Martial Truths: Quarterstaff vs. Great Sword

Robin Hood and Little John by Louis Rhead 1912

This John is little, that John is very far away.

Is a greatsword really twice as good as a quarterstaff? Both D&D and Runequest would have you think so.

You may be surprised to learn that these weapons are used in almost identical manner, at least in English schools. “What’s that?” you say, “surely you grip the quarterstaff in the middle, like that stout and entirely fictional martial artist Little John”. No, that’s half-staffing, as illustrated by later period martial texts like Miller and then cemented in popular culture by Hollywood. Certainly you may have held the staff halfway along some of the time, notably if you needed to shorten your staff against someone rushing to close (Silver, Paradoxes) but generally you held the thing one quarter of the way along its length.

“Of the two hand sword fight against the like weapon” from Silver’s Bref Instructions:

These weapons are to be used in fight as the short staf, yf both play upon dubble & syngle hand, at the two hand sword, the long sword hath the advantage if the weight thereof be not too heavy for his strength that has it, but if both play only upon dubble hand, then his blade which is of convenient length agreeing with his stature that hath it, which is according with the length of the measure of his single swordblade, hath the advantage of the sword that is too long for the stature of the contrary party, because he can cross & uncross, strike & thrust, close & grip in shorter time than the other can.

We imagine “great swords” being these immensely heavy long weapons, unstoppable cleavers. Actually they’re relatively light. John Clements’ essay on Two Handed Greatswords debunks some of the myth of the great sword and provides a bit of historical context — these were Renaissance weapons used for attacking pike blocks, by attacking the pikes themselves. And while they would have been pretty good at hacking at the lightly armoured infantry once those troublesome pikes were whittled down, they were pretty specialised in isolation. No doubt they were used for judicial and gladiatorial duelling, but that’s probably it.

The main reason a two-hander must be kept light is the speed; if the two hander really were absurdly slow, it would make all actions in the time of the hand slower, the weapon would lye spent for longer, and so on. Two combatants’ fights may be perfect, but if a weapon is too heavy to be wielded quickly then a person with a disadvantaged weapon may still gain the place. This argument is similar to the concerns of the “man of mean stature” (Silver, Paradoxes).

I don’t want to get into some debate on the relative potential for injury between the great sword and quarter staff; I will only say that the staff’s capacity for causing injury is almost universally underestimated. Certainly staff training gives me the greatest concern in WMA. I know of real injuries from staff-thrusts where the players underestimated the mass of the weapon and the unyielding nature of the wood (compared to steel or nylon) resulting in broken ribs and a collapsed lung. The tip moves so quickly and with such mass behind it that it’s trivial to break bone. I don’t mean to imply that one cannot train safely with such a weapon; it’s just that because “it’s just a piece of wood” the humble staff gets a lot less respect than it needs. There’s an account on Terry Brown’s site in a 2011 interview:

“The power of staff weapons is truly phenomenal and I once bouted against a full-contact re-enactor who wanted to experience fighting against the quarterstaff. He was wearing a good quality suit of armour and was armed with a sword and dagger. My first blow knocked him off his feet and shook him up quite badly. After that I wound down the power to about a quarter but even so still knocked him down several times. He said afterwards he felt totally helpless because he couldn’t get in range to strike. He also said it felt like being inside an oil drum while someone hit it with a sledgehammer.”

It’s not simply power of a staff that makes it such an incredible weapon against the likes of shorter weapons. Silver goes into some detail concerning its vantages against sword single, sword and dagger and like weapons. The staff’s superiority clearly derives from its length but also from its speed in being repositioned from high to low lines. The Governor of Measure requires the artist to “keep his space true” against incoming attack; but with staff against sword the sword cannot be true spaced against a high attack and low attack simultaneously, and it is trivial for the staff-bearer to reposition their weapon in the time of just their hand. If the swordsman merely carries their sword in some kind of middle guard (a “stoccata” or similar) they will likely not be able to ward the incoming attack strongly enough in time, high or low. But demonstrating this in practice is hard; when the power is dialled down, the actual speed and threat from the weapon can’t be fully appreciated.

The staff’s speed also gives it advantage against some longer weapons; Silver commends the short staff against the long staff and morris pike, and notes that it is not much inferior to the Forrest Bill (Paradoxes). The reason it has the advantage here is its ability to cross and uncross and offend the enemy more rapidly. But here I’ll just have to ask you to take my word for it; we’re venturing into territory where only a demonstration will be satisfactory.

Logically the staff isn’t the be-all and end-all of English fight. We like our hafted weapons and any perceived problems with relative length of pikes &c. may be corrected by shortening one’s grip; and this shortening again happens in the time of the hand, whereas the offender may still be coming in using his or her feet (Paradoxes). And for what it’s worth, that’s probably less practical to do with a great sword.

So, I contend that the quarterstaff gets a raw deal. If you base weapon damage on actual capacity to cause injury, the staff is the equal of the sword, or even better. If you take a more holistic view of hit points with a continual wearing down of each side based statistically on relative weapon and skill — well, frankly the staff is more capable than its peers in its ability to harass opponents, full stop.

So, why is the greatsword twice as good as the staff in D&D?

Snobbery, that’s why.

In the D&D 3.5e SRD, the greatsword is a “martial weapon” whilst the humble staff is a “simple weapon”. Only special people who have trained in poncy feats get to handle martial weapons. D&D is distorting the weapon stats to reward fighters with more damage, but also fighters get to pose with cool weapons as a consolation for not being able to cast fireballs or look fetching in black.

(What’s Runequest’s excuse, then? Beats me.)