Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VI: Is This a Good Sword?

This is the sixth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. VIII) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. Last time, we looked at Saruman’s siege tactics and found them badly wanting. Even the effective parts of his tactical plan were spoiled by the lack of training, preparation and discipline in his army.

This week, we’re going to take a fun diversion into discussing the weapons and armor on display at Helm’s Deep. How well does the film reflect the actual capabilities of these sorts of weapons and armor? And have Saruman or the Rohirrim brought the right tools to this fight?

This is going to be quite a bit more film-centered than book-centered. Tolkien in his writing doesn’t offer detailed descriptions of most of the equipment of the battlefield, although the words he does use can give us a good sense of what he is imagining. On the other hand, a film has the opportunity to convey a lot of information through the props they use, which naturally leaves more to say. Most of it is…well, not great. It’s not great.

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Swords Out of Central Casting

In both the Two Towers and in the Fellowship of the Ring, we get scenes of Saruman arming his army. I’m actually planning, later this summer, to start a post-series on How Ancient Things Got Made (not just weapons, but tools, clothes, food and so on), so I am not going to descend too greedily or too deep into the details of smelting and forging here. I just want to note one thing I very much like in these sequences, and one thing I do not.

Let’s start with the good: the idea, captured in the orc complaining “we don’t have enough fuel to feed the fires” that fuel is a real limitation to rapidly equipping an army. This is solidly on point.

Book Note: Naturally, this is an element taken from the books, particularly Treebeard’s description of the destruction of his forests, some of it for fuel, some of it for simple wanton destruction (TT, 90-91).

One of the things that even scholars sometimes fail to appreciate is the raw quantity of fuel required to produce iron objects, like swords and armor. Almost every stage of ironworking requires quite a lot of energy in the form of heat, and the energy is provided by burning fuel. While today, we tend to think of coal as that fuel, for much of the ancient and medieval world the most common fuel was charcoal, created through slow-heating wood. Why charcoal and not more raw wood? Charcoal burns more cleanly and can reach higher temperatures, because its partial burn (a process of pyrolysis) has left a nearly pure carbon mass; charcoal thus makes the higher temperatures required for metalworking possible. So you can imagine the fuel inputs to the process to make an iron tool (or weapon) like this:

Don’t get hung up on all these steps – we’ll get to what they are in a series later this summer.

We can quickly get a sense of the scale of this when multiplied over an army. Let’s do some quick back-of-the-envelope estimates. Each Uruk has a sword (perhaps 1.0 to 1.5kg of iron), a pike (the haft is wooden, so perhaps only .5kg of iron for the tip and butt), and their armor. The armor is arsenal plate over mail; something like 15kg is a fair low-ball estimate (cf. this 20kg 15th century harness; note that it has mail voiders, not a complete mail shirt). There are likely a host of smaller metal objects – buckles, fittings, reinforcements for their shields (we can dispense with the film’s apparent all-iron shields; shields are made of wood and are at most, rimmed or thinly plated in metal), so we might round up a bit and assume something like 17kg of finished iron per Uruk.

Estimates for the amount of raw wood required for this process vary; there are a lot of variables. The wood is being converted into charcoal (which involves burning off a fair bit of the wood; 320kg of raw wood might yield something like 80kg of charcoal) and then used in a variety of processes whose fuel consumption will vary based on the quality of the ore, the skill of the smith, and the type of tool being made. But if we follow the figures in Sim & Ridge, Iron for the Eagles (2002), we can estimate as much as 12kg of ore and 14kg of charcoal (from c. 100kg of wood) per kilogram of finished iron (but cf. Healy, Mining and Metallurgy (1978), who comes to much lower figure of 20kg, but does not include bar-smithing or forging in his experiments).

Orcs processing wood in the Fellowship of the Ring. For real metal processing, you would not have big, open fires like this. You want to channel absolutely as much heat as possible from the burning of your fuel into the work you are doing, whether that is heating metal for working or reducing ore in a smelting process. Those big open furnaces are going to allow lots of hot air to escape, carrying lots of precious heat-energy with it, requiring you to cut down even more trees.

So we have 10,000 Uruks who need 17kg of metal a piece, or 170,000kg of finished material total. That in turn is going to require 2.04 million kg of ore (2,040 tonnes) and 2.38 million kg of charcoal (2,380 tonnes). That charcoal will in turn require 17 million kg of raw wood (17,000 tonnes) to be processed. The density of wood varies quite a lot, but something around 500 to 650kg/m3, in the range for pine, chestnut or birch, common fuel woods (cf. Pliny, NH 33.30; Theophrastus HP, 5.9.1-3), that suggests something around 25-30,000m3 of raw wood – a pile of wood the size of nine Olympic swimming pools. And that actually does not include additional charcoal used in case-hardening; that is just for iron gear, not steel. I don’t wonder that the orcs had to cut down huge swaths of Fangorn Forest, I wonder that they could cut down enough of it.

Ancient and medieval societies, I should note, did not accomplish all of this in vast centralized facilities like Saruman here. Instead this economic activity was typically spread out (especially the final blacksmithing phases of production) into lots of little producers; smelting might be centralized around mines though. Even in cases where the state directly engaged in some production, like late Roman fabricae, these were often decentralized. Quite frankly, I find the idea that Saruman could produce so much equipment so rapidly, with such a limited pre-industrial base, less than plausible. The mail shirts alone would have represented a few thousand hours of work apiece to assemble; 10,000 of them might require something like 23 million hours of labor. That’s 5,250 orc-labor-years (assuming 12-hour-work-days) and much of that labor is either skilled or semiskilled. Working the furnaces ‘night and day’ isn’t going to be enough, unless Saruman can conjure thousands of trained orcish smiths.

