The Myth of Thrusting versus Cutting Swords

By John Clements & Belinda Hertz

While the great diversity of cutting and thrusting swords around the world testify to the importance of both cutting and thrusting in fencing, there is something of a pervasive myth of a supposed "superiority" of point over edge in swordplay, and predominantly in European swordplay. Yet, with only a few minor exceptions, prior to the early 18th century there was no "cut versus thrust" debate among Western swordsmen.

Many swords of the world were in actuality compromise designs that attempted to blend and combine in one weapon those elements ideally best for slashing and stabbing. There are many, many possible design solutions. There are types of swords with straight backs yet curved edges, and others that widen toward the point but then taper sharply. In most cultures acutely pointed cut-and-thrust swords existed side by side with more dedicated cutting blades for centuries with neither replacing the other.

The thrust and cut alike were common, even fundamental fighting techniques among warrior cultures. For example, virtually every ancient people employed the thrusting spear, with many, such as the Greeks, Swiss, and Japanese, even specializing in it. When it comes to pole arms, just as with swords there are both thrust-only and cut-and-thrust versions: spears, lances and yari as opposed to halberds, glaives, and naginatas. Narrow tapered thrusting swords were actually known in ancient Crete while the Greeks themselves even developed powerful cutting swords in the convex bladed kopis. A similar weapon, the falcata, was employed by the Iberians, who are credited with developing the gladius hispanicus from which the Romans reportedly modeled their sword. The Romans, often cited as personifying the epitome of thrusting swordplay, actually stressed both cut and thrust with their wide-bladed gladius and eventually adopted the longer spatha, or cutting blade. The Celts --who had excellent metallurgical skills for some 500 years --preferred wide cutting-blades as did the later Vikings and Franks. The Saxons employed a large Bowie-like blade called the scramaseax, from which their name is derived. The curved blade of the early sabre or sable was said to have been first introduced to Eastern Europe through steppe nomads sometime by the 9th century and continued to dominate there among mounted warriors into the 20th century. In regions of ancient China two major forms of sword, one a curved cleaving weapon and the other a longer straight cut-and-thrust one developed. In both Persia and Arabia from at least the 9th century straight double-edged swords designed for cut and thrust were used for mounted combat just as much as were curved single-edge ones such as talwars and scimitars. Charlemagne's own sword of state was itself a curved single-edged cutting and thrusting blade.

Throughout most of history, though specialized thrusting swords appeared along cut-and-thrust kinds, neither cutting nor thrusting blades dominated entirely. In Western Europe by at least the 1200s more slender-pointed tapering blades were used as much as were wider parallel-edged ones. In the Middle Ages specialized thrusting swords such as the estoc (tuck or stocco) were developed specifically to fight articulated plate armor by stabbing into gaps and joints with their rigid blades. Medieval fighting texts are full of warnings as to the effectiveness of the thrust and how it was "deadly as a serpent." Still, a variety of curved Medieval sword forms such as the falchion, badelaire, malchus, storta, and messer were commonly used among both knights and foot-soldiers in Medieval Europe (which could most all be employed in thrusting). From the early 1500s, the wide, curved Bohemian Dussack was a traditional German fencing weapon and training tool. The Japanese katana, famous for its cutting power, is actually a fairly good thrusting sword as well and such techniques were especially taught for battlefield use against armor. In North Africa, an unusual sickle-like sword, the shotel (similar to the ancient Thracian falx and sica), was even designed for hooking and thrusting behind an opponent's shield. Various tapering swords ideal for close-in stabbing were also developed in Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. Even the Zulu assegai can, in a sense, be seen as a form of long-handled thrusting sword. We might even consider such "flame bladed" swords as the Indonesian kris and the Renaissance-era flammard or flamberge as combination curved and straight edge.

In fact, whether a sword is straight or curved, tapered or wide, is not always a factor of the armor it might face or even whether it would be used mounted or on foot, but rather of the preferences and temperament of the user. Many North African swords for instance, were never intended to face heavy armors, yet vary from thin and straight to wide and curved styles.

While it is true that an original and particularly effective method of civilian foining fence (thrusting swordplay) did arise in 16th century Europe and continued to be refined and specialized into the 17th and 18th centuries, first with the gentleman's court or smallsword and then the duelling épée, the belief that thrusting swords were an exclusively Renaissance "invention" is inaccurate and misleading. Even into the Renaissance, where with the advent of the rapier point fencing finally came into its own in Western Europe, cutting blades never disappeared from either the battlefield or personal self-defense (the rapier's innovative style of quick, deceptive, long-reaching stabbing attack quickly came to dominate both the urban street-fighting environment and the duelling field, but was never intended for the battlefield). Arguably nearly all European fencing manuals prior to the 1570s are "cut and thrust" styles. As Sir Philip Sydney in 1580 advised, "use as well the blow as the thrust" and, in the words of the master George Silver in 1599, "there is no fight perfect without both blow and thrust." Nevertheless, different swords do one or the other better.

