There Is No "Best Sword":
If there were no firearms, they'd still be designing new swords

By Hank Reinhardt
ARMA Senior Advisorhrbio.jpg (2681 bytes)

This new interest in swords is both gratifying and partly frustrating. It gives me a chance to share an interest and hobby I have had for many years, but now I encounter more and more mistakes, misunderstandings, and just plain stupid ideas.

Frequently, I hear this stuff from people who should know better. I know a collector of custom knives who is a fanatic in the care of his blades. He will buy a very find and well-made knife and take superb care of it. The edge will never be abused. He was stunned recently to find out that swords will nick when struck edge to edge. He frankly didn't think I knew what I was talking about, I guess because they do it in the movies all the time. When I suggested he try it with a couple of his knives, he got the idea.

I once had a guy pick up one of my swords, a schiavona. I warned him that it was quite sharp, but he assured me that he was quite familiar with swords and actually was quite expert in their use. He then proceeded to go into some katas designed for the katana. Before I could say anything he had drawn the back edge of the sword along his shoulder, cutting a 6-inch gash in his deltoid and arm.

On another occasion I watched a young guy pick up a large two-hand claymore. He immediately assumed some of the stances made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan -- stances also based on katas for the katana. After manfully trying to whirl the heavy sword one-handed, he handed it back to the owner, said "Nice balance" and strutted off, obviously convinced the people watching were impressed. Alas, most of them were giggling. It was obvious he couldn't handle the sword; it was simply too big for the way he was trying to use it.

Because of the popularity of Oriental martial arts and the Japanese sword, what I see the most are people trying to handle one-handed broadswords like katanas. But I have also had fencers pick up the same sword and tell me it is impossible to fight with, as you can't even hold it in a proper guard position.

There is not just one type of sword, nor is there just one way to use a sword. A specific technique requires a specific sword, and a specific type of sword requires a specific technique. Rapiers do not cut near as well as katanas. Katanas do not penetrate near as well as rapiers. Neither is very good against plate armor.

At the risk of repeating myself I want to point out that swords are designed with specific uses in mind. They should be judged this way.

I have heard people argue over which is the better sword, the rapier or a Viking type, for instance. This is foolish. What they are actually talking about are fighting styles, not swords. Any sword should be discussed only in the context of what it was designed to do.

This is not a chicken or egg question. Sword designs came first, and practical styles evolved around them. The first sword design was dependent on the skill of the maker, and the material from which it was made -- copper, then bronze. Then sword and technique in Europe entered into a constantly whirling and evolving dance that didn't end until the development of the repeating firearm. Swords and technique in many parts of the world evolved very slowly; in some places they never arrived; and in some places they took directions that were strange to say the least.

Wooden swords edged with shark's teeth, draw cuts, pulling cuts, slashes -- all of these are understandable, but there has always been one type of sword and fighting technique that fills me with . . . well, I'm not sure what. You decide: The Abyssinian shotel is a long curved double-edged sword. At first glance, it looks like a Near Eastern scimitar, but on closer inspection you realize that the curve is a full half circle. And it is, I repeat, double-edged. The blade, generally, is a flattened, diamond cross section and quite stiff.

The natives fight with these swords from behind large, circular leather shields. Rather than try to cut through the shield, or feint it out of the way, they reach around it to hook their opponent with the point of the sword. I think you can image what a strange type of combat it must be. Many years ago, when the movie theaters had shorts subjects, I saw a travelogue that briefly showed two Abyssinians "fencing" with sword and shield. They hoped and ducked and bounced all around, with the long curved swords moving in very awkward ways. Really strange.

When you handle a shotel you realize that it isn't very effective for slicing, nor slashing, and certainly not built for thrusting, but it is pretty good for hooking, and that is how it should be judged.

To get a better idea of function and design, usage and effectiveness, let's take brief looks at how changes have taken place with some specific types.

The term "rapier" doesn't show up until the late 15th century and was used to denote a slender sword worn as part of civilian dress. But its origins go further back, and it can be argued that it had its beginnings in the estoc of the 14th century.

The estoc was a long sword, with a stiff blade of square or triangular section and no functioning edges. It was designed to punch through armor, either plate or mail. Against plate, there was the possibility it could pierce the plate if it struck squarely, and if not, it could slide and wedge in one of the joints of the armor. It was at about this time that they were learning to put little bars and circles on crossguards to help protect the hand. The counter argument regarding the ancestry of the rapier points out that earliest rapiers were double-edged -- in essence, merely lighter swords worn with civilian dress. Such swords were not used in battle and were primarily for self-defense and dueling.

