Useful Notes page to give some background info on that marvelous weapon of yesteryear, the sword. For information about using them, see our European Swordsmanship and Kenjutsu pages.
There are two components a sword needs to have: a handle (the hilt) and a blade. Hilts incorporate a grip and often a guard, which prevents the hand of the wielder from slipping onto the blade and may be used to parry an opponent's blade. The exact shape of the guard can vary wildly from weapon to weapon (contrast the C-shaped basket hilt on a backsword to the little oval tsuba on a katana). Finally, many swords have a pommel, which is the knob on the other end of the hilt. This pommel is often weighted to counterbalance the blade; it also has something to do with how the sword is built. Generally the blade has a tail on the end, a tang, around which the hilt is constructed. The majority of weapons we recognize as swords have hidden or rod tangs, which are narrow and pass through successive holes in the guard, grip and pommelnote . The tang typically extends a little bit out the top of the pommel and is then peened (hammered until it mushrooms out), creating a physical seal that keeps the sword in one piece. (The TV show Highlander notwithstanding, basically the last thing you want in a fight is for the blade to go flying away.) For the past few centuries, tangs have also sometimes been threaded and screwed into the pommel or a nut on top of the pommel; this method is particularly common on munitions-grade weapons and inexpensive replicas. This is a less secure connection than peening, but allows the hilt to be easily re-tightened or even disassembled and reassembled. Blunt "swords" used in theatrical fights are also usually threaded, since they see FAR more strenuous use than real swords and need to be re-tightened regularly. How thick the tang is and how it's secured thus has a lot to do with a sword's durability, and modern sword enthusiasts will inspect a specimen carefully to figure out how it was built. The other way to assemble a sword is to make the blade with a wide, flat slab tang (which is often, but not always, as long and wide as the fully-assembled grip; when it is, it's a full-profile tang. As an aside, "full tang" can mean either full-length or full-profile, depending on the speaker). Usually the hilt parts are held on with pegs that pass sideways through them and the tang; other methods of attaching may include glue, flanges along the tang's edges, and/or a binding wrap such as wire. Japanese swords usually have a partial-length slab tang that fits into a slot in a one-piece grip, and is held in place by one or more removable pegs. Near Eastern and European full-profile-tang swords tend to have a pair of organic plates or scales held on with peened metal rivets to form the grip, like a kitchen knife. Some early European bronze swords lacked a tang and had the hilt riveted to the blade's shoulders; these "bronze rapiers" were made for stabbing, since a hard chopping blow could break the hilt from the blade. A full list of the terms for different parts of various types of sword would be unwieldy for this page, although words like quillon, ricasso, sageo and so on are handy to know. Overviews may be found for European swords here and for Japanese ones here. Both European and Asian weapons have been developed through centuries of martial tradition, and along with them various techniques to use them effectively, responding to changes in the combat environment as they occur. In other words, sword design has evolved through the ages, not just because smiths got better at making swords but because of the ongoing Lensman Arms Race between weaponsmiths and armorers, each seeking to create a tool that would conquer the other's offering. Consequently, examining the design of a sword — what it was meant to do, and how it was meant to do it — will tell you a lot about how war was waged by its wielders. Cutting motions are of limited use against metal armor. To get through to someone who is clad in steel, you'll really need more of a stab or thrust between individual pieces of armor; this was true even in the days of maillenote and only became more so as full plate armor was layered over it. Alternatively, one could also cause injury through armor using sheer blunt force trauma, as even a man fully clad in steel was susceptible to being stunned by a steel mace swung directly at his helmeted head. That said, in early periods such as Viking Age Europe you would probably find that most non-elite combatants didn't wear any metal armor besides a helmet, and relied mostly on their shields, meaning that a sword that could only cut well was still very useful. By the 15th century, full plate armor made of hardened and spring-tempered steel was commonplace in Western Europe; thus, impetus was placed on the development of weaponry that could defeat a man wearing such pieces of armor without sacrificing versatility. The pollaxe was one such weapon that demonstrates this focus, combining an axe head with both a spear point and a hammerhead on a 5-6 foot wooden shaft. Swords in particular had their blades made narrower and stiffer, and their grips lengthened in order to accommodate the use of both hands for a more forceful swing or thrust, but the most effective technique for fighting in armor was "half-swording," or gripping the middle of the blade with the off hand to guide the point into the gaps in the plate. The increasing effectiveness of firearms and pike formations in the 16th century favored the use of massed troops instead of individually talented warriors, and the fully-armored knight wielding the lance was replaced by the three-quarter or half-armored cuirassier armed with a sword and a pair of pistols. Meanwhile, the Japanese, due to their poor mineral resources, continued to use armor made largely of hardened leather and soft iron, and rarely had to deal with outsiders due to their insular island-nation tendencies. As such, Japanese weapons are specialized towards warfare within Japan; indeed, the tachi, the main ancestor to the katana, tended to break its tip off when used against Mongolian and Korean armor. That said, some Japanese swordsmiths were able to accomplish quite astonishing things with the low-carbon steel available to them, though the techniques they used to achieve differential tempering of different regions of the blade were labor-intensive, to say the least. As was the case in Europe, Japanese swords also underwent an evolution that, among other things, resulted in thicker blades and deeper edges. As for the overall shape of the blade, this will generally differ depending on whether the sword will be used to slash, stab, or chop. Some designs manage to accommodate both slash and stab, though swords capable of performing all three functions are rare and usually impractical. There are four basic sword designs, no matter where in the world you're looking:
- The first and most obvious design, at least to us Westerners, is the cruciform sword, which has been in existence for well over a thousand years. Generally characterized by a symmetrical profile and straight edges leading up to a central point, this blade shape is capable of both cutting and thrusting. As Jack-of-All-Stats swords, they tend to be flatter in cross section (and thus more flexible) and broader toward the point than dedicated thrusting swords in order to maintain cutting ability, but lack the curvature of slicing swords and are narrower toward the point than chopping ones so that they can still line up and execute a stab. Some designs emphasize either cutting or thrusting at the expense of the other. The most prominent scholar of these weapons was the late, great Ewart Oakeshott, whose Oakeshott typology summarizes the evolution of the European sword from the 8th century to the 18th, starting at Type X (late Viking Age swords) and ending at Type XXII (early Renaissance broadswords). Although this shape of sword is most often associated with Europe, the ancient Japanese tsurugi, Chinese jiàn and early Middle-Eastern swords are of similar shape.
- Next are curved swords. These swords generally have a single sharpened edge that curves toward the tip of the blade. Though some types have blades that end in a point that can be used to stab, curved swords are primarily designed for slashing. If you're planning to fight from horseback, a curved sword is your best bet. Curved swords are easier to use on horseback because the curvature of the blade makes the vector of force diagonal to the cutting edge, imparting a slicing motion that makes sword strokes cleaner and more efficient. They're also easier to unsheathe while horseback, since the drawing motion more closely follows the movement of your elbow. Very common in nomadic horse cultures, namely those of Central Asia and areas influenced by them, such as the Middle East and China, and (later and indirectly) Europe. The word "sabre"/"saber" is occasionally used as a generic name for this category of swords, leading some snark-minded Western scholars to mock-call katanas "two-handed sabers."
- Swords designed for chopping, such as the Egyptian and Near Eastern khopesh, the Iberian falcata, the Medieval falchion or the kukri used by the Gurkhas, will typically be single-edged and have most of the weight and mass toward the top third of the blade. They sometimes curve forwards, but not always. Much like an axe, a chopping sword is designed for cleaving: it has a edge designed to deliver the vector of force behind a blow directly into the surface, which will either buckle or split apart if it yields. Against unprotected flesh, this will usually result in very nasty wounds. Such blades can easily remove limbs, and are also ideal for execution by beheading. As is the case with a regular axe, swords with chopping blades may often be employed or even intentionally designed as tools for purposes like chopping wood or hacking through brush. Machetes are the most common example of this blade shape in the modern era.
