Well met! I decided to use my history, military, and martial arts skills to good use to provide this guide of useful notes when it comes to medieval arms and armor. To help you with your historical/medieval/fantasy story or Roleplay, and provide some info and contexts for what weapons is good when, and what armor is accurate at what level of technology, etc.
Now, what do I mean by 'medieval?' Well most would say the Middle Ages began in the year 1066 after the Battle of Hastings, and ended with the discovery of the New World. It's honestly based on your perspective. Many seem to think the Dark Ages were apart of the early Middle Ages, which stretch back to the 5th century and onward until, you guessed it, 1066. Luckily somewhat, I won't need to make the terms Middle Ages and Dark Ages synonymous much. Simply put, We do not know too much about the fighting styles of the Dark Ages because there are very little accounts, and no written treatises. But we still had a general idea of what the people in that time used and why, which is the basis of this guide.
The most important thing to know about swords is that for most of history, they were not main weapons. They were sidearms. Most soldiers wielded polearms and ranged weapons for their main armaments. Swords were often back-up weapons used in tight quarters or when you lost your main weapon. Now there are exceptions to this rule of course. A handful of medieval Knights would choose a sword to fight with, provided they had heavy armor. Landscheckts and the Scottish Highland Regiments also made good use of swords alone, and it was a favored main weapon of light cavalry. But for the most part, they were used as a secondary weapon. Mostly because they were one of the easiest weapons to be worn at the hip (or the back, or on a sling, etc.), and they were very versatile in their usage in combat. So, if the Sword was only rarely used as a main armament, why was it so prominent in our history, and why is it the quintessential storybook/hero's weapon?
Well there is a variety of reasons, but we're going to explore the four main reasons here.
- After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, much of what was considered civilization at that time was lost, which included things such as maintaining the roads, fortified settlements, public transportation, as well as finding good metal and good smiths to forge them into swords. Not only that, but finding good ore in the areas where Rome had never held sway was a rare thing as well. In turn, metal became quite expensive, and swords were rarely wielded by anyone that wasn't nobility. Axes and Spears were far more cheaper and easier to produce. If you carried a sword from the 5th century to the late Norman/Viking period, it meant you were important enough and rich enough to carry one, and it became a symbol of status just as much as a weapon. It was also the one true 'exclusive' weapon at the time. An Axe could be used to chop wood. A spear and bow could be used to hunt, and even the rare hammer in combat could be used to build and forge. But a sword was used only for the art of killing, which meant it was a sheer battlefield investment, one most common folk wouldn't spend their meager savings on. The sword grew into the 'Hero' weapon, and was often attributed with magical abilities in the Myth's and Legends of the Anglo-Saxon/Viking Era. Look in the Epic poem Beowulf, for instance. Almost every sword listed in there is magical and attributed with special honor.
- In complete contrast to this, during the late 14th and 15th centuries, good quality steel and metallurgy became much more readily available. Which shifted the sword to being an expensive symbol of status, to a weapon one could afford fairly easily if they had any sort of income and inclination to get one. A medieval longbowman in the early 1400s was paid 6 pence a day, and an arming sword at that time cost the exact amount of 6 pence. However, this availability did not detract from how effective a good sword was in combat. It was still a very versatile and deadly weapon, and while it did not have the reach of a polearm, it would do well in a pinch if the need arose. So it became the medieval world's go-to sidearm. It became extremely popular, is the point. Archers had swords at their hips just in case. Knights had arming swords at the ready in case they lost their poleaxe or dismounted off their charger. The average footman with a shield wore a sword if he was a rearguard. Etc.
- Now that we established that the sword was used almost exclusively as an effective, relatively cheap, and deadly sidearm, the questions remains on who would use it as a main armament, other than the rare soldier with a shield or a fully armored Knight who favored it. Who needed a versatile weapon that was easy to carry?
