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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 was 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.
There are two components a sword needs to have: a handle (hilt) and a blade. Many swords also have a guard, which protects the hand of the wielder; the exact shape of the guard can vary wildly from weapon to weapon. European, African, Arabian, and Persian swords are known for simple crossguards. 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 seldom 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.
Swords come in a few different main types. Some theories are: 1 handed vs 2 handed. Acompanied vs alone. Armored vs unarmored. Main vs sidearm. Cut vs hybrid vs thrust. The single most common broad category is the 1 handed cut and thrust sword with a simple guard meant to be used ideally with a shield.
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 at the gaps or unexposed parts; this was true even in the days of maille 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 with the guard or pommel, and even a man fully clad in steel was not immune to being stunned by a steel mace being swung directly at their helmeted head.
By the 15th century, full plate armour made of hardened and spring-tempered steel plates was becoming in Western Europe, spurred by the proliferation of affordable firearms that were pretty much a fuckyou gamebreaker to the gambesons and mail of the past, 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, the narrowing being a long trend since almost the start of the Middle Ages, and the jump to 2 handed being because the availability of comprehensiv armor became such that the shield became increasingly disused in favor of a free hand to weird a sword or grapple an armored enemy into position to be killed. Even though massed, more powerful firearms ultimately made bulletproof armor economically unfeasible, the sword stayed in frontline military use clean into the 20'th century, with swords last being issued broadly scale Japan and China in WW2.
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. Most swords can cut and thrust to varying degrees -- being either straight or slightly curved with the ability to give both is most common. There are some exceptions, fully dedicated thrusters or cutters. There are three 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).
- Next are curved swords. 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. The lack of a point makes it less likely to break your sword or lose it in a body following a thrust. They're also easier to unsheathe while horseback, since the drawing motion more closely follows the movement of your elbow. Most curved words do both cut and thrust, with the curve not being particularly important. Most sabers and saifs and even Japanese swords fall into this category. It takes very curved swords, such as the talwar and shamshir before they become true cutting only weapons.
- Finally, there are swords that specialize in thrusting. 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, 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. The rapier is not quite one of these, as all rapier masters did talk about using cuts and keeping sharp edges, even if rapier cuts were seldom incapacitating. The smallsword and estoc are the only two blue thrusting only swords out there. The smallsword evolved from the rapier getting smaller and smaller and losing the mass and edge needed to cut. The estoc was an evolution of the longsword designed to wrestle with and pierce gaps in armor, though some cavalry had 1-handed estocs into the 19th century, and some early 20'th century "sabres" were essentially smaller estocs. Both of these completely did away with the cutting edge to focus exclusively on the point, becoming essentially spears you kept in scabbards.
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? 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 blade 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. And 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 ensurs an even distribution of carbon within the steel (while some other alloying elements will remain layered). In sword circles, this is called pattern welding. This is what people did before they had large quantities of pure crucible steel to work with. Pattern welding does have some cool-looking results, however, so it's made a comeback in custom swords.
Swords have had a long history in China. The two most basic flavors are jian and dao, but others exist as well. Note that people (including the chinese) would refer jian as the sword and the dao as a knife, although they still could be switch around.
- The jian is a double-edged straight sword used during the last 2,500 years in China. Before steel was available, jian were originally made from bronze; there are some (probably ceremonial) specimens which are carved from a single solid piece of jade. The construction of the sword is done by sandwiching plates of steel that leaves the sword with remarkable flexibility. Many jian 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 Jian). The Jian 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 to display like one would a painting.
- Dao is a common term for "knife," but here it means a single-edge blade designed for cutting and slashing. It's sometimes called a "Chinese broadsword" because the blade happens to be broad, but it's a curved cutting weapon and so has nothing to do with cruciform swords. You may notice that sometimes these are used in a way you probably wouldn't think. You can notice that sometimes, these are actually used to attack not only by slashing but also sort of dragging it along. Dao came in various shapes and sizes, with the most famous being the Willow Leaf Saber. Zuko dual-wields these in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Michelle Yeoh is holding one on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film poster.