But that leads to the worst part of these scenes, because if you looked closely at that process chart, you may have noticed that there’s a step we clearly see the orcs do that isn’t there. They are casting equipment, particularly swords. And oh my do you not cast swords.

Sigh. No.

There’s so much wrong here. First, most medieval societies did not have furnaces that could achieve the extremely high temperatures necessary to cast iron (in China they could cast iron at an earlier date, but it wasn’t strong enough for use in weapons). Second, this clearly isn’t molten iron. The color things change as they heat up is a product of that heat; iron, with its extremely high melting temperature, is a brilliant white hot (seriously, look at how much light it throws off) when molten. Iron at this orange color would be soft, fit perhaps for hammering, but hardly molten (as an aside, most ‘casting the sword’ scenes in films use aluminum, because it melts at a lower, safer temperature and has that characteristic orange-glow when it does).

Also no. I do like that there’s a fellow whose job it is to strain off the slag from these casts, but that ought to have been done earlier in the processing and also you do not cast iron weapons.

Second, even if they could use cast iron, they wouldn’t have. Cast iron is brittle. On the one hand, it tends to have a very high carbon content (making it, if not processed, pig iron) which tends it towards brittleness. But also, the hardness and strength of iron actually changes as it is worked (read: hammered or rolled); cast iron has none of that strength, called ‘work-hardening.’ Swords and armor generally demand metals that perform at the very outer limits of their abilities, because they need to be as strong as possible while being as light as possible. Cast iron, which is heavy, brittle and weak, is simply an unsuitable material. A cast iron sword used in combat would likely break.

Finally, why are these molds open-topped? The blade-shape of swords is complex (as we’ll talk about in a second) but the top-side of these cast-iron sword-like-objects is just going to be a flat bar! And it’s no good to say that these problems will be resolved by further forging, because that won’t fix the chemical composition problems, but also – if you were going to forge this iron, why cast it in the first place?

I could go on for quite a bit longer, but I’d be stealing my own thunder for the future. Suffice to say, swords are not made this way. No metal arms or armor really were.

Book Note: The nature of books is such that Tolkien does not need to give us detailed descriptions of arms production at Isengard, but I think what we do get fills some of the holes found in Jackson’s adaptation. Gandalf remarks that Isengard was, during his imprisonment, “filled with pits and forge” (FotR, 312). Treebeard notes that “There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days” (TT, 90). Most of that smoke would actually come not from the forges and bloomeries (charcoal burns cleaner than wood, as anyone who has owned a charcoal grill may attest), but rather from the charcoaling process, which lets off quite a lot of white-grey smoke.

But the other virtue of Tolkien’s account is that it doesn’t require Saruman to produce so much iron equipment so rapidly. First, as discussed below, Tolkien’s orcs and Uruks don’t seem anywhere near so uniformly heavily equipped as Peter Jackson’s. But also, book!Saruman doesn’t seem to have needed to equip his entire army from scratch; many of his forces were lesser orcs or Dunlendings who likely came with their own equipment (though, as we’ll see, the Uruk-hai appear to have distinctive arms which are likely of Saruman’s manufacture). Having a composite force like that reduces the materiel demands on Saruman’s fledgling industry.

Some Not Very Good Swords

But to be fair, if the manufacturing process isn’t so great, then we should note that the swords aren’t very good either. The standard Uruk sword of this slab of iron:

I do have to wonder, why are these orcs smithing while wearing helmets? Helmets are uncomfortable all of the time, and forges are uncomfortable all of the time. Why would you combine them? Blacksmiths do not wear helmets; hell, many of the blacksmiths I know don’t even wear gloves (they tell me you get used to being burned by the sparks after a while and it stops hurting).

There are two types. One type has a single projecting spike at the tip and is wielded with that spike away from the enemy (it is on the ‘short’ or ‘false’ edge). The other type has two spikes at the tip, one at the end of each edge; this type seems to perhaps be larger and possibly intended for use in two hands. Both of these are just very bad designs, and in so many ways it is hard to catalog them all.

Some of the heavier, double-spiked Uruk swords, wielded by the unarmored ‘berserkers.’ I struggle to communicate how rapidly unarmored, unshielded soldiers would die on a medieval or ancient battlefield. And before anyone notes that the Gauls sometimes fought nude, 1) not as often as you think and 2) they used shields.

Let’s start with the tip-shape and those spikes. Now, you do see projections like that on other kinds of weapons (polearms, mostly), where they are using defensively (to catch blades) and offensively (both for hooking attacks and also to deliver concentrated, armor-defeating force to a small single point). But those don’t appear on swords for a reason (and no, the second, smaller set of quillons that appear above the ricasso on some greatswords do not count; they’re much smaller and serve a completely different purpose). Looking at the sword of weapons that have such pick-attachments, they appear on weapons where the weight is concentrated at the head, like the head of a halberd, a bec de de corbin, or a horseman’s pick. Concentrating the mass towards the weapon’s head is essential for maximizing the energy delivered by the impact. Moving the mass forward like that pushes the point of percussion out to the impact point, which needs to be out at the end of the weapon so that you can achieve maximum acceleration through the leverage that the haft of the weapon provides, and finally concentrating the mass at the point of impact ensures that its momentum is delivered to the target (in comparison, for instance, to the weapon-mass in the handle).

Via the Wallace Collection, a warhammer with a pick-end. Note how much of the mass of this weapon is concentrated at its tip (keeping in mind that the wooden haft is much less dense than the iron head).