- Finally, there are swords that specialize in stabbing. These tend to have narrow blades with a geometric cross-section — triangular, diamond, or even hexagonal — and seem to resemble very large needles. Sometimes they have cutting edges so that you can cut with them if necessary (and to deter an opponent from grabbing the blade), but sometimes they don't; their point of balance is way back in the hilt, which makes for faster thrusting and more precise point control, but drastically lowers the power of a slashing attack. Some thrusting swords such as rapiers were generally meant for use in a civilian context, and were still plenty capable of inflicting vicious cutting wounds. Meanwhile, estoc-type blades with a thickened triangular or diamond cross-section tended to focus on anti-armor use at the expense of the edges, and tended to have minimal cutting ability.
Swords have had a long history in China. The two most basic flavors are jiàn and dāo, but others exist as well. Note that people (including the Chinese) would refer to the jiàn as a sword and the dāo as a knife, although the terms and meanings are often switched around depending on context. The main distinction is that the term dāo refers a single-edged cutting implement, regardless of size, shape or function, including polearms; the term jiàn will usually refer to anything with a narrow blade that ends in a point. Jiàn (Traditional: 劍; Simplified: 剑)
- The jiàn is a double-edged straight sword that has been in use for around 2,500 years. Early jiàn were made of bronze and were fairly short and wide, while there are some (probably ceremonial) specimens which are carved from a single solid piece of jade. Steel jiàn which were longer and narrower began to appear around 200 BCE, and since then there have been few significant changes in form or function. Later examples were forged from multiple layers of steel sandwiched together, utilizing a folding and differential hardening process similar to the Japanese method of forging (which it likely inspired). Many jiàn were one-handed, and both single-sword and double-sword forms are popular in kung fu, but there are also two-handed variants (called Shuangshou jiàn). The jiàn is considered the "Gentleman of Weapons" and is featured in pretty much any Chinese movie that contains a sword; the "Green Destiny" is the specimen non-swordgeek tropers are most likely to be familiar with. It is comparable in popularity to the katana, especially in mainland China, where many households buy a replica for display.
- Sometimes called a "Chinese broadsword" because the blade happens to be broad and made in China, though its curved blade has nothing to do with European straight-bladed broadswords; indeed, in shape it much more resembles the falchion. Dāo came in various shapes and sizes, with the most famous being the liuye dāo ("willow leaf saber") and niuwei dāo ("oxtail saber"); the former has a modestly tapered or non-tapered blade, while the latter is flared toward the point like a falchion. All types of dāo have a single main cutting edge. Before the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, most one-handed dāo were straight-bladed; afterward, curved types became dominant. Most have an inverted cup-shaped hilt to prevent rainwater or blood from flowing down the blade and onto the hand. Some have a partially sharpened back edge to allow for a thrust or a back-handed slash, but all share the characteristic of being used for either chopping or for slashing. Like the jiàn, the origins of the dāo stem back as far as the Bronze Age, though the dāo is considered more of a utilitarian weapon (nicknamed the "General of Weapons") than the jiàn, and was traditionally used by both cavalry and infantry alike.
- Not to be confused with the balisong, which is often called a "butterfly knife." Also known as "bull's ear swords," they are popular in southern martial arts styles, such as Wing Chun. Usually dual-wielded, they consist of short dāo blades roughly the size of the wielder's forearm, allowing for speed, maneuverability and concealment.
- The dadāo, also known as the "Chinese greatsword," is a two-handed sword based on agricultural knives, with a broad blade between two and three feet long and a long hilt meant for both one-handed and two-handed use. Its name literally means "big knife." During the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1933, due to the under-equipped nature of many smaller factions within China, some Chinese soldiers were armed with just a dadāo and a handgun. They were used to great effect against the Japanese in close combat (or at least, as much as they could in conjunction with guerrilla tactics before they get seriously outgunned), and these units became somewhat legendary, with a patriotic song being based on killing Japanese invaders with dadāo.
- The infamous "horse-cutting saber," this weapon dates back to the Song Dynasty and was used by infantry against cavalry. It consisted of a long single-edged blade and a long handle suitable for two-handed use. The Japanese zanbatō is a related weapon; not only are the two similar, but zanbatō is written with the same Han characters. Other Japanese-looking Chinese swords exist, such as the chang dāo and wo dāo from the Ming era, and the miao dāo from the Republican era.
- A truly unique weapon, the hook sword has a, well, hook at the tip of the blade, along with a substantial hand-guard and a big ol' sharp spike for a pommel. Heaven only knows where the cutting edge is on this thing, but presumably its edges are sharpened somewhere. These swords are almost always Dual Wielded, not just for the practicality of trapping the enemy's weapon with one hook and hitting him with the other, but because if you hook the two swords together you suddenly have this insane lasso monkey-chain-of-death thing — the very definition of Awesome, but Impractical. Also, while this sword is often described as something that was used on ancient battlefields, most of the actual historical examples we have are at most 400 years old. Some of these were sharpened, suggesting they were used as weapons, but these are few, and hook swords also require a lot of training to use, so the weapon might be mostly for sporting kung fu, as opposed to actual weapons used for actual bloodletting.
Because good iron ore was difficult to come by in ancient Japan, swordsmiths had to remove impurities from the iron by folding. Folding iron is a common forging technique not unique to Japan, but Japanese blades continued to be folded longer than European blades due to the Japanese retaining the bloomery method for steel manufacture rather than a blast furnace (the starting material was generally black iron sand). Japanese smiths also used a technique called "leaching" in order to remove impurities from steel: the steel blank was left to "marinate" in acidic water (usually bogs and rice paddies) for months or even years. This would eventually cause the impurities to dissolve and leach out from the billet, which would later be reforged with multiple foldings, which forced the developed oxide and impurities out. The remains would then be arranged in the thin bands that improved the blade properties. Some swordsmiths in later periods are known to have incorporated imported Indian or Western iron brought by Portuguese or Dutch traders. Almost all Japanese swords were laminates, with different grades of steel used for the edge and body of the blade and welded together by the swordsmith. The difference was compounded by the heat-treating process, in which layers of clay were applied along the spine before heat-hardening. When the blade was quenched, the steel in the edge would cool rapidly, forming a hard crystalline structure called martensite, while the clay would insulate the spine, causing it to cool more slowly into a fine, soft structure called pearlite. With careful polishing, the martensite would be visible as a frosty-looking line running down the middle of the blade, called a hamon, and clay could be arranged to give the hamon a decorative patternnote . This combination meant that the blade could hold a sharp cutting edge which would be backed up by a less brittle spine, but also meant the edge was more damage-prone than a comparable homogeneous sword. The characteristic blade curvature is a byproduct of this differential hardening. While European and Middle Eastern sabers were forged in the curved shape from the start, Japanese blades were forged straight, and obtained their curvature solely from the different contraction of the edge and the back during hardening. Applying the clay incorrectly could very easily lead to the sword bending sideways, which required reforging. The vast majority of Japanese infantrymen in the feudal eras were either archers or spearmen. The spear was a much more economical use of rare and costly steel. The sword was the weapon of a nobleman and his retainers and bodyguards, the samurai. And then there was the naginata, a glaive that became the traditional weapon of Japanese noblewomen for the defense of the household, but these were likewise relatively rare, or, more precisely, became rare during the late Sengoku Jidai, when the evolving tactics have led to the prevalence of the dense infantry formations that favored pikemen and arquebusiers, as the naginata required a relatively large open space around its wielder. From about the 11th century on, Japanese armor was mostly made of lacquered leather laced together with silk. This lightweight armor offered good protection against arrows but was less effective against swords. Most native Japanese weapons were designed for cutting attacks, a cut being the quickest way to inflict maximum damage on a lightly-armored opponent. In the 14th-16th centuries, metal armor (often lacquered) became more and more common. Even ashigaru (peasant warriors) would wear mass-produced metal armor. However, despite improvements in metallurgy and the influence of European traders, Japanese metal armor was still lighter and weaker than European plate armor. Also, spears, bows, and eventually firearms were the main battlefield weapons of the Sengoku Jidai, with the sword used mainly as a backup weapon. These factors, combined with the peace established after 1600, meant that Japanese swords remained primarily cutting weapons rather than evolving into thrusting weapons as European swords had. Daitō, Shōtō and Tantō Regardless of the specific type, Japanese swords are for the most part considered to fall into three categories depending on blade length, which is measured in shaku, standardized since 1891 at about 11.93 inches (30.3cm), but prior to that being almost 14 inches (35.5cm). Daitō (大刀, "long sword") have blades of not less than two shaku (23.9 inches/60.6cm), and include katana and anything longer, shōtō (小刀, "little sword") are at least one shaku but less than two, and mainly covers wakizashi, and sword-hilted weapons with blades of less than one shaku are tantō (短刀, "short sword"). Katana (刀)
- Unarguably the most famous Japanese weapon by far is the katana. While the word "katana" in Japanese refers to any sword with a curved, single-edged blade, many sword-lovers use the term to define the moderately curved sword of moderate length, originally called the uchigatana (打刀, "striking sword"). Most katana exhibit the distinctive long hilt of about 1/4 of the overall length, which provides balance when used with a one-handed grip and leverage when used with two, but they are not the only Japanese swords with this feature. The katana is largely associated with samurai, though throughout most of samurai history it was only one of their three primary weapons, the others being the spear and the bow. It wasn't until the 17th century that the katana became so synonymous with the samurai.
