One thing they all can do: kill (and look badass
Before the times of gunpowder and rifles, swords were an important weapon for professional soldiers such as knights, men-at-arms, mercenaries and state armies. The crafting of these weapons were of vital importance to any nation-state that wanted to maintain a standing army. While the concept of a sword is pretty ubiquitous, several different types of this common weapon were crafted with much of the difference based on regions. While swords have largely been replaced in modern armies by firearms and other weapons, the allure of the blade is still alive today. Just see Katanas Are Just Better
This is a Useful Notes
page to give some background info on that marvelous weapon of yesteryear, the sword. For thoughts on using
them, see our European Swordsmanship
There are two components a sword needs to have: a handle (the "hilt") and a blade. Many swords also have a "crossguard", which protects the hand of the wielder; the exact shape of the crossguard can vary wildly from weapon to weapon (contrast the C-shaped basket hilts on a backsword to the little oval "tsuba" on a katana). Finally, many swords have a "pommel", which is the metal knob on the end of the hilt. This pommel is often weighted for better balance; 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 tang often extends past
the length of the pommel and is then "peened" down and over, 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.) How thick the tang is and how it's peened 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.
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, there has been an evolution of sword design 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 a thrust; this was true even in the days of maillenote
and only grew worse as full plate armor was layered over it. Alternatively, one could also cause injury through armour using sheer blunt force trauma, and even a man fully clad in steel was not immune to being stunned by a steel mace swung directly at their helmeted head.
By the 15th century, full plate armour (made of hardened and spring-tempered steel plates) was commonplace in Western Europe; thus, impetus was placed on the development of weaponry that could defeat a man wearing such pieces of armour without sacrificing versatility. The poleaxe was one such weapon that demonstrates this focus, combining an axe head with both a spear point and a hammerhead on a long wooden shaft. Swords in particular had their points narrowed and their grips lengthened in order to accommodate the use of both hands for a more forceful swing or thrust. As these and other such weapons became more common, tactics that made better use of these weapons were developed and eventually became so effective as to render armour useless. This subsequently resulted in the decline of the knightly order, since such tactics favoured the use of massed troops instead of individually talented warriors.
Meanwhile, the Japanese, due to their poor mineral resources, continued to use armor made largely of soft iron plus non-metal components such as horn, 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 the forging of swords with thicker blades and deeper edges. Unlike Europe however, the peace established after the end of the Sengoku Jidai
resulted in a virtual halt to weapons development for the next two centuries.
As for the overall shape of the blade, this will generally differ depending on whether the sword will be used to cut, stab, or chop. Some designs manage to accommodate both cut and stab, though swords capable of performing all three functions are both 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 particular type of weapon is easily capable of both cutting and thrusting, though some designs tend to emphasize one 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 swords) and ending at Type XXII (early Renaissance broadswords). Although this shape of sword is most often associated with Europe, the ancient Japanese tsurugi and Chinese jian are of similar shape.
- Next are curved swords. These swords generally have a singular sharpened edge that curves toward the tip of the blade. Though some examples 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: any other type of sword tends to get stuck in its victims, which will likely result in it being yanked from your grip as you thunder by at 40 miles an hour. 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 the Middle East. The word "sabre" 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".
- A sword designed for chopping such as the Egyptian Khopesh, the Iberian Falcata, the Italian Falchion or the Kukris 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 will usually result in very nasty wounds that can easily dismember limbs, making such blades ideal for executions 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.
- 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. Given that these swords were generally meant for use in a civilian context, they're still plenty capable of inflicting vicious cutting wounds. The sport of Olympic fencing descends from these weapons.
There are also a number of now-overlooked sub-techniques to go with swordsmanship: do you have a two-hand sword or would you like something in your off-hand (sword sizes can be roughly split into 2-handednote
)? What would you like? A dagger or main gauche, for counter-attacks? A buckler, for parrying? A large wooden shield, which might trap your opponent's blade? How about half-swording — which is when you deliberately
grab your own sword halfway down the bladenote
for use in close quarters? Traditional Dual Wielding
, with two swords of similar make, was an extremely unorthodox technique both in the East and West, and today is mostly excused by Rule of Cool
. If you're on horseback, you'll probably opt to simply hold your sword out on one side and drag it along the ground while you gallop, or to simply hack and slash from the superior vantage point provided by your mount.
