he 1500s were a turbulent time for Europe. The Renaissance, as well as innovations in military technology, meant that centuries-old military tactics could work no more. With the introduction of gunpowder came a large shift in both armor and tactics throughout most of Europe. Even so, some things stayed the same, and that was the use of mercenaries as both bodyguards and troops for war.
In the early 1300s, the Swiss Pikemen mercenaries were widely known as some of the most elite troops Europe had to offer. Their professionalism and quality made them stand out from the average conscript, meaning that they were widely sought after by many of Europe’s kings. In a quest to create a corps of troops that could compete against these elite bands of men, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I created the Landsknechts.
Servers of the land
Landsknechte could be loosely translated as ‘the server of the land’, a term quite misleading because, as mercenaries, these men would go on to fight even their countrymen if the price was right. Many of these elite soldiers came from the nobility of the different princedoms of the Holy Roman Empire, although as the era progressed, those ‘low-born’ could also join if they showed themselves to be fit and healthy enough to meet the criteria of the local mercenary commander. These bands served as men-for-hire for those who could afford their very high hire price.
Although most of the Landsknechte used mainly pikes, small one-handed swords, and rarely arquebuses, a weapon which was slowly gaining in popularity, an elite few of these mercenaries would go on to use a different and much harder to wield weapon, the Zweihänder.
These soldiers received the nickname of Doppelsöldner, meaning ‘double-pay men’ due to the high pay needed to hire the elite troops. The men often acted in the role of elite bodyguards due to the weapons’ relative inefficiency in battle. A Zweihänder is a 2-meter long sword that weighs around 2 to 3 kilograms. Without proper training, such a weapon was useless, but in the hands of the elite Landsknechte, it was a dangerous area-denial weapon.
The weapon was at its most efficient when fighting against a small group of men or in a one-on-one duel. Due to its weight parrying, a Zweihänder swing was often ineffective and even led to some blades breaking under the force of the massive blade. Men who wielded this weapon had to be at their peak physical condition as dueling with such a weapon required you to be constantly swinging it so as to not allow your opponent to find any gaps in your defense which with such a big weapon would mean certain death
I will provide a video of a recreation of how the weapon was used, which perfectly portrays the wide swinging maneuvers used by those who wielded the weapon.
These men became the most feared bodyguards acting as the protectors of kings or in battle as the protectors of standard-bearers. Even in battle, these soldiers were to be feared as due to the length of the blade, they could compete against pikemen, making them very useful to the Holy Roman Emperors who wished to challenge the might of the Swiss Pikemen.
As always, innovation pushed these mercenaries out of business. With the ever-growing presence of firearms during the 17th century having slow-moving but hard-hitting infantry was a death sentence for any commander. As old armor became useless to the new fast-moving musket balls, so did the tactics of the Landsknechte, spelling their end.
Some of these men remained in service as mercenary men due to their previous experience with the arquebus, a really rudimentary firearm used during the late 15th century, and thus adapted to the ever-evolving landscape of warfare, leaving behind their pikeman and swordsman roots.
What remains of the legendary swordsmen are tales of their adventures during the late medieval era. Being feared across Europe as one of the most elite forces made the mercenaries gain a lot of prestige across the continent, which has allowed their story to survive through the ages. Because of this, we can enjoy recreations of how they battled as we saw above, a sight I consider quite impressive.