History of Swords
The sword was called by many the “Queen of the weapons”. There is a lot of merit in this epithet as the sword, throughout the ages possessed beauty in its many forms and the art with which it has been adorned. It took a lot of skill and sophisticated knowledge to make a sword and also, it took a lot of skill and knowledge to know how to wield the sword efficiently. The sword has a very long history and throughout times it has evolved and morphed into many forms. As a result it can be classified and grouped into many groups and subgroups.
The sword is a weapon that had been developed mainly for inflicting cutting wounds; although stabbing was also important (especially in Roman times and Europe). The sword is often attributed to old world civilizations and the peoples who inherited the weapon. The sword was one of the main weapons in Egypt, Africa, Chaldea, Asia, pre-Hellenic Greece, Rome and Europe. It is possible to classify the sword according to geographical spread.
- Oriental and Asian
It is important to note, that in this classifications some swords in the Oriental and Asiatic group and the African group originated in Egypt. The Oriental types of swords evolved to a very distinguished form compared with European swords. The metal sword failed to develop on American and Australian continents. In South and Central America there was a wooden sword (macana) used by the native cultures. The Aztecs studded the wooden sword with obsidian blades to create a cutting edge.
To classify all the swords, it takes a lot of classes to get the general view of the swords used throughout the world. Some of the swords are so eccentric that belong to their own eccentric class and they have to be mentioned separately. The typical European sword is the one with straight and pointed blade, whereas the curved sword was developed in the Middle East and Asia. It is very probable that both swords originated in Egypt. Both types of swords retained their characteristics and over time evolved into many different forms. It is possible to classify sword into the following groups:
- The two edged straight sword
- The one edged sword straight or curved
- The one edged spud ended sword
- The curved sword with expanding blade (scimitar)
- The curved pointed sword edged on the inner (concave) edge
- The Egyptian falchion
- Eccentric types (flamberge, executioner’s sword, etc.)
Swords can be also divided into single-handed group and double handed group. The double-handed sword is any sword that is requires the use of both hands. This group includes swords such as the European longswords, landsknecht flamberge, Scottish great Claymore sword, Kriegsmesser, Japanese Odachi, etc. A single-handed sword was a short sword with handle that would only accommodate grip with only one hand.
The Two Edged Straight Sword
The two edged straight sword can be further divided into two subcategories:
- Leaf-shaped blade
- Straight-shaped blade
The leaf-shaped blade sword featured a blade that widened usually at the middle of the blade and ended in a point. The straight-shaped blade sword featured a blade that had straight edged and ended with either a point or rounded point. The leaf-shaped sword was predominant during the bronze era and it was also the predominant in many different areas among various cultures. Leaf-shaped swords were found in Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt and even in Britain, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. The dominance of this blade shape during the bronze era is probably due to the fact that it was easier to achieve this type of blade with bronze. It is also probable that the shape of the sword originated from successful fusion of a spearhead and a dagger. The Greek Xiphos sword is an example of a leaf-shaped sword. The average length of a leaf-shaped sword is about 22 inches; however, there were specimens found that measured up to 32 inches long. The leaf-shaped sword blades were the most common during the Bronze Era; however, there were also bronze swords with straight and tapered blades. The early Roman swords were also leaf-shaped. The leaf-shaped sword is the most dominant sword of the Bronze Era. The sword was excellent for cutting but also offered incredible thrusting force. The first Roman swords were leaf-shaped but with development of iron the swords evolved to straight blade. The good examples of the Roman transitional period are the swords found in Hallstadt, Austria. The straight edged, iron Roman sword was the weapon that was prevalent during most of the Empire. The Roman Gladius was about 22 inches in length during the early times. The Roman Spatha was longer and it was probably adopted from Spain or other area.
The next development in iron swords was the dawn of the “Late Celtic Period” that was characterized by swords featuring straight-edged, iron blades that tapered from the tang and finish with a rounded point. Some swords had iron or bronze handles. Swords, such as these occurred in many places in Europe. The finest of the straight swords were found in Scandinavia. These early and middle Iron Age, Scandinavian swords varied in regards to the handle, pommel and hand guard but later merged into the now famous Viking type swords. The Viking swords were an example in craftsmanship and swordsmanship. Many of them featured lavished ornaments on their guards and pommels. The handles were often incrusted with precious stones and metals. The Viking sword featured straight edged blade that tapered slightly and ended with a rounded point. The swords, on average, measured between 34 to 44 inches in length.