- You may notice the character for katana (刀) is the same as for dāo and tō; this is because katana is the native Japanese word while tō is the Japanese pronunciation of dāo.
- Meaning "side-inserted." The Japanese short sword, single-edged and normally curved like the katana. These were often used where a katana would be unwieldy, such as indoors or in close-quarter combat. During the feudal era it became fashionable for samurai to wear a katana and wakizashi together, the pair being called a daishō (大小, "big-small"). Eventually the daishō became the symbol or badge of office of a samurai and was enforced by laws in the Edo period. Some martial arts schools taught the use of two swords simultaneously, one in each hand, the most famous of which is probably Miyamoto Musashi's niten ichi ryu.
- Precursor to the katana. It is noted for having greater curvature than even the katana, and is commonly believed to be longer than most katana, although this is not necessarily borne out by the historical record. Primarily a cavalry weapon, the tachi is worn with the cutting edge facing downward, since the technique of drawing and slashing horizontally in one movement associated with katana isn't possible on horseback due to the horse's head being in the way. The tachi's primary use was to slash downwards at foot soldiers.
- Blades made for tachi were often later remounted as katana, and since both tachi and katana are normally worn on the left hip, a remounted blade can often be spotted if the bladesmith included a signature on the tang, because it'll usually be upside down and facing the "wrong" way (toward the wearer's body instead of outward) as a result.
- In the Edo period, tachi were rarely used in combat, but were sometimes worn for ceremony or as a status symbol among the higher ranks.
- A very short sword or large dagger, single-edged and straight, occasionally thickened for piercing armor. During older periods, this was paired with the tachi much as the wakizashi was later paired with the katana.
- These were early Japanese swords, before any curvature was added. Straight and double-edged, they were basically carbon copies of the Chinese jiàn. The semi-mythical Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi was depicted as one of these.
- Intermediary between the tsurugi and the tachi, chokutō ("straight sword") were single-edged swords with no curvature, similar to Chinese dāo before the Mongol invasion, and were primarily used on foot for slashing and stabbing.
- The ōdachi ("great tachi"), also called the nōdachi ("field tachi"), is a two-handed sword even larger than the katana, and was used both ceremonially and as a devastating weapon from horseback. The ōdachi was also used against cavalry and in open field engagements, but infrequently, due to the difficulty of forging the blade and the great strength required to wield it. It was also rather rare due to the naginata and the nagamaki doing the ōdachi's basic job better. An even larger version called the zanbatō also exists, but is usually created more as a test of a swordsmith's art than as a proper weapon of war, and may have gotten its name from the Chinese zhanmadāo, which the Chinese used against cavalry. The Kage-Ryu is one of the few Japanese sword schools that still teaches use of the ōdachi. Sasaki Kojirō was known to be very deadly with an ōdachi nicknamed Monohoshizao ("Laundry-Drying Pole"), and is remembered for having fought Miyamoto Musashi with it. Sometimes referred to as a "daikatana" in foreign texts.
- Meaning "new military sword," mass-produced officers' blades used from 1934 to the end of WWII. Previously the Japanese military utilized the kyu-guntō ("old military sword"), which resembled a Western cavalry saber due to heavy Western influence during the Meiji Restoration of the latter 19th century. However, nationalists demanded a more "native" sword, so a design closely patterned on the katana was adopted. While some Type 94 Shin-Guntō used traditionally-made blades, the Type 95 and 98 versions all used a blade that was essentially a piece of machined steel with an edge ground onto it. The best blades of this type were said to be made out of used rails, although the personal swords of officers descended from the disbanded samurai class sometimes had blades that were family heirlooms. Unlike traditionally-made Japanese swords, shin-guntō have no recognized artistic merit in Japan and are therefore ineligible for registration. If one is found within the country, it may be immediately confiscated and destroyed. This probably has something to do with some unpleasantness back in 1930's and 1940's.
The Indian subcontinent has a history of iron-working that goes as far back as 1800 BCE. It was also the place where wootz steel — a type of Medieval steel prized for its hardness and banded patterns — was manufactured, starting around 300 BCE. Needless to say, it isn't surprising that some of the earliest sword designs came from India, or that the place is home to a huge variety of such weapons. Sword designs from India tend to defy the usual path of linear development that swords from most other countries underwent over time. In spite of this, they come in practically all shapes and sizes imaginable, inspiring the development of fighting styles which made best use of their often unorthodox capabilities. Whereas some of the more unique designs are tied to the region from which they originated, designs that are commonly used throughout the subcontinent tend to be derived from blades carried by foreign invaders or encountered through trade. Urumi
- A very distinctive sword used in the kalaripayat style, sometimes known as a "whip sword" or "coiled sword." The blade is made out of a flexible band of metal, allowing the user to curve the blade around an opponent's guard. The unpredictability of the flexible blade is dangerous both to the target and to the user. Some versions sport multiple flexible blades to increase the offensive potential. Due to the flexibility of the blade, the sword is sometimes worn coiled as a belt or a sash by users.
- Based on katar punch-daggers, the pata was essentially a straight sword with a gauntlet grafted directly onto the hilt, completely enclosing the hand and wrist. It was primarily used by Maratha infantrymen, who would often Dual Wield one in each hand or another weapon in the off-hand. Although the gauntlet design offers very good protection and makes it very difficult to disarm the wielder, the way it locks the wrist in one position makes the pata awkward to use. Then of course, there's the glaringly obvious problem with having to take the gauntlets off before you could use your hands for anything else, a factor which makes it wholly unsuitable for use on horseback.
- Originating from Northern India (although heavily inspired by designs from Central Asia), the talwar is a moderately-curved sword that is primarily designed for slashing attacks but can also be used to stab. Widely considered to be one of the better cavalry swords, the talwar is a well-balanced weapon whose key distinguishing feature is that the blade tends to be ever so slightly broader near the tip than the base. The hilt usually has a disc-shaped pommel with a spike-like extension, allowing one to strike at the enemy in close quarters. After the British based the design of their Pattern 1796 light cavalry sabre on the talwar, many other European countries followed in adopting similar blades as well.
