On Damaged Edge…
Historical Evidence, Practical Experience

By J. Clements

Though perishable tools that wore eventually worn out with usage, swords were expensive, difficult to make and prized, and a keen edge could mean the difference between life and death.

It is the stuff of Hollywood sword-fights and renaissance-faire fight shows: a swordsman cuts with his or her blade and in defense the opponent lifts their own sword to directly receive the blow at 90-degrees on the center of their blade. The two blades clash in the middle edge-on-edge with a loud “clang!”  There is just one problem. No two cutting-swords—historical or replica, authentic or modern, Asian or European —would withstand such abuse without their edges being severely gouged in the process. This is a problematic issue of historical fencing exploration that can be addressed reasonably and factually.

When it comes to historical swordsmanship, such a description stands in direct contrast to how edged weapons were actually handled and employed. It contradicts the very dynamic of effective and efficient fighting and resembles little in the way of sword combat described in Medieval and Renaissance fencing literature.

With sharp swords fighting like this instantly results in deep nicks on their edges thereby rendering them in a matter of minutes nearly ruined for cutting.  The phenomenon worsens when both combatants simultaneously cut at the same angle, causing the two edges to bite even more forcibly into one another. This aftermath of trashed edges is the reality never shown in Hollywood fight scenes and seldom paid attention to in staged combat displays or stunt-fencing shows. 

When the edges of a cutting-sword become severely gouged and nicked there is no question that as a weapon it was considered less effective and much less valuable. This is exactly why taking a cut on your edge in defense or bashing blades edge against edge was avoided whenever possible.

The issue of proper edge alignment for counter-striking defense is itself something that has already been covered and explained on this subject. But, the myth persists among many sword aficionados today that historical sword blades were either able to sustain such damage without being quickly ruined, or else, were readily abused in this way as perishable tools with no noticeable deficiency in their function. As we shall see neither argument is supported by historical evidence.

Historical Evidence on the Issue

Discussing Viking sword and shield combat, the late sword authority Ewart Oakeshott himself recognized: “It was only when the shield had been so cut up that it was useless that one used one’s sword to parry with, and then one would try only to use the flat of it, for if sword-edge clashed with edge much damage resulted.” (Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons, p. 158-159). Examples of the Medieval view toward occurrences of such “edge against edge” trauma, whether from simultaneous strikes or accidental parry, are clear in their meaning. 

In the Norse tale, Kormac’s Saga (Chapter 11, The Fight On Leidarholm), Kormac parries Bersi’s sword, Hviting (“Whitting”), using the edge of the sword, Skofnung, which he had borrowed from his friend, Skeggi.  In the process he breaks the point off of Bersi’s sword but also badly nicks Skofnung and this upsets him, since, being Skeggi’s sword, Skeggi was “greatly annoyed.” Later we read how, “The notch in Skofnung they whetted, but the more they whetted the bigger it was.”  In other words, because they did not like this kind of edge damage they tried but failed to polish it out.

From the 12th century Norse saga of Grettir the Strong, a passage in chapter 82 reads: “So mighty was the blow that the sword could not hold against it, and a piece was broken out of the edge” (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Grettir). This description does not mean the edge was supposed to be able to take the blow, however, and the example is entirely consistent with modern experiments in which sections of sword edges are literally shorn off from strong cuts of other sword edges.

In Snorri Sturlson’s 13th century saga, Heimskringla, a sea battle occurs between the Norse King Olaf and a crew of Danes and Swedes: “Tryggveson’s men, he observed with surprise, were striking violently on Eric’s; but to no purpose: nobody fell. ‘How is this?’ asked Tryggveson.  ‘Our swords are notched and blunted, King; they do not cut.’ Olaf stept down to his arm-chest [and] delivered out new swords.”  (Chapter III, Early Kings of Norway. Thomas Carlyle. Volume 19. http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Heimskringla). Thus, we have here a specific example of complaints about damaged swords failing in combat and needing to be replaced.  A dramatic example of the rapidity by which terrific edge damage is produced on sharp blades hacking at one another can be seen in the Viking Sword video by sword expert Hank Reinhardt (Paladin Press, 2001). Even from only moderately strong blows the hardened steel blades quickly end up looking like they were gnawed by beavers.

From c.1170 in the Medieval text, Yvain or, The Knight with the Lion, by the French poet, Chretien deTroyes (author of the first major version of Arthurian legends), we read of a knightly combat wherein the arms and armors are ruined from heavy use: “The condition of the swords is not improved, nor that of the helmets and shields, which are dented and split; and the edges of the swords are nicked and dulled. For they strike each other violently, not with the flat of the swords, but with the edge.” (Part III: Vv. 4635-Vv. 6818. English translation by W.W. Comfort). In Hartmann von Aue’s 12th century Arthurian epic, Erec, we also read how the title hero while dealing strong blows against the sturdy maile armor of his opponent, “his blade lost much of its sharpness.” (Lines 9219-9246, Resler edition).

In the chronicle of the deeds of the 15th century knight, Don Pero Niño, we read how in a fight against the Moors, “the blows fell upon good armour, though not so good but that it was broken and bent in many places.  The sword he used was like a saw, toothed in great notches, the hilt twisted by dint of striking mighty blows, and all dyed in blood.”  At the end of the siege of the City of Tuy in 1397, we are also told again how Niño’s sword “blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood.”  Later, Pero Niño sent this sword by a page to France, “with other presents to my Lady of Serifontaine.” (De Gamez, p. 196.)  Given the context of this description, where Nino’s shield, armor, and sword are all damaged from especially heavy fighting, it would not seem unreasonable that he then gives his ruined sword away as a token of his chivalric courage. Certainly, we have no way of knowing if his sword edge was damaged from striking armor and shield rims or from striking other blades, let alone from parrying cuts (something less likely if he had a shield and full armor as described).  Regardless, the recognition that Nino’s sword edge had sustained heavy damaged so that it looked “like a saw” and was “toothed in great notches” from use is indicative that such a condition was certainly not a good thing for a functional blade. Above all, he did not enter combat with his prized weapon in such a condition.

