Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Medieval Gems for Writers: Wearing a Sword on Your Back

The digital watch is not period.
I’ve recently found a Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) group to practice with. They study techniques with the two-handed longsword, and the hand-and-a-half (AKA "bastard") longsword.  One day at practice, we got into a discussion about how practical it was to wear a longsword on your back like you see in movies and in video games.  As it turns out, I have some real-world experience with this. 

A few years back, I put together a costume for Halloween and Salt Lake Comic Con (and any other excuse I could find to nerd up).  I have a real two-handed longsword with a scabbard and a belt that can be used as a baldric.  I’ve even got a riveted chain-mail shirt for that extra touch.

Wearing the sword on your side gets awkward.  It swings around a lot.  Sitting down is always an adventure, going down stairs requires caution, and when walking through crowds of people you're always afraid of bumping someone.  It’s something you only want to wear if you’re going to a fight.

To get it out of the way, I found that strapping it onto my back works rather well.

Now I can sit with it, run with it, go down stairs with it, and I can walk through crowds and busy marketplaces without it banging into things.  This arrangement works really well, with one big problem. 

You cannot draw your sword.  I don’t care what the movies say, it can’t be done—in fact, it’s quite ridiculous when you actually try it.

The first problem is simply reaching back to grab the pommel.  I mean, look how far back the handle is:

You can reach it, but man that’s quite a stretch.  Even worse, the strap moves all over your shoulder, so the hilt is never in the same place.  It's nothing like wearing it on your hip where with muscle memory you know right where it is.  You have to reach way back, and you have to grope around until you find it.

I’ve seen people keep things strapped to their back in movies.  They make it look so easy, and they look so cool (e.g., Deadpool, whose crossed hilts are actually fixed securely to one spot on his back),  The reality is nothing like that.

Reach waaaay back there.

But the real problem comes when you actually try to draw the sword.  Essentially, the blade is too long and your arm is too short.  This just doesn’t work.

Got it! Not quite. . .

To pull it out I have to grip the blade at the ricasso (which is often left un-sharpened for half-sword thrusts and other techniques).
Hang on. . . I got this. . . Yeah!
Wearing the sword farther down your back does not work.  It just makes your sword that much harder to reach (I can barely grasp the pommel).  The sword is simply too long.  

And what do I do once I’ve slaughtered my enemy and I need to sheathe the sword?  Well, forget about it.  It’s just easier to take the whole thing off, and then sheathe it, then throw it over your shoulder once more.

Re-sheathing your sword?  Not a chance.
To get around all this, you might wonder why I don’t just take the whole thing off my shoulder and then draw my sword.  Well yeah, that works, but there are two problems.  First, that’s really slow.  Second, what do I do with my scabbard?  I suppose I can throw it over my shoulder once more, but that’s made all the more difficult because now my hands are full.  Another option would be, just tossing it to the side or handing it to my squire for safekeeping.

So yeah, it’s plausible, but it’s slow and awkward.  If I’m expecting trouble, it’s a lot easier to just keep it at my side.


Wearing a sword on your back is snug and comfortable and practical—unless you’re expecting trouble.  If you want to draw your weapon quickly, then don’t wear your sword on your back.  There’s no practical way to draw your sword, and you won’t be able to sheath it when you’re finished.  Keeping the sword farther down your back doesn’t work, either.  That just makes it harder to reach, and the blade is too long, anyway.

So question: would this work with a much shorter blade?  Absolutely.  I did a quick search and found a you-tube video of a guy dressed as Deadpool who had no trouble drawing both blades--but again, these were short-swords.  They weren't full-length katanas.

And with a short-sword I’d have to ask, “why?”  The whole point of wearing a sword on your back is because it’s huge and you want to get it out of the way.  A short sword wouldn’t have that problem, and it would be so much easier to wear it on your side.

I’m sure there’s twenty ways to debate this.  I look forward to your comments below.