- 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, and maybe even only 100 (The Other Wiki is unspecific). Long story short, these might be unique to sporting kung fu, as opposed to actual weapons used for actual bloodletting.
- One of the many varieties of dao, the Dadao, 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.
- Not to be confused with the balisong, which is often called a "Butterfly Knife," butterfly swords, also known as "bull's ear swords," are popular weapons in southern kung fu styles, such as Wing Chun kung fu. Usually dual-wielded, they consist of short dao blades roughly the size of the wielder's forearm, allowing for speed, maneuverability and concealment.
- 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 zanbato 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 Dao and Wo Dao from the Ming era, and the Miao Dao from the Republican era.
Because pure iron 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. Japanese smiths also used the technique of removing impurities from the steel by leaching: the steel blank was left to "marinate" in the acidic water (mainly in bogs and rice paddies) for months ad even years, with the impurities being dissolved and leached out from the billet, which was later reforged with multiple foldings, forcing the developed oxide and impurities out, with the remains being arranged in the thin bands that improved the blade properties.
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. Pre-Heian Japanese swords were also straight, but were more like iron age than steel swords.
The vast majority of Japanese infantrymen in the feudal era were either archers or spearmen, or during the 2 centuries of Samurai wars, gunmen. The yari (Japanese bamboo-hafted 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, or glaive, a light slashing battle-axe-ish weapon 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 spears 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. 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, or even a sword, usually a wakizashi partnered with a tanto or a parrying stick.
- 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. It evolved from the Heian cavalry swords. Primarily a cavalry weapon, as it was easier to draw and use while on horseback, and 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.
- The O-Dachi is a two-handed sword even larger than the Katana, and was used both ceremonially and as a devastating weapon from horseback.
- Another big two-handed sword whose name is often used interchangeably with O-Dachi, but is not the same thing, the No-Dachi was 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 zhanmadao, which was used for much the same purpose as the No-Dachi. The No-Dachi features in the weapons training of the Kage-Ryu, one of the few Japanese sword schools that still teaches its use, and was wielded by Sasaki Kojiro, who was very deadly with the weapon and is remembered for having fought Miyamoto Musashi.
- Mass-produced officers' blades used from 1934 to the end of WWII. Previously the Japanese military utilized the kyu gunto, 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 Gunto 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 was said to be made out of used rails, however personal swords of the samurai-class officers sometimes had the family heirloom blades.
- "Wrapped handle". It was a huge weapon almost like a greatsword. It was essentially a 3 foot tachi blade mounted on a huge 3 foot handle. It was mostly used by skirmishers or elite bodyguards (just like greatswords in Europe, though both evolved totally independently) who would both need to work in loose formation, have some standoff distance against cavalry, and also be able to deny advancement to assailants or assassins by swinging these huge sword staff hybrids in patterns that could block an entire hall.
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 the material-intensive sword in abundance. Contrary to popular belief, however, European swords weren't 30 lb. hunks of steel. A greatsword actually weighs around 5-6 lbs, and is considered a huge weapon. An arming sword around 2.5 lbs. A longsword is about at most 4 pounds. Medieval European sword blades typically have significant amounts of taper in the distal and/or profile planes (by which we mean, they are thinner at the point than the root, in both width and thickness); their mass distribution and blade profile is generally a good indicator of what the smith intended it to do.
Note that many sources miscategorize most European swords under the name "broadswords." This is a Retcon and will get you Gannon Banned if you use it amongst true enthusiasts. The term "broadsword" is actually a given name referring to a specific type sword, just like "rapier" or "falchion" is; the sword in particular is a basket-hilted straight-bladed weapon popular amongst Britons in the 16th Century (and amongst kids in the modern era, in foam instead of steel). The name was appropriated by historians of the 19th and 20th centuries who needed to differentiate between medieval cutting swords, which at that time had no generic term, and only really had either narrow military sabers or the even more fine blades of sport fencing swords. Because those swords had narrow blades by comparison and medieval weapons have "broad" cutting blades, historians simply slapped "broadsword" onto the category as a label.