The straight sword pattern began to change in the 9th century. The main change was the narrower blade compared with the length of the sword. Also the hilts become longer and reminiscent of the classic cross guard. The pommel of the sword was heavier and round and often highly ornate. Some of the swords during this transition period featured some of the Viking sword features and some of the new, cruciform characteristics. This “transitional sword” continued to evolve into the knight’s sword or arming sword, which featured the classic, cruciform characteristic. The arming sword was a double-edged, single-handed sword that was very common during the Middle Ages, between 11th and 14th century. The arming sword was the standard sword carried into battles. This sword was light and had an excellent balance. The sword was designed more for cutting than thrusting. The length of the sword varied, measuring between 30 inches to 32 inches. With time, knights began to wear heavier armor and this was one of the reasons for continued evolution of the sword. Larger and longer swords were needed to deliver either blunt trauma through the armor or to pierce the armor. This led to development of the longsword.
Between 13th and 17th century the straight sword became longer as it measured between 3ft to 4’3”. Longswords featured the classic, cruciform hilts with two-handed grips that measured 10 to 15 inches in length. The blade of the longsword was double-edged and measured between 40 to 48 inches in length. The weight of the longsword was between 2.5 to 5lbs. In combat, the swords were used for thrusting, cutting and striking using all parts of the sword including the crossguards and pommel.
One of the most famous two-handed swords was the claymore sword. The word claymore is derived from the Gaelic word “claidheamh mòr” meaning “great sword”. The name claymore actually refers to two types of swords. One of the swords is the two-handed longsword and the other one refers to much shorter and single-handed basked-hilted sword. The basket-hilted claymore sword was first used in the 16th century. This type of sword is still used as a part of the ceremonial dress of the Scottish highland regiments. The two-handed highland claymore sword was used during the late Medieval Age and in the Renaissance. This longsword was used in the wars between Scottish clans and the wars with the English. The Scottish claymore had distinctive design that featured a cross-hilt with downward sloping arms. The arms of the cross-hilt often ended with four-leaf clover design. There were also other, less known, claymore swords that had a very different, clamshell hilt design. An average, two-handed claymore sword was about 55 inches in length where the blade part measured 42 inches and the hilt measured 13 inches. The weight of the claymore was about 5.5lbs.
The basket-hilt claymore sword (circa 1700) could be either single-edged or double-edged. The sword was much shorter as it was single-handed sword with blade between 30 to 35 inches in length. The weight of the sword was ranged between 2-3 pounds. The basket hilt of the sword protected the entire hand of the person wielding the sword. The basked was often lined with red velvet and often it had tassels on the hilt and pommel for decoration.
The only straight and double-edged sword that was in use in Japan is the tsurugi. The name tsurugi also referred to Chinese straight and double-edged broadswords.
A rapier is a slander and sharply pointed sword that was used for thrusting attacks. Rapiers may feature two cutting edges. The blade might be sharpened on its entire length or from the middle of the blade to the tip or completely without a cutting edge (estoc). The Rapier was very popular in Europe between 16th and 17th century. Rapiers usually featured very complex hilts that were designed to protect the wielding hand. The word rapier was not used by the Spanish, French or Italian masters but rather the terms spade, epee or espada were used.
The one edged sword had its origins in a long knife and this type of sword was first used by hunters from wild tribes. When the tribes evolved into nations, they retained their long knives as weapons. Often they were used as supplemental swords. The Teutonic Scramasax or Yataghan can be an example of such weapons. The Scramasax varied in shape and size depending on the culture and area where it was used. The length of the Scramasax ranged from 20 to 27 inches. The blade of Scramasax was rather straight; however, there were some specimens found that featured a slightly curved blade. Similar, knife-like, one-edged swords were found in other areas such as Japan, Afghanistan, Greece, Persia, Turkey and some African countries. The first Japanese knife-like swords featured a narrow blade with straight back and plain tang. These swords measured up to 45 inches in length. Other, similar and famous Oriental swords were the Afghan Salawar, Yataghan and Khyber Knife. The Ghurka kukri is a similar weapon the one-edged, Kopis sword used by the Greeks. The Kopis type sword was also used by the Persians and similar swords (called Falcata) were found in Spain.
The one-edged swords can be divided further into two curved classes. The first class features a blade that has the edge on the convex side and the second class has the edge on the concave side. The first sword group is rather large as it includes Scimitar type swords and their variants, whereas the second group is rather small and much localized. The first group encompassed swords like scimitars, cutlass sword or Dacian sword. The cutlass sword was used in Europe but it has been designed based on scimitar. The cutlass sword was developed in Bohemia in the 15th century. The sword’s blade and the handle were made of one piece of metal. The grip of the cutlass sword was either an iron ring or the slit in the blade. The Dacian sword was a long sword with thin and curved blade. The second group included swords such as the Greek Kopis, Falcata and Khyber Knife swords.