At this time, the blades were generally double-edged, but somewhat slim, and used for both the cut and thrust. The Art of Fence was quite rudimentary. The sword had always been considered an offensive weapon; one blocked or parried only in dire emergencies. Soon, however, the sword was used as a defensive weapon as well. Of course, this tore the edges up pretty badly, but they also quickly learned to parry with the flat, and anyway, the point was more deadly.

As this style of combat took over, the sword began to change again. The hilt began to acquire more elaborate rings in order to protect the hand, and the blade began to lengthen and narrow. By the middle of the 16th century, the sword had become the swept-hilt rapier. The blade had gotten quite long, and the edge was no longer important. Indeed, there was one blade that was square in section and flattened for the last inches, so that it was sharp there. This point was used for slashing cuts, usually at the face and eyes. The blade was excessively long, up to 60 inches in some cases. It was felt, incorrectly, that the longer blade gave advantage.

It must have been awkward walking around with a 60-inch sword blade banging into things and tripping people. It got to be such a nuisance in England Queen Elizabeth issued an edict, and every sword over a yard long was broken.

The Art of Fence was getting better and better, and by the turn of the century, the lunge was developed. This really put an end to excessively long blades, and they rapidly shrank to about 36-39 inches. In the meantime, the hilt had been acquiring a few shells and plates and finally, in the early 17th century, acquired the form known as a cavalier hilt. It is very similar to the slightly earlier dish hilt, and both are frequently confused with the cup hilt. It has a tendency to bounce about and proved annoying. Besides, they didn't think it looked very dressy. I do, but I also realize that to me it looks romantic as hell.

And so the sword continued to change. The guard became smaller; the crossguard, wherein one once looped his fingers for a very secure grip, was now merely decorative. The blade continued to shrink until at last the final form of the smallsword was reached -- triangular blade, very light and fast, from 30 to 33 inches long.

They look like beautiful and deadly little toys, smallswords do. They are light and slim and very attractive. Many consider them the ultimate sword and the most deadly of all the dueling weapons. Personally, I strongly disagree. They are quite deadly when used within the limitations now taken for granted. This is, one is not supposed to grab the blade. However, grabbing the blade was an honorable and valued tactic, even if it is now illegal in sport fencing. I can assure you it is not difficult to slap a blade aside with your off hand or even seize it if the missed thrust is even the tiniest bit slow. This is not a feasible tactic if the blade is well edged, but with a triangular blade it is quite possible.

We have not really studied the development of the rapier here, but it is hoped we have shown something of the dynamics of the design progression from the beginnings to the peak in the 1670s and then to its final and (my opinion) degenerate form. The purpose of this sort of sword at this time was to provide civilian protection. As more was learned the sword changed to take advantage of this knowledge. Fashion and changing social conditions worked on the rapier, but even in its final form it never strayed from its intended purpose as a thrusting weapon, designed to be used with one hand, and to provide protection from a similar weapon. In none of these forms was it intended to be used against armor or in the heavy heat of battle.

Another sword that needs to be looked at is the medieval or knightly cruciform sword that is always incorrectly referred to as a broadsword. This sword can easily be traced back to the beginning of the Iron Age. For our purposes, we can start with the Vikings.

The early Viking sword in general use was long -- about 33-34 inches -- broad -- 2-2.5 inches -- with a single fuller. The blade had parallel sides, with little or no taper. Steel was quite valuable, and at this time making large quantities was quite difficult. As a result, the swords were made by a process called pattern welding.

In this process, steel bars containing a good deal of carbon were welded to iron bars, then all were twisted and rewelded to produce the patterns we refer to as Damascus. A high-carbon edge was then welded on, the sword was filed, ground, tempered and polished. The end result was a light and fast blade, capable of delivering a terrible shearing cut. A good Viking sword was flexible, yet had a very hard edge.

This sword was designed to be used in conjunction with a wooden shield. It would be facing, more than likely, another wooden shield, and a foe wearing an iron helmet and armored with leather. If that opponent were very rich he would be wearing a mail shirt.

The sword, therefore, had to be flexible. It needed to take a lot of shock when hitting a shield, and cutting into a torso or even a leg -- the most likely target -- put a lot of strain on the sword. If it wasn't flexible, then it would bend easily. Of course, the sword could have been made thicker, but then the weight would be too great for combat. Swords at this time weighed between 2 and 3 pounds, tops. One wins an encounter with swords by cutting the other fellow first. In the 14th century, given the state of defensive armor, that meant leg cuts. Of the hundreds of corpses piled at Visby in 1361, 70% had leg wounds, most of them deep enough to be seen in the bones 500 years later.

The edge, we see, had to be hard. Bone is tough, so is a steel rimmed shield. And there was always the likelihood of hitting mail. One tried to avoid this by cutting at the neck, the hands and arms and, particularly, the legs.