Travelers. Merchants and Mercenaries. Adventurers. Men and women who came into town telling stories of the holy land or bringing spices from the orient. Other than the humble quarterstaff, the sword became synonymous with adventure and travelers, much like stories today.
- Now as we've spoken of the sword's versatility, let's not forget what that means, which is that such a trait has allowed this weapon to stand the test of time. Other than the rock, knife, and the simple club, the Sword has seen more centuries of warfare throughout written history than any other weapon. From 3000 BC. with blades made of arsenical copper or bronze, to the 20th century and even today in remote parts of the world. George Patton, the famous WWII General created his own style of sword fencing in 1912, in full expectation it would be executed in real warfare. It's good to note that swords remained in special use in the later centuries in cavalry and naval warfare, whereas only officers in the army really used swords after the middle 19th century.
It's also of paramount importance that you note that two-handed swords, bastard swords, greatswords, none of these existed in any real capacity until the late 14th century. Up until say, 1360, swords were made for one handed use. The arming sword ruled the day, because the pinnacle of armor up until that point was chainmail with padding. It wasn't until the coat of plates, which broke off into either the Brigandine, or full Plate armor, that a sword without the use of a shield was not considered foolhardy (at least in the context of a mass battle).
Half-swording and grappling are two very important aspects of combat when it came to two plate armored men wielding swords. A simple cut or thrust would almost never harm a fully armored Knight unless it hit a vulnerable area, therefore it was paramount that they try to bypass the other's defenses by either incapacitating their opponent in grappling or controlling their sword with what we call Half-swording, which is when you wield your sword with one hand on the sword hilt and one hand on the blade above the hilt.
I will probably make an article solely on the dozens of different types of swords, but for now this shall suffice.
As previously mentioned, polearms were the main weapons of most medieval armies, particularly in Europe. The reason is quite simple. Reach. An unarmored swordsman vs. an unarmored spearman with roughly the same skill level, a spearman will win 8 times out of 10 simply because he can hit the swordsman while the swordsman cannot. Spears are much easier to maneuver than one might think as well, if you use your back end for thrusting the weapon and the front end to control the forward aim. You can pull the spear back very easily, attacking at many sides while the swordsman would tire himself out at defending.
Of course, if you bring armor or shields into the equation the swordsman's chances vastly increase, but you would need particularly heavy armor for the spear to be lesser than the sword. Polearms are also much easier to use in formations, and are a very effective defensive weapon when it comes to halting both infantry and cavalry charges. Not only that, but a polearm is cheap and easy to make and maintain.
- Spears: The polearm that generally comes to mind when people think of the word. Spears were usually 6 to 9 feet in length. There are various types of spears used for different armies and indeed different tactics, but the common spear generally had a diamond shaped head of iron. The haft was often made of Ash, because the wood was both durable yet flexible. Contrary to common belief, spears are not easy to chop through and break. It was certainly possible, but you would need more than one good swing to do it, and as you can imagine, an enemy spearman wouldn't sit there and let you hew at his weapon.
- Halberds: The late 14th century brought about the Halberd, a cross between a spear and an axe. Usually a Halberd was 8 to 12 feet in length, and it was developed in order to better fight against armored cavalry. The spear was doing a fine job, but soldiers needed a more versatile weapon that could halt charges, as well as be used in a cleaving motion. Many had hooks behind the axehead to hook a rider off his horse, or perhaps slip it through a knight's armor. The Swiss has a particular taste for this weapon.
- Pikes: Unlike the Halberd and Spear, a Pike is not a very good weapon to be used in an individual fight. It's often over 12 feet in length, and unwieldy. Where the Pike shines is in army formations. Defensive maneuvers often had the front rank kneeling, with their spears pointed at a rough 45 degree angle, and the 2nd and 3rd rows pointed their pikes forward, using the first row as a makeshift spike hazard for cavalry. Pikemen were often supported by archers, crossbowmen, or riflemen. A good pike army could be used in an offensive and aggressive formation as well, punching straight through enemy infantry that couldn't hope to bypass 5 rows of Pike-heads. The Scottish and Swiss armies should be given particular credit for being effective and well trained with their pikes. Also, while the common conception of pikes are in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, the Greek 'Sarissa' used in Phalanx formations in Phillip the II and Alexander the Great's armies were also technically Pikes as well.
