Giant Among Swords: The Formidable Zweihander

The zweihander sword is a formidable relic of medieval and Renaissance warfare, renowned for its huge size and devastating power. This medieval German longsword was a weapon designed to intimidate and became a popular choice for some of Europe’s most elite warriors in the sixteenth century. This is the story of the famed two-hander sword.

Military History
5 June 2024

Emerging during the sixteenth century, the zweihander sword – translated as ‘two-hander’ and also known as the Doppelhänder or ‘double-hander’ – was a remarkable weapon designed to deliver crushing, sweeping strikes against even the most resolute enemy. Despite its size, it was also capable of remarkably accurate precision thrusts.

This German longsword, sometimes also called the Beidhänder meaning ‘both-hander’, traces its origins to the earlier longswords and greatswords that dominated medieval European battlefields. The zweihander sword, however, distinguished itself with its sheer length, often approaching two metres, and its robust construction, which required the strength and skill of an exceptional warrior. Its imposing presence and effectiveness in combat marked a significant evolution in the design and use of bladed weaponry.

Let’s take a trip back to the Middle Ages to examine the evolution of the biggest medieval sword ever widely produced, who used it and how, and why it was eventually rendered obsolete.

The Origins of the Zweihander Sword

Emperor Maximilian I (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The zweihander sword was the primary weapon of the Landsknechte – literally, ‘servants of the land’ – German mercenaries who made up much of the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire from the time of Maximillian I in the late fifteenth century.

This extremely large, two-hander sword was an evolution of the steel-bladed longswords that were prominent on the battlefields of the Late Middle Ages between 1300 and 1500.

Most zweihanders came from Germany, and it’s thought many of the medieval two-handed swords used by Europe’s armies at that time came from forges in Solingen, just south of Dusseldorf in the west of Germany, and from Passau and Munich in the south.

The men who used this medieval two-handed sword were an elite unit known as Doppelsöldner, or ‘double-pay men’. These were soldiers who would put themselves on the very front line of battle in return for twice the salary of the standard Landsknechte. Double the risk, double the reward.

These formidable warriors were tasked with breaking through pike formations, cutting down enemy spears, and creating openings to exploit. The Doppelsöldner who trained to use this German longsword were awarded the title of Meister des langen Schwertes, or Master of the Long Sword. The zweihander sword’s ability to disrupt tightly packed enemy lines made it an invaluable tool in the often chaotic and brutal encounters of Renaissance warfare.

What Stood the Zweihander Sword Apart?

Examples of early two-handed swords (Credit: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

This two-hander sword was an astonishing weapon in the right hands. They varied in size but were usually around 1.5 – 1.8 metres in length, with the blade accounting for at least 1 – 1.3 metres and the remaining length being the grip, crossguard and pommel. They usually weighed somewhere between 2 – 3 kilograms with some particularly big examples getting above four kilograms.

The Blade

The blade of the zweihander was exceptionally long and double-edged, tapering to a sharp point, allowing for both cutting and thrusting attacks. The blade typically featured a ricasso, an unsharpened section just above the guard, which provided additional grip and control during combat.

The Crossguard

The crossguard was an essential part of this German longsword’s design, providing protection for the user’s hands. It was usually large and straight, extending horizontally from the blade. Some also had parrying hooks or lugs, known as parierhaken, just above the ricasso. These hooks helped catch and deflect enemy blades, enhancing the sword’s defensive capabilities.

The Grip

The grip of this two-handed sword allowed ample space for a secure hold. It was typically wrapped in leather to improve grip and comfort. The length of the grip – up to 30 centimetres – allowed for greater leverage and control, which was crucial given the sword’s size and weight.

The Pommel

The pommel at the end of the grip served multiple purposes. It helped balance the sword, making it easier to wield, and could also be used as a blunt weapon in close combat. Pommels on zweihander swords were often spherical or pear-shaped, providing a counterweight to the long blade.

The Fuller

Many zweihanders featured a fuller, a groove running along a portion of the blade. This helped reduce the blade’s weight without compromising its strength, making the sword more manageable in combat.

The Zweihander in Combat

Medieval reenactment with a zweihander (Credit: DianaHirsch via Getty Images)

Typically crafted from high-quality steel, the zweihander was designed to deliver powerful, sweeping strikes capable of breaking through enemy formations and disarming opponents with a single blow. Its extended reach allowed soldiers to engage the enemy at a greater distance, providing a strategic advantage in both offensive and defensive manoeuvres.

Despite its considerable heft, the zweihander sword was surprisingly agile in the hands of a trained warrior, allowing for a lethal combination of brute force and dexterous combat techniques.

The Most Famous Zweihander of Them All

Medieval two-handed sword (Credit: zim286 via Getty Images)

Born around 1480 in the northern Netherlands region of Friesland, Pier Gerlofs Donia – nicknamed Grutte Pier – was a farmer, rebel leader and pirate who was described in the nineteenth century by Dutch historian Conrad Busken Huet as –

‘A tower of a fellow as strong as an ox, of dark complexion, broad shouldered, with a long black beard and moustache…who through unfortunate circumstances was recast into an awful brute. Out of personal revenge for the bloody injustice that befell him (in 1515) with the killing of kinsfolk and destruction of his property he became a freedom fighter of legendary standing.’

While much of his life is shrouded in legend and conjecture, it was said that he wielded a zweihander sword with remarkable skill and efficiency. A sword believed to have been owned by him resides in the Fries Museum in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden. It measures a staggering 2.13 metres from hilt to tip and weighs an astonishing 6.6 kilograms.

The Decline of the Medieval Two-Handed Longsword

Fifteenth century arquebus (Credit: powerofforever via Getty Images)

By the mid-seventeenth century, the rise of gunpowder-based firearms and evolutions in military tactics eventually rendered the zweihander sword obsolete on the battlefield, replaced by lighter, more versatile swords, and firearms like the arquebus.

Despite its decline, this German longsword remains an iconic symbol of medieval martial excellence, reflecting an era when strength and formidable weapons could turn the tide of battle.

Supersized Sword: The Colossal Zweihander

Two-handed swords (Credit: johnerickson via Getty Images)

The legendary medieval German longsword was a powerful and intimidating force on the battlefield. While its prominence faded with the advent of firearms and evolving military tactics, the legacy of the zweihander sword endures, celebrated for its unique place in the history of warfare. As both a weapon and a symbol, it remains an enduring icon of an era defined by strength and strategic innovation.


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