In 1476, it was recorded that sixty sous parisis were paid to the executioner of Paris “for having bought a large espée à feuille,” used for beheading the condemned, and “for having the old sword done up, which was damaged, and had become notched whilst carrying out the sentence of justice upon Messire Louis de Luxembourg.” (Paul Lacroix. Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period. Chapter on Punishments. 1875. http://www.gutenberg.net/1/0/9/4/10940/10940-h/10940-h.htm). That an executioner’s sword, with its especially broad and thin blade not intended for combat, would have its edge “notched” from chopping through bare stationary necks, is perhaps odd. Unless we consider that as it sheared through its target it either was affected by bone or struck something resistant underneath. That it was being re-polished (”done up”) however is not surprising since such beheading swords were quite wide and capable of repeated sharpening.

In Shakespeare’s 1599 play, Twelfth Night (Act 3, Scene 4), Sir Toby Belch declares of a man, “He is knight, dubbed with unhatched rapier...”  Although in this case, “hatch” could possibly mean simply decorated with etched markings or holes, it may also refer to a pristine unused weapon without sign of trauma from forcible contact on targets or other blades. In Shakespeare’s 1597, The First Part of King Henry IV, set in c.1415, Falstaff after having fought several opponents refers with disgust to his own damaged sword edge, saying: “I am a rogue, if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together…my sword hacked like a hand-saw—ecce signum!” [i.e., behold the mark].  While Falstaff is being deceitful, he wants to be believed and as the play is no farce his account must be considered reasonably plausible. When Prince Henry comes to ask how Falstaff’s sword came to be so hacked, Peto answers, “Why, he hacked it with his dagger, and said he would swear…he would make you believe it was done in fight.” (act II, scene IV). This would indicate that sword edges were (not surprisingly) damaged through intense combat. But it says nothing as to how it technically might occur or what the consequences of such damage would be to the weapon’s utility. The mention of half-swording, where a sword is used almost like a short staff, is interesting. In Macbeth (c1605), at one point in scene VII the lead character contemplates killing himself rather than fighting his enemy, MacDuff. Macbeth refers to his “sword with an unbatter’d edge, I sheathe again undeeded.”  Once more the reference is made to a blade that has not seen use as being one that has received no edge trauma. Yet, we are not told precisely what portion of the blade would be marked or what degree of damaged could be expected. Is it to the edge or the flat? Near the hilt where you defend or near the point where you strike? Or perhaps in the middle where you engage and bind on other blades?

Describing a clownish bumbler in his 1607 poem, The Begger’s Ape (published anonymously in 1627), Richard Niccols wrote: “A rusty Sword hee carryed by his side, And at his backe a Dagger well ytide, For many hackes therein made long agoe, Sufficient proofes did of the mettall show.”  Whether Niccols meant the dagger or the rusty sword (or both) had the “many hackes” of “proof” is not clear, but his intention that the character was ill-equipped and in disarray was unmistakable. Given that parrying daggers of this time were specifically designed to catch or block the cuts (and thrusts) of swords, his meaning must be taken in light of other similar examples.

In Robert Burton’s 1621 play, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, he also refers begrudgingly to “swords hack’d like so many saws” while in James Mabbe’s 1631 play, The Spanish Bawd (Act XII), the character Sempronio states how ruined his weapons are including his, “Sword like a Saw, all to behack’t and hewd…” (Craig, p. 17, note 60). Why worry about such toothy notches?  We might well wonder, if sword blades “hacked” like a “saw” could still continue cutting effectively, why swordsmiths didn’t then just make cutting-sword blades with tiny serrated edges in the first place? Swords were not made with edges like a modern hack-saw or steak knife, after all. Instead, they were made with clean edges capable of chopping, slashing, and slicing without dragging on the target material.

It should be noted that the same physical laws regarding edge damage also apply to the use of traditional Asian swords. For example, in one interview an expert of the Japanese, Daito-Ryu style, senior swordmaster Tokimune Takeda noted: “In order to cut your opponent, you need to set the blade of your sword in a specific position; you need to turn your sword this way [gesturing]. You receive your opponent’s sword with the [blunt] back of your sword and then you turn your sword to cut him. This is not how you hit your opponent with a bokken [wooden sword]. Since a real sword has a sharp blade, you need to receive your opponent’s blade with the back of your sword. You should not receive it with your blade [edge] because if you do so using a real sword, the blade will be nicked. But if you receive your opponent’s sword with the back of your sword and then go to cut him with your blade, the cutting edge will never be nicked.” However, the interview author also comments that: “Other classical sword schools, such as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and the Tatsumi-ryu, taught to receive cuts with either the side of the blade or the lower edge. This is because the metal making up the back of a Japanese sword is softer, and a direct blow to the back of the blade would 'likely' cause it to snap.