But the physical dynamics of a sword, particularly a long, cutting sword like these, is completely different. It takes a lot less energy to cut something than to crush through it, so swords are generally less focused on the amount of raw energy delivered. Not unconcerned, mind you; sword designs are still designed to maximize energy delivery, but that has to be balanced with other design concerns! The weight of most swords is more evenly distributed, with a center of balance usually at or near the guard (some cutting-oriented swords will draw the center of balance up the blade, but never anywhere near as far as a warhammer). Having the point of balance close to the hand allows the blade to be easily and precisely wielded, the same way a well-balanced door may be easily opened regardless of its weight. But this very design feature means that the amount of energy that can be delivered with a hit at the tip of a sword is very low; instead, swords are meant to strike at that center of percussion, which is usually about 2/3rds of the way from the guard to the tip (but varies a fair bit, sword-type to sword-type). Well-made waisted swords – that is, swords that widen over the blade – make the point of percussion really obvious; you hit with the thickest part of the bulge in the weapon. But note how far back from the tip that is:

A three-dimensional model of a Greek Xiphos I made (with much help from a friendly engineer!) based off of the measurements of the ‘sword of Beroia’ published in Touratsoglou, L. “Τὸ ξῖφος τῆς Βεροιας: Συμβολὴ στὴ Μακεδονικὴ ὁπλοποιία τῶν ὕστερων Κλασσικῶν Χρὸνων” in Ancient Macedonia IV, 611-51 (1968). It’s hard to see it here, but the thickest point is roughly 10cm from the tip (the entire weapon is 59cm long). I should also note that the actual sword of Beroia has an elegant double-fuller which ends right about where the blade-bulge begins, not modeled here.

But that gets into further problems with this design. The blades of these Uruk swords have no taper. The ‘taper’ of a blade is the term for the way it narrows or thins (the former is known as ‘profile taper’ and the latter as ‘distal taper’) along the blade. Nearly all swords have some sort of taper; those with parallel edges over most of the length often have a pronounced distal taper. This is because of the weight considerations above – the sword blade is much longer than the hilt, so to keep the center of balance close to the hand, the swordsmith must use every possible trick to remove weight (which means removing metal) from the blade itself, without compromising its length. Since the forces on the blade increase the closer you get to the point of rotation (read: the hand), those parts can be made thicker, while the blade can thin as you reach the tip and especially beyond the point of percussion.

If that taper shape leaves extra strength in the lower part of the blade than what is required (perhaps because a wider blade is desired; it can aid in cutting), a fuller – a depression in the center of the blade – may be used, removing material from the center of the blade, so that the strength may be concentrated towards the edges without excess weight. These are sometimes misnamed ‘blood sleeves’ and it is sometimes claimed they have some wound-causing function; they do not. They are entirely about altering the weight and handling characteristics of the sword (plus they look really elegantly cool). Uruk swords also do not feature counter-balanced hilts. The hilts of larger two-handed swords are often very long and feature heavy pommels. While the pommel – a metal mass at the base of the sword – could be used as a weapon, it also functioned to control the weight-balance of the weapon. Long hilts could do the same thing, counter-balancing a longer blade. Again, the Uruk swords have none of these weight control techniques. What that would mean in terms of handling characteristics is that the Uruk sword would be difficult to wield, with almost no gains to striking characteristics.

Another good look at an Uruk sword and heavens look at how thick it is. You could use it as a cricket-bat!

What’s worse is that, while the pick-spikes on these swords would be of limited use in an armor-penetration role, adding them has compromised a sword’s native armor-penetrating ability, the thrust. Put bluntly, these swords have no point. Saruman is facing an enemy that makes heavy use of mail armor, which cannot be meaningfully cut, but can be thrust through and he has equipped his soldiers with swords that cut poorly and thrust not at all. The spikes might be used to hook an opponent’s shield out of place, but otherwise provide little advantage. And still worse yet, on the swords with two of those tip-spikes, they’ll get in the way of a proper drawing cut! Yes, there are forward-curving swords like the kukri, falcata, kopis and kopesh, but those are forward curving, not a forward spike.

But then again, Saruman is not the only apparent sword-idiot here, because we get this scene:

where Aragorn swings around this boy’s sword and then hands it to him, telling him, “This is a good sword, Haleth, son of Háma.” That is clearly not a good sword. The blade is notched in at least 11 places in just the picture below (which only shows half the blade). Here is the thing about good swords: they are, in a sense, precision instruments. They work by concentrating a relatively modest amount of force (swords are not generally that heavy; one handed swords tend to cluster in mass around 1kg) on to a very thin edge in order to deliver a cut. For that to work, the force has to line up with the sharp edge quite precisely (this is called ‘edge alignment’ and is an important skill to learn to wield a sword). Most swords than make use of the ‘drawing’ motion of a cut so that this thin edge slices over the surface it is striking (like sliding a knife through butter) so as to deliver a deeper cut. Notches in the blade defeat all of this; they throw off edge-alignment (because the metal around a notch is likely bunched up or turned up and thus not aligned with the edge generally) and create what are, in effect, little saw-teeth to interfere with the slicing-drawing motion (note, serrated blades sound cool, but defeat the very mechanics by which a sword-cut functions).

Moreover, while I generally give films a pass on the sharpness of their swords, sharpness does matter! Now, films generally use prop-blunts for safety purposes, which I understand – although I wish the actors wielding those prop-blunts would stop opining over how heavy they are. Being blunt, they have a lot more metal in the blade than a real sword would (to create that safe, thicker ‘edge’), making them quite a bit heavier and ruining their wielding characteristics. But this is why I am, for instance, not shredding into the fact that the Uruk swords are clearly not sharp, but rather just flat sheets of metal, apparently almost a full centimeter thick. But all of those notches in this blade mean something else: it is almost certainly quite blunt. Had the blade been properly sharpened, we’d be able to see it in the reduction (but perhaps not removal – some of them are quite deep) of those notches.