Sometimes you got an opening and just had to take a cut. Mail is tough, composed of iron wire. It was not tempered and is somewhat soft. Tempered mail is not a good idea -- under a blow, such mail will break, giving free rein to the edge. Soft mail will bend and deform, resisting the cut a long way. Any mail will nick the edge, but if the blow is delivered accurately, at the proper angle and with a great deal of force, this sword can and will cut mail.

That is the sword in general use in Europe at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Around 900 AD, a new sword appeared. The blade was slightly shorter -- 32 inches average -- but with the same width. It tapered much more acutely, and ended in a good serviceable point. The change in blade shape makes this a much faster sword in both the cut and the recovery. By throwing the weight closer to the hand, the sword becomes easier to maneuver.

Those features weren't the big difference. The real biggie was that the whole sword was made of steel. No matter how good the smith, a pattern-welded sword was an expensive and slow production. With large pieces of steel, the whole process is speeded up, the sword is cheaper, and just as good. But the new sword had to be better because the armor had also started to improve. Actually, the armor was pretty much the same, except there was now more of it, and mail was more likely to be encountered because it was accumulating, generation by generation.

The next 200 years saw more changes. Mail now covered the whole body. Fighting on foot was left to the peasant. The knight, fully armored, held a good solid wooden shield and the lance was the main weapon. The sword became secondary, a back-up, and was used against lightly armored foot soldiers.

The sword had changed again. Its shape reverted and the two edges were more nearly parallel. Speed was not quite as important now as the weight of the blow. The blade had become slightly longer to give greater impetus to the blow, and to give the horseman greater reach.

The next 200-year jump brings us to 1300 AD, and even more changes.

At this time, armor was beginning to win the eternal fight with arms. Mail was slightly thicker and stronger, and strengthened with plates and splints of steel. These changes brought about changes in sword design and new types of swords appeared.

The most prominent of these swords was the Great Sword or War Sword. This is a long-bladed sword, and blades average about 40 inches in length. The sword is not particularly heavy, weighing 4 to 5 pounds. It is light enough to be swung one-handed in conjunction with a shield, but the grip is long enough to accommodate another hand, so that the sword can be used two-handed. The great length increases velocity and cutting power. Along with the long-bladed Great Sword, a shorter weapon appears, with a blade shape similar to the later Viking swords, but more exaggerated. These are big swords, with very wide blades tapering sharply. The wide blade increases the cutting power of the sword, while the strong taper makes the point a most important part of the sword. Flexibility is now sacrificed for rigidity to strengthen the thrust.

Even a third sword achieved new use. The falchion had always been around, but with the increase in protective capability of armor the falchion became a most useful weapon. With a short very wide blade, single-edged, it is capable of delivering a terrible blow. Shaped like a modern Shriner's scimitar, it became popular not only with knights, but with archers and men-at-arms.

From here until the 1650s the changes in arms and armor became more rapid.

Mail, that most ancient and honored form of defense, was discarded in favor of plate. The skill of the armorer reached heights that have never been, and never will, be equaled. Plate armor is a light, rigid defense that allows a man to move quite freely, and yet gives great protection. The only real drawback is that it is extremely hot. Ventilation is almost nil, and this can cause exhaustion. Fighting on horseback, when the main body parts used are the arms, is OK. One can do this for a rather long while. However, on foot, when the legs are used, much more heat is generated and more oxygen required and plate is less useful.

Swordmakers made one last attempt to overcome the new armor.

Light and flat cutting blades were abandoned. The sword profile with a blade wide at the top and tapering very sharply, stayed pretty much the same. However, the cross-section became a thick, flattened diamond, and the sword became quite rigid. Weight varied a great deal. Some blades stayed light, weighing 2 to 3 pounds, while others went upwards of 5 pounds. These heavy swords became nothing but sharpened bars of steel. Both the heavy and the light versions were attempts to punch through the armor, and it could be done if the blow was heavy and square. In a slightly off-center blow, there was a chance the sword would slide into a crevice or chink and wound the man. And the heavy swords also tried to "break" the armor by sheer weight and force.

This was the last attempt of the sword to overcome armor and that fight was abandoned. There was simply no way that a sword was going to cut through steel plate. Axes, maces and war hammers became the weapons of armored combat.

The sword was by no means abandoned. It simply was not used when fighting armored knights. The sword was too important socially and traditionally to be cast aside. Civilian swords became important items of dress. In combat, the flat, light cutting sword came back and was carried to fight men at arms and other lightly armed troops.

This is, of course, a quick and simplified view of the whole thing. Obviously, the bow and the pike were to render armor almost obsolete, and gunpowder administered the coup de grace. However, we can see here that swords are all shaped to achieve specific goals while overcoming specific obstacles. Each new type of sword was a response to a new development in armor or fighting style.