Practitioners of these schools were evidently willing to risk a nick to avoid breaking the sword.” (Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu: Conversations with Daito-ryu Masters, edited by Stanley A. Pranin. Koryu Books, 2000. Copyright 1995 by Aiki News.)  However, noted swordsmith Paul Champagne, who studies the historical technology of both European and Asian blades, notes that softer steel, by its nature, does not "snap" but rather, simply dings more easily. He adds that not all of the construction techniques for Japanese swords had soft backs. A strong cut on the back can cause an edge defect to open up with the natural rebound of the blade. (Personal correspondence with the author, September, 2004). In contrast to Japanese, Medieval European cutting-swords do not have an outer layer of softer metal and were designed to be especially resilient when receiving blows on their flat sides.

Employing the flat rather than the edge to parry and deflect is also prominent in traditional Chinese cut and thrust swordsmanship as is the familiar use of the forte to close and bind. Unlike what is constantly depicted in the exaggerated and fantastical operatic forms of Chinese swordplay, the combat effective style does not clash sharp edges. Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, who while holding a MS in physics and a PhD in mechanical engineering, is a 37 year veteran martial artist and author of six books on Chinese martial arts, notes:  “Since the sword is double-edged, using either edge to block will dull or nick the blade. With the sword, only that third of the blade nearest the hilt is designed for vigorous blocking. The sharpened part of the blade should not be allowed to contact the opponent’s weapon. Therefore, a defensive attack, without blocking, is the best sword technique, and a sliding block, followed by an attack, is the second best. The least desirable defense is to block with the dull area of the blade.” (Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style. Jwing-Ming Yang. YMAA Publications, Boston 1999, page 20). Again, we see preferred defensive techniques and then others that damage blades deemed less desirable.

Chinese sword researcher and authority on Chinese swordsmanship, Scott Rodell, similarly writes: “Generally speaking, all deflections should be with the flat of the blade.”  When parrying he adds, “the edges do not meet perpendicular to each other, and no edge damage should occur.” Just as in Medieval and Renaissance European swordplay, he adds it is important that “any deflection should be executed as close to the guard as possible.” Rodell also complains that because modern exponents of Chinese sword styles are “never called upon to defend their lives with a sword” it “has led virtually all of today’s practitioners to go for flash instead of accuracy. They might be waving a magic wand, considering the sloppiness of their cuts and the flimsiness of the practice weapon in general use.” (Chinese Swordsmanship – The Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition. Annandale, VA. Steven Stars Books, 2003. p. 23-25).  We can sympathize with his observations. The same problem exists in the modern practice of all historical sword arts today.

The Technicalities of the Issue

We might ask what about all those 18th and 19th century fencing styles that specifically instructed to “parry with the edge”? How later texts on swordplay using broadsword, saber, cutlass, or spadroon taught using the edge to receive cuts is a largely misunderstood and misinterpreted area of fencing history. These works are explicit—and specific—in that this is to be performed only using the lower quarter of the blade above the hilt (the forte or strong). They do not instruct to use the entire length or the sharp portion of the blade to block with. This receiving of cuts with the forte in broadsword and sabre texts is actually consistent with earlier 16th century cut-and-thrust swordplay where closing and binding against the opponent’s own forte was standard. The manner in which these later styles differed in their parrying from earlier methods has been discussed elsewhere.

Yet, even in the 18th and 19th centuries there were those who went out of their way to address how edges were damaged when this rule was ignored and the sword was passively held out to block cuts. H. Blackwell, in his 1705, English Fencing Master, even declared, "The ancients parried with their bucklers. They never parried with their blade." In the English army’s 1796 Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry, we have among the clearest examples of a later fencing style that continued the older method of using the flat and not the edge to receive blows: “The utmost attention must be paid not to oppose the edge to the enemy’s sabre when it can be avoided.” (p. 28).  Additionally, in the Instruction pour la cavalerie (“Instruction for the Cavalry”), first published in Berlin, 1796, all the parries are apparently made with the flat or with the back of the saber.

Frederick Wroughton’s 1830, The Broad Swordsman’s Pocket Companion, instructed that a vertical cut to the head was guarded by a side cut hitting edge on flat, a cut to the wrist was guarded by receiving it on the flat of the ricasso, and a cut to the left side was guarded by receiving it on the back of the blade. In their 1890 book, Broadsword and Single-Stick, Lord Headley & C. Phillipps Wolley stated: “It is important to bear in mind that the cut should be received with the guard as much as possible on the slant; i.e. you should endeavor to make the opponent’s blade glance off yours at an angle...” (Headley, p. 25).  As did almost all the texts on this subject from the 18th and 19th centuries, they also instructed, “with all guards and parries in actual practice, the 'forte,' or half nearest the hilt, should be the portion of the blade which meets the opponent’s sword when the attack is made.” (Headley, p. 40).  These two statements cannot be taken out of context and together their meaning is clear.  But, such instructions are routinely ignored by modern enthusiasts who permit cuts from any portion of the attacker’s edge to be received on any part of their own edge.

In the broadsword fencing section of, Defensive Exercises, from 1840, Donald Walker stated for instance, “Great care should be taken to preserve the edge of the blade, by allowing the back alone to bear upon the scabbard.” (Walker, p. 109). We might ask if harm can come to an edge merely by scraping it along a metal sheath, imagine what the damage would be when forcibly struck by a direct blow?

