Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Behind the Back

From Heroic Tales of Legendary Heroes: Book One, The Awesome Heroes of Epicdom:
Whaddya mean 'compensating'?

The barbarian warrior strode through the mist, the hilt of a massive longsword jutted over his shoulder.  The sheathed blade nearly touched the ground behind him.  Lord Raskil Badsmellingham shook at the sight of the newcomer, his hand suddenly sweaty on the hilt of his sword.  He shot a glance at Princess Adelaide, but the barbarian could see that whatever his nefarious plot, the evil Lord Raskil wouldn’t have time to complete it.

“Surrender,” the barbarian growled.

“Never,” Lord Raskil replied.  “I’ve come to far.”

The barbarian smiled.  This is what he’d hoped for.  A final fight.  Trial by combat, and Chrahm, his god in the forges of Drog Dorgthaki would be pleased by the offering of a king sliding from his blade.

“Then die!”

The barbarian reached over his shoulder and grabbed the hilt of his longsword.  He started to draw the massive blade, but only managed to pull thirty-eight inches of the five foot length clear of the sheath.  His smile turned to a frown as he tugged again.  But his well-muscled arm, even on his six-and-a-half-foot frame, was only forty inches long.  It was simple math, which the Hyperhyborian teachers had tried to drill into his head, only to have the young barbarian scoff at them.  After all, what could math gain him that his sword could not?

. . . but it looks good!
Lord Raskil Badsmellingham wasted no time.  He lunged a full, perfect extension into the barbarian’s unprotected mid-section, his blade sliding a surgery-perfect wound just above the belly button.  The barbarian tried one more time to pull his massive blade free from the prison of its sheath, still trapped on his back where it had looked so impressive.  Lord Raskil pulled his blade free and thrust it a second time into the barbarian, and a third, and a forth, and then a fifth.  The barbarian tried to fall to his knees, but the still-sheathed blade kept him making anything even approaching a dignified or picturesque, and he toppled onto his side.

“Aren’t you dead yet?” Lord Raskil asked, and stabbed the barbarian three more times with his bloody sword.

The barbarian died, with his sword still in his sheath and the laughter of Chrahm in his ears—or it might have been Lord Raskil.

Fantasy covers, artwork, video games, even written character descriptions often depict swords, the bigger the better, being carried about in a sheath on the hero’s back.  This sounds and looks fantastic.

It is wholly impractical.

Well, let me amend that.  If you plan on anything even close to a useful draw in a combat scenario, say at high noon in a town square, or in a bar with unusually high ceilings, or anywhere else where a sword might come in handy in saving your life, then wearing your sword scabbarded on your back is impractical.

Otherwise, yeah—Bad Barbarian Mutha’!

Provided there isn’t going to be an immediate threat to your hero, like say taking a stroll along a
Boys.  Please.
country path, or attending a kid-friendly family picnic, a back-sheath would be fine for toting old Long Edge around.  In cases where the hero knows he/she is going to a particular battle and will have time to dress for success, taking off the sheath, leaving it with a thane, a page, a friend, a sheath-check girl, etc. it might make sense to march with the weapon secured in this fashion.  It’s all rage in Hyperhyperboria!

There’s little record of back-sheaths amongst most common longsword users—dismounted knights and men-at-arms. They would sling the weapon from a belt specific for the task, keep the sword on their saddle (like you might a long rifle), or make their valet/page keep custody of the weapon.  When it was required, they’d leave horse and sheath together in the rear with their pages or valets or in their tent or what have you.

The two-handed swordsmen of 16th-century Europe are almost always depicted with their swords drawn.  When shown on parade or a march toward battle they would rest the flat of the naked blade their shoulder. Most historians now think that soldiers, being the lazy, gold-bricking, sand-bagging, lay-abouts that they were, would just leave these bulky weapons with the rest of the baggage if there was no immediate threat at hand.

This is to say nothing for shorter-bladed weapons, which is a wholly different topic.  Obviously, anything that can easily clear the sheath on the back becomes far more practical to be carried in this position.  Sleeping, of course, is a bit awkward, but the coolness factor remains in play, while the likelihood of being killed while attempting to draw, and draw, and draw your sword is cut down by a factor of, let’s say, ten.  Yeah, at least ten.  Maybe twelve.  Long knives and short swords can even be worn at the waist, behind the back, although longswords would still not be able to be drawn from this position—arms, geometry and physics being what they are.

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