Let's look at a modern example where sword and style conflict mightily.

Japanese arms and armor were fully developed by the 1200s, and stayed pretty much the same for several hundred years. The katana is an excellent sword, and quite well designed for the type of fighting for which it is intended. The fencing techniques are excellent. Regardless of other styles you may consider superior -- sword and shield, rapier fencing, Turkish and Iranian swordplay -- Japanese fencing and the katana are perfectly matched.

In fighting with a katana, many of the moves are drawcuts, and many of the attacks are designed to be struck with the front 6 inches of the blade. The katana is well suited for this, as the blade is strong, thick, and well curved.

In a recent movie, the hero uses a wide, straight and heavy sword. All his moves and posturing, however, are for the katana in attacks that simply would not work with such a sword. A blow with the front 6 inches would set up vibrations that could jar your teeth. And it wouldn't cut very deep. Now you could stop the vibrations by making the blade extremely thick, but then you also increase the weight and lessen the cutting power even more. In short, the movie sword was simply wrong for the type of fighting shown. About the only thing more ludicrous would have been using it like a rapier. Of course, the movie's hero was the sort of superhero who could handle a heavy sword. The actor, however, was swinging an aluminum blade. Don't ever try those moves with a sharp 6-pound steel sword, let alone one of those 9-pounders some guys make.

On the subject of modern swords, I am told some of them are hung on the wall in anticipation of defense against intruders. The merits of this as an idea should be debated in some other forum; we can discuss the new swords, however.

Most of them are well-made of good materials. I believe some of them are a little too hard for the shocks a sword blade must take. Almost all are far too heavy. A 6-pound sword is laughable, and a 4-pounder is only worth a chuckle. A sword is not a long knife; it mush be, for its size, more lightly constructed.

Only a 2 to 3 pound sword should be considered for modern use; nothing heavier will achieve the velocity needed, nor will a heavier sword maneuver, parry or recover fast enough. It should be relatively short and quite sharp and straight enough for a serious thrust. The straight wakizashi sold as a "ninja" sword, the hanger or European hunting sword, and shorter 19th century foot officers swords are all useful models, but 12-pound knightly swords? Never.

One sword that provides quite interesting material for such speculation is the saber. It can also show the relationships between fighting styles, perceived fighting styles and design.

Most people will tell you that the curved cavalry saber was tired for a number of years, was found wanting, and the final, most efficient cavalry sword was the straight one. They will point to both the British and U.S. cavalry swords of this century. Both were straight-bladed thrusting weapons. They were, however, the last designs only because the machine gun had rendered cavalry obsolete. The question as to which was the best was never fully answered.

The fight was bitter for a century or more, and the thrusting sword won only by very narrow margins. Here is some of the argument employed over the efficiency of the two styles:

The curved sword has been the sword of the mounted warrior in many places and for many years. A curved slashing blow is very damaging, and even if it does not kill, it can render the victim unable to continue the fight. Against infantry, the curve allows the cavalryman to strike a strong and effective blow that does not imprison the blade and cause it to be wrenched from the hand. Against other mounted troops it provides effective offense and defense. Sitting astride a horse, the sword is easier to handle in cutting motions than the unnatural thrusts that a straight blade requires.

Opponents pointed out the many times that soldiers had been struck repeatedly on the head with curved sabers and continued to fight. They also cited times when swords have been driven deep into the body, and wrenched from the grasp as the horse swept past. After pointing out the horrors and inadequacies of the curved saber, they launch into the merits of the straight blade.

It can reach an infantry soldier lying flat on the ground. The horse won't willingly step on a man, and you need to lean too far out of the saddle to cut someone lying flat. However, with a straight blade you can reach the ground with the point, which means you can thrust through. A most valid point is that when someone is stabbed, he isn't likely to continue to fight. As for fighting other mounted troops, with proper training you can learn to stab. As for holding on to the weapon, with the proper wrist motion the sword can be pulled from the body of the enemy, either by the cavalryman himself, or he can let the motion of the horse do it. And it was claimed the thrust was hard to dodge or parry.

One can see that both swords have their merits, and both have their flaws. One of the most serious flaws of the curved saber was one that could have most easily been corrected. You see, most military sabers were never sharpened. They just had flats and no real edge. They made nasty surface wounds by splitting the flesh, but did not cut deeply. Had they been sharpened -- ah, then things would have been quite different. On the other hand, the thrust of a 40-inch blade at the end of an outstretched arm, urged along by 800 pounds of moving horse, provides a serious problem and certainly no easy answers.

That, in a nutshell and with different problems and different swords, is the story of sword design. Most well-made swords did their jobs well, but there never was an all-around sword. Judge them that way, each in its own context -- there is no best.

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