The 1853, Cavalry: Its History & Tactics, by Captain Louis Nolan, addressed how in the Crimean war, "The swords, blunted by steel scabbards, are not efficient weapons." (Chapter III, Cavalry in General). One French cavalry general from 1863 commenting on sword sharpness similarly described that, “It is no trifling matter to sharpen the edge of a sabre. The French sabre has a bevel (a fault tolerated by no other people whose cavalry knows how to use the sabre); the greater the angle of this bevel the less deeply can the blade penetrate.  If, in sharpening the blade, you increase instead of diminish this fault, you render the blade almost useless—a stick would be better than your sabre. Remember, then, that the sharper the angle of the bevel, the more deeply your sabre will cut.”  We can add, the more acute this bevel is the more easily the edge succumbs to being gashed, folded over, turned, and blunted. The general then proceeded to explain that troopers during the Napoleonic period preserved the upper part of the blade “as intact as possible…for use in combat,” even carrying small files with them to sharpen it when it became dull. He further declared, “Two things contribute largely to the rapid destruction of the edge of a blade: The first is the carelessness with which it is pushed into the scabbard, or drawn out of it; the second is the shaking and rubbing of the blade in the scabbard while kept there.” It instructs to therefore avoid “rubbing of the edge.” (De Brack, p. 44). 

An 1857 account from a British Officer in Northern India facing down a Sikh swordsman described how his sword was ruined as a result: “He was a strong, powerful man...From this gentleman there was no escape; and, fortunately for me, I had my old twenty-fourther [regulation broadsword] with me, which I had two or three days before put in good shaving order [made sharp]. With this I was obliged to act on the defensive, till I could catch my formidable opponent off his guard. He cut, I guarded; he thrust, I parried; until he became aggravated, and set to work with that impetuosity and determination pretty generally understood by the phrase “hammer and tongs;” in the course of which he nearly cut my poor twenty-fourther in pieces.” (Shipp, p. 191). To go at something “hammer and tongs” is an old blacksmith’s phrase (cited as early as 1708 by the OED) meaning to work hard at shaping the metal. In this case it refers to the opponent having repeatedly struck hard at his weapon so that it was damaged as a result.

If damage to the sharp upper edge portion of a blade is to be avoided, and a sharp edge is so easily damaged by even a scabbard, we can well appreciate what would happen when it forcibly struck another hard thin edge. This author had the occasion to once play with actual specimens of late 19th century regulation British military issue heavy military sabers, the edges of which indeed gouged significantly upon simple edge-on-edge parries.

The Mechanics of the Issue

When we consider how powerful sword blows were that could damage armor and split helms, it is easy to imagine what they did to thin sword edges.  Even blades without any real edge sharpness such as rapiers will quickly accumulate a multitude of tiny dints and nicks along their length from the simple blade-to-blade contact occurring during practice. This applies even more so to wider swords with dedicated cutting edges used in earnest. On such cutting blades, edges may be quite hard but they are very thin after all.  They are too fine to be intentionally placed in the path of oncoming strikes.  These edges need to be kept sharp and free of nicks or gouges.  How could a dented, nicked, and chewed-up edge on a real blade possibly cut effectively? How then blades with edges horribly serrated along their length from constant edge-on-edge parrying properly slice, draw, or shear targets? 

If such damage is limited to the thicker forte this is not an issue, but otherwise it is of fundamental importance. For example, the anonymous 1796, Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry (p. 73), states that in cutting effectively, “Precision in the application of the edge is…necessary…It is therefore requisite to acquire correctness of execution by frequent practice, which in order to preserve the swords, must be addressed to substances of least resistance.”

In the war of 1812, a British naval captain received a letter of reprimand for the poor condition of his ship’s swords. Their edges had been damaged in practice by inexperienced crewmen. As the record attested, the captain, “knowing nothing gave sailors so much confidence in [combat] boarding as the knowledge of the use of the broadsword, he had caused his crew to be regularly exercised by the serjeant of marines.”  But as the letter states, “In consequence of drilling the crew of one of his Majesty’s ships to the broad-sword exercise, the edges of the cutlasses had been jagged, as might naturally be expected. On the cutlasses being returned into store, the…Board of Ordinance considered the subject as one which deserved their interference; and without entering into the merits of the case, despatched the captain a letter, officially reprimanding him for his negligence in permitting these weapons to be thus abused.” (Gilkerson, p. 102-103, citing The Naval Sketch-Book, Vol. I, 1831). Thus, here we have a modern admission that using sharp swords incorrectly obviously produces unnecessary edge damage. This is undeniably apparent today when we conduct experiments blocking even moderately strong cuts with the edge or in clashing two sharp edges together.

Sword historian and expert fencer, Captain R. F. Burton, in his 1876 text on infantry sword exercise pointed this out clearly when he commented: “The ‘Febble’, or weak half, is that contained between the point and the centre; this, the proper part for the Cut or attack is ground to a thinner edge, and consequently is more liable to an injury from another sword if the Cut be not very true.” (Burton, A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry, p. 32). A cut was “not true” when it missed its target and instead struck the opponent’s own edge. This would not be mentioned by Burton if such damage wasn't something to be concerned about and avoided.

When real swords were damaged on their edges, they could, depending upon the severity of the distress, be reground or re-polished to remove the trauma. This would of course require the entire edge of hardened steel be ground down, not just the damaged portion. A blade could only sustain so much of this before the edge’s bevel extended into the softer inner core of sandwiched steel. At this point, an edge of particular sharpness could no longer be maintained.

