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ARMA Director John Clements answers Youth email on swords and swordsmanship:
Question: Why are there so many different kinds of sword, which one is better?

To answer this question it must first be understood that offense and defense are qualities that are in competition in a sword. Historically speaking, a sword was a product of the given technology and skill of the maker who created it. Some swords might be stronger or sharper than others, and some better made than others. Any design would be one that a fighting man needed to meet the kind of challenges he expected to face in combat. These conditions varied around the world at different times. This resulted in different sword designs. But every type of sword was crafted as a solution to similar problems of self-defense. Every sword had two essential functions: to guard (or parry) and to strike (by cut, thrust, or both).

Since ancient times both cutting and thrusting swords were known to be effective in single-combat as well as the battlefield of war. Any sword would be expected to face other weapons as well as armors. Armor could be of either hard or soft material, each with differing degrees of resistance and maneuverability. All manner of swords intended for cutting or for thrusting or for both were constantly developed and tested to meet these challenges. Their blades might be wide or narrow, thick or thin, straight or curved, single or double-edged, tapered or un-tapered, sharply edged or not, and for one or two hands.  

But any sword design is a compromise between certain contradictory traits: a sword has to be hard to hold a sharp edge or sharp point but resilient so as not to bend or break under stress. It must guard or ward against other weapons as well as successfully damage targets (armored or unarmored). No one sword achieves all the best effects of every other kind. Some might be better used on foot than on horseback, some better at fighting with a shield or second weapon, some better for single combat or for the battlefield, and some superior at penetrating soft armors or hard armor or even at fighting entirely unarmored. That’s why in various cultures throughout history specialized varieties of swords came to exist through generations of trial and error experiment.

Over time different swordmakers experimenting and working in different places came up with many different ways of making swords with assorted characteristics that achieved the fighting needs of swordsmen in one way or another.  This is why sword blades will have different cross-sectional shapes and edge-geometries that make them either stiffer or more resilient and thus better at cutting or at thrusting. 

Not all sword types perform in the same manner. Sword designs are actually specialized tools. Depending upon their cross-sectional geometry, dimensions of length and width, and edge and point configurations, some types will do one thing very well but not another. The historical challenges of different battlefield and self-defense needs resulted in a wide range of long bladed weapon designs (and methods for effectively employing them). Some may have been intended more for cutting or slashing at either hard or soft targets, thrusting only at hard or soft targets, or a compromise somewhere in between. The characteristic qualities that permit one action will hinder the other. This gives different sword types different strengths and weaknesses depending upon how and why they were expected to be used. What is important to understand is how with the eventual development in Europe of slender single-handed thrusting swords, idea for unarmored civilian dueling, is that they were not simply new “thinner” versions of earlier wider swords suited to battlefield fighting.  Rather, differences in blade geometry—in thickness as well as width along its length—is an attribute of all types of sword. This variation is precisely how various sword types are stiffer or more resilient than another, may feel heavier or lighter in their hilt or blade, and can be more adept at either thrusting or cutting at different materials.

Each sword design differs as to what it can do best within whatever kind of fighting conditions it was created to perform under. Each has its specialization, even if it is generalized. The effectiveness of any sword strike depends on the kind of target area hit in regard to the form or shape of the blade and severity of the blow. Both cutting and thrusting techniques can each be more effective or less effective depending upon the tactical context. Writing on thrusting in his fighting treatise of the 1480s, the Italian fencing master Filippo Vadi for example noted how, “Against one man the thrust is good, but against many it does not work,” adding that both books and actions confirmed this.

The variety of swords in history is immense.  Different sword types were rarely identified by their own distinct labels so modern arms historians have classified or categorized them into families of assorted kinds. Cutting and thrusting types could each be decisive in sword combat but combined together they could be even more so.  Thus, the study of sword types and their characteristics, or spathology, is an ongoing process that recognizes no one sword as absolutely superior to any other. All of this is why there is no such thing as the “perfect sword.”

 

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