Does Aragorn just not know very much about swords, or is he just lying to this poor kid? To be clear, I think we are meant to believe that Aragorn, with his heroic warrior-sense, has divined that this blade, despite its poor appearance, is well-made. And fair enough – maybe coat it in some rust (worn off at the edge where it has been sharpened, mind you!) – but don’t notch the blade! Swords are not ‘good’ out of some mystical quality, they are good because of weight, blade-shape, metal-quality and, yes, sharpness.

The Worst Armor

But none of this ends up mattering very much, because no one’s armor works anyway. I’ve been over this in depth before, so I’ll just summarize briefly. Mail armor can be pierced, as with a spear or sword thrust, or by an arrow, but it is effectively impossible to cut (although a strong blow may deliver some blunt trauma through the armor. Plate armor of even relatively moderate thickness, by contrast, is functionally immune to almost any muscle-powered weapon (which is all Middle Earth has), where it covers, forcing attackers to aim for weak points or gaps, even with arrows.

This fellow’s armor is penetrated by a flying shield. And this is as good a time as any to note the deficiencies of this shield design. First, it appears to be all metal; shields were always made with wooden cores and limited metal reinforcement, except for some very small bucklers. Large, all-metal shields would be far too heavy to be used. Tolkien describes the shields at Helm’s Deep as ‘sable’ (TT, 162), which is a term for a particular black paint used in heraldry. We may safely assume those shields were thus painted wood, not black iron.
The shield shape is also very strange. Despite the popularity of spikes or sharpened shields in fantasy fiction, they functionally did not exist. Most shield bosses were rounded, not spiked, and I cannot think of any shields with sharpened or spiked rims. That’s not to say shields weren’t used as a weapon – being slammed by a boss or jabbed by a rim would be profoundly unpleasant – but they weren’t spiked like this.

Most of these armies are quite well armored. The Rohirrim wear long coats of mail or scale that extend down to cover the knees (a hauberk, when in mail), reinforced in some cases with textile or hardened leather. Given that the Uruks cannot make use of their pikes on the walls or in the keep, this gives the Rohirrim functionally full protection against the remaining Uruk swords because, as noted, those swords have no thrusting point. The Elves and Uruks are even more heavily armored, with the Elves wearing segmented plate armor that covers most of their body and the Uruks wearing a fairly full plate harness (breastplate, pauldrons, gauntlets, bracers, greaves and cuisses) over mail, on of the very rare examples of a film correctly layering the armor.

The foley artist adds a very audible metalic”thwack” to this hit directly into the thick crown of this Uruk’s helmet, so there’s no arguing we’re supposed to think he’s striking something other than metal.

But, of course, you know what happens next, which is that all of these very heavily armored fellows are repeatedly slain by cutting blows delivered directly against their armor. Gimli in particular has a habit of ‘killing’ armored Uruks with axe-blows to the breastplate or by knocking the flat of his axe against helmets.

Gimli, delivering what would be an entirely ineffective blow against a breastplate. Note that if Gimli was using something like the warhammer above, or a pollaxe, this strike might work, as the pick or hammer can focus much more energy into a smaller area of contact.

Meanwhile, Uruks with dedicated (poor) cutting swords routinely cut down elves by striking them directly on their armor. As noted above, swords are not generally that heavy and while the comments enjoy theorizing that either elves or orcs have much greater than average human strength, there is simply nothing in the text to support this. All of the peoples of Middle Earth use the same sorts of weapons and armor; Dwarves and Men (well, wizards) have no trouble wielding Elvish blades and even Frodo and Sam make use of orcish equipment in Mordor. While many of these creatures have supernatural endurance, aside from Ents and Trolls, none of them have supernatural strength. Uruk swords are likely about as heavy as human swords, which is to say 1-2kg, 3kg on the outside for very large dedicated two-handed swords. They aren’t swinging anvils. Simply put, the weight distribution and general lightness of swords makes them terrible tools for delivering blunt trauma through plate armor (be it solid as for the Uruks or segmented as for the Elves); when you did need to do this with medieval European swords, you used the pommel for what was called a mort-strike.

Via the Wiktenauer, a man delivering a mort-strike with a longsword against an armored opponent who appears to be half-swording. Plate from folio 87r of Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2) now in the Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen.

Because everyone is so heavily armored, much of the close-combat in this battle would actually turn on weapons which could defeat that armor, typically by delivering penetrating thrusts to key gaps. That’s actually quite awkward for everyone involved. Gimli’s axe can’t do it (Legolas’ arrows and knives are a much better fit). The Elves wield two-handed swords which might actually be fairly handy in close-combat; the gentle curve of the blade might inhibit precise thrusts, but if they half-sworded them, I’d expect they could push into the rather large gaps in the Uruk’s arsenal-plate quite well. The Rohirrim’s swords are relatively broad-bladed, which is a liability, but not a fatal one, and they ought to be able to thrust fairly well into the gaps in armor; their spears would be somewhat better, but would be hard to use at the range the Uruks would operate in. And the Uruks, well, they have swords without tips that can’t thrust and pikes they can’t use on the wall, giving them absolutely no offensive options likely to be effective against even mailed, much less segmented-plate-armored opponents.