The scimitar is the typical sword of the East and especially Islam, whereas the typical straight sword with its cruciform shape was typical of the European, Christian culture. The name Scimitar came from the Persian word “shamshir”. The Indo-Chinese races used also curved swords. The Parang sword used in the countries such as India, Malaysia, Borneo, Burma and Nepal, featured a blade that was thin at the handle and which widened toward the end. The sword was used for chopping in agricultural operation and also in warfare. Another sword used in Indo-China was the dao sword. The sword was about 18 inches in length and it was narrow at the haft and square and wide at the top. The sword’s blade was sharpened at one edge and the handle was set in wooden or ebony handle. The dao sword was heavy and was able to deliver heavy blows. Another interesting curved sword is the Egyptian Khopesh sword. This weapon is illustrated on many Egyptian monuments and walls and according to the illustrations it was used by all the Egyptian warriors including the Pharaoh. The sword’s blade is curved and it is still not clear whether it was edged on concave or convex side; however, it is more likely that it was edged on the convex side. The very thin handle of the swords ends in a pommel. The Khopesh sword was about 18 inches in length.
Another interesting sword was the German Kriegsmesser sword. The Kriegsmesser was a large, two-handed, one-edged sword that was slightly curved. The Kriegsmesser simply looked like an oversized knife. The sword has its origins in the European Seax knife and the Falchion. The Falchion failed with its popularity in Germany and the big, knife-like sword developed on its own. The name of the sword, Kriegsmesser, means literally “war knife”. The sword really deserves this name as the hilt of the sword looks like an oversized knife handle. The pommel of the sword usually was curved to one side. The handle was made of two pieces of wood or bone, with full tang between them. The guard of the sword frequently was made of steel ring or plate or cruciform crossguard.
The Japanese swords also belong to the one edged sword group. Tsurugi sword was the only exception. The Japanese swords were usually two-handed and featured a slightly curved blade with one edge. The blade ended in a point. The swords were fitted with an ornamental hand guard called tsuba. The blade of the sword was very rigid and the edge of the blade was very sharp. The Japanese swords were grouped according to sword-making method and size. The most popular sword was the katana which was worn the Japanese samurai class. Wakizashi was the shorter version of the katana sword. Odachi and Nodachi swords were also single-edged swords but they predate the katana and wakizashi swords.
Another single-edged sword is the sabre. The sabre usually features a slightly curved blade and a large hand-guard that protect the knuckles of the hand, thumb and forefinger. Most of the sabres had curved blades but there are also sabres with straight blade that were more suitable for thrusting. The straight sabres were usually used by the heavy cavalry. These sabres would also feature double-edged blades. The origin of the sabre is well known. It is said that the sabre appeared for the first time in Hungary in 10th century. The sabre may have its design influenced by either European falchion or the Middle-Eastern scimitar. The sabre was very popular in the 19th century and it was effectively used by heavy cavalry, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. However, with the advent of the firearms the weapon faded by the mid-century.
Executioner’s sword can be classified as an eccentric sword as this sword was not meant for combat but rather for decapitation of condemned criminals. Executioner’s sword was double-handed and featured a very wide and straight blade that ended that did not taper towards the end. These types of swords were in wide use in the 17th century.
Another eccentric sword is the landsknecht flamberge sword. It is eccentric due to its size and the shape of the blade. The sword was simply huge as its overall length was over 6ft. The blade of the sword had a characteristic wavy shape that resembled flame. The name of the sword “flamberge” comes from the words “flammard” and “flambard” meaning “flame blade”. The landsknecht flamberge sword was used in the 16th century by the German mercenaries called Landsknechts. The flame-shaped blades were very effective against wooden pikes and halberds because the shape of the blade provided more cutting surface while reducing the mass of the sword.
The sword consists of the sword blade and the hilt. The blade of the sword is used for cutting, thrusting and striking. The blade can be either double edged or single edged. Sometimes the single edged blade can have secondary edge near the very tip of the blade. The blade is divided into two parts called “forte” and “foible”. The “forte” (strong) part is between the center of balance and the hilt. The “foible” (weak) part is between center of percussion and the tip of the blade (point). The section between the center of percussion and the center of balance is called the middle. To make the blades lighter and at the same time more rigid, the blade may have grooves along the blade. Such grooves were called fullers or sometimes blood groves. The ricasso is the short section between the sharpened portion of the blade and the hilt. The ricasso is unsharpened and its length depends on the length of the sword. On some large swords, such as the Landknecht Flamberge the ricasso part may be significant to allow additional hand grip. Some swords don’t have ricasso at all.
