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Top 5 Gruesome Medieval Weapons

knight in armor charging

Knight in armor charging

If you love all things medieval, you’re probably dying to know about the most gruesome medieval weapons and war tactics. At Swords of Northshire, we’re experts on ancient European battles as well as their Japanese counterparts. Check out our breakdown of the most gruesome medieval times weapons — they might not be what you expect!

1. Boiling Oil

flaming oil pouring down castle walls

Boiling oil

Arrows, rocks, boiling oil, and indeed anything that could injure a man would be cast down the holes causing death, destruction, and chaos below. While the term “boiling oil” is generally used, the reality is that anything hot would be deployed. Soldiers heated oil of various types, water, animal fat, hot sand, and even sewage in a cauldron located nearby. Then, they poured the liquid onto the unfortunate men below, causing painful deaths or at least inflicting horrific injuries on anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the scalding downpour.

The hot liquids were a powerful medieval weapon that would usually completely cover the enemy soldiers who were hit, getting under any protective armor they might be wearing. In many ways, boiling oil was considered an early form of terror weaponry. The terrible injuries and gruesome deaths caused spread fear and panic amongst any other attackers who managed to escape its rain of death. The screams of the injured, the smell of burning flesh, and the sight of dozens of horrifically burned bodies proved more than enough reason for any wavering unit of men to retreat. Such burning oils and flammable liquids were not only effective medieval weapons against the attacking soldiers, but also against the ladders, rams, and siege engines. They set fire to the equipment, rendering it useless.

The ways in which these boiling oils have been used throughout history has been diverse and genius. The romans used oil-based fire pots which could be thrown by hand or launched with ballistas and would erupt in flames upon impact. The Phoenicians heated sand inside copper shields until it became red hot before throwing it over attackers. The red, hot sand penetrated gaps in the enemy soldier’s armor, burning into their flesh. One account speaks of the men hit by the scalding sand dying while going mad with horrible pain.

Boiling oil examples in history

Boiling oils have been used throughout history in diverse and genius ways. The Romans threw or launched oil-based fire pots that erupted in flames upon impact. The Phoenicians heated sand inside copper shields until it became red hot before throwing it over attackers. The hot sand penetrated gaps in enemy soldier’s armor, burning into their flesh. Boiling oil tactics survived further into history than you would imagine, proof that it was one of the best medieval weapons. At the Siege of Paris at 886 AD, the Franks used a special mixture of oil and wax, which stuck to the skin of the attacking Vikings, melting flesh from bone. At Chester in 918 AD, Vikings had their skin peeled off after being covered with a boiling water and ale mixture.

Attacking a medieval castle was an intimidating prospect. Tall, thick stone walls defended by archers and swordsman had to be overcome before victory could be won and the plundering could begin. Yet swords and bows were not the only weapons used to rain down death and destruction upon the attackers.

murder holes in a medieval castle

Murder Holes

Murder Holes

Walls could be overcome with ladders and siege engines, and gates could be battered down by rams. So other tools were put to use to try and repeal an attacking army. Defenders would often pour boiling oil and other scalding liquids over the castle walls or through specially built holes called “murder holes” which were holes in the castle wall through which the defender could pour the devastating payload on top of the attacker’s head while remaining safe from enemy projectiles. With a name like murder holes, little is left to the imagination about the impact these defenses had upon attacking soldiers.

2. The War Scythe

Scythemen during Poland's January 1863 Uprising

Scythemen during Poland's January 1863 Uprising

For much of history, frenzied hordes of rebellious peasants baying for the blood of their rulers would arm themselves with whatever medieval weapons they could lay their hands on, which would usually be farming tools converted for battle. The war scythe is a polearm based on an improvised version of the standard farming scythe, an agriculture tool used to cut grass or reap crops. The long wooden handle contained a curved vicious-looking blade that could cut through crops and human flesh. During wars and peasant uprisings, farmers who could not afford expensive fighting equipment would convert this useful farming tool into one of the best medieval weapons designed for one job, to kill.

Benefits of a typical war scythe

typical war scythe

Typical war scythe

Armorers rotated the blade of the scythe so that it pointed upwards like a spear, creating a weapon that was far more effective at stabbing the enemy as well as defending against cavalry charges. The final product was cheap, quick to modify, widely available, and extremely effective. It gave its wielder a long attacking range to cut and stab, with documented examples of the scythe cutting through metal helmets. The threat posed by these medieval weapons was so great that, during the Austrian peasant’s war in 1626, the army killed any blacksmith found to be converting agriculture tools into medieval times weapons. With this medieval weapon's unusual but deadly appearance, the sight of thousands of angry peasants armed with the converted blades had a strong psychological impact on the enemy. The prospect of being hacked to pieces by the frenzied attacks of enraged farmers, sometimes using rusty and dirty blades, sent a chill down the spine of anyone ordered to fight them.

3. Zweihander

duel fought with Zweihanders

Duel fought with Zweihanders

These giant two-handed swords join our best medieval weapons list because they even look like they can cleave a man in half with one blow. It’s easy to imagine the terror of seeing several thousands of powerful soldiers marching towards you with murder in their eyes, carrying these enormous weapons across their shoulders.

Origin of Zweihanders

The name Zweihander is actually a name from more modern times. While this medieval weapon was in use, people generally referred to them as two-handed swords, although the English often called them slaughter swords. The weapon primarily saw use in the early 16th century by German mercenaries to counter tightly packed pike formations. The soldiers trained to use this medieval times weapon were usually the largest and strongest and would be given double pay for their services in battle. They earned their extra pay standing in the front ranks and carving out breaches in the enemy pike formation, swinging their giant swords to chop and knock pikes aside. Once a path had been hacked clear, they would then advance into the breach, changing the grip on their swords and using them more like a spear to stab the now vulnerable enemy ranks.