Thus given how relatively ineffective everyone’s weapons would be, and how much armor everyone is bringing, I’d expect this battle to involve less striking and a lot more grappling, in line with the advice of late medieval armored-fighting treatises. That might benefit the bigger, meaner Uruks, though in practice it would really benefit the fellows on a wall against the guys trying to scale that wall; dropped objects are pretty effective against armor. It doesn’t matter how thick your helmet is if someone just dropped a 10lbs rock on it.

Book Note: The equipment of the Uruk-hai and of the rest of Saruman’s host is almost completely different in the books. I’m not sure if Tolkien’s descriptions were misunderstood, or if the adaptation-decision was made that their equipment had to be more visually distinctive or what.

Merry and Pippin get a good look at the equipment of the Uruk-hai elites when they are captured, “with great bows and short broad-bladed swords” (TT, 63). When Tolkien says a sword is ‘short’ he generally seems to mean shorter than a typical arming sword; I wonder if he had something like the Roman gladius, or even the Cinquedea in mind. In any event, we should note that his Uruks use bows, not crossbows, so that’s another departure for the film.

More complicated is the description at Helm’s Deep (TT, 162) where Saruman’s forces advanced “with high helms and sable shields” and later “Orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows…” We’re later told that those sable shields (that means shields painted black) have the White Hand painted on them. Since Saruman’s force is a composite one here, and Tolkien doesn’t always distinguish, it’s hard to say who carries what. I wonder if Uglúk’s detachment that Merry and Pippin saw is a light infantry force (thus swords and bows, but apparently no shields or spears) but that Uruk-hai heavy infantry was your standard spear-and-shield infantry. Tolkien describes the shields as “great shields” (TT, 163) so I wonder if he really does have the Roman scutum in mind, to go with a gladius.

Nothing is said of their armor, but as a number of commenters on my Siege of Gondor piece have argued (persuasively, in my view), Tolkien is probably imagining mail as the heaviest armor for all of Middle Earth, so it’s probably either mail or textile. In any case, their armor is clearly not uniform, as Gimli notes that only the 43rd orc he slew had an iron collar (TT, 174).

Pikes in the Deep

But the Uruk’s primary weapon isn’t their swords or crossbows. Instead, Saruman’s host is shown clearly using very long pikes. And that’s worth noting. I think the charitable reading here is that Saruman expected to face the Rohirrim not in a siege but in the open field, where Uruk pike formations would be effectively immune to Rohirrim charges. It has been suggested in the comments that Saruman knew all along that the battle would be at the Hornburg; if that is the case (which it clearly is in the film), then film!Saruman is a fool for equipping nearly his entire army with a primary weapon they cannot actually use in a fortress assault.

I suspect part of this was a bit of Total-War-esque rock-paper-scissors thinking about tactics, where pikes beat cavalry. But that misunderstands how pikes are used tactically; pikes are almost always (yes, yes, I see you there, the Swiss, calm down – I said almost) used as part of a larger tactical system with another troop-type or weapon-system, be it as a pinning force to enable cavalry (as in the Macedonian system) or in conjunction with shot and artillery (as in late-medieval and early modern pike systems). The Uruks have nothing like enough crossbowmen to pull off something like the Han Dynasty crossbows-and-Ji-infantry system, nor do they have enough cavalry for a Macedonian style pikes-and-shock-cavalry system (and they have no shot at all!). In an open field battle against the full force of the Rohirrim, rather than small detachments of Westfolders, I suspect the Uruk pikes would find themselves unable to bring the Rohirrim to battle, while the latter peppered them with arrows. Given the poor discipline and low cohesion the Uruks display, I’d expect it to turn out something like Hastings (1066) with Uruks breaking formation and being picked apart in the open as discipline broke down.

The one chance the Uruks get to deploy their full kit during the assault itself is in the Deep after the Deeping Wall is blown, where in the film, there is a sizeable body of Elven infantry waiting for them. The scene that results is a bit of a mess for the interaction of the various elements of the two sides’ kit; at every stage, the result of that collision is not what history or the physics of the battlefield would lead us to expect.

The Uruks are still filing through the gap, there’s not much order and Gimli is in there somewhere. If the Elves can get through the handful of pikes that will be leveled – easy to do since it isn’t a solid wall of them yet – they should overrun this line easily and be able to set a defense in the breach.

Initially, the Uruks surge into the Deep in a disordered pattern, while the Elves are still in good order on a small rise behind the breach. The ground is rough, uneven, and muddy, the Uruks effectively advancing uphill through a shattered creek-bed, exposed to effective arrow-fire and further badly disrupted by opposing an light infantry skirmisher in the form of Gimli landing in the middle of their advance. Forming an effective pike line under these circumstances should be practically impossible. Drilled and battle-hardened pikemen, like Alexander’s veterans or Antigonid phalangites struggled to keep effective formation just advancing in good order on rough ground. This is even harder – these Uruks need to push through the water and the mud, get past Gimli’s crazy disruption and then fan out, essentially transitioning from column into line (a tough thing to do under battlefield conditions), while under fire, with only moments to do it. That’s a near impossible task for elite pikemen; for Saruman’s half-trained, poorly drilled Uruks it seems well beyond impossible. Their order should fall apart, leaving them to drop their pikes and fight with close-combat weapons.

….ooooor the Uruks could all level their pikes in time, despite being disordered on rough ground without officers in the rain and mud and a rushing stream in the dark.
Well, at this point, the Elves are pretty much ruined. That’s a solid wall of pikes, probably several ranks deep. Each swordsman would have to ward 3 or more pike-points to get into range to fight, which is practically impossible, even with a shield, much less without one.