- Poleaxes: My favorite Polearm. The Poleaxe was essentially a shorter and more robust halberd, generally 5 to 6 feet in length. It wasn't often used in formations, instead mostly being favored by Knights who sought to kill other Knights. It was made to be an all-purpose, armor piercing weapon. Often it had a short axehead used to cleave and chop, a hammerhead opposite to sunder armor, and a spike atop to pierce through plate.
- Bills: One of the favored weapons of the English army, the bill was cheap and easy to make like most polearms, and was particularly effective at fighting cavalry and decently armored Knights (much like what the French fielded). You could hook a rider off of a horse, or hook someone's armor, or stab through a vulnerable spot with the hook. It often had a spear tip at the top of the haft as well, to add versatility. Many commoners would have been familiar with the weapon. It was based on an agricultural bill, after all.
*Additionally, it is paramount that you note that while spearwalls were effective against cavalry charges, they were just as much of a deterrent as they were a weapon. If a spear formation was used to great effect against mounted Knights, often times the 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd ranks of spearmen were still killed or wounded. Even if you killed the horse or Knight, that is still 2,000 pounds of steel and muscle barreling towards you at top speed. There is a very good chance many of the spearmen would be crushed, or perhaps skewered by the (probably still alive) Knight and his lance.
Essentially, the relationship between a spearwall and heavy cavalry was a game of chicken. One that heavily armored and disciplined Knights often played much more boldly than peasants wielding spears, which is one reason why the mounted Knight dominated the Medieval battlefield. Both the Knight and the peasant knew that even if the peasant managed to wound or kill the horse, there was a very real possibility that after the first few ranks of spearmen are crushed, the Knight will be alive and well enough to get back up and begin hewing the lightly armed and armored peasants down.
AxesMy absolute favorite weapon. The Axe has the cleaving power of a sword combined with the near the blunt power of a club. It's been a very popular weapon throughout history, and was used to great effect by civilizations such as the Egyptians, the Danes, and the Native Americans with the famous Tomahawk. It was a cheap weapon, easy to make and field, and deadly in its use.
However despite it's strengths, Axes had plenty of weaknesses. There are no treatises known of Axemanship, and if there ever were they have been lost to history. Which means we have no idea how the Axe was used in the medieval era, at least when speaking of techniques. However modern HEMA people have experimented with the Axe and have come up with more than a few conclusions on how best to use it.
Bluntly speaking, if you are unarmored with a long handled axe, and you're fighting an unarmored man with an arming sword, you're probably going to lose if you are of equal skill. The sword generally has longer reach, is much more varied in defensive capabilities, and will probably be a more nimble weapon. Of course, you can block and redirect a sword by treating the Axe haft like a short quarterstaff, but best case scenario, you both die in the end. Always remember that an Axe is generally inferior to a sword when it comes to defensive useage. A sword can block while attacking simultaneously, a sword has hand protection, a sword has greater reach, etc.
Now add shields, and the game changes. Its the primary contention that the Axe, an almost purely offensive weapon, will lose all of its weaknesses and keep its offensive capabilities when coupled with a shield. In my opinion, the axe actually gains a slight edge in shield combat against the sword because of the ability to hook the enemy shield and pull your foe off balance.
Allow the scene to shift again. It's the late 14th or early 15th century, and you and your opponent are armored Knights on foot in combat. You're holding a two handed Battleaxe, and your foe has a longsword. Your foe would feel a great sense of trepidation at fighting you. An armored Knight would not want to be hit by such a weapon, even if his brigandine or plate armor would keep him alive for the first swing or two. He'd be wounded, or at best his armor would be dented and breaking. Most late Medieval Battleaxes also had armor piercing spikes at its top or behind the Axehead.