- A bit of an odd duck, the khanda is a straight sword with a broad double-edged blade ending in a rounded or bluntly-pointed tip, and the hilt typically has a large knuckle guard. Unlike many other double-edged swords, the khanda is purely a chopping weapon: the blade lacks a sufficiently sharp point to thrust with, and has straight edges unsuitable for slashing. Swords of this type also feature two metal extensions on each of edge of the blade to impart stiffness to the blade, which was often made of softer and more flexible metal. While the outermost extension is usually 1/3rd the length of the blade, the innermost extension is usually longer but still ends some ways before the tip so as to expose the second edge.
- Meaning "foreigner" or "European" (the name is derived from the Arabic word al-faranji, literally a Frankish person), this sword had a khanda-type hilt mounted on a more slender backsword blade, which was usually imported via the Portuguese or domestically made in the European style. It developed around the 16th century and remained in use into the 19th. Like the talwar, the firangi is a cavalry sword, with the added advantage that its straight, tapered shape made it good for thrusting.
Greek, Roman, and Celtic swords
- Despite what 300 would make you believe, the primary weapon of a Greek hoplite was the spear. However, this does not mean the Greeks didn't have any swords to speak of. The sword seen in that comic is very loosely based on the real-life makhaira (roughly "battle thing," also transliterated machaira or, via Latin, machaera), a curved, single-edged weapon not unlike an oversized Gurkha kukri. The kopis ("cutter") was somewhat like a long makhaira. Some historians speculate that the Greeks first learned of this blade shape from their trade with the Carthaginians and Iberian Celts, who used a sword with a similarly recurved blade, known in modern literature as a falcata (a Latin neologism meaning "sickle-shaped"). Others believe that the makhaira and kopis evolved in Greece and the Balkans from smaller knives during the Iron Age. Alexander's armies went as far east as India, and it is considered plausible by many authorities that their introduction of this blade shape to India survives today as the Nepalese kukri that the Gurkhas still use.
- The xiphos was a double-edged weapon with a leaf-shaped blade. It was some 50-60cm long. Like the makhaira, it had a wide, flat tang with bone or wood scales riveted to either side; the xiphos hilt also featured projections from the tang that gave it a crossguard and somewhat cruciform shape. The xiphos tends to be more commonly depicted in Greek art. Incidentally, thanks to the rather broad blade, it may be a sword to which the name "broadsword" is actually somewhat appropriate.
- The gladius, derived from Iberian designs ultimately from the Continental Celts (the word is probably from a Celtic root, related to Gaelic claidheamh), was typically manufactured of wrought iron rather than steel. Several types of gladius are known, all having a distinctive hilt made mostly of wood and/or bone with a small oval guard, straight grip and large pommel. The gladius hispaniensis alluded to in Roman literature is identified with early blades that were around 24-27 inches long (61-69cm) not counting the tang. Later versions are named by archaeologists for their find sites and are shorter; the "Mainz type" was leaf-shaped, 20-22 inches (51-56cm), the "Fulham" was the same length but more angular, and the "Pompeii" could run as little as 18 inches (46cm) with straight edges and a short point. The short length shows how Roman tactics focused on short stabbing blows rather than the sweeping cuts with longer swords preferred by many of their enemies. This worked because of Roman discipline and teamwork in battle; individually, less so. The gladius was used in conjunction with a very large rectangular or, in the late days of the Eastern Roman Empire, oval shield.
- The spatha (from a Greek word for "blade"), used by Roman cavalry, resembled a gladius with a much longer, straight-edged or tapering blade. It may also be derived from long Celtic swords given a more Roman-style hilt. It gradually replaced the gladius as the infantry sword, starting from the 2nd century AD. The spatha eventually evolved into the Viking weapons described below, and is thus the grandfather of European arming swords.
- The Romans used a number of other swords, but don't expect them to show up in media very often. The parazonium (Latinized Greek for "beside the belt") seems to have been the ornate sword, derived from the xiphos, frequently seen on statues of emperors. The term is also sometimes applied to fancy gladii with eagle-head pommels also seen in statuary. The semi-spatha ("half-sword") is an enigmatic weapon mentioned in literature, possibly a continuation of gladius-length swords during the late Western Roman Empire. The sica is a highly curved short sword with a sharp point, derived from weapons used by the Thracians and other ancient Balkan peoples, and used by the thraex ("Thracian") type gladiator to stab around his opponent's shield.
Celtic SwordsPopular in media yet widely misunderstood, swords from the La Tene culture of c. 500-0 BCE (broadly associated with Celtic-speaking peoples) were influential in Europe, as they were among the earliest examples of laminated swords there and led the way for the development of the spatha, Viking sword and Medieval arming sword. Anthropomorphic-Hilted Sword
- Aka "anthro" sword, this ornate weapon was typically a short sword or dagger. Sometimes it was a bit leaf-shaped, and always it had an all-metal hilt with a pair of curved branches sprouting from either end of the grip to form what could be described as an upper and lower guard. What made it "anthropomorphic" is that between the branches of the upper guard was a pommel which often had a human face, so that the upper guard could thus be taken as a pair of arms and the lower as a pair of legs. Poor Victorian archaeology and even poorer pop media representation has resulted in countless "replicas" of this kind of sword which usually exaggerate its size and leaf shape.
- Not a longsword, but a longer sword than most other peoples in Europe at the time used, the La Tene sword ranged from two and a half to three feet or longer, and had a bulky, organic hilt usually made of wood with very little metal, in a form that tended to vaguely resemble that of the anthro sword. The Celt-Iberians combined this type of sword with a scabbard that had rings on both sides for hanging from the belt, providing the model for the Roman gladius. Later, longer versions are thought to have influenced the development of the spatha and Migration Era sword. Meanwhile, the Irish used swords that were basically of the La Tene type but usually shorter, often no more than two feet overall.
Viking Age Swords
- From about the late 8th century to the mid-11th century, Scandinavian Vikings raided, traded, and explored all over Eurasia, and modern people often refer to this time as the Viking Age. The kinds of swords discussed below were actually used by cultures throughout Western Europe, including the kingdoms of the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, but for the sake of convenience the term "Viking sword" is understood to refer to all swords of this style. Blades were often more folded, by orders of magnitude, than even most ancient Japanese swords, for similar reasons: the difficulty of refining steel. Forging a really good blade from the metal available to Norse smiths was a costly endeavor, and swords were expensive weapons, less common than the axe or spear, and often owned and carried only by noblemen or wealthy merchants.
- Swords dated to the 4th to 7th centuries CE, referred to as Migration Era swords, originated when Germanic tribes appropriated the Roman spatha, discussed below. During the decline and collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes began to produce their own versions of the spatha, which transitioned into the Viking Age swords discussed immediately below. The sword quickly became a marker of social standing in Germanic society, and was commonly used as a grave good.
- Among the best-known Viking Age swords were the "Ulfberht" swords, which were a typical Viking blade shape but forged out of much, much higher-quality "Damascus steel," enabling them to bend and cut with far greater flexibility and strength than other steel blades of the time. Ulfberht blades were extremely expensive and forged from steel that was created at a far higher temperature than normal steel of the time, reducing the amount of slag impurities in the steel and thus resulting in far greater quality. One theory is that the steel ingots involved in their production actually came from river trading routes that stretched to the Middle East. Interestingly, these blades might've been an early case of brand recognition. The name comes from an inscription on the blades — +VLFBERHT+ — and it is entirely possible that it was a mark of producer or a group of them, perhaps a family line. Proving that humans don't change over time, there were even mass-produced rip-offs, down to incorrectly imitated or misspelled inscriptions.
- One of the most common blades was the seax, less commonly called a scramasax or handsax, a straight-bladed, single-edged implement falling somewhere in between large knife and short sword, with a blade anywhere from 12-20 inches (30-50cm) long, often with a tiny, almost vestigial guard and broad flared pommel of cast brass. The seax was used as a tool as often as a weapon. Culturally, the weapon was common to most Germanic tribes: besides the Vikings, the Saxons were famous users of the seax (indeed, the word "Saxon" probably comes from "seax"), and the weapon still appears on the arms of Saxon-settled Middlesex and Sussex. Beowulf (a Viking about whom the (Anglo-)Saxons wrote the most definitive tale) favored a seax and killed Grendel's mother with one forged by giants.