Except that doesn’t happen. Instead, by some miracle of orcish deliverance, Saruman’s Uruks are able to form up and level pikes before the Elves are upon them. At this point, Aragorn’s charge should be doomed. First, he shouldn’t be charging. Films like to show people running themselves up onto pikes; this one does it, so does Alexander (2004). But humans do not voluntarily run themselves through with sharp things and there’s little advantage, once the pikes are level, to rushing in. Rather I’d expect the Elves to either continue to engage the pikes with arrow fire while slowly moving back through the Deep (and rapidly running out of space), or else close slowly and try to bat down the pikes with their swords, while in tight order, to open a wedge to get into close combat. I think the chances of success in either tactic are slim; the Uruks can absorb the missile fire with their strong armor (which again, in the real world, would be quite able to resist most of the fire they are receiving) and pushing through pikes in good order is hard with shields or fully encasing plate armor; without them, it is nearly impossible.

…oooor the Elves all get into close-quarters with what appears to be no difficulty and minimal casualties (we see one fellow get piked, but just one from the look of it). Well then, this is about to be a crushingly lopsided fight, since the Uruk’s primary weapon no longer functions at this range and the tiny gap their reinforcements are coming through is too narrow to support their massive arc of frontage.

Except that doesn’t happen either. The Elves charge through the pike line successfully, taking only a few casualties. This is presumably due to their incredible swordsmanship skills, honed by years of careful practice. And at this point, I say, OK, well, now I definitely know what is about to happen. These Uruk pikemen are now caught in close-combat against heavily armored, highly cohesive opponents whose two-handed, long-hafted swords are basically used half-swording by default and thus should be quite effective in close-quarters making levering, grapple and thrusting attacks against armored opponents. To say that pike formations that get penetrated this way fare poorly is an Olympic gold medal understatement. Having penetrated the Antigonid pike-phalanx at Pydna (168), the Romans traded with it roughly 100 dead Romans to twenty thousand Macedonians KIA (admittedly, many of those after it collapsed into rout, but still you take the point – seriously, Livy’s casualty report is so insane that it occasioned my current research project); Cynoscephelae (197) is almost as lopsided (c. 700 to 18,000), as is Magnesia (190), although that is a much more complex battle and I’m not sure I trust the figures (c. 350 Roman against fifty-three thousand Seleucid KIA). This wasn’t restricted merely to the Romans; the main reason early modern European pike squares often had halberdiers or swordsmen at their center was because these men were extremely valuable in the rare event of a push-of-pike, able to disrupt the enemy formation and make a mess of it. At the very least this should cause the Uruks to collapse and reform on the far side of the wall in a desperate effort to get their pikes between them and the Elves.

And now we are retreating.
I actually really dislike this bit. Book!Gimli is absolutely fearsome. Aragorn, who has seen decades of battle, remarks “Never have I seen an axe so wielded” (TT, 168). In this whole sequence he’s just a joke – he jumps in and gets knocked down immediately and has to be rescued. And then he has to be carried off the field because he wants to charge in like a fool again.
Of the Fellowship, I think Gimli is the hardest done by through the conversion into comic relief. Book!Gimli is surprisingly sensitive, earnest and often quite vulnerable (for instance when he confesses his fear of the Army of the Dead), whereas film!Gimli is an overcompensating comic-relief braggart. I’m struck by how different the end of the Helm’s Deep counting game is; film!Gimli waits for Legolas’ score and then arrogantly tops it, which prompts Legolas to ‘even’ the score in an all-around display of bad manners. Whereas book!Gimli leads with his number, but is mostly focused on his damaged axe and inquires after Legolas, who freely admits that he has lost the game, but that he’s gladder to see Gimli alive (TT, 174). I vastly prefer the heartwarming book scene to the braggadocio of the film.

But no, instead the Uruks, with swords that are literally incapable of effective attack against armor because they cannot give point at all (not having a point to give!) somehow trade more or less evenly with centuries old master-swordsmen wearing segmented plate armor in close combat. We know that the Elves couldn’t have done too much damage because the Uruks can still file through the water-choked breach fast enough to continue pushing out into the Deep despite their losses. This even though the initial Elven push reaches far enough to fish Gimli out of the water (he had jumped from the wall, mind you, and so is unlikely to be more than a few meters from it), easily far enough to break the entire pike line wide open (it’s clear in this case that Peter Jackson has rather lost track of exactly where Gimli would have to be to have fallen into the water). Instead, the Elves are forced to flee the Deep, heading up into the Hornburg where, despite the fact that we clearly see many of them escape, they are never seen again (Jackson has a bad habit of this, with units retreating into the Phantom Zone, forever lost).

Book Note: The description of this moment makes a fair bit more sense in the books. With a gap under the wall, and ladders coming over it, the Rohirrim are forced to retreat backwards in the Deep; given what happens, this is probably in small pockets of shield-walled infantry. The initial rush of orcs is fairly loose (no surprise, given the chaos) allowing some groups to “cut their way” either to the citadel of the Hornburg, or to the caves (TT, 168). Note that the caves in the books are not accessed through the Hornburg, but through the Deep itself. Éomer and Gimli in particular fall back to the caves (TT, 168-9). They hold the narrows of the caves until, when hearing the horn of the Hornburg, they charge out at the same time as Théoden (TT, 172); good signals there. It seems possible that Éomer made some effort to hold the Deep, and just got pushed back as he kept having to back his shield-wall up in order not to get enveloped by the rising tide of enemies. We’re not told because our ‘vision’ remains on Aragorn.

