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Construction of wooden sword grips of 9th-12th century



This paper aims to explore the wooden parts of the sword grips of 9th-12th century. This problem, which is neglected in previous monographs – with the exception of Geibig (1991: 100), who touches the topic very decently – may be of interest not only to experts and archaeologists, but especially to sword smiths, modern sword users and those interested in medieval everyday life in general.

Although we have about 6500 swords from the monitored period, it must be admitted that we often work with destroyed remnants of organic materials, often subsequently damaged by preparation, conservation or other interventions. It is paradoxical that many swords with well-preserved grips, due to their solidity, do not allow a more detailed study of the internal structure without permanent damage to textile or leather covers. For these reasons, together with the long-term disinterest of the professional public, the number of swords we can use is very limited. From the material we were able to assemble, it follows that the wooden grip parts were made up of one, two and four pieces, as shown in the following diagram.

Schematic cross-sectional drawing of a one-piece, two-piece and four-piece wooden grip.

One-piece grip

The grip, which was made of one perforated piece, with an opening that is fully filled by the tang, is not unknown in the literature. Geibig (1991: 100) literally mentions that in the case of the German material it is the most common variant, represented by seven pieces. The same method seems to be used in the case of the K type sword from Cirkovljan-Diven, Croatia, whose grip is further wrapped in a 2 cm wide linen ribbon (Bilogrivić 2009: 132-3). The one-piece grip is also used in the well-preserved type X sword from lake Trummen (Digitalt Museum 2020). The one-piece grip had to be applied before fitting the pommel.

The sword from Cirkovljan-Diven. Bilogrivić 2009: T. III: 3.

The sword from Lembeck. Geibig 1991: Taf. 103.1-3.

The sword from the lake Trummen. Digitaltmuseum 2020.

Two-piece grip

The grip made of two wooden parts allows assembly after fixing the pommel. Geibig literally considers them easier to manufacture (Geibig 1991: 100). Although we can assume that the grips could be glued, at the same time they were secured by wrapping (metal sheet, wire, textiles, leather) or rivets. From the available material, we know two different methods of how two-piece grips could be constructed:

Identical halves
The grip formed by two identical scales is the most probable solution of the sword grips from graves 90 (type K) and 341 (type X) in Mikulčice (Hošek – Košta 2014: 74, 100; personal discussion with Jiří Košta). Specifically, the sword from grave no. 90 was further wrapped with a textile and a leather strap (Hošek – Košta 2014: 74). Other representatives of this variant probably include the sword from Korsødegården, which has preserved one of the scales whose edges are curved (Dowen 2015: 189, Fig. 9; personal discussion with Vegard Vike). Grips that are wrapped in wire usually have the longer sides of the tang covered with scales, while shorter sides are not – which is evident in the sword from Dolhobyczów, whose scales are made of antler (personal discussion with Piotr Kotowicz). Covering the two longer sides and leaving the shorter sides free is also evident in the sword from Steyregg (Ruprechtberger 2012). Two identical scales are also used on two other antler grips from Sweden; antler grips are longitudinally riveted with iron rivets (Androshchuk 2014: Jä 12; Holm 2015; Kjellmark 1905: 367). The grip formed by identical halves, which were riveted on the sides, is also known from metal version, for example the sword from Eltoft (Munch 1960).

The sword from Mikulčice, grave 90. Hošek – Košta 2014: Fig. 9.

Non-identical halves
The alder grip of the H type sword from the equestrian grave I from Grimstrup, Denmark, consists of two asymmetrical scales – the larger part is provided with a slit on the wider side, into which the tang fits and which is then covered with a narrower piece and the entire grip is wrapped in a narrow leather strap (Stoumann 2009: 290). An identical system can be seen in the alder sword grip from grave L-207/2017 from Gnězdovo, Russia (Kainov – Novikov 2024: 251).

The sword from Grimstrup. Stoumann 2009: Fig. 26.