There were always a vast majority of other weapons you could lay your hands on, like polearms (increased reach) or maces, hammers and morningstars (more crushing power). In fact, it's fairly likely that most people on battlefields used implements other than swords: a sword is a weapon, meant to injure people, with no other function; it would have been something of a luxury item. On the other hand, pitchforks, spades, tridents, axes, knives, etc have non-combat uses and thus would be more familiar to the majority of combatants on the battlefield (who were peasants and serfs, conscripted by their knights on the totally fair
grounds of "Hey, you there, now you're a soldier," or were part of a militia). But this article is about swords and not
about those other weapons, so we're going to ignore all this and just get on with it.
Folding the blade
One particularly famous technique in sword making is that of "folding the blade". Folding iron is a very common forging technique used in making many swords around the world, but has for some reason become mainly associated with Japan. Contrary to popular belief, folding a sword does not aid its cutting or edge holding properties at all; it merely ensures an even distribution of carbon within the steel (while some other alloying elements will remain layered). The simultaneous smithing also drives any residues of slag off the steel. The folding should not be made too many times, as it will reduce the carbon contents of the steel, making it softer and more malleable. The Japanese swordsmiths consider ten foldings (1024 layers) as the absolute maximum.
Swords have had a long history in China. The two most basic flavors are jiān
, but others exist as well. Note that people (including the Chinese) would refer jiān as the 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; a jiān will usually refer to anything with a narrow blade that ends in a point.
- The jiān is a double-edged straight sword that has been in use for around 2,500 years without significant changes in form or function. Jiān were originally made from bronze; there are some (probably ceremonial) specimens which are carved from a single solid piece of jade. Later examples were made 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 jiān 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 Jiān). The jiān is considered a "Gentleman's weapon" 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. In popularity, it is comparable to the katana, especially in mainland China, and many households buy a replica for display.
- Sometimes called a "Chinese broadsword" because the blade happens to be broad, though its curved blade has nothing to do with European cruciform swords. Dāo came in various shapes and sizes, with the most famous being the Liuye Dāo, or the Willow Leaf Saber. Most have a broad blade that is moderately curved, with a single cutting edge and 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 jiān, 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 jiān, and was traditionally used by both cavalry and infantry alike.
- A truly unique weapon, hook swords have 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.
- Not to be confused with the balisong, which is often called a "butterfly knife". Also known as "bull's ear swords", they are popular weapons 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.
- One of the many varieties of dao, 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, many Chinese soldiers were armed with dadāo, using it to great effect against the Japanese in close combat.
- 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 the characters are written the same. 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.
Because good iron ore was difficult to come by in ancient Japan, Japanese master swordsmiths had to remove impurities from the iron by "folding of the blade". Folding iron is a common forging technique not unique to Japan, but Japanese blades were folded many more times than many 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 the technique called "leaching" in order to remove impurities from steel: the steel blank was left to "marinate" in the acidic water (mainly in bogs and rice paddies) for months or even years. This would eventually cause the impurities to gradually 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 essentially welded together by the swordsmith. The difference was compounded by the heat-treating process, in which layers of clay were applied in different thicknesses to the sword parts to achieve the desired levels of hardness. The combination of a hard (martensite) edge and a soft (pearlite) core created a sharp, durable cutting weapon, however the edge was somewhat brittle and more damage-prone than a comparable homogenous sword. Characteristic "sori"
or blade curvature of the Japanese swords is also the product of this differential tempering. 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 tempering. Wrong clay application could very easily lead to the sword bending sideways
, which required reforging.