- 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. As a result, many fencing manuals teach the use of it, on its own or with a buckler. There is the misconception that the messer came about because commoners could not own swords, defined as double-edgedimplements with a pommel. Give it one edge and turn the pommel into a hooked cap and whamo, das ist kein Schwerd, Herr, nur ein Messer! There is no historical evidence for that and any officially looking at it would say bullshit it's obviously a sword. The prevailing theory is that knife and sword guilds worked together to create a new product that made both of them richer while catering to a previously untapped market. The swordmakers made the blades and the knifemakers handled the handles. And by exploiting the greater numbers of workers involved, as well as revenues from their other products, they could offer them at a discount via economics of scale and loss leaders. The result was made economically, called a knife, and sold to peasants and other people who wanted a personal weapon more substantial than a dagger but couldn't afford a sword.
- 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, but it didn't really proliferate broadly until full plate began appearing in the 1400's due to the swords being too big to easily use with one hand taken up by a shield. 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.
- 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, 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". China and Japan actually had full sized curved greatswords, such as the zhaomandao (horse cutting sword) designed to fight cavalry.
- 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 16th century. The older, heavier hybrid cut and thrust swords had begun falling from favor for civilian use because civilian fights didn't involve armor, but did take place in tight confines not concusive to cute, 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. The rapier can cut, however, but the ability to cut was to apply ancilary damage, such as inflicting pain, severing tendons, or other such attacks to make it easier and safer to go for a killing thrust. 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 knuckle.
Saber and Cutlass
- These were the final forms of the European sword in military service. First appearing 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 Arabian saif and Indian talwar (see Middle Eastern Section below), as well as by the Cossack shashqa, these are single-edged, usually curved weapons frequently featuring basket hilts or D-shaped or bell-shaped handguards intended to protect more of the hand and fingers. Curvature and shape followed fashion and evolving tactical needs, starting out moderately curvy, becoming very curvy late in the 18th century, before gradually losing the curve over the course of the 19th century The saber was used on horse and foot, and the very similar cutlass (the cutlass is typically a bit shorter, to make it more maneuverable in the narrow passageways on board ship) became associated with naval service.
- The "Swerd". 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. Note that viking wasn't a people but an activity or occupation. Viking means raid/raider, the people were generally called Norse, but they called themselves Danes, Swedes, Nortwegers, Varangians, Ruriki, and so on.
- Viking swords refer to the actual smithing tradition, and should not be confused with "the swords the vikings used". There was a significant amount of weapons from Europe flowing into the Nordic regions in the form of trade goods and plunder.
- 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.
- From the 10th century on, these swords began to evolve into the "broadswords" 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 the Great'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 third type is an even older sword tradition dating back to the very beginning of bronze. Bronze, having originally been very expensive, went into daggers normally used for thrusting, and those upsized became short yet effective thrusting swords.
- The Roman gladius was the first military steel sword. 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 gladius could cut and thrust, but the thrust was emphasized more unless an opponent was very hard to bait into exposing, or the block of infantry found itself broken open. The 'spatha', a long-bladed cavalry sword used by Roman cavalry, eventually evolved into the Viking weapons mentioned earlier, and is thus the grandfather of European "broadswords".
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 Victory 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. About the only uniting feature is that none of them are dedicated thrusters. Varieties include the Indian talwar, the Arabian saif, the Persian shamshir, the Turkish kilij, the Somali belawa, the Tuareg takouba, the Sudanese kaskara the Moroccan nimcha, and the Afghan pulwar among more.
- Saif: Initially straight with a simple crossguard. Over time, these became moderately curved and got a more s-shaped guard. The curve started appearing in the 1300's; sword of the height of the crusades were straight. Surviving earlier swords, including some which belong to the Prophet Mohammed, look nothing like the idea of a scimitar -- that image comes from kilij, shamshir, and talwar. Of all the curved middle eastern swords, the saif is the least curved, usually being just a little bit off straight like a mid 19'th century infantry saber.
- Shamshir: the curviest of all the middle eastern curved swords. The shamshir featured a radical curve and a relatively complex and large guard, as well as a simple, lenticular-sectioned blade. A trademark technique was the apply thrusting motions with it to give cuts with a push rather than a pull. It also had a hook cap style pommel, giving it a diverse array of options, rather than limiting the user's freedom and wrists.