The hilt is the upper part of the sword that allows wielding of the weapon. The hilt consists of the grip, the guard and the pommel. The pommel acts as a counterweight to the blade and allows balancing the sword thus improving the ability to wield the sword. The pommel also can be used for blunt strikes at a very close range. Pommels can come in variety of shapes including, globular, circular, semicircular, disc and rectangular. Pommels may be plain or be adorned with ornate designs or inlayed with jewels and gemstones. The crossguard prevents en enemy’s blade from sliding down onto the hands of the sword wielder. The guard may have various forms and the most common form of the sword guard is the cruciform that was prevalent in the Middle Ages. The sword’s cross guard may also be knows as quillons.
The tang is part of the hilt; however, it is also a part of the blade. In traditional sword making the tang was made from the same piece of metal. The tang goes through the grip and the grip is most often made from two pieces of wood bound together by rivets and wrapped with leather, leather cord or metal wire. The Japanese swordmakers used shark skin to wrap the handles in their bladed weapons. The term “full tang” usually refers to the tang made from the same piece of metal as the blade. The term “rat-tail tang” that is often used in present and commercial sword making refers to tang that has been welded to the blade.
A scabbard is the protective sheath for the swords’ blade. The scabbard protected the blade from the elements, namely rain, snow or moisture. Various materials were used for making scabbards including wood, leather, steel or brass. Usually the scabbard had two metal fittings on both ends. The portion where the blade entered was called the throat and the portion at the end of the scabbard, meant to protect the tip of the blade was called chape. A sword belt was a belt that was used to attach the sword to carry it on a person. The sword could be attached to a person’s waist or sometimes on back and it was designed to make it easy to quickly draw the sword from the scabbard. A baldric is a belt that is worn over one shoulder. The advantage of the baldric was that it didn’t restrict any movement of the arms and offered more support for the carried sword.
Sometimes swords may feature tassels or swords knots. The tassel is woven material, leather or silk lace that is attached to the hilt of the sword and looped around the hand of the person wielding the sword. This prevented the sword or sabre from being dropped. Tassels have also very decorative design.
The Japanese swords being constructed differently have different terminology and classification.The Japanese katana sword consists of the blade and mountings. The classic and authentic Japanese swords are made of special steel called Tamahagane meaning “jewel steel”. The tamahagane steel consists of layers of high carbon and low carbon steel that are forged together multiple times. The high carbon steel has different characteristics compared with low carbon steel. The high carbon steel is harder and therefore it can hold a sharper edge. The same steel is also very brittle. On the other hand, the low carbon steel is more malleable that is able to withstand impacts without breaking. By combining the both, Japanese swordmakers were able to achieve a superior sword blade. The steel layers are heated, folded and hammered together. Such process is repeated multiple times (up to 16 times). Some sword makers use different pieces of steel for the core, the edge and the sides. The slight curve of the sword is achieved by quenching the steel. Before the quenching process the blade is covered with a layer of clay. The clay is applied very lightly over the edge intended for cutting whereas the core and the back of the blade are covered by a thicker layer. The blade is heated again and submerged in water. The quenching process causes the blade to curve slightly. This is due to the difference in hardness (and crystalline structure of the steel) between the edge and the core and back side of the blade. The edge of the blade is much harder whereas the core and the back are softer. The quenching process also creates the distinct wavy line along the blade called hamon. The most prominent part of the blade is the middle ridge called shinogi. The point of the blade is called kissaki. The kissaki has a curved profile and it is separated from the rest of the blade by a straight line called yokote. The tang of the sword is called nakago. This is also the part that bares the signature (mei) of the sword-maker. The tang has a hole called mekugi-ana that is used to mount handle (tsuka). The handle is mounted to the tang by a bamboo pin called mekugi. The handguard of the Japanese sword is called tsuba and often times it is intricately designed. Tusba may come in various shapes (round, oval or square). The decorative grip swells are called menuki. The habaki is the piece metal (usually copper) that envelopes the base of the blade near the tsuba. The purpose of habaki is to provide tight fit in the scabbard (saya) and to lock the handguard (tsuba) in place. The scabbard of the Japanese sword is made of light wood. The outer surface of the scabbard is often lacquered.
Japanese swords are also classified according to their lengths. The unit of measurement is shaku where one shaku is about 13 inches. The Japanese blade lengths are classified into three groups.
- 1 shaku or less for tanto (knife)
- 1-2 shaku for Shoto – short sword (wakizashi)
- 2 shaku and more for Daito – long sword (katana)
- 3 shaku and more (Odachi or Nodachi)
Swords with blades longer than 3 shaku were carried across the back. They were called Odachi meaning “great sword” or Nodachi meaning “field sword”. Both swords were in use before the katana sword became popular.