Four-piece grip

The grip formed by four pieces that were attached to the sides of the tang is known from at least two swords from Lednica (Stępnik 2011: 71-2). A more interesting piece is the H type sword, which shows no signs of wrapping and it is believed that the scales may have been glued. It is also interesting for this piece that the wider parts are made of yew, while the narrower parts are maple. The second sword (α var. 1 according to Nadolski / type X.A / B.1 according to Oakeshott) has all parts made of maple and they were densely wrapped with a leather strip.

The sword from Lednica. Stępnik 2011: Fot. 3, 4.

The sword from Lednica. Stępnik 2011: Fot. 1, 2.

The four-part construction can also be indicated by the shape of the metal guards. In some cross-guards or upper guards, the holes for the tang are significantly enlarged to accommodate the wooden parts of the grip. The grip parts that were inserted into one or the other component and rests on the opposite metal guard, serves to wedge the upper guard at the same time. This composite construction theoretically helps to better manage vibrations. In the Early Middle Ages, this solutution is not frequent, but according to swordsmith Róbert Môc, it occurs more often from the 12th century onwards. In the Early Middle Ages, enlarged tang holes are seen, for example, in type K swords with the inscription Hiltipreht (see Davidson 1998: Pl. II; Morawe 1929; Ypey 1982).

The sword from the site of Liepe. Source: Morawe 1929: 294.


Despite the small nature of the collected material, it is evident that various strategies were applied in the choice of wood, the overall shape, the method of grip construction and the method of fastening. The choice of wood has already been discussed in a separate article Wood species used for sword grips, and at this point it seems there is no difference between grip variants regarding the used material – grips were made primarily of deciduous trees, regardless of shape and construction, while conifer wood was used exceptionally. In this very moment, it seems probable that the barrel-shaped grip is more often associated with a one-piece construction, while multi-piece grips are always of trapezoid or hourglass shape. However, the trapezoid or hourglass shape is also evident in the case of a one-piece variant.

It seems to be the rule that hilts with Geibig construction type II (ie a two-part pommel construction with a pommel cap riveted to the upper guard; Geibig 1991: Abb. 24) always use multi-part grip variants. The reasons for this choice are purely practical: the multi-part grip, which is applied after fixing the pommel, offers more space when riveting the cap to the guard, and by pressing the grip on the guard, it helps to keep parts taut and prevents them from moving. For construction types I and III (ie constructions with a peened tang on the top of the pommel), one-piece and multi-piece grips appear.

It is obvious that the shape and construction of the grips of some swords were not accidental and were taken into account during the production of blades. A beautiful example is the whole type S, whose average tang width is 2.51 cm at the lower guard (19 samples) and 1.59 cm at the upper guard (14 samples). For comparison, we can give the average values for type X: 2.996 cm at the guard (25 samples) and 1.9 cm at the pommel (25 samples). As a result, this means that the blades of these two types were not interchangeable and craftsmen already had a precise idea of the overall project and its aesthetic and practical aspects before production. The multi-part grip variants make it possible to achieve very narrow, thin-walled grips that encircle the tang very tightly, as can be seen with wire-wrapped grips where the width of the tang often corresponds to the width of the resulting grip. It is typical for multi-part grips that they are fastened in the following ways:

  • textile and/or leather wrapping
  • continuous wrapping in wire or metal sheet
  • wire, metal sheet or cast ferrules
  • riveted tang

Most likely, almost all variants of wooden grips were originally wrapped, including one-piece grips. In addition to the fact that the multi-part variants are held together by wrapping, the main reason is ergonomics, which contributes to the comfortable use and longer durability of the product. It can also be mentioned that wooden grips can have an imperfect shape or edges, which can be corrected with the wrapping. Exceptions could be the grips made of visually interesting material and probably also some grips with metal ferrules.

Suggested scheme of construction of sword grips with a wooden base.

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