The vast majority of Japanese infantrymen in the feudal era 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 or a nobleman's retainers and bodyguards, the samurai. And then there was the naginata, a shashing 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, similar to the other halberds, required a relatively large open space around its wielder.
- Despite poleams having been the standard infantry weapon in Japan, the most famous Japanese weapon is by far the katana. While the word "katana" in Japanese refers to any single-edged sword with blade curvature (or "sori"), many sword lovers use the term to define the moderately curved, single edged sword of length no less than 60cm. The katana is largely associated with samurai, though throughout most of samurai history, it was only one of their three primary weapons, along with the spear and the bow. It wasn't until the 17th century that the katana became so synonymous with the samurai.
- The Japanese short sword, single-edged and normally curved like the katana, usually with a blade 40 to 50cm long. These were often used where a katana would be unwieldy, such as indoors or in close-quarters combat. For a time late in the feudal era it was fashionable for samurai to wear a pair of swords, one long and one short, and some martial arts schools taught use of two swords simultaneously, one in each hand.
- 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 as it was easier to draw and use while on horseback. Its primary use was to slash downwards at foot soldiers.
- A 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 curving was added. Straight and double-edged, they were basically carbon copies of the Chinese Jian. The semi-mythical Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi was depicted as one of these.
- Intermediary between the tsurugi and the tachi, chokuto were single-edged swords with no curvature, and were primarily used on foot for slashing and stabbing.
- The ōdachi, also called the nōdachi, 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 was infrequently used due to the difficulty of forging the blade, the greater strength required to wield it, and due to weapons like the Naginata and the Nagamaki doing the weapon's basic job better. An even larger version called the Zanbato also exists, but the creation of such is more a test of a swordsmith's art than a proper weapon of war, and may have gotten its name from the Chinese zhanmadāo, which was used for much the same purpose as the ōdachi. The ōdachi features in the weapons training of the Kage-Ryu, one of the few Japanese sword schools that still teaches its use, and one was wielded by Sasaki Kojiro, who was very deadly with the weapon and is remembered for having fought Miyamoto Musashi. Sometimes referred to as a "daikatana" in foreign texts.
- Mass-produced officers' blades used from 1934 to the end of WWII. Previously the Japanese military utilized the kyu-guntō, which resembled a Western cavalry saber. However, nationalists demanded that a more "native" sword be carried, 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 personal swords of the samurai-class officers sometimes had blades that were family heirlooms. Unlike traditionally-made Japanese swords, shin-guntō with the mass-produced blades 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.
The Indian subcontinent has a history of iron working that goes as far back as 1800 B.C. It was also the place where wootz steel —a type of medieval steel alloy prized for its hardness and banded patterns— was manufactured, starting in 300 B.C. 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 continents 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.
- 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 opponents 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 and handguard grafted directly onto a gauntlet, completely enclosing the hand. 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 design offers very good protection and makes it very difficult to disarm the wielder, the lack of flexibility 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 slightly broader near the tip than the base. There is also a spike attached to the pommel, 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 sabre with a broad double-edged blade ending in a rounded or bluntly-pointed tip. 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.
For clarity: by Europe, we mean here the area of Western European civilization, from roughly around The High Middle Ages
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 5-6 lbs, while an arming sword comes in at around 2.5 lbs, which is similar to that of a katana and wakizashi respectively. 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 a retcon
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 basket-hilted straight-bladed weapon popular amongst the Scots (and later, the English) in the 16th Century. 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.
- 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. The short sword as described by George Silver in his treatise "Paradoxes of Defence" in 1599 is similar, but with an early form of basket hilt. Though called a shortsword, their median blade length was actually 30-to-32 inches. Silver specifically states that a shortsword should be just short enough to pass behind a dagger that is held in the outstretched off-hand.
