Peter Finer

A German Horseman's Hammer, late 16th – early 17th century

Item Ref: 2445 Price on application

2445 1
2445 3

Germany. Iron, wood and cord.


Private collection, USA

German war hammers of this broadly similar type are preserved in almost all of the foremost institutional collections and national historic collections of European antique arms throughout Europe, North America and Canada. Two examples among these are in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin: see Müller and Kölling 1981, nr. 309; and in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (29.158.674): see Nickel, Pyhrr and Tarassuk 1982, 

The German horseman’s hammer (reiterhammer) of the late 16th century was carried slung from the saddle for ready use in place of the sword or the pistol. While the sword was the emblematic weapon of knighthood its effective use against an opponent in full plate armour was naturally limited. Similarly, the limitations of a single shot from each of a pair of wheel-lock pistols is obvious also. Together with the mace, hammers such as this provided the means of delivering both stunning or generally debilitating blows and the means of breaking open the rings of a mail shirt, piercing armoured plates at their joints and even directly piercing the lighter gauge secondary parts of an armour. The conspicuous length of the plate-breaking rear spike on the present example is unusual. 

Hammers closely related to the present one were retained in large numbers in the former royal Saxon armouries in Dresden, most likely forming a part of the armament carried by the elite mounted contingent of the guard of the Prince-Electors of Saxony.

Due to the ease with which such catastrophic damage could be inflicted on an otherwise near-impregnable enemy the hammer enjoyed wide use throughout the 16th century, and thereafter itself became an emblem of power. Almost certainly the best possible graphic illustration of the reithammer as an emblem of power exists in the portrait of Moritz, Elector of Saxony (r. 1547-53), painted by Lucas Cranach the Younger, as a retrospective in 1578 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, inv. nr. SKD RKH74). The half-length composition shows the elector in his armour, his rapier sheathed at his left side, his reithammer grasped the more prominently in his right gauntlet, held vertically across the torso. Cranach’s paintings and drawings record a wide range of weapons and armour of the period, all in very faithful fine detail: this illustration of a hammer is no exception and it will be noted that the design and proportions compare closely with the example under discussion.  

Heinrich Müller and Hartmut Kölling, Europäische Hieb- und Stichwaffen,Berlin 1981
Helmut Nickel, Stuart W.Pyhrr and Leonid Tarassuk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibition catalogue, The Art of Chivalry, New York 1982     

Of iron construction applied with an early cord binding over the wooden core of the grip, the head formed of a conical small hammer incised with a triple linear band, bevelled and fluted rectangular socket, down-curved rear spike of conspicuous length, of rectangular section tapering to a narrow point, and the head retained by a compressed two-stage cap cut with cruciform slots over its top. The haft rounded in section, interrupted by a thick disc-like medial collar incised with cabling, the haft formed with a short rectangular stage below the head, the lower portion of the haft changing to octagonal section and fitted above the grip with a disc guard, the guard extended on one side to form a triangular ‘blade breaker’ up-turned on a common axis with the haft. The grip retained at its lower extremity by a compressed button pommel (the belt hook missing). In untouched patinated condition throughout.

Size: Length 59 cm / 23.22 in, the head 21 cm / 8.26 in