In fact, keep in mind two handed Axes became a weapon in Europe before the two handed sword. The great Danish Axe was wielded during the time of Chainmail and wool padding in the 11th century. The men still had shields, but oftentimes they were on their backs and only unfastened when need be.
One more thing to note, all one handed Axes were much easier to be used as a missile weapon than any sword. As long as you knew how, throwing an Axe was a very easy thing to do.
This section is not about the common club, which many associate as a 'low tier' mace. This is about the proper weapon and its variations/cousin weapons. However, I will note that the mace grew from the club, and stone headed maces were used nearly 8 millennia ago. Now, in this overview of the mace and its kind, I am going to merely give notes to keep in mind for the weapons.
- The proper European mace first began to appear in the early 10th century, and was particularly popular in eastern Europe throughout the Medieval era. Once Chainmail grew into popularity, it became quite apparent that blows from edged weapons like swords were less effective than they had been against padded armor.
- Flail chains were shorter than the hafts of the weapon, so the instrument at the end of the chain did not strike your hand as you wielded it. Also in order to use flails effectively, it was important to keep the head of the weapon constantly swinging. It was also important you were heavily armored if using said weapon.
- Hammers have been used as makeshift weapons since antiquity, but the proper 'Warhammer' truly came into its own in the 15th century. It was a great, two handed weapon. It was unwieldy and hefty, and in order to use it without harming yourself, you would almost certainly be wearing plate armor. However it was incredibly devastating against enemy armor, and even shields. Other than the poleaxe, this was the deadliest weapon on the battlefield to an armored Knight. I have not seen hard evidence of this, but some have claimed that English longbowmen used mauls and warhammers as close combat weapons, because they would be fighting French Knights if they fought anyone up close, and the overdeveloped muscles of the longbowmen made them give powerful blows. Don't take this account as gospel, however.  The story of English yeomen comes from the stakes they planted in the ground in front of them, famously at Agincourt. The hammers they used to beat the stakes into the ground are said to have been used as an improvised weapon.
- However, the length of warhammers varied; there are instances of warhammers of polearm-length, and also short, one-handed hammers sometimes called horseman's picks, or war picks. The latter looked something like this: a short, one-handed weapon not too dissimilar from everyday construction hammers or icepicks. At one end is a flat, or slightly pronged end for blunt blows, and on the reverse, a sharp point for piercing through armor. These sorts of weapons were seen as early as the 14th century.
- Flanged maces became popular when plate armor appeared as well, the 'flanges' or ridges were very effective at penetrating plate with a well aimed blow.
- In many fantasy realms, the mace is often associated with the clergy, and profess to base this on real life. While it's a trope I enjoy, there is very little evidence to suggest this was actually the case. In fact the only evidence to my knowledge is Bishop Odo of Bayeux wielding a mace at the Battle of Hastings in the Bayeux Tapestry.
- The mace, and in particular the morningstar, (the spiked or studded version of the mace) was considered a 'Knightly' weapon. Which means it was popular for men who could afford heavy armor and less nimble weapons to use, because it was simple yet effective at crushing both bones and brigandines.
- Something to note about maces, and also Axes, was that halting the weapon arm of a percussive weapon user is not nearly as smart as halting the arm of, say, a knife wielder, for the weapon had much of its power at its head and will continue on its path to hit you.
- A note about cavalry. Some sources indicate Cavalry used maces with shorter hafts than the average infantryman, which is an oddity considering it would be hard to hit someone off of a horse if you yourself could not reach them. Though there is an argument that the shorter haft allowed better control over the weapon on a bucking horse. I have also seen claims that throwing maces was a common practice from horseback, and while I would take this with a grain of salt, I won't dismiss it as rumor either.
 Have been added by @Aristo