- The messer is not so much a single weapon, but generally a family of similar-looking slightly curved, single-edged blades, with a pointy tip fit for thrusts; in differing incarnations one- or two-handed. The German names include varieties of "Messer", meaning simply "knife": Grosses Messer, Langes Messer, also Kriegsmesser. The difference between them is somewhat arbitrary, though one may opt to differentiate between the one-handed and two-handed version. A name one can encounter, that doesn't follow this pattern, is Dussack (somewhat more likely to refer to a training weapon). As evidenced by its name, the messer was a simple weapon in origin, less "knightly" than a sword, but simpler in making — which is perhaps best evidenced in that it originally had a guard consisting of a nail sticking out of the handle. When the arming sword grew into the longsword, varieties of the messer filled the ecological niche of a weapon of this size, as well as keeping that of a commoner's one. 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.
- Somewhere around late 12th or 13th Century, improvements in forging allowed lengthened blades, allowing the arming sword to evolve into the classic 'longsword' - with a blade between 100-120cm, and an extended hilt allowing it to be used in either one or both hands. The English longsword was described as having the same blade length as the short sword (with the only difference in the length of the 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 so that the shield was unnecessary for survival, this type of sword became commonplace. Notably, most of medieval and renaissance swordsmanship manuals that survive - and by extrapolation, most of the manuals that were written - are centered upon this type of sword. The term "hand-and-a-half sword" used to be used for these types of weapons, as was "bastard sword" for being neither a one-hand or a two-hand sword, but nowadays "longsword" is being 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.
- 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 1.5kg to 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 disrupt and break apart tightly-packed pike formations. 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, and given double pay. Originals that survive tend to have been ceremonial or judicial weapons. However, while they sound very heavy and unwieldy they are surprisingly agile weapons due to the length of the hilt. Surviving Scots claymore have hilts typically about 50-60 cm 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 above the crossguard that was used to provide more precise control of the weapon while striking (some claymores even had the ricasso wrapped in leather to make it easier to grip), though 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.
- Most European two-handed swords were straight-bladed, double-edged weapons, possibly with or without a stabbing point, but there was also a curved, single-edged European two-handed sword briefly popular in the 14th Century, a heavy slashing and chopping weapon gross messer, "great knife", derived from earlier one-handed "falchions". There was also a peculiar type of the swords with a undulated, wavy blade. They were most popular in the modern Austria and Northern Italy, where they became known as flambard, flammard or Flammenschwert (now the term 'flamberg' is most common). They were usually ceremonial swords, but some were definitely meant for and used in actual combat.
- An unusual type of the short Italian sword or large dagger common during the wars of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. 12-15 inches (30-40 cm) long with the very wide base often said to be the width of the five fingers, which explains its name of "God's Five" it was used mainly for thrusting, and was characterized by the heavy blade and elaborate pattern of fullers cut into it to lighten it. 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.
- These slender thrusting weapons, the first to break out of the "broadsword" family and the first to be outside Oakeshott's typology, appeared in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The older, heavier cutting swords had begun falling from favor for civilian use because of the whims of fashion, and carefully-aimed thrusts became the order of the day. Hence, the rapier: a slender, maneuverable weapon which gave rise to the entire family of "fencing" weapons. Some didn't even have sharp edges; that style of sword was called the estoc. Many rapiers had very ornate handguards in which the crossguards curved around to protect the hand and fingers. These later evolved into bell-shaped or D-shaped guards that protected the hand and knuckles, on later forms of the sword. Rapiers grew longer and longer (for better reach) until changes in fencing techniques favored the quicker parry from a much shorter, lighter design: the smallsword.
Spadroon and Epee du Soldat
- These swords were descendant from the rapier. As the 16th and 17th century went on, the Rapier became increasingly longer and heavier in the blade. This lent itself to a style of fencing that relied on "single time" actions, where attack and defense were simultaneous. With a blade of this form, it became increasingly dangerous. In mid 17th century France, the trend began to reverse and swords became shorter and lighter. This short, light sword was easier to wear and in theory held an advantage over the rapier because it could more easily be used to fence in double time - parry and riposte. Additionally, the sword's compact nature - the hilt becoming increasingly stripped down - allowed it to be more easily carried in day-to-day civilian life. The smallsword became associated with the gentry, and schools of swordsmanship focused on the weapon became associated with elegance and grace. The weapon itself was frequently decorated when worn my wealthy gentlemen of the time, and became a weapon for the battlefield, the street, and the field of honor.