- From the 10th century on, the Migration Era swords began to evolve into the arming sword used in The Middle Ages. Ewart Oakeshott was not the one to classify these weapons; that job fell to another scholar named Jan Peterson, who identified nine basic flavors. That's why Oakeshott's catalogue starts with the Type X.
Medieval and Later European Swords
European swordmakers had access to a great amount of high-quality iron, allowing them to create material-intensive swords in abundance. Contrary to popular belief, European swords weren't 30-lb. hunks of steel: a greatsword actually weighs around 5-7 lbs., while an arming sword comes in at around 2.5 lbs. European swords typically possess a blade with a thick base that tapers up to a point; inspecting the sword's distribution of mass or the degree of taper in its profile is generally a good indicator of its intended purpose. Note that many sources miscategorize European cruciform swords under the name "broadswords." This is an anachronism and will hit the Fandom Berserk Button if you use it amongst true enthusiasts. The term "broadsword" is actually a given name referring to a specific type of sword, just like "machete" or "falchion" is; the sword in particular is a broad, straight-bladed sword from after the Middle Ages. Various types were used throughout Europe, the best-known today being the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. It was called a "broadsword" to differentiate it from the slim-bladed, stabbing-oriented rapier, and historians borrowed it as a catch-all term for all "broad"-bladed cutting swords, which (at the time) did not have a name as a category. Arming Sword
- The Medieval knightly weapon most commonly mislabeled a "broadsword" in popular media, being around three feet overall with a simple hilt and wide crossguard. The arming sword is a versatile weapon, able to cut and thrust, and the cruciform hilt construction is a lot better for parrying off blows than shorter blades or curved blades. The second edge allows the weapon to cut in either direction; blows with the "short edge" (the edge which faces the wielder) are a major component of many Western martial arts. This is the blade design most commonly seen in use by feudal and Medieval knights, and was designed for use either on horseback or on foot. It was generally a one-handed weapon, often used together with a shield or a buckler.
- Somewhere around late 12th or 13th century, improvements in forging allowed arming swords with lengthened blades of 100-120cm, and an extended hilt allowing it to be used in either one or both hands. These "great swords" (e.g., Oakeshott types XIIa and XIIIa) eventually evolved into the classic "longsword" (e.g., Oakeshott types XVa, XVIa, XVII, XVIIIa). The English longsword was described as having only a slightly longer blade than the arming sword but with a longer hilt, while the Germans thought that a longsword's pommel should reach the armpit of the person with the tip down to the ground. As advances in armorsmithing blessed Shining Armor with enough endurance that heavy troops didn't need to rely on shields, this type of sword became more common than arming swords, but never completely replaced them. Notably, most of the Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship manuals that survive — and by extrapolation, most of the manuals that were written — are centered upon this type of sword.
- "Hand-and-a-half sword" is a more modern term (probably originating in the 19th century) used for these types of weapons. The term "bastard sword" is sometimes also used, since it's neither a one-hand nor a two-hand sword, but nowadays "longsword" is asserted as the proper term. Note that, especially in the gaming community (going back at least as far as Gary Gygax), the term "longsword" is often incorrectly used to mean what is more properly called an arming sword.
- A somewhat rare variant of the longsword was the estoc, essentially an edgeless longsword with either a diamond or triangle blade cross section. This was a weapon specialized for armored combat, first appearing in the 15th century and becoming more common in the 16th. Since it was a pure thrusting weapon, but much heavier than the later rapier, it was often used as what amounted to a short, heavy lance (since the main wooden lance often broke during the charge). The later koncerz (essentially a one-handed estoc with a knuckle guard), famously used by the Winged Hussars, was an extension of the concept.
- These came in different variations, like the Scots claymore (claidheamh mór, "great sword") or the German Bidenhänder/Zweihänder ("two-hander"), and were very rare indeed. Their length and weight varied (from 145cm to 2m in length, and from 1.5-5kg), but the average zweihander was roughly 170cm in length and weighed around 3kg. Their primary purpose, aside from ceremonial designs, was for use by shock infantry to support a formation against enemy pike blocks, in the same way as halberds and similar polearms were used. Due to their effectiveness they were often used by banner guards and personal guards. They were expensive and difficult to master, and soldiers that mastered their use were counted among the elite. Originals that survive tend to have been ceremonial or judicial weapons; many are parade "bearing swords" that are too large to fight with. However, while they sound very heavy and unwieldy, two-handers made for combat are surprisingly agile weapons due to the length of the hilt. Surviving Scots claymores have hilts typically about 50-60cm long; this length gives the user significant leverage to swing the heavy blade, with one hand putting in pressure and the other acting as a fulcrum. Many styles of two-handed blade (particularly the zweihander) also had a "third grip" known as a ricasso, a blunted portion of the blade below the crossguard that was used to provide more precise control of the weapon while striking. Some even had the ricasso wrapped in leather to make it easier to grip, and/or parrying hooks sprouting between the ricasso and sharp part of the blade as a secondary crossguard. Wielding the blade in such a manner made it almost like a polearm — hence why learning how to use one properly could be highly confusing for a seasoned soldier.
- A flamberge, which means flaming sword, was not a single type of sword, but rather a shape of blade: wavy, curved many times. There could be a small flamberge sidesword, or a large flamberge greatsword. The waves on the blade widened the wound, provided for some saw-like armor cutting properties and made the wounds inflicted by such a sword much harder to treat. This made flamberges very effective, but inhumane; there were numerous bans on these blades, and a soldier taken prisoner with a flamberge was usually executed on spot. Flamberges, however, were expensive to craft; it took a lot of skill to hammer all those waves on a blade, and if you just grind them on, the resulting blade will be very structurally weak.
- The falchion (ultimately from Latin falx, "sickle") existed alongside the arming sword and had a similar one-handed hilt. The blade, however, was single-edged and usually flared toward the point. Though the back edge of the point was often clipped at an angle to make it better for stabbing, the falchion was mainly a slashing and chopping weapon, most useful against unarmored opponents. While they appear frequently in Medieval art, few falchions have survived and they're much less popular in modern media than the arming sword, possibly because of the cruciform sword's iconic status, and the falchion's similarity with the popular design of a "scimitar" when depicting Crusaders versus Muslims (never mind that Muslims during the early Crusades were using straight cruciform swords themselves).
- The word "messer" refers to a family of slightly curved, single-edged blades, with a pointy tip fit for thrusts, in different incarnations one- or two-handed. The German names include several varieties of Messer, meaning simply "knife," including the Grosses Messer ("great knife"), Langes Messer ("long knife") and Kriegsmesser ("war knife"). The difference between them is somewhat arbitrary, though one may opt to differentiate between one- and two-handed versions. As evidenced by its name, the messer was a humble weapon in origin, less "knightly" than a sword, but simpler to make — which is perhaps best evidenced in that it originally had a guard consisting of a nail sticking out of the handle. In terms of size and utility, as well as the ease of wearing it at one's side, it was an alternative to the arming sword. Because of this, their comparatively low cost, and laws against the wearing of swords by commoners note many fencing manuals teach the use of it, on its own or with a buckler.
- The messer and its variants were mostly used in German-speaking lands in the 14th-16th centuries. The messer was similar to the falchion, the fundamental difference between the two lying in the grip construction: falchions are made with hidden-tang construction, like "real" swords, while messers have full-profile tangs and riveted scales like knives.
- A very enigmatic weapon strongly associated with 16th-century Germany and very often mentioned in fencing treatises from that region. It's often mistakenly described as merely a training weapon, but in reality it could be considered the predecessor of the cutlass. A very compact single-edged sword, often curved and with some degree of hand protection. They could be as simple as one piece of steel with the grip being simply an extension of the blade, and curving the bottom further upwards to form a knuckle guard. Alternatively, some models were complex basket-hilted swords with short curved blades. Both versions saw very frequent use as infantry sidearms, the former by poor soldiers and the latter by wealthier individuals.