- A Turkish yatagan is a curved sword with two edges and a recurve, rather than the convex side of the usual kilij scimitar. It was meant for thrusting and chopping blows. Sir 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".
- Turkish killij: A one handed curved cavalry sword with two distinct features. First, it was straight at first before going in a 35 degree angle. Second it had a highly raised back edge, making this second segment extra thicc and choppy.
- Okay, now dive in for a deep one. Ever since Crusades and throughout the Middle Ages the Europeans were utterly fascinated with the swords of their Middle Eastern rivals. Their striking patterned steel, whose look resembled a wood grain of the flow of water, was ascribed nearly magic properties, like slicing other swords with ease, being able to be bent into a circle and then spring back, or effortlessly cutting the silk gauze thrown against the blade. Equally fancy stories were told about the technology of their making, like tempering the blade in the body of a young strong slave so his life force would go into the sword. The best known (for Europeans) center of production and trade in these swords was in the Syrian capital of Damascus, so they had became to be known as Damascus blades.
- In fact these swords were made from the very high quality high-carbon (to the level it could be better classified as cast iron, not steel) crucible steel of Indian origin, now commonly called "wootz", a corruption of several South Indian words meaning "steel". This was a highly unusual alloy of exceptional properties, now as the science finally was able to study it, ascribed to the peculiar distribution of iron carbide grains in the relatively soft and malleable iron matrix. These grains, which are ultra-hard, were arranged in bands, giving the steel its striking look and excellent cutting power, as after sharpening these bands served as micro-saws.
- The technology of their creation was, however, so closely guarded secret, that it eventually became lost somewhere in 17-th century (many speculated that the unusual properties of the wootz steel was due to some small vanadium content in the ore, which caused the beneficial effect of the carbide segregation, and after depletion of the ore source its production simply stopped), so nowadays many and many researchers still try to recreate it. Superficially similar look, however can be easily achieved by the simple pattern welding of several different steels -- the technology that is now usually called "damascus steel". While visually similar, such blades do not, however, achieve legendary ancient swords toughness, sharpness and durability.
- While worse than the true wootz ones, the blades made of pattern-welded steel, however, were usually notably better than common run-of-the-mill European swords made from low-carbon wrought steel, so they were still held in a high regard during the Middle Ages. After European steel-making progressed enough, though, this technology came to be used more to decorate the blade, rather than to improve its properties. It is still used in custom knife-making to produce the aesthetically pleasing patterned blades.
- Several modern researchers have claimed that they recreated Wootz structure and properties using modern material science, and other scientists generally agree that the ancient and modern alloys are sufficiently similar, but their technologies, which exist using both modern methods and those available to the Medieval smiths, are such that they are suited to the small-level artisanal production only, making them impractical and basically useless for the modern industry.
- Before the Western Europe adopted the sabres and cutlasses, the East have been happily using them for a long time to hack at each other. Around 16th-17th Century, the constant fighting with the Turks and various 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 then, the szabla/sablya/szablya was a standard side weapon in these parts of the world, even achieving the status of a national symbol in some places.
- 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, and looks remarkably like Arwen's sword from the Lord of the Rings movies.
- That's because for most of its history it evolved not as a sword, but as an utility knife — that eventually became a sword. Indeed, the word "shashka" itself is a corruption of Adyghe "sash-kho", "long knife". So it kept a knife's characteristic curved hilt and lack of handguard.
- In an interesting note, shashka is used and worn remarkably like a katana — with its edge upwards, and its design is similarly best suited to quick decisive blows, not elaborate saber fencing, and the same blade could probably be used equally effective in both mountings.
- Middle-eastern swords have influenced the development of the last swords to see common military use in Europe, the relatively heavy, curved, single-edged 'saber' and 'cutlass,' which appeared in the 17th Century as successors to the rapier. The Talwar directly inspired the creation of the 1796 British Light Cavalry Sabre (especially the way the blade grew wider at the point), which in turn influenced an American version.