- Several different schools of swordsmanship arose around it. Most famously, the French school or "common method", was widely studied. This was the root of the modern foil sport and the earlier "epee du combat" (which itself gave birth to modern epee fencing). Contrasted to this school is the method put forward by Sir William Hope, a Scottish fencing master who spent many years teaching the French method before devising his own, more combative approach.
- Smallswordsmanship remained a military skill through the 19th century, though the weapon itself faded from the battlefield as the sabre and spadroon were adopted as more functional military weapons.
Saber/Sabre and Cutlass
- The spadroon is a weapon that attempts to combine the cutting capacity of the broadsword of it's era with the thrusting and fencing capacity of the smallsword. It has acquired the reputation of being very bad at both, as the general design (typified in England as the Pattern 1796 Infantry Officer's Sword) gave you a blade too flexible to thrust (to better survive impact) and too light and misweighted to cut (to facilitate lightness and "fencibility"). While some period soldiers spoke very poorly of the weapon, the general style did remain in service in various forms for many decades before the sabre finally took over.
- Two basic forms of the spadroon exist. One looks much like a smallsword, with the shell guard and knucklebow, except having a broader blade. The other, often called a "Five ball", has a hilt that looks more like sabres, with a small quillion and a D-guard - a knucklebow. It generally has the same broad-ish blade of the other spadroon. The latter was heavily associated with the English, and especially the English Navy.
- Related and concurrent with the Spadroon was the French "Epee du Soldat". It was similar to the spadroon in that it was a cut-and-thrust type sword married to a smallsword-like hilt. Unlike the spadroon, however, it tended to be double edged on the entire blade.
- These were the final forms of the European sword in military service. First appearing (in the form we mean here) in Hungary in the 17th Century, they were universal in Europe's armies and navies by the mid 18th Century and remained in service until World War I; they still exist as ceremonial weapons. Obviously strongly influenced by the Indian Talwar (see Indian section above) and the Arabian scimitar (see Middle Eastern Section below), as well as by the Cossack shashqa, these are single-edged, curved weapons frequently featuring basket hilts or D-shaped or bell-shaped handguards intended to protect more of the hand and fingers, much heavier than the rapier and in some instances about as heavy as a medieval arming sword or longsword. The saber became associated with cavalry. The cutlass is associated with the navy and is typically a bit shorter to make it more maneuverable in the narrow passageways onboard ship.
- In the late 18th and early 19th century, infantry units - particularly "flank" units such as rifles and skirmishers - began to adopt the sabre as a sidearm. Initially armed with the spadroon, the weapons lackluster performance in combat lead to these unofficial adoptions to increase a units hand-to-hand performance. These began as adopted cavalry weapons, but quickly took on features unique to the infantry - shorter, lighter blades with a point of balance further back for increased speed and maneuverability on foot. This soon began a tradition of sabres being issued to foot units, which lasted into the 20th century. Remnants of this can be seen today in many modern militaries, including the United States, France and Great Britain.
- During the Napoleonic Wars era, the French army issued a short sabre to their line infantry forces called a briquet. This weapon featured a simple, solid cast brass hilt with minimal hand protection and a short, curved blade. It was, like the English spadroon, poorly received by the troops but had the additional disadvantage of not retaining any symbolic appeal. It was frequently "lost" and often served only as a cleaver for firewood preparation and other mundane camp tasks. The troops instead chose to rely on their longer bayonetted muskets.
- In the 19th century, the French and American armies issued short, gladius-like swords to artillery crews. Primarily intended as a fanciful machete that channeled the era's love of Neoclassicism, it could also serve as a last ditch defensive tool if the guns were charged.