In Captain John Godfrey's 1747, A Treatise Upon The Useful Science of Defence, he explained the relative values of the cut and thrust when he argued, "I must take notice of the Superiority the Back-Sword has over the Small, in point of Use." He then adds, "But the Back-Sword, sure, must be distinguished from the other, because it is as necessary in the Army, as the other is mischievous in Quarrels, and deadly in Duels. The Small-Sword is the Call of Honour, the Back-Sword the Call of Duty." Godfrey noted the difference in function between the smallsword and backsword by saying, "Sure[ly] the wide difference between killing Numbers of your Enemy in Battle, and one Man in a quarrel, ever so much in your own Defence, every calm thinking Man cannot but allow."

Into the 19th century, when armor and shields were no longer factors in combat, cavalry armies still debated what weapon was best for mounted swordplay: a saber (curved or straight), spadroon or broadsword, or else a straight-bladed thrusting weapon, with each type having its proponents swearing from experience the utility of one form over the other. Yet, despite the debate, the vast majority of military pattern swords issued by European armories in the 19th century were curved cutting blades --often based on popular Turkish or Mameluke designs (even the modern U.S. Marine Corps' official dress sword is a semi-curved blade of this style).

Despite being eclipsed in the realm of civilian fencing by thrusting weapons ideal for single combat without armor, a tradition of cutting swordplay with sabre, backsword, and broadsword continued in Europe well into the 20th century. As the great Victorian historian of fencing, Egerton Castle, noted, "from the last third of the 17th century…the sword, as a fighting implement, becomes differentiated into two very different directions. The military weapon becomes the back-sword or sabre; the walking companion and duelling weapon becomes what we now understand by the small-sword. Two utterly different kinds of fence are practised: one, that of the back-sword; the other, what we would now call foil-play." Describing the history of cutting and thrusting in historical fencing Dr. Sydney Anglo explains, "One of the most striking features - not only of the early theoretical literature but also of the actual foot-fighting - is the clear understanding of the use of thrusting with all weapons. In this respect, the ignorance of fencers prior to the mid-sixteenth century has been greatly exaggerated. The efficacy of the point had been grasped in classical times; was succinctly enunciated by Vegetius; and passed thence into the common lore of medieval combat which extolled the superiority of the 'foyne' or thrust over the cut." For example, inspired by Vegetius, one 1458 source on "Knighthood and Bataille" stated, "Thrusting is better than smiting, especially at the heart." This is certainly true, but only in context --and that's the point.

In fact, many masters and fencers continued to argue for the necessity of familiarity with both the cut and the thrust, either with two specialized weapons or one capable of each. By the late 19th century, Italians such as Giuseppe Radaelli even reintroduced cutting swordplay into the realm of sport fencing. In essence then, except for civilian duelling in Europe, there has never been a true historical predominance of the cut over thrust. Differences between the two are a matter of the circumstances and conditions weapons are employed under as well as the preferences and temperaments of the fighters. Of course, thrusting was often forbidden in mock fighting contests during the Medieval and Renaissance eras precisely because, unlike edge blows, such techniques were notoriously difficult to safely control and puncture wounds were nearly impossible to treat (even today, surgeons still dread treating stab wounds more than lacerations).

Single-handed curved or semi-curved swords have been around since ancient times. They have invariably been favored by lightly armored and unarmored mounted warriors, but inadequate for armored combat. There were also slightly curved and single-edged Medieval longswords sometimes considered now to be "two-handed sabers." Many types of European sabers (broadswords, cutlasses, and spadroons) with either "light" or "heavy" blades were developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and among them are considered some of the worst and most useless sword types ever devised-even being criticized in the very era they were used. These later "cavalry" sabers, a generic term if there ever was, were adopted and adapted from earlier forms. Unlike curved or semi-curved blades from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, which were essentially meat cleavers designed to deliver heavy chopping blows, these later styles were employed primarily in an elbow and wrist-based slashing manner and in some cases drawing-like press slices. While others with narrow straight blades were barley capable of making edge blows and actually favored thrusts only.

It can be postulated that sword attacks with the point rely more on speed and finesse while those with the edge rely more on strength and momentum and this itself may reflect some of the prejudice that later developed between the two philosophies. Part of this prejudice lies in the simple fact that thrusting requires much less strength to make a lethal wound while an effective cut can require a powerful blow. Both require skill to use, both will kill, and both have situations where they are more practical. In the end, it was really 19th century Victorians and their 20th century sport fencer followers with their thin featherweight swords (descended from the 18th century smallsword) who perpetuated a belief in a historical linear "evolution" from crude, heavier, clumsy cutting and bashing swords toward the more refined and elegant "proper" science of point fencing. But history shows that where each was used in combination, the art of defense was arguably more versatile.


See Also: What did Historical Swords Weigh?



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