“Messer” means “knife” in German. The sword it describes looks like a knife, for good reason (which we’ll get to later). It’s a one-handed sword, with a single edge. The straight blade is a bit wide compared to the “true” swords of the period, resembling a Bowie knife that’s been stretched out to almost two and a half feet (75 cm). Depending on who made it, the tip might be a simple curve; or it might be scooped out on the false edge, which would be sharpened for about four inches (10 cm) to give it a thrusting tip.
Its handle was usually knife-like. My favorite is a pair of wooden grips pinned to the tang, like you can still see in kitchen knives today. It is the guard that distinguishes the Messer from every other short slashing blade out there. It starts with a quillon guard that barely covers your hand, and then adds what’s referred to as a “nail” — basically, a third quillon perpendicular to the normal pair, that covers the outside of your hand.
So what made the Messer so popular in Germany?
The answer lies in how fractured Germany was from 1300 to 1500. Even though it was nominally unified under the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, in actual practice, the various polities (sometimes all the way down to the town level) had their own laws and enforcement. You didn’t have to travel far to run into one of the two laws that might be the reason why the Messer was invented. In either case, it indicated a malicious compliance.
- Only Nobility can Wear a Sword. This is a fairly common thing world-wide. Whenever the merchant class became wealthy enough to afford the trappings of nobility, sumptuary laws were the answer. In such a situation, a Messer is not a sword. It’s a knife. The story goes that they were even made by the Guild of Knifemakers, rather than the Swordsmiths, to further skirt the law.
- Worn Blades are Limited in Length. This law was usually born of street violence. In order to quell said mischief, everyone — and this included nobility — couldn’t wear a blade over a certain length. The idea was the the city guard would therefore have a reach advantage in a melee. Interestingly, the Messer was exactly the minimum length allowed.
Whatever the reason for the Messer’s invention, it was useful to own (and carry) one. To compound matters, the Messer was easier, and therefore cheaper, to make than a sword. If the intent was to disarm the peasantry, it backfired.
Messers in your Game
For D&D 5e, just use the scimitar’s stat line. (In fact, I’m currently running a game where everybody carries a Messer-like weapon as their default carry.)
Evolutions of the Messer
The Messer I’ve described previously is the “base” Messer. It wasn’t long before it was recognized as a good sidearm, which led to its adoption by professionals, and adjustment for the battlefield. The terms used for such things:
- The Langes Messer (or “long knife”). An alternative name to the Messer to distinguish it from your everyday utility knife.
- The Grosse Messer (or “great knife”). A two-handed version of the Messer used by soldiers against armored opponents. (2d4 slashing damage, two-handed, heavy.)
- The Kriegsmesser (or “war knife”). Also a two-handed version of the Messer. There’s some debate about whether this is another name for the Grosse Messer, or meant to distinguish the biggest and meanest weapons from the “normal” Grosse Messers. (Use the greatsword stats.)
The other thing that changed is that the hilt became more complicated. The one-handed Messers gained knuckle bows, and both versions swapped out the nail for a side ring (the two-handers especially).