India has a very long history of weapons and warfare. It also has a dizzying array of diversity in sword designs. A few things of note: Indian swords often had very similar hilt types despite a huge range of blade types. Indian swords of the 18th century and beyond did not infrequently use blades made in Europe, either in Indian designs and made for export, or as repurposes of European sword blades, usually sabers. Indian swords are famous for confined hilts and disk style pommels.
- The Talwar is the stereotypical and most common sword of India. It features a middling strong curve, a small crossguard, and a disk pommel with a very tight grip that makes it excellent for exceedingly powerful drawing cuts. Want to hack a person apart at the chest in one blow? This will do it.
- The Talwar also had varying designs which could be changed as per one's fighting style; a common favorite among elite warriors was to broaden the blade towards the end, which would exert a tremendous amount of concentrated force into cutting attacks, much like a Falchion. A skilled enough warrior could easily cleave a person in two with such a Talwar. There is even a story of Maharana Prathap Singh cutting a man's head vertically from the top, completely down to the neck. Right through the helmet. So yeah.
- Khanda: a broad-bladed cut only sword that was straight and double-edged. It was more popular prior to the arrival of the Mughals in the 16th century. They almost never had thrusting points, either having a stubby point or a flat front. This was the traditional sword until the talwar came from the Mughal shamshir.
- Pata; A style of sword mounted to an armored gauntlet, pointed directly in line with the forearm. Used for cut and thrust. These were long and straight, used by heavily armored cavalry and warriors, counting on their armor to absorb hits they couldn't parry while they used these swords, sometimes in pairs, to become human meat grinders.
- Firangi: Literally just foreigner, but a straight sword mounted to either a talwar or a basket hilt. This kind of sword could be anything from something like an arming sword to a rapier to a military saber blade. Blades for this kind of sword were purpose made in Europe precisely for export to India.
- Urumi: A whip sword with a flexible blade that could be kept coiled and then used to lash out. some had multiple blades, up to six on one, usually talwar style, but sometimes hindu bastek style, hilts. There is no evidence these were popular or used for fighting, however. They are very hard to use period, dangerous to the user and all their companions, not particularly high on stopping power, cannot parry, and cannot get through any kind of armor or shielding, or weave around another sword blade, or be used it ultra close combat like grappling. There are also no accounts found of them being used in battle. Plenty to khantas, talwars, firangis, patas, and so on, but no urumis.
- While the iconic weapon the popular culture associates with sub-Saharan Africa is the spear (and its wielder a Masai in a red cloth or leopard skin), there has been a number of swordlike weapons from that area.
- Kaskara and takouba are swords used by, respectively, people from Sudan and Chad, and the Tuaregs (well, we're stretching the definition of sub-Saharan a bit, but let's not get into digressions). The curious thing about them, and the reason why they're listed in the same paragraph, is that both are surprisingly similar to the Western arming sword. The takouba looks like a viking crossguard mated to a shorter take on the later triangular Oakeshotte XV anti armor longsword blade. And the kaskara, with the exception of no fullers and having a soft end cap instead of a pommel, is near identical to types XI-XIIIB. This back in the ignorant old days of Mighty Whiteys and White Man's Burden led to the conclusions, like, that there once was a Lost Tribe of Whites around these parts. Or descendants of the Crusaders. Or King Solomon's mines, or whatever. It is nowadays generally thought that the designs are local with possible influences from traded European blades, or descend from the swords the Arabs used before the scimitars got fashionable.
- It's also possible that they simply evolved independently. If you're trying to fashion a long sharp piece of metal in a way that hurts people, maintains structural integrity and doesn't weigh 90 lbs, there's only so many ways to do it.
- 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 arakhs wielded by the Dothraki in HBO's Game of Thrones seem similar.
- The ida is a weapon of the Yoruba people from Western Africa. 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.
- ↑ calling it "chain mail" is redundant, as there is no such thing as non-chain mail. You can have scales over mail, or plate over mail, or even splinted mail which has integrated plates, but all of these involve chain.
- ↑ do not attempt without gloves or on a sword with a fully-sharpened edge.
- ↑ I'm being sarcastic