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How funny-looking war hammers replaced powerful swords? It was just a better weapon

Posted July 20, 2019

Sword is a symbol of Middle Ages. However, later in the period something less scary replaced these cold weapons – war hammers came along. And don’t think about big sledges – we are talking normal-sized hammers, similar to the ones you use to hang picture frames. But what made hammer a better, more effective weapon that a sword?

This is a war hammer – in some situations it was a much more effective weapons than a sword. Image credit: Jotsio via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

War hammers have originated in Europe in late Middle Ages. They are also used in Middle East and later – in India. In appearance, by the way, they are not entirely identical to framing hammers. Many war hammers were very ornamental and rather beautiful. This was because they were used by noblemen, who were into this kind of luxury and art.

War hammer is a close combat weapon just like a sword was. Swords were used for ages and were absolutely devastating. Long, heavy and sharp swords were difficult to block and could penetrate any kind of light armour. The effectiveness of swords relied on the steel – they were harder and more resilient than armour. However, with time blacksmiths learned to case-harden armour, making its surface as hard as the edge of a sword. This meant that hitting armour was more painful for the attacker and little damage was done. And this is where a war hammer comes in.

Highly ornamental war hammer head – weapons back in the day were designed to look nice. Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At some point makers of weapons decided that it is not crucial to penetrate the armour to deal damage. Direct hits with a sword would push the enemy a few steps back, but a new form of a blunt weapon was needed. And a war hammer was born – a metal head, similar to an ice axe, on a long wooden handle.

A war hammer, especially when it has a long and tough handle, delivers a significant blow to the armour, denting it and injuring the enemy. A hammerhead does not ricochet or slide on the curvature of the helmet, which means that it is simply more effective. Later, however, war hammers improved and had some spikes on the sides or on the back. These sharper points were used against body-covering armour plates that were a bit thinner. Or against unprotected body parts.

War hammers were also used to disable horses – soldiers would crush animal’s legs to attack the rider. Terrible, we know, but knights were also using war hammers – it was rather easy to knock someone on the head from up high. Longer and heavier hammers, called mauls, were also used. Interestingly, historical sources note that at first they were used as guns in improvisation – they were originally intended to be used as tools to drive in stakes of tents.

War hammers were widely used up until the advent of guns. When you can be shot, you don’t come closer with your hammer. On the other hand, some people still keep hammers on long handles as self-defence weapons – as long as home invader doesn’t have a gun, your hammer can be quite effective.

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