Swedish archaeologist and Bronze Age sword researcher Kristian Kristiansen notes that on ancient swords, “the blade below the hilt is the area of defence and here one often finds severe damage and resharpening.” He adds, “On some swords, transverse line or ridges on the midrib of the sword blade suggest that a technique of warding off with the flat side of the blade was used as well.” (Kristiansen, p. 323). His findings are entirely consistent with those frequently found on wide cutting blades of the Medieval and Renaissance eras as well as the techniques for parrying found in their associated martial arts literature. He further notes that, “On older swords with a long history of combat leading to frequent damage and repair/resharpening, the lower part of the shoulders would sometimes break, due to combined resharpening and blows from enemy swords.” (Kristiansen, p. 323).

Edge damage does more to a sword than make it cut less efficiently; each nick acts as a focal point for impact stress which can lead to catastrophic failure of the blade, i.e. breaking. When a sword with chips or heavy gouges on its edge (or even internal forging flaws) struck a hard resistant material such as maile armor or another sword edge, it could fracture and split. Once this tempered portion is breached by deep nicks and burs the blade is also susceptible to cracking (and internal rust) and will no longer hold a keen edge on that portion. [1]  

Accomplished bladesmith and researcher of historical swordmaking, Dan Maragni, states he has seen considerable evidence of this kind of reworking having been performed on the blades of historical European swords. But he is quick to add that this rework is essentially limited to “stone work,” that is, where the edges and the bevel have been reground to remove nicks and/or dinks in the edge.  The term “nicks” he uses to describe edge failures by chipping, that is, brittle failure.  The term “dinks” he uses to describe edge failures due to bending or folding, that is, malleable failure.  These two forms make up the nature of edge trauma on sword blades.  The damage on antique blades of the Middle Ages which Dan Maragni has examined have usually been, as he describes, “bends” in the plane of the blade. That is, the edge had struck something unyielding and caused the blade to minutely “wrap” around the target. He adds that large nicks and/or dinks in the edge were usually removed by grinding. As he describes, often a fair amount of material was removed in this way because not only did the nick have to be eliminated, but also the edge then needed to be restored so that the entire blade bevel had to be reshaped.  This could only be done a certain number of times before the edge was permanently ground down past a desirable portion. Often, when looking closely down the blades of swords that have been reworked noticeably dips in the profile and ripples in the bevels can be seen from such “repairs.”  Dan also states he believes that men would not willingly suffer their edges to be trashed “as every nick or dink has the possibility of being the end of the life of a blade if a crack is formed which penetrates into the body of the blade.”  But, he adds at the same time it is his opinion that the reality of fighting was that not every strike is going to be predictable or planned and inevitably, “damage will be done to every blade that enters battle.”  (Personal correspondence with the author. January, 2003).

There is no evidence however that damaged blades would be repaired by “reforging.” Ask a qualified bladesmith about “repairing” heavy nicks on knife or sword and you will learn it’s not an easy task and even borders on the impossible. Once the gouges were ground down, the process of reheating a blade to the degree that it would permit working the metal of the edge back into shape to re-welded the chips would still require it being re-tempered and re-hardened afterwards. Doing this would also entail removing the hilt and the whole thing would need to be re-polished. Given all the work this would require the swordsmith might as well make an entirely new blade instead. Small deformations (ductile damage) to the edge of softer steels can actually be cold reformed by light careful hammering. But on edges of harder steel it re-stoned or refilled.

Distinguished swordsmith Paul Champagne notes that in attempting to polish out and reshape a damaged edge in this way will affect the original shape and thus the feel of the weapon: "After a repair at the sword polishers you might barely recognize the feel of your own blade. It's not just grinding out the nicks; you have to reshape the steel to an edge in the damaged area which means having a very abrupt edge bevel or making the sword thinner to accommodate a more gradual entry into the edge. Just 2 nicks only 1/16" deep directly across from each other means making the blade at least 1/8" narrower in that area.…So much for the initial blade design after a couple of repairs." (Personal correspondence with the author, September, 2004).

Ewart Oakeshott believed there is in fact credible evidence of many surviving Medieval blades showing unmistakable signs (by virtue of the large number of nicks and notches on their edges) of having made violent contact with edges of other blades.  Of course, he quickly added there was no way of knowing the circumstances under which they received such trauma: did two weapons collide when striking simultaneously or did one attempt to parry? Did someone in a later century unknowingly abuse them? (Personal conversation with Mr. Oakeshott, Ely, UK, July, 1999).  Rather than being farther down on the blade where parrying would be expected, the distribution of edge trauma on many surviving swords is very often located toward the point near the center of percussion—the very portion which would in fact be expected to strike against armor and metal rims of shields. Thus, Oakeshott held that while blocking flat presents the ideal method of direct resistance parrying (when such parries were necessary), the archaeological evidence of some blades appears to show what often happened in the “exigencies of combat.” [2]   As with the previous examples from historical literature, modern hands-on study collaborates this. [3]  

David Edge, curator of arms at the famed Wallace Collection has observed, this has been noted on hundreds of surviving Medieval swords while heavy edge-gouging is extremely rare, thereby possibly meaning that such damaged blades were deemed no longer of use. (Personal conversation with Mr. Edge, London, UK, July, 1999). If Medieval and Renaissance cutting-swords did indeed commonly employ edges for direct parrying (as is sometimes asserted) we would expect to see heavily notched edges on surviving sword blades—at least on the first quarter nearest their hilts, where they defended, but also upon their last quarter near their point, where they primarily would have impacted targets. Yet, this is not the case.

