icelandic saga, Egil’s Saga. The very first character mentioned in the story is one Ulf Bjalfason, a wealthy landholder in the west of Norway who went on Viking trips as a youth and was highly regarded for his strength, wisdom, and ugliness. He was so ugly people thought he was a shape-changer and gave him the name "Evening-Wolf" or Kveld-Ulf.

(By the way, a prominent U-tube sword reviewer goes by the name of Skallagrim; Skallagrim was Kveldulf’s son, equally strong, equally wise, equally powerful although in Iceland rather than Norway, and equally ugly. His son, Egil Skallagrimsson, shared all the family characteristics and also became Iceland’s, possibly Europe’s, greatest poet.)

To clarify, the sword book I read when young was not a modern reprint of some Renaissance manual of arms but a mid-twentieth century history of swords written by an English specialist. It was far and away the most informative book on the subject I have ever read – I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I took it out of the library because I remember picking up a piece of driftwood on the beach that summer and calling it my broad sax. Yes, it had illustrations of the broad sax (looking for all the world like a butter knife), the later long sax (similar to a modern sabre), the early "Viking" sword (short, broad, untapered blade with a round tip), and the late "Viking" sword that all modern replicas emulate.

I wish I could recall the names of book and author; it is not unlikely you too have read it.

I am aware that early swords cannot be used for thrusting. They could be given a wicked edge for slicing through men’s arms and were solid enough, as you say, to bite into wooden shields but they could not be used for parrying. There is one saga (one of the few I have not read, alas) that has one man beg the use of another man’s sword while he fights a duel. Losing and desperate, he swings the borrowed sword in the way of his opponent’s weapon and wins the fight. The sword, however, is ruined – cut halfway through – and its owner is furious. He felt the fighter should have died rather than allow a fine weapon to be destroyed.

Which brings us back to the question of how to hold one since, clearly, there was no fear of losing a finger to your opponent’s weapon. Imagine holding a piece of pipe in your hand and swinging it as hard as you can. There are two parts of your hand involved: you push forward with the soft part between your thumb and index finger while pulling back with your littlest, weakest finger. Now imagine the pipe has a crosspiece. You can slip your index finger over that and now have three pressure points rather than two. Not only that, the new one is stronger than either of the first two. You can swing harder and faster than before. If you do this and your opponent does not, you will live and he will die.

Well, that’s my theory, anyhow. I’ve never actually tested it. I’ve never used my swords for backyard cutting, either, and the last time I attended an SCA event I still thought stainless steel swords were decent replicas.

You said "Considering "Viking" swords often had quite thick cross guards, it would take an incredibly long index finger to wrap around it …." My Indian made copy is the Sticklestad design by Windlass. Its cross guard is three-quarters of an inch thick and my fingers are not especially long but it’s an easy reach. My niece’s sword, also by Windlass, is a Leuterit. The cross guard is similar but the blade is so much broader that I cannot stretch to it.

In my previous posting I mentioned a Tuareg sword. I’ve since looked these up online: they are called Takoba or Takouba or Takuba. The most unusual thing about them is that the iron crosspiece is covered with leather and is often more than an inch thick. Yet I found no difficulty holding it comfortably with my finger over the guard. In that case, however, I was wrong. The leather wrapping is added because the Tuareg will not touch iron.

So, did ancient warriors use the cross guard to increase the strength of their blows? The author of that sadly forgotten book was certain of it. My own experience is that most early sword designs encouraged it and some demanded it while later designs abandoned the whole idea.

Your health, sir.

Kveldorf
by: Adam Pendragwn

After re-reading my comment, I see that I should have clarified a couple things. Firstly, I wasn’t referring to modern swords, of any type or style, but rather actual Medieval (antique) swords—specifically the "Viking" type, with a short, thick guard and large pommel, not the swords with long narrow guards of later swords, like the so-called Norman Swords. What I meant was: Although some may prefer to hold this sword (or replica) like a fencing sword—with index finger wrapped over the top of the guard—they were not made to be held this way. This we know because of the method of fighting during this time. A really good way of thinking about it is playing tennis as apposed to ping-pong. In tennis, one uses large sweeping motions—overhead, sideways, and backhand—with the intention of using hard blows, by using the whole arm, shoulder and chest, to overwhelm and wear down one’s opponent. Considering the large size of the court, placing the ball highly accurately is not as important as keeping your opponent on the run and keeping the ball just out of his reach. In ping-pong, the goal is to use short quick strokes, using the wrist, to dazzle the opponent with fast well-placed balls faster than the opponent can hit the ball back. Because half a ping-pong table is considerably smaller than half a tennis court, accuracy is everything. A tennis racket is designed to be used with one or both hands, and to be gripped like one would grip a hammer, to optimize brut force. A ping-pong paddle is designed to be used with only one hand, and gripped gently using the wrist and fingers to deliver a quick precise tap, as apposed to a blow. In fact, many ping-pong players use a "fencer’s" grip to hold his or her paddle, with one or two fingers on the paddle surface, to optimize precision, or accuracy. This is exactly the grip you are referring to, which fencers use to optimize precision, or accuracy.

So, early Medieval swords, like a tennis racket, were made to be gripped with one hand, like a hammer. With a short grip and large pommel and guard, the hand could be squeezed into it, like a small dumbbell, somewhat locking the hand in place so the user didn’t have to squeeze so hard to keep a good grip on it. This also keeps one’s hand from sliding up and down the grip. (I can tell you from personal experience that a bare hand slipping up and down on a grip, even an inch either way, can get very painful after two hours of slamming the sword against an opponent’s shield and body.) Some late Medieval swords had ring-like pieces (I forget the name) attached to an otherwise normal long thin guard so that the forefinger could be placed over the guard and be protected, but I have never seen an old "Viking" sword with one of these.

Also, I can’t help but think, based on what you’ve written, that that book you’re referring to is crap! You may not know this, but most sword books written before around 1970 were full of more myths and folklore pertaining to swords than actual facts. Medieval swords were not heavy, unwieldy bars of steel; nor were they fragile little things that would break under their own weight. The average "Viking" sword had a blade 30" long, 2" wide at the hilt tapering slightly toward the end, with a grip of only about 3" long, and weighed around 3lbs. In fact, because Medieval sword grips are so short, compared to those of today, many people think the swords in photos are much longer than they actually are. Medieval swords were, in reality, harder and stronger than any sword of today, that I’m aware of. This is because Medieval swords were made of bog iron, as apposed to mined iron like today, which contains silicon. Silicon is what glass is made of, but when fused with iron makes for extremely hard, tough steel. Even the famous Ewart Oakeshott—perhaps the greatest all-around medieval sword expert of all time—claimed that he could not even scratch the surface of some Medieval swords with a new file! Medieval swords were very strong and very robust, and could outperform any mass-produced sword made today; yet they were very well balanced and light. Furthermore, stop getting your information from "old sagas." These stories are NOT accurate depictions of Medieval history, any more than comic books or romance novels are accurate depictions of real life today. Instead, read anything you can find from Ewart Oakeshott, like his book Records of the Medieval Sword.

That’s it. I’ve done my best to describe in words alone how Medieval swords were designed to be used, regardless of how someone today chooses to use his. You may find the fencer’s grip better, which is perfectly okay with me, I was only saying they were not designed to be used that way. Hope this clears it up once and for all.

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