- Let us now point out that a sword could also be used to hurt people outside of combat, especially as the nobility often believed that even on an executioner's block they deserved service befitting their class. 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. It stands to reason, then, that many of them used weapons specially prepared for the task. An executioner's sword would often be as short as an arming sword, but still with a two-handed grip, and forward-balanced. No stabbing meant a rounded tip. These changes ensured that an executioner had a proper tool to lop the head, or occasionally limbs, off of an unmoving target in one blow.
- Viking swords were commonly 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. The term refers strictly to the smithing tradition. Actual Vikings used quite a lot of different weapons from around Europe.
- Swords dated to the 4th to 7th centuries AD, referred to as Migration Era swords, originated when Germanic tribes appropriated the Roman spatha, discussed below. After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes began to produce their own versions of the spatha, which transitioned into the Viking 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 swords were the "Ulfberht" swords, which were a typical Viking blade but forged out of much, much higher-quality "Damascus steel", enabling it 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 even were mass-produced rip-offs, down to incorrectly imitated or misspelled inscriptions.
- Among the most common Viking swords was the seax, less commonly called a scramasax or hardsax, a straight-bladed, slightly tapering implement falling somewhere in between large knife and short sword, with a blade anywhere from 12" to 20" (30 to 50 centimeters) long, sometimes single-edged, 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.
- 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 first type, 'makhaira', was a curved, one-bladed weapon not unlike an oversized Gurkha kukri. The 'kopis' was somewhat of 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 appear to have called a short sword with this kind of recurved blade a 'falcata.' Alexander's armies went as far east as India, and it is considered quite 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 second type, the 'xiphos', was a double-edged weapon with a leaf-shaped blade. Longer than makhaira, it was some 50-60 centimeters long. The xiphos tends to be more commonly depicted in Greek art. Incidentally, thanks to the rather broad blade, it may be the sword to which the name "broadsword" is actually somewhat appropriate.
- The Roman gladius (again, a copy of Iberian designs) was typically manufactured of wrought iron rather than steel. It was a very distinctive-looking straight-bladed double-edged short sword with a blade 16" to 20" (40 to 50 cm) with a small oval guard and broad flared pommel, often with a large rounded wooden or brass weight on the pommel for balance. 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', a long-bladed sword used by Roman cavalry, eventually evolved into the Viking weapons mentioned earlier, and is thus the grandfather of European arming swords.
Middle Eastern blades
The curved blades that have been used in the Middle Eastern region, from Turkey to India, are usually categorized as "scimitars," though the term was invented by historians. As many different cultures used them, they came in a variety of forms. The blade can be single or double-edged, narrow and wide, even the shape of the curve varies. They usually have a short hilt and two short guards and a buckled pommel. Varieties include the Indian Talwar, the Arabian saif, the Persian shamshir, the Turkish kilij, the Somali belawa, the Moroccan nimcha, and the Afghan pulwar among more.
Pattern-welded swords of various designs gained particular acclaim amongst European crusaders, who knew them as Damascus Steel
blades. They were made with high-carbon crucible steel of Indian origin, now commonly called "wootz," a corruption of several South Indian words meaning "steel". The original method of their creation was lost sometime in the 17th century, a fact attributed to the depletion of unique ores of iron used in its production.
- 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 the Middle-Eastern designs (though in an interesting twist, the Hungarians, being originally a nomadic steppe people, arrived in Europe wielding sabres to adopt the Western sword around the 10th-11th Century). Since around 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, allowing the wielder to enhance the force of a strike.
- 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 XXth Century science and engineering, could be held as a pinnacle of sword-making if it wasn't, you know, obsolete from the beginning.
- A Turkish yatagan is a curved sword with an edged concave side, rather than the convex side of the usual kilij scimitar. 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".
- A shashqa 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 sword facing up, much like a katana, with which it shares similar techniques.
- 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 50-60 cm, 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, the khopesh 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 mater of debate, with theories ranging from a saber-like weapon to a weapon used for disarming shield-equipped opponents. It fell out of use by around 1,300 BC, 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.
- 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 has been a number of swords from that area.
- 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.