- An unusual type of Italian short sword or large dagger common during the wars of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. 12-15 inches (30-40cm) long with a very broad, acutely tapered blade — the name is often said to be derived from it being "five fingers" wide at the shoulders — it was used mainly for thrusting, but its width meant that it could deliver a stronger cut than most daggers of similar length. It usually had an elaborate pattern of fullers to lighten it. The cinquedea was commonly carried horizontally in the small of the back to ease its drawing and movement of its wielder in the narrow streets of Italian cities, as it was mainly a civilian weapon of affluent urban dwellers.
- A neologism, "sidesword" refers to transitional forms between the Medieval arming sword and the Renaissance rapier. They started as virtually identical to the arming sword, but with more elaborate means of hand protection than a simple crossguard. This could be as simple as a ring to protect the index finger when placed on the quillon (a common practice to gain more precise control) to more complex sets of bars and rings later on. The earliest of these weapons appear around the end of the 14th century, and they became more common and elaborate up to the point where they evolved into the rapier.
- These slender cut-and-thrust weapons evolved from the 16th-century sideswords. They were characterized by their extremely long and stiff blades (often over 40 inches/100cm long) and their elaborate hilts. Early rapiers could be nearly indistinguishable from sideswords (many collectors categorize some swords simply as "rapier or sidesword"), but later rapiers tended to become more thrust-oriented. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries many distinct styles of hilt emerged; the Italian swept hilt (curved bars and rings in elegant loops), the German Pappenheimer (a pair of oval pierced plates on each side of the blade) and the Spanish cup hilt (a large half-dome covering the hilt) are among the more distinctive. Despite being primarily a civilian weapon, the rapier was commonly seen in a military context, usually carried by officers and aristocratic cavalry. The use of the rapier declined in most of Europe by the end of the 17th century, but in Spain the cup hilt variety remained popular even up to the late 18th century.
- A common misconception is to link the rapier with the modern sport fencing foil or epee. In reality this sword was a very different beast. While it was a very dexterous weapon which relied heavily on precision and balance, most rapiers were still longer and sometimes heavier than the average longsword. The idea of the rapier is to have an extremely long sidearm that offered good hand protection, and for that a lot of material was needed, which added to its weight. Most of that weight is on the elaborate hand guards, which positions the point of balance very close to the hand. However, the blades weren't as light and quick as later fencing swords, and sometimes had modest cutting ability.
- As a general rule, Dual Wielding was very rare in European combat. The rapier is one of the exceptions, as it was common to use a dagger (main gauche) or other weapon in the off-hand for parrying. True Dual Wielding of equal-sized swords was still uncommon, but sometimes done with sideswords and rapiers, taught by some fencing masters such as Marozzo.
- These swords were developed from the rapier, but not in the sense most people think. The change from a long and heavy sword to a light and shorter variant was not done because the smallsword was a superior weapon, but simply because it was more convenient. Rapiers often weight well over 1kg. Smallswords, on the other hand, are usually between 350 and 500g. The reduced size also meant a person could wear one while going about their daily tasks or even in a social context without worrying about it getting in the way. In modern terms, it's analogous to the difference between carrying a large steel pistol and a compact polymer model. The smaller and lighter weapon is simply going to be easier to live with, even if the alternative would probably serve you better in a fight.
- It was developed at the end of the 17th century, based both on the rapier and on some models of compact infantry swords. Its hilt was relatively simple in form, often just a knuckle bow and a pair of plates or rings and often made entirely of soft brass, but in some cases decorated to the extreme. The blades were usually just over 30 inches (76cm) long, edgeless and very stiff. By the 18th century it was the most common sword carried by European gentlemen, as much of a fashion accessory as it was a weapon. Since it was the easiest sword to carry around it was frequently used as a self-defense weapon, and many fencing systems were centered around that. It was also considered the standard dueling weapon of the era, though with time it would be replaced by the pistol in that regard.
- The training weapon for the smallsword was the foil, with a very flexible blade for reasons of safety. It is from this sword that the modern practice of sport fencing was developed.
- A variant of the smallsword was the colichemarde, which had a characteristic blade with a very broad base that abruptly tapered into a very narrow profile. The purpose of this was to give it more mass at its forte to allow it to control an opposing blade more easily.
- One other thing to note is that although the smallsword proper was mainly an upperclass civilian or officer's weapon, a few militaries such as the French infantry around the early 1700s issued their troops swords that were very similar in appearance. So if you see common soldiers with what look like smallswords in a period piece, it's not necessarily incorrect.
- Most sword historians nowadays use "broadsword" in a fairly specific way, referring to a sword produced after the Middle Ages with a wide blade like an arming sword but usually a more complex hilt. Backswords, used in the same period, were very similar in profile but had single-edged blades with a triangular ("backed") cross section; this gave the advantage that a backsword could be made with a more acute cutting edge for the same thickness. Note that not all museum catalogues and reference books regard backswords as a distinct category; they are often klept as broadswords which happen to be single-edged. Hilts ranged from relatively simple shells and side rings to the "crab claw" hilt with four downcurved quillons and a wide knuckle guard, to baskets that completely enclosed the hand, like the Slavo-Italian schiavona, and the "half-basket" or "mortuary" hilt of the 17th century which was very common during the English Civil War. Broadswords and backswords were initially used in combination with shields and bucklers, but later on just by themselves.
- One particular style of full basket hilt became widespread in Scotland and England during the 17th century. Usually the Scots constructed theirs from wide metal bars while the English made theirs with thinner bars and thus a more open appearance. Many British broadswords and backswords had imported blades, often from Germany or Italy, mounted with domestically-made hilts. The English mostly abandoned basket hilts around the middle of the 18th century, while the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising resulted in the British government establishing Highland regiments who were furnished with native sword patterns. As a result, the basket hilt, still worn by Scottish officers, is strongly associated with Scotland in particular. In English it's sometimes called a claymore, like the two-handed sword; confusion exists as to what it was called historically. The Highlanders were among the last people in Europe to use shields in combat; the combination of basket hilt and round wood-and-leather targe was a signature of clan chiefs and other elite fighters up through the '45.
- A related style is the pallasch, a long straight thrusting and cutting sword used by Eastern European heavy cavalry that was adopted in Western Europe in the 18th century. It was usually single-edged and had a full- or half-basket hilt, though simpler stirrup hilts were not unheard of. The 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword, used in fiction by Richard Sharpe, is a short, broad pallasch built for hacking, copied from an earlier Austrian pattern. Long pallasches with magnificent brass hilts were used by many of Napoleon's heavy cavalry.
- The spadroon is a weapon that attempts to combine the cutting capacity of the broadsword of its era with the convenience of the smallsword. In theory the concept of a broadsword or backsword blade on a smallsword hilt is not particularly bad, but in practice the spadroon was considered a spectacularly mediocre weapon. This was because most models tried to make the sword as light as possible, resulting in a blade too flexible to thrust properly and too narrow to cut to any significant effect. The British 1796 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword, for example, was described by a general of the time as "useless" and "a perfect encumbrance." Even so, the concept was still solid, and in the 19th century it evolved into many models of officers' sword. In this time, a narrow blade very similar to that of a short rapier was coupled with a very light and simple saber-like hilt. The French Model 1882 Infantry Officer's Sword is a perfect example. Some of the purely ceremonial military officers' swords of today derive from the spadroon; others are based on the saber.
- The European saber appeared during the 16th century in Eastern Europe. The Hungarian and Polish versions are the most well-known today, both owing a lot of their features to the scimitars introduced to those regions by the Ottoman Turks. The blades of these weapons were similarly identical to their Turkish predecessors, and the hilts were forerunners of the designs other Europeans would eventually adopt, with the iconic D-shaped knuckle bow appearing in the 17th century. Other likely predecessors were the curved swords of Magyars of the early Middle Ages, who would later become the Hungarians.