Zweihander Designs

While the massive size of the Zweihander’s blade, which could be over 5 feet long, might make this medieval weapon seem slow and cumbersome, they usually only weighed somewhere in the region of four to eight pounds. Their exceptional reach and balance helped soldiers deliver devastating slashing blows and precise stabbing attacks. The success of the Zweihander’s design is not just due to their sheer size but also the inclusion of pointing projections known as flukes which acted as secondary handguards. Once a pike formation had broken, the Zweihander-wielding swordsman could shorten his grip to more effectively maneuver in close-quarters combat.

modern zweihander

Modern Zweihander

A famous Zweihander

The Frisian hero, Pier Donia, famously used his Zweihander with such skill and strength that he was said to have decapitated several soldiers with a single swing of his sword. The medieval weapon he supposedly used is still on display today at the Fries Museum. It measures seven feet long and weighs an impressive fourteen pounds. It’s uncertain whether this medieval times weapon was actually used in battle or was simply a ceremonial sword.

4. Mace

samples of historical maces

During the Middle Ages, advances in metal plate armor began providing wearers with ever-increasing protection against bladed attacks. The wealthy knights and noblemen who could afford such advanced equipment might enter combat with a greater sense of confidence. The only thing that could shatter their confidence was a fearsome medieval weapon called a mace.

Mace Construction & Usage

The mace had already been around since the dawn of war in some form or another, with the earliest examples being little more than clubs with rocks mounted on the end. Medieval maces took various forms, yet they usually consisted of a heavy weight attached to the end of a club. They were simple and cheap to make, quickly becoming the medieval times weapon of choice for the simple peasant. With a mace, they could go up against a fully armored knight! Vicious-looking metal spikes protruding from this medieval weapon’s head and deadly flanges gave the mace the ability to dent and pierce armor. These heavy medieval times weapons were able to inflict severe damage against heavily armored knights. The full force of the blow dented his armor and dropped him to the ground. The tremendous force of a swing from the mace could crush chests, cave-in skulls, and shatter bones. Even the most expensive piece of heavy armor was unlikely to save its wearer from the brutal after-effects of up-close contact. If someone did manage to survive an initial attack with one of the best medieval weapons available, they might be left paralyzed, brain damaged, or severely injured for life. Any minor blow could prove lethal in the end, knocking the target off their feet and leaving them vulnerable on the ground to follow-up attacks.

Variations on the Mace

medieval frail

Because the mace was such a powerful medieval weapon, many armorers modified it to create unique variations. The morning star, a mace that had sharp spikes around the head, inflicted blunt damage and puncture wounds. The flail, which consisted of one or more striking heads attached to the handle by a rope or chain, was another variation that had the unique ability to strike around shields and parries. Because it was less precise and unsuitable for use in close formations, it never became as popular as the traditional mace. Instead of a medieval weapon, the most common type of flail was a modified agricultural tool that consisted of a small stick attached to a longer one with a chain.

5. The War Elephant

war elephant in battle

In many ways, elephants were the best medieval weapons because they were the tanks of the ancient battlefield. As the largest land mammals on the planet, they made for excellent heavy cavalry, and simply their presence on the battlefield was enough to inspire terror in the soldiers opposing them. Towering over the battlefield at an average height of two and a half meters, the five-ton beasts could move surprisingly fast, reaching up to twenty miles per hour.

Elephants in battle

The main task for elephants in battle was breaking up enemy formations and spreading fear through an enemy army. Unlike horses, stopping a charge of elephants with a line of spears (or other traditional medieval weapon) was difficult. The brute force of the giant animals could easily smash through tightly packed formations of men, impaling the enemy on their sharp tusks and trampling anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. They were even trained to grab men with their trunks, throwing them into the air before crushing them under their giant hoofs. Elephants were more than just effective killing machines; they also broke soldier morale and caused many a legion to turn and run at the sight of them. Armed with swords, spears, and arrows, infantrymen had a tough time bringing elephants down. Hundreds would die before the animal was dead. Their thick skin was usually protected with armor, and a single elephant could often withstand dozens of arrows and multiple stab wounds before finally succumbing to death.

Other uses of elephants

two war elephants going head to head

Elephants had a whole host of other valuable uses besides being medieval weapons. Horses, which weren’t used to the sight of an elephant, would panic in their presence, rendering enemy cavalry completely ineffective. They were also excellent at destroying enemy fortifications, acting as mobile siege engines and battering rams, using their enormous weight and power to smash through gates and other obstacles. Towers strapped onto their backs housed archers that had better view and range on the battlefield.

Downsides of Elephants in Battle

Even though elephants were considered some of the best medieval weapons, using them came with considerable risk. When an elephant was injured, lost its driver, or simply became agitated, it might run amuck. They might turn against their own side, killing vast numbers of men as they charged back through the ranks of the army they were supposed to be aiding. The soldiers riding inside the towers strapped to the elephant’s back would often carry a hammer and spike, which could be driven into the back of the elephant’s head should it become berserk, preventing the enraged animal from turning on friendly soldiers. War elephants made deadly appearances on famous battlefields all over the world and throughout history. They were used against Alexander the Great by the Persians and Indians, by Hannibal of Carthage against the Romans, and on countless other occasions.

Your Medieval Weapons Experts

At Swords of Northshire, we love ancient and medieval weapons. Here, you can learn anything you’d like to know about bladed weapons, improvised weapons, and especially traditional Japanese swords. Explore our store to find unique, battle-ready pieces, or check out our blog for more historical, informational, and cultural articles.