Today, uninformed aficionados will sometimes argue that flat parrying will somehow damage the side of a blade and so this is “reason” to use the even more fragile and easily damaged edge. The fact is, the surface area of the flat is wide enough that the angle of impact or deflection scarcely scratches it and receiving blows there can hardly damage it much at all. This can be seen in surviving antique blades whose flats show little trauma and holds true in modern experiments with accurate replicas. Again, it is vital to realize that it is the resilience of the flat of a sword that, upon impact with another weapon, permits it to withstand blows by properly flexing side to side. As noted sword researcher Ada Bruhn Hoffmeyer wrote in her oft quoted 1966 research paper, From Medieval Sword to Renaissance Rapier, in the 15th century “a broad blade area” was “required to receive the adversary’s cut”. [4]   The edge, in contrast, is rigid and hard for cutting into things and its thin shape does not resist well the traumatic impact of strong cuts from another hard edge. [5]

Sword collector Hank Reinhardt, who in the last three decades has handled and test cut with more European swords than probably anyone, has pointed out that if flat parries were not so, how then do we explain the distinct lack of significant edge damage on so many historical swords that have survived?  That such weapons could last for many years and even generations clearly says something about the manner in which they were used to avoid intentional edge damage.  It is certainly nonsensical to imagine that all the thousands of Medieval and Renaissance swords in museums and private collections, with very limited edge trauma, were “never used” or somehow over the years all had their edges “polished smooth” for appearance sake by busy curators worried about their edges. Using a sword in combat does not automatically lead to edge damage, although edge damage can be a sign of heavy use. The thousands upon thousands of surviving swords with little to no edge damage is testimony to the manner in which they were used. Reinhardt adds, “If you still can’t understand why a sword uses its flat to block, simply go take two large, sharp hunting knives and bang them together full-force on each other’s edge and you’ll quickly see why.” (Personal conversation with Mr. Reinhardt, Conyers, Georgia, September, 1998). 

The Physicality of the Issue

In the course of their useable lifespan, a cutting-sword’s edge would typically become nicked from instances where it impacted with a shield’s metal rim or cut against steel armor or hit another weapon’s edge. The amount of damage any sword edge would sustain in such situations would, to one degree or another, be determined by the blade’s hardness and geometry.  But historically, since the possibility for such damage was fairly commonplace, there would be little sense in intentionally encouraging it by hacking at the edge of another sword. That would be the surest way to ruin a fine blade and gain you nothing except likely exposure to the adversary’s attacks. It is this which is supported by the evidence and not the opposite—that warriors did not bother to preserve their edges because they were inevitably going to be damaged anyway.

Regardless whether a cutting-sword has a keen and hard-tempered edge or a somewhat duller, softer one, habitually parrying edge-to-edge will quickly ruin it (a phenomenon that can be witnessed by looking closely at the blades used in many films, television programs, and live fight show performances where blocking cuts with any portion of edge on any portion of edge has been doctrinaire).  In fact, taking a hard blow on the edge of a fully-tempered blade can actually cause it to fracture and break far sooner than not. Though, this is something seldom witnessed today with the softer, case-hardened kinds of blunt replica swords where their softer and thicker edges can be repeatedly beaten on and filed over later.

It must be addressed that there is a difference between blocking with the edge reflexively out of alarm and employing a true counter-strike or flat parry as a deliberate technique.  When really necessary, a fighter can of course parry any way they must, but parrying haphazardly is the very thing that is to be avoided by having a proper, skillful grasp of the weapon’s nature and training in the art.  Another thing to consider is that when parries are done correctly, they will be made with the strongest portion of the blade permissible while keeping good range—this is the first quarter closest to the guard. As expected many surviving antique swords can actually be seen to have discernible marks on those very areas of their flats (while their edges remain fairly smooth and intact).  If the edge were generally used for blocking instead of the flat, this same portion of blade would receive repeated damage thereby causing the sword to quickly deteriorate.

This is quite unlike what is seen in countless choreographed sword fights and taught de rigueur in modern saber fencing (neither of which use real swords for powerful full-arm cuts). In these activities, parries of edge blows are typically made with nearly any portion of the blade. The “parry proper” made dui tempo (“double time”) in two actions was certainly not used in earlier Medieval and Renaissance fencing, at least not in the same manner and to the same degree that many modern sword enthusiasts often do. It does not appear as an approved form of defense in the source literature. The edge-blocking postures of post-16th century fencing themselves do not even exist within Medieval and Renaissance fighting manuals.

Most tellingly however, is how the Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer described in his fencing treatise of 1570 an inferior form of defense he called, Auffangen, or “Catching” (i.e., a direct static edge- on-edge block).  According to Meyer, this was a simple block wherein the opponent’s attack—rather than ideally being deflected off or struck down—was instead stopped by directly interposing your weapon in its path.  Essentially an edge parry of desperation, Meyer acknowledged it was sometimes necessary, yet he clearly recognized that it conferred no particular advantage and even specifically recommended against doing it.  It is this very thing, which he says not to do, that is so frequently employed by unenlightened students of historical fencing today. It is coincidentally, the basis of defensive actions in the post-Renaissance, smallsword-derived, parry-riposte manner of dui-tempo (“double-time”) swordplay found in the later cut-and-thrust play of saber, broadsword, cutlass, spadroon, la canne, and singlestick (the very foundations of modern sport saber fencing). This change in the nature of parries taught in later European fencing styles resulted essentially from the transition from military (cutting) to civilian (thrusting) swordplay.

In contrast, earlier forms of cut-and-thrust fencing defended by displacing the oncoming blow with a counter-cut so as to simultaneously block and strike—by hitting edge on flat or flat on edge. They also warded it off by receiving the blow on the flat of the strong portion of their sword (just above the hilt), or closed-in against a cut by using the edge above their cross guard against the same portion of the attacker’s weapon where the blow has less momentum. Otherwise, they avoided a strike altogether by dodging as they cut back.