- During the 18th century Western Europe developed a sudden appreciation for the Eastern European model of light cavalry, particularly the Hungarian hussars. It was likely because of this that the curved saber was adopted as the universal light cavalry weapon. These new sabers had very varied designs, but they generally had a D-shaped hilt and a blade with varying degrees of curvature depending on the specific pattern. The heavy cavalry usually retained their straight swords, but in the British Empire all cavalry swords from 1821 until 1908 would be sabers of more-or-less the same blade design, with only the hilt changing from pattern to pattern.
- By the end of the 18th century many infantry officers, particularly those who were most likely to engage in hand-to-hand combat (grenadiers, light infantry and rifles), were unhappy with the conventional sword patterns. Officers bought their own equipment, but they were generally expected to buy a predetermined official pattern of sword. Many chose to instead carry cavalry sabers or custom swords based on cavalry sabers. By the beginning of the 19th century many armies had approved an official pattern of infantry officer's saber for these exact same reasons, either for all their officers or just those specific branches. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, both the saber and the new improved models of infantry officers' swords would be used by many different nations.
- In modern English, a cutlass usually means a sword used on ships, while a hanger is one used on land. This distinction evolved in the late 18th century; prior to then, the two words were used interchangeably. Cutlass derives via the French coutelas from Italian coltellaccio, "large knife." Cuttoe comes from the French couteau, which simply means "knife."
- The cutlass is usually described as a short saber. While this is more-or-less accurate for the most well-known cutlasses, it's a very narrow concept. The cutlass or hanger is simply a compact cut-and-thrust weapon designed for infantry and naval use. Some patterns were even used by 19th-century police officers. The hilt usually has some degree of hand protection, most commonly just a knuckle bow, but sometimes also a shell or bowl guard that covered more of the hand, and the blade is usually single-edged (though exceptions exist), can be either curved or straight, is proportionally rather broad, and rarely longer than 30 inches (76cm). It evolved from short swords like the falchion and dussack in the 17th century. The short sword lost much of its tactical value for land battles over the 18th and 19th centuries and was gradually phased out during this time, but at sea it remained in use even up to the early 20th century. Manuals describe its use as almost identical to that of the infantry saber, with the exception that the length of the cutlass makes attacking the legs impractical.
- The hunting sword, hunting hanger, or cuttoe is a variation carried by hunters both as a self-defense sidearm and to dispatch a wounded animal in lieu of reloading one's single-shot rifle. This sword was usually more ornate and sometimes had less hand protection than military cutlasses. Some 18th-century officers chose to carry their personal hunting swords in battle. This probably had to do with it being very similar to the standard infantry sword, but the hunting sword also served to reinforce the aristocratic image of the officers. Through the 19th century, German gentlemen's hunting clubs used a light, ornate dagger recognizably derived from the hunting sword as part of their uniforms.
- The sword was not only used in combat, but sometimes also in judicial executions. Nobles sentenced to death felt that even on an executioner's scaffold they deserved service befitting their class: besides being a more prestigious weapon which required more skill to use well, a sharp sword used by a specialist headsman was more likely to behead the condemned in one clean cut than the axe, which often required multiple blows to sever the neck. This could be done with a regular sword, as was often the case in The Late Middle Ages and in military atrocities, but by the Renaissance there was reason to developed a more specialized implement. The difference between an executioner's working environment and a battlefield is obvious: no stabbing was involved, reach was not an issue, and there was much greater emphasis on carefully aiming your blows. An executioner's sword would often have a blade as short as an arming sword, but still with a two-handed grip, and forward-balanced. The blade was broad and thin for ease of cutting, with a rounded, non-fuctioning point. These changes ensured that an executioner had a proper tool to lop the head, or occasionally limbs, off of a static target in one blow. Unlike beheading with the ax, for which the condemned placed their neck on a chopping block and recieved a vertical blow, the custom for beheading by the sword was to have the condemned kneel—straight-backed and blindfolded—facing away from the executioner, who would decapitate them with a single horizontal blow.
The curved blades that have been used in the Middle Eastern region, from Turkey to India, are usually referred to in English as "scimitars." As many different cultures used them, they came in a variety of forms. The blade can be single or double-edged, narrow or wide, even the shape of the curve varies. They usually have a short hilt, two quillons and an offset pommel. Varieties include the Indian talwar described above, the Arabian saif, the Persian shamshir (from which the word "scimitar" may be derived), the Turkish kilij, the Somali belawa, the Moroccan nimcha, and the Afghan pulwar, among others. These swords, however, come from Central Asian influence via the Turks and especially the Mongols. Prior to their invasions, Middle-Eastern swords were mostly straight, double-edged, with wide crossguards and somewhat similar to European arming swords in profile. Swords of this description were the norm from the Parthian Empire through the time of Muhammad and the early Crusades. Certain Middle-Eastern swords gained particular acclaim amongst European crusaders, who knew them as Damascus steel blades, after the great blade markets of the city of Damascus in Syria. Like katana, Damascus swords acquired a myth of being impossibly sharp and nigh-unbreakable. They were made with high-carbon crucible steel from India, now commonly called wootz, a corruption of several South Indian words meaning "steel." Production of new wootz ended around 1700, a fact attributed to the depletion of the unique iron ores it was made from, and the exact technique was forgotten. It seems to have been made by melting iron with dry plant matter for carbon in a crucible, sealed against outside air; this allowed the smith to control the steel's carbon content. In addition to extra elements from the ores, wootz contains iron carbide grains, visible in rippled bands on a forged blade. These make Damascus blades look similar to pattern-welded ones, which have often been called "Damascus" as a result. Khopesh
- One of the earliest iterations of the sword was the Sumerian "sickle-sword." It is believed that such swords developed from war axes, in turn derived from agriculture tools. The swords were typically between 50-60cm, with a straight hilt and a straight length of blade until a sharp curve towards the end of the blade, sometimes ending in a pointed or hooked end. The sword was used by a number of nations, including Assyria, Canaan and Ancient Egypt. It was the last of them who would give the sickle-sword its name, khopesh or khepesh (meaning "leg," because of its crooked shape), and would get the most association with it, even getting some reference in the Rosetta Stone. What the sword was used for is something of a matter of debate, with theories ranging from slashing like a saber to disarming shield-equipped opponents. It fell out of use by around 1300 BCE, but saw plenty of reference in Egyptian mythology and ceremony for long afterwards and in popular culture is often given to Ancient Egyptian warriors, even long after they would have been phased out of active service.
- Aka acinaces, this is the Greek and Latin form of the name for a short sword/dagger from Central Asia that was spread to the Middle East by the Medes and Persians in the Classical period. It had a tapering, double-edged blade with a small guard and wide pommel, and its scabbard had a large tab at the top by which it was hung from the wearer's belt, usually at the right hip. This is the kind of sword that the Immortals would've used in real life. Because of its association with Persia, the word acinaces has sometimes been used as a Latin translation for "scimitar," thence curved swords in general; Jesuit priests even used it to refer to the katana.
- In the Eastern and Central Europe, the constant fighting with the Turks, Tatars and various other steppe peoples led to the straight swords being replaced by local incarnations of the "scimitar" of Middle-Eastern designs (though in an interesting twist, the Hungarians, being originally a nomadic steppe people, arrived in Europe wielding sabers only to adopt Western swords around the 10th-11th century). Since around the 16th century, the szabla/sablya/szablya (the name comes from a Hungarian word meaning "to cut") has become a standard side weapon in these parts of the world, receiving as much respect as swords did earlier, and even achieving the status of a national symbol in some places. There were many designs, differing by details such as the shape and curvature of the blade and the form of the guard and handle. A thumb-ring was a relatively unique development, giving the wielder greater control and allowing for more forceful strikes.