Given the very different equipment involved, I have little problem believing Tolkien’s account. I’d expect the retreating Rohirrim to group together into their levy militias, or around key magnates and their dismounted retinues, forming shield-walls (as we know they do, TT, 156) which could retreat in good order, cutting their way to a defensible position. While Saruman’s host has numbers, it would be hard to mass force in the Deep to be able to effectively challenge these groups quickly, since only so many orcs or Dunlendings can scale a ladder or pass through a small blasted breach at a time.


I’d like to be able to conclude by saying that the choice of mostly pike infantry with just a handful of sword-and-shield infantry (for the gate, mostly) is another example of Saruman making an error consistent with his character. It’s a complicated, highly drill-intensive fighting style that is theoretically very powerful but in practice both unsuited to his army and also the terrain he ends up fighting on. It suggests further flaws not only in the operational plan but in the broader conception of what this army was for, since a siege assault was in its future no matter what happened.

But I just think this is a case were the prop department went with cool, evil looking weapons and didn’t think that much about them. Big, long pikes (and the Uruk pikes are made very long, as long it seems as Hellenistic sarissae, which seems a bad choice for the situation and supporting arms) are intimidating and scary and they make the Uruks look professional and deadly. Lots of black iron everywhere is scary, despite the fact that the Uruks of the books are pretty clearly not this well armored.

This appears to be the unluckiest Uruk ever. Here he is, being killed by not one, but two arrows, both of which have punched through his iron (steel?) plate cuirass, and his mail shirt. Each of these is basically a one-in-a-million hit, based on the testing I’ve seen of arrows against steel breastplates and here he is catching both of them with so much force that they punch through deep.
I’m kidding of course. Like the Gondorian Watchman, this Uruk is fine, both of these arrows bounce off harmlessly (the raised ridge on the edges of his breastplate will save him from a nasty shoulder wound by keeping the arrow from sliding into his armpit).

And I get the problem facing the prop department. If you read the books carefully for details, nearly everyone fights with swords, shields, spears and bows, except for the Dwarves, who have their signature axes (which Tolkien also sometimes calls mattocks, which is to say, axes with a pick-attachment), and everyone effectively wears mail armor with ‘high’ helmets (Tolkien likes this phrasing, which is I think more for emotive impact than an actual description of the helmets, though high crested helmets are certainly a thing). If you represented that range of equipment accurately, you end up with the Total War: Thrones of Britannia problem – too much sameness (I think I am the only person on earth who enjoyed Thrones of Britannia; the critical and fan reception was not kind). They need more visual diversity and the equipment of the books just doesn’t provide it, especially in the dark-blue color-grade that Jackson has chosen to shoot in (because, don’t you know, blue and orange make colors pop).

Compounding this is the simple clear fact that Peter Jackson has a mastery of film language, but not the physics of the battlefield. His scenes are brilliantly staged, but often make functionally no sense as the interaction of men and weapons, from killer arrows to less-than-lethal rock munitions. Likewise, we’ll see next time that Jackson hasn’t quite grasped the morale factors being expressed in the text either. These films are brilliant adaptations, but when Jackson gets into the details, especially wherever he changes the details, he gets into trouble fast. Unfortunately that means, apart from the fun of picking at mistakes, there isn’t much analytical meat to be found here, even in the mistakes.

Not like next week’s topic. Next week: Morale and Speeches!

167 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VI: Is This a Good Sword?

  1. “The shield shape is also very strange. Despite the popularity of spikes or sharpened shields in fantasy fiction, they functionally did not exist. Most shield bosses were rounded, not spiked, and I cannot think of any shields with sharpened or spiked rims. That’s not to say shields weren’t used as a weapon – being slammed by a boss or jabbed by a rim would be profoundly unpleasant – but they weren’t spiked like this.”

    Some pavises were spiked, I think, but that was for placing them more securely into the ground.

  2. There are, pavises aside, two examples of shields with spikes, both from Tallhoffer. One is a very large (man-tall, man-wide) oval with points at the top and bottom. Used exclusively in unarmoured judicial combat, together with a sword, the Tallhoffer illustrations nevertheless suggest these points could be used to kill.

    The other, also from Tallhoffer, is a buckler-sized, all-metal elongated eight-pointed star, with a very deep boss and multiple conical protrusions on the shield face. However, the pointy-ness of the shield is not for offensive use, but more to enable gaining and maintaining control of the opponent’s sword.

  3. There’s one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time now. I’m an avid reader of the novels by KJ Parker (who’s apparently an alias of English funny fantasy writer Tom Holt), which are noted for their accuracy on all sorts of medieval matters such as technology, economics, and military questions. In one of his stand-alone novels (he’s published several ‘trilogies’) “The Company”, he tells of five men who served during a long war as ‘linebreakers’, i.e. guys who run in front of their own pike square to break the line of opposing pikemen, thus allowing their own to dismantle the enemy formation. He even describes quite precisely some of the techniques they use for piercing the line. My question is : did such specialists really exist? At what time and in which circumstances?
    Thank you, and many thanks for your work which I find absolutely fascinating.

    1. Ah, so we’re stepping a bit beyond my specialty, to say the last, but I can tell you what I know because this question has come up before.