It is worth repeating once again that most all systems of fencing from the 18th and 19th centuries relied on double-time parrying actions that passively take cuts on the edge of the blade closest to the hilt. Yet this was not at all a significant part of Medieval and Renaissance traditions of cut and thrust fencing. So why when it comes to edge damage from parrying do we see such a discrepancy between earlier Medieval and Renaissance fencing methods and those of the 18th and 19th centuries? We can note that the environment and circumstances under which later methods existed did not reflect the degree of challenge faced by Medieval and Renaissance methods. They certainly faced little to no armor, shields, or pole-weapons, for example, and no real hazards from either two-handed or double combinations weapons. The later styles were also clearly not influenced as much by Medieval and Renaissance systems, as by the civilian smallsword, which many even called the basis of their teachings. Hence, the later styles relied for defense, not on displacing blows and deflecting actions as did the earlier ones, but invariably upon rigid guarding positions for receiving cuts on the forte/ricasso. Further, once firearms became the dominant military weapons, schools of fence focused not on battlefield utility but almost exclusively upon defense in personal duels of honor. As a result, swords were less prized and military blade quality declined (especially for mass produced regulation swords), and was often criticized at the time. Thus, fewer kinds of swords being used by fewer swordsmen under fewer situations against fewer types of threats, naturally results in changes to the practice and performance of any fighting art.

Concluding Comments

Minor dings and dinks are part of the expected wear and tear on a functional sword edge, but severe gouging is not and the finer and harder an edge, the more easily it is damaged by nicks and chipping. The softer an edge, the more easily it is damaged by dings and dents. Minor dings and dinks are part of the expected wear and tear on a functional sword edge, but severe gouging is not and the finer and harder an edge, the more easily it is damaged by nicks and chipping. The softer an edge, the more easily it is damaged by dings and dents.

The historical examples reflect undesirable damage produced through either extremely heavy use or careless untrained use. There are no historical examples of Medieval and Renaissance swordsmen priding themselves on having blocked cuts with the sharp edge of their weapon or caring less they've damaged their blade in doing so.

Despite what is performed in countless choreographed fight scenes and what every child playing at swords invents by instinct, what Medieval and Renaissance warriors did not do was statically wait to receive a blow by holding out their edge in the path of the oncoming cut.  All this did was damage their weapon and give the opponent numerous chances to renew his attack with any number of techniques. We might surmise the reason the historical fencing masters did not go out of their way to warn how a sword edge would be damaged, is that it was so common sense a thing that it went without saying in the same manner that today a new car salesman does not warn the owner to avoid crashing into things or driving over obstacles. Because fighting men knew that there were ideal methods of fighting that avoided the haphazard perils of edge on edge trauma, and because they knew fine swords were indeed perishable, they did not encourage it by intentionally abusing them.

Once having spent considerable time test-cutting with all manner of swords of varying degrees of sharpness and quality, it can be assuredly understood that an edged blade needs to be kept as keen as possible for it to remain effective in chopping, slashing, or slicing. Probably the most enlightening demonstration that can be done is to test-cut with a sharp replica blade of good quality, then go out and repeatedly parry with its edge until its noticeably chewed up, and finally go back and try to test-cut with it again on the same target materials.  Its poor performance will easily reveal just how bad an idea edge-parrying with real swords is. [6]

Though even a blunt and dulled cutting edge can do serious harm under the right conditions, swords were sharpened for an obvious reason—they caused far greater injury that way. Given that few modern students of historical fencing have had the opportunity to strike repeatedly with a sharp quality sword full force against the sharp edge of another quality sword to then witness the results; it is understandable that some misconceptions exist. Of course, if you are not striking with realistic energy using a sharp and historically accurate blade, then you are not going to experience the same edge trauma when you take blows on the middle of your blade right against its edge.

It is also understandable that some modern enthusiasts due to their past and present activities have an emotional investment in edge-on-edge blocking. However, to be true to the subject and our own potentials we owe it to our martial heritage to consider the evidence honestly and grow from the experience.

Unlike the seemingly indestructible magic swords of cinema, where pretend blows are struck by pretend sword fighters, real blades are damaged by forcibly impacting edge against sharp edge. As the historical evidence confirms, when sword edges became severely gouged, nicked, and notched they were less effective weapons. Thus, bashing them edge upon edge by either rigid blocks or direct edge on edge strikes was, at least in Medieval and Renaissance fencing, an inferior technique to be avoided.

See also:

The Physical Reality of Impacts and Edges

The Physical Reality of Impacts and Edges - Historical Examples

Some Edge-on-Edge Cutting Experiments

SOURCES:

C. Roworth. The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre uniting the Scotch and Austrian Methods into one regular system to which is added Remarks on the Spadroon. London, 1798, printed for T. Egerton at the Military Library near Whitehall.

Kristiansen, Kristian. “The tale of the sword – swords and swordfighters in Bronze Age Europe” in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, November 2002, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 319-332. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.

De Brack, F. Cavalry Outpost Duties. Translated from the 3rd edition of 1863 by Major Camillo C. C. Carr, U.S. Army 8th Cavalry. NY, John Wiley & Sons, 1893.

Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry By His majesty’s Command, Adjutant General’s office, 1st December 1796. London. Printed for the War office and sold by T. Egerton, Military Library, Whitehall, MDCCXCVI.