- The latest addition to the family was the 1934 Pattern Sabre, developed by the Polish military as late as, you guessed it, 1934. This fine weapon, benefitting from the most up-to-date achievements of 20th-century science and engineering, could be held as a pinnacle of sword-making if it wasn't, you know, obsolete from the beginning.
- The Turkish yatagan or yataghan is a curved sword with an edged concave side, rather than the convex side of the usual kilij scimitar, and looks somewhat like a slender kopis. It was meant for thrusting and chopping blows. Richard Burton — the 19th-century adventurer, not the 20th-century actor — declared it the best-designed sword ever in his important work The Book of the Sword.
- The word kilij, also transliterated kilic or, more properly, kılıç, is simply Turkish for "sword" but in English is applied to the distinct sabers used by Turks since the early Middle Ages. Like other Central Asian sabers, the kilij has a wide crossguard with langets (small projections running parallel to the blade and perpendicular to the quillons). It also features a yelman, a raised false edge near the point. The famous sword of Mehmed the Conqueror, who conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, is an early type with a slightly curved blade and canted hilt. By the 17th century the kilij became more curved, with a straight grip and large, bulbous pommel.
- In the late 18th century, a shorter, broader and even more curved kilij evolved called the pala. The exaggerated features of this sword may have influenced the Orientalist image of the "scimitar," though the result tends to look more like a highly flared falchion or dāo blade on a vaguely Middle-Eastern hilt than like anything actually used in Turkey.
- In the 19th century, Western military adventurism in the Middle East and North Africa resulted in officers adopting Ottoman sabers and the "mameluke sword," most often a late Ottoman-style hilt mounted on a Western-style cavalry blade. The British Army and United States Marine Corps still prescribe swords of this style for certain officers.
- The word shamshir, again, is just Persian for "sword" and is attested from pre-Islamic times, when Persian swords were straight-bladed. However, a popular folk etymology associates it with the city of Shamshir, which means "curved like a lion's claw." In modern English, the word now refers to a saber associated with late Medieval/early modern Iran, which is similar to a kilij but lacks a yelman and thus has a slender profile. Swords from elsewhere in Asia that mount blades of this profile with different hilts are often described by antiques dealers as "Turkish shamshir," "Indian shamshir," etc.
- The Arabic name for a curved sword. Arab sabers also come from Turco-Mongolian roots and broadly resemble the kilij and shamshir, but may be less curved, have broader "hatchet" points, shorter quillons, or curved or animal head-shaped pommels, among many other differences.
- Aka pulouar, an early modern saber from Afghanistan. The pulwar is related to the tulwar and shamshir, and may have a blade similar to one or the other. It's distinguished from them by having a hilt similar to the tulwar but with deeply downturned quillons and a teacup-shaped pommel.
- Aka qame, kina, kinzhal, qaddara and so forth. An early modern short sword or dagger with a broad, double-edged blade and long point. It may be straight or curved, but always has a full-profile tang with riveted grips and an integrated small guard and pommel. The kindjal originated in the Caucasus, and was used from Iran to the Ottoman Empire and the Don Cossacks straddling Russia and Ukraine. It is part of traditional Caucasian men's dress◊.
- The shashqua, shashqa, shashka, and so forth is a sword of Caucasian origin, later adopted by Cossacks, and even later, by Russian/early Soviet cavalry. It is like a scimitar or saber, only with a longer curved hilt and without any crossguard because it evolved from utility knives. The name itself is a corruption of Adyghe sash-kho, "long knife." It was typically worn with the blade facing up, much like the katana, with which it shares similar techniques.
While the iconic weapon the popular culture associates with sub-Saharan Africa is the spear (and its wielder a Masai dressed in red cloth or a Zulu wearing a leopard skin), there are a number of noteworthy swords from that area. Kaskara and Takouba
- The kaskara and takouba are swords used by, respectively, people from Sudan and Chad. They are surprisingly similar to the Western arming sword, which led to early European theories that they originated from a lost tribe of whites, maybe Crusaders or King Solomon's mines. It is nowadays generally thought that the designs are local, with possible influences from traded European or Arabian swords predating scimitars.
- The shotel is the traditional Ethiopian weapon. In shape, it is similar to some kind of a cross between a scimitar and a sickle. Unlike these weapons, the shotel is double-edged — instead of fancy fencing, the point of this weapon was to use its peculiar shape to bypass the enemy's shield.
- The ida is a weapon of the Yoruba people from what is now Nigeria and Benin. It exists in many forms (thus we may speak here of a whole family of blades), but the most commonly known ones resemble a large machete in shape. They were often poisoned.
- Similar to some forms of the ida, the simi or seme is used by the Masai and other East Africans. It has a short, straight and narrow double-edged blade that reaches its maximum width near the tip, which may be pointed or spatulate. It has neither guard nor pommel, or even significant shoulders, so it's typically a cutting weapon. Most famously carried as the backup weapon in Masai lion hunts.
Southeast Asian Swords
- The kris, usually the size of a dagger but sometimes the size of a sword, has a double-edged blade which flares asymmetrically at the base to form a sort of guard. It is native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines, where it is called the kalis. Kris made in the modern era usually have wavy-profiled blades (see "flamberge"), always with an odd number of curves, but straight blades were more common in earlier times. Kris blades have damascus-like patterns in the steel which come from forging them out of iron ore with some nickel content; the number of patterns to be appreciated is similar to Middle Eastern and Japanese Blades. The grip is curved like that of a pistol to make thrusting more convenient, and can be a minaiture work of art sculpted out of rare wood, precious metals, or ivory. The sheath has a long tube for the blade and a widened top to enclose the guard of the sword, a little bit like the scabbard of the Greek Xiphos. It has a huge amount of talismanic, religious, and cultural significance, and is featured on the flags of many provinces, states, and political parties.
- The parang and golok are cutting tools used by peoples throughout the Malay Archipelago, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They're both similar to the western machete, but are generally designed with a heavier blade than the machete, which is quite handy when dealing with dense, woody vegetation like what grows in Southeast Asia. The golok is generally shorter than the parang, the former having a blade up to 50 centimetres long, the latter being up to 90 centimetres long. Shapes vary, but generally look like a curved version of the machete, with the sharp edge on the outside of the curve. While they're both intended to be used as tools, there are countless recorded instances of them being used as weapons.
- Used by the Maguindanao and Maranao people of the Philippine island of Mindanao, the Kampilan is a large sword by Philippine standards, with a straight, single-edged pattern welded blade about 36 to 40 inches (90 to 100 cm) long. The blade is thick and narrow at the base but becomes progressively thinner and wider towards the tip, with a "broken backed" point like a seax, the back of which sometimes has a small spike or spur on it. It is basically a cutting weapon, and whether the small spike symbolizes something or has any functional purpose is a matter Shrouded in Myth. The hilt is made of hardwood, with a thick crossguard and a bifurcated pommel shaped like a creature's open mouth. Scabbards were usually two pieces of unardorned wood bound together with rattan fibers, and were treated as fairly disposable.
- The Barong is a short sword used by Moro groups in the Southern Philippines such as the Tausug, Yakan, and Sinama. The patterned blade is leaf-shaped and single-edged, only 8 to 22 inches (20 to 56 cm) long but thick enough to give it some heft for cutting. The handle of wood, ebony, or carabao horn widens towards the pommel, which is curved toward the edge of the blade. Scabbards are made of two boards wrapped in rattan.
- The Panabas is a large chopping sword from the Philippines: its name is a shortening of the word "pang-tabas", which means "chopping tool". 2-4 feet (60-120 cm) overall, with a hardwood handle that makes up over half the length of the sword, the blade is forward-curved, single edged, and wider at the tip. It is meant to chop like a meat cleaver, with thrusting as an afterthought at best, and while the tip can be pointed it is often blunt or square-shaped. Scabbards were rarely used, and when they were they consisted only of two pieces of wood that were taken apart to remove the sword.