Useful Notes / Swords
One thing they all can do: kill (and look badass).
"I like swords."
Fighter, 8-Bit Theater

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 and Kenjutsu pages.

Sword Design

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, as even a man fully clad in steel was susceptible 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 almost 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 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 the forging of swords with 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 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 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 , hand-and-a-halfnote  or one-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 grab your own sword halfway down the bladenote  for use against armor? 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 itemnote .

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.

Chinese swords

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 jiàn 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 jiàn will usually refer to anything with a narrow blade that ends in a point.

  • 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 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. 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 cruciform swords; indeed, in shape it much more resembles the European falchion. Dāo came in various shapes and sizes, with the most famous being the Liuye Dāo, or the Willow Leaf Saber. Most have a moderately curved broad blade, 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 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.

Hook swords
  • 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.

Butterfly swords
  • 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 Han 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.

Japanese swords

Because good iron ore was difficult to come by in ancient Japan, 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. The characteristic blade curvature is a byproduct 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 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 or of 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 sewn together with cord. This lightweight armor offered good protection against arrows but was less effective against swords. Most native Japanese weapons were designed for slashing attacks, a slash 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 slashing weapons rather than evolving into thrusting weapons as European swords had.

  • 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, single edged sword with blade-length no less than 60cm. Most Katana exhibit the distinctive long hilt, 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.

  • 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. During the feudal era it became fashionable for samurai to wear a pair of swords, one long and one short. Eventually this pair of swords 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 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 and the greater 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 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 the Chinese used against cavalry. The ōdachi features in the weapons training of the Kage-Ryu, one of the few Japanese sword schools that still teaches its use. Sasaki Kojiro was known to be very deadly with an ōdachi nicknamed the "drying pole," 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 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.

Indian Swords

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.

European Swords

For clarity: by Europe, we mean here the area of Western European civilization, from roughly around The High Middle Ages onward.

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. 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.

Arming Sword
  • 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 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. 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.
  • The messer and it's variants were mostly used in German-speaking lands in the 14th-16th centuries. A similar weapon known as the falchion was in use across Europe from the 11th-14th centuries. The fundamental difference between a messer and a falchion lies in the grip construction; falchions use a guard/grip/pommel arrangement, like a "real" sword, while messers use flat grip panels either side of a flat, broad tang, more like a common kitchen knife.

  • 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 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" is a more modern term (probably originating in the 19th century) term used for these types of weapons. The term "bastard sword" is sometimes also used for being 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 profile. This was a weapon specialized for armored combat, first appearing in the 15th century and becoming more common in the 16th century. 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.

Two-Handed 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 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. 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 and extension of the blade, and curving the bottom further upwards to form a knuckle guard. Alternatively, some models were complex basket hilt 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 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 broad 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.

  • The evolutionary link between the medieval arming sword and the renaissance rapier. They were virtually identical to an arming sword, but present more elaborate means of hand protection than a simple cross guard. 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. The earliest of these weapons appear around the end of the fourteenth 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 sixteenth century sideswords. They were characterized by their extremely long and stiff blades (often over 40 inches long) and their elaborate hilts. Early rapiers could be nearly indistinguishable from sideswords (many collectors categorize some swords simply as "rapier or sidesword") but in the late 16th and early 17th century 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 the more distinctive. Despite being primarily considered a civilian weapon, it 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 in 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. Even so, most of that weight is on the elaborate hand guards, which positions the point of balance very close to the hand.

  • 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 1 kg. Smallswords, on the other hand, are usually between 350 and 500 g. Its reduced size also made it so a person could wear it 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 carrying 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 seventeenth century, based both on the rapier and on some models of compact infantry swords. Its hilt was very simple in form, often just a knuckle bow and a pair of plates or rings, often made entirely of soft brass, but in some cases decorated to the extreme. The blades were usually just over 30 inches 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 which 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.

Spadroon/Officer's Sword
  • The spadroon is a weapon that attempts to combine the cutting capacity of the broadsword of it's 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 to flexible to thrust properly and too narrow to cut to any significant effect. The 1796 Pattern British Infantry Officer's Sword, for example, was often refereed to as "the perfect encumbrance". Even so, the concept was still solid, and in the nineteenth century it evolved into many excellent models of officer's swords. Only this time, a narrow blade very similar to that of a short rapier was coupled with a very light and simple sabre-like hilt. The French Model 1882 Infantry Officer's Sword is a perfect example.

  • The European sabre appeared during the 16h 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, but the hilts resembled the designs 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 came a sudden appreciation of the Eastern European model of light cavalry, particularly the Hungarian hussars. It was likely because of this that the curved sabre was adopted as the universal light cavalry weapon. These new sabres 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 the year 1821 onward would be sabres of more or less the same blade design, with only the hilt changing from pattern to pattern.
  • By the end of the eighteenth 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 sabres or custom swords based on cavalry sabres. By the beginning of the nineteenth century many armies had approved an official pattern of infantry officer's sabre for these exact same reason, either for all their officers or just those specific branches. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century both the sabre and the new improved models of infantry officer's swords would be used by many different nations.

Cutlass/Hanger/Hunting Sword
  • The cutlass is a sword usually described as a short sabre. 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 hilts usually have some degree of hand protection, most commonly just a knuckle bow, and the blades are single edged, either curved or straight, and no longer than 30 inches. The first cutlasses appeared in the second half of the 17th century and they remained in even up to the early 20th century. Manuals describe their use as almost identical to that of the infantry sabre, with the exception that the length of the cutlass makes attacking the legs very impractical.
  • The hunting sword is considered a variant of the cutlass, mainly used in a civilian hunting context. They were carried by hunters both as a self-defense sidearm and to dispatch a wounded animal. They were 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.

Executioner's Sword
  • 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 static target in one blow.

Viking swords

  • 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 — +VLFBERH+T — 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.

Greek 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 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.

Roman swords

  • 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. It gradually replaced the gladius as the infantry sword, starting from the 2nd century. The spatha 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.

Polish/Hungarian Sabre
  • 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, 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.

  • 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 blade facing up, much like the 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 matter 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.

African swords

  • 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.

Southeast Asian Swords

  • The kris was usually a dagger, but it had sword variants (also known as kalis). The kris has an asymmetrical blade with a wavelike pattern, which would widen wounds the sword inflicted.