Instruction pour la Cavalerie, sur le maniement le plus avantageux du sabre. publiée en 1796, par Schmidt, Professeur d’escrime du corps royal des cadets à Berlin, Accompagnée de planches. Traduite de l’allemand par un officier général. Paris, Anselin, 1828.  Drawn and engraved by Ambrosie Tardieu. Documents complémentaires, Édition de textes et documents destinés spécialement au site Histoire et Figurines, tous droits réservés.



[1] For keenness and resilience many, but certainly not all, European swords before 1000 CE were typically produced by welding a sandwich of plain softer iron between two harder steel skins. Thus, there would be a minute "seam" down the center of both edges of the blade that would make them even more susceptible to edge trauma. A factor overlooked when comparing use of later sabers and cutlasses to earlier cutting-swords of the Middle Ages is that sabers were quite often mass produced military issue blades.  Not being the primary weapon of soldiers they were in no way treated with the same care or reverence as the finer swords of earlier ages. Considerable examples of contemporary criticism of blade quality in the period survive. Many military sabers had fairly thick edges and were often not very sharp.  They were used more to slash or just “hit” with and were not designed to encounter the diverse armor and weapons of earlier ages.  Other lighter types of sabers made for “first blood” duels were far sharper and their edges more fragile as a result.  Much less care could therefore be given to whether or not the edge of these blades was employed for defending (similar things are seen in the modern practice of some styles of Chinese kung fu swordplay and South Pacific blade arts that do little or no test-cutting practice in their training).  Of course, with later Medieval swords of the narrower, tapering, thicker cross-section designed principally for opposing plate armor with thrusts, edges were not as keen or as important as on those specifically designed for strong cutting.  This is especially true of the stiff, rigid specialized weapons like the estoc.  For parrying with those edgeless weapons, any portion of blade could be used regardless of trauma. The same was true for the civilian rapier, a narrow and virtually edgeless blade.

[2] In his 1964, A Knight and His Weapons, Oakeshott noted, “Since I make swords as well as write about and draw them, I speak from practical experience too.” (A Knight and His Weapons, Dufour Editions, 1964, p. 64). He also however wrote: “The great snag in using the sword for parrying, however, was that its edge tended to get badly cut about.  One would imagine that it would be much better always to turn the blade a little and parry with the flat of it, but such was physically impractical.  The wrist, if turned so that the flat of the blade opposed a blow, would be in an unnatural position and unable to resist the blow strongly enough; by contrast, if the sword’s edge opposed the blow, one’s wrist would be set at a more natural angle to the arm so that all the strength of the muscles could be utilized to hold the blade steady; the other way, the opposing blow would bend one’s had easily, with the sword in it.” (p. 70).  Mr. Oakeshott later admitted to this author that he had completely revised this earlier opinion and no longer believed flat parries were at all difficult. This author and his colleagues had the rewarding opportunity to personally demonstrate these actions for Mr. Oakeshott. (Ely, UK, July 1999).

[3] Practice conducted using accurate replica swords and following the methods described in historical manuals, reveals parries can end up edge-on-edge perhaps one out of every four or five times—even without intending to. With cutting-swords, having to make five direct parries in a single fight is considerable.  If in partnered-practice or free-sparring a student is making that many direct parries, perhaps they should instead be concentrating more on evasion and countering by deflection –in order to better keep the initiative in attacking or to utilize the principles of timing and distance to strike the vulnerable openings caused by the opponents own attacks.  Of course, when your life is being threatened, in order to keep from being killed you naturally want to block any way that’s possible.  But keep in mind that allowing your blade to get forcibly struck edge-on could always end up breaking it.  You never knew if it would withstand every blow blocked. Besides, letting your sword be smacked and beat upon as you try to make that parry can allow the opponent to apply any number of techniques to bind and trap it or let them knock it aside and close in—a major action of the very art of fighting with such weapons. 

[4] Ada Bruhn Hoffmeyer, From Medieval Sword to Renaissance Rapier, Gladius, Instituto De Estudios Sobre Armas Antiguas, Madrid, 1963, p. 28. Emphasis added. Apparently she did not consider that a broad blade was purposely designed in the first place to deliver a powerful cutting blow.

[5] The argument has even been encountered that because damaged edges on sword blades are never illustrated being used in historical artwork, that they were not damaged by use. The logic here is apparently that lack of iconographic evidence for damaged edges means they were not damaged or that the damage was not worth illustrating. However, we can reasonably suggest the opposite from the same lack of evidence: edges are not shown damaged because such damage was generally avoided and damaged blades not normally used.

[6] Interestingly, several Medieval fighting manuals show numerous techniques of “half-swording”—gripping the blade by bare hand—as well as grabbing or seizing the opponent’s own blade. These actions imply they weren’t “razor” sharp.  Even a bare hand (let alone a mailed glove or armored gauntlet) can really grab hold of a sharp blade without injury provided the weapon is grabbed quickly and firmly.  However, if the edges are deeply gouged and torn up grabbing a sword in this way can be more difficult since the edge is jagged and serrated.  Would they have then so commonly taught grabbing the edge with bare hands if it could be expected for a sword’s edges to be sharply notched and ragged up?

About the Author:
Having pursued the craft since 1980, John Clements is one of the world's foremost authorities on Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills. A leader in historical fencing studies, he has researched swords and sword combat in ten countries and taught seminars on the subject in eight. He has lectured and demonstrated at numerous museums and universities and is a frequent consultant on Medieval and Renaissance combative systems. Clements has authored two books and more than a dozen magazine articles on historical swordplay. He works full-time teaching and writing on historical European fighting arts.

 
 

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