      So, in the age of pike and shot there were Doppelsoldner, “double-pay men” in German Landsknechte companies. A lot of different soldiers might be doppelsoldners (about one in four) including the musketeers, but also including men trained to fight with swords, especially two-handed swords. Since the entire idea behind the doppelsoldners is that they took greater risks, it has been suggested that the purpose of these soldiers was to use their large swords to break up pike formations. Except…

      Except that I don’t believe we have any accounts of them doing that. We do have accounts of men with small swords and bucklers trying to disrupt formations during the push of pike itself (the collision of two pike squares) but obviously a zweihander is not going to work for that. And the explanations for how someone with a zweihander would break up a pike square raise problems. Repeated practical testing have shown that cleaving through even one pike shaft (much less several!) isn’t possible with any sword unless you plan to hit that pike multiple times. Moreover, some maneuver whereby a swordsman could close into the lethal range of literally a dozen of enemy pikes (because you are going to be in spear’s reach of multiple ranks and multiple files before you get in range) without being utterly skewered has yet to be demonstrated. There is nothing to the point, that I know of, in the period fencing manuals.

      So I can believe that perhaps at some early stage zweihander-wielding doppelsoldner might have had a role in the push of pike itself, perhaps moving out under the pikes or something like that. Rushing out ahead of the line? There’s no evidence for it, it appears in no period artwork I know of (despite a fair number of depictions of the push of pike). My guess is ‘no.’

  4. You say that 320 kg of wood is needed to produce 80 kg of charcoal. That’s 4 kg of wood per kg of charcoal.
    Then you say: “we can estimate as much as 12kg of ore and 14kg of charcoal (from c. 100kg of wood) per kilogram of finished iron”. 14*4=56 kg of wood. Are you assuming an equal quantity of wood being burned for the production of the charcoal? Or where does that 50 kilo of wood hail from?

    1. Both sets of numbers may be correct if the first conversion (320 to 80) is dry wood and the second (100 to 14) is green wood. The moisture content in the wood leads to large variations in the mass conversion ratio.

  5. I do think Aragorn was supposed to be lying about the sword’s quality, you can tell by the look on his face. The bigger problem is that Aragorn wouldn’t do that.

    1. Given how magic works in LOTR, it’s possible that Aragorn saying a sword is good simply makes it good.

  6. The Elves actually do appear in the film after they retreat from the Deeping Wall. However their scenes only consist of them fighting in the background on the walls of the Hornburg, so they are easy to miss. There are also far less of them than are shown escaping the Deeping Wall.

    I do have an idea of what happened to them. As Aragorn retreats to the Hornburg, what seems to be Elves can be see manning some sort of fortification between the Deeping Wall and the keep Since the Uruk-hai are never seen attacking that entrance, perhaps most of the Elves were holding them off at the chokepoint there. If so they were likely killed when the Uruk-hai breached the Hornburg and flanked them.

    Regardless, the movie does not do a good job of communicating their fate to the audience.

  7. “The mail shirts alone would have represented a few thousand hours of work apiece to assemble” – that’s REALLY high compared to any estimate I could find online. It would be high even if the time it took to get the raw materials (iron etc) was included in the estimate, but that shouldn’t be the case – mining provides materials in bulk.

  8. I feel that it’s a fairly safe assumption that if there is a report of an army killing one hundred times their own losses they are either lying or massacring those who surrendered.

  9. I once owned one of those visual guide companion books for the films. Don’t have it in front of me for reference but I recall it offering two explanations for the hook on the back of the Uruk swords. The first is as a point for punching through armor (presumably the orc might turn it and over and half-sword it). The other was for when they were fighting riders on horseback; it said the hook might be used to snag the cloak of a rider and drag him out of the saddle. In practice, I don’t think we ever saw either of these functions actually put to use on film.

    The crude, cleaver-like design of the weapon was also explained as being designed with a mounted enemy in mind; this sword is a horse-chopper, and the Rohirrim don’t armor their horses that much. Out in the field, the Uruk army was meant to form a pike wall, with the crossbows doing most of the killing (the guidebook specified that the Uruk crossbow easily outranges the short bow the Rohirrim shoot from horseback). If the Rohirrim charge and break through the pike wall, the swordsmen swarm around them in the press, hacking at the horses and pulling riders out of their saddles. Given the fact that the riders themselves wear armor, the sword’s lack of a point to thrust with, and the difficulty of swinging this long weapon in the tight quarters of a press, I suspect the orcs would have generally restorer to just stomping these men to death once they ended up on the ground.

    The sword’s extremely crude and simple design was also explained by the need to manufacture a huge number of them in a very short amount of time. No point, no taper, no fuller, no guard – eliminating each of those elements cuts down on the sword’s manufacturing time, and the skill required from the smith. The Uruk sword is like a Sten gun, it sacrifices a lot of the nice things you would prefer to have in a weapon for the sake of being able to stamp out an enormous number of them quickly and cheaply.

    Lastly, I recall one more point the guide noted: ease of use. As you know, the instinct of an untrained person who picks up a sword is to hack and slash with it. Saruman’s raising an enormous army on a very tight schedule, and has little time to spend on teaching it proper swordsmanship. Handing them a giant meat cleaver makes the most of the fact that basic hacking and slashing is all his troops are going to be capable of.

    The spike on the back is the one element that is at odds with the rest of the weapon’s overall design philosophy: it’s complicated to use, and adds difficulty to the manufacturing process. I can’t remember if the guide said so, but I would think it was Saruman’s own personal touch. He’s a tinkerer, not a commander of armies; he imagines his troops using it in all those nifty ways described in the first paragraph, but in practice, these techniques are too complicated for his hastily trained troops and the spikes mostly just end up being decoration.

    So no, it’s not a very good sword, but it actually does make a lot of sense. It’s definitely worth looking into one of these guidebooks when you’re writing an article like this to see what kinds of thought the prop designers put into their work.

    1. I recall reading something similar. The blog also mentioned time issues, which the filmmakers knew.

      Also the smiths are working on a mine are they not? Helmets are good for workplace safety if a rock falls on you!

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