Swords come in a wide variety shapes and sizes according to where they were made, when they were made and their intended purpose. Some were meant for cutting, some for thrusting, others for both cutting and thrusting, some by men on foot, some by men riding horses. The sword evolved over several thousand years from a bronze sickle-like cutting weapon into a wide variety of cutting and thrusting weapons made of steel. How they were made and the materials from which they were made were determined less by culture, geographical location or the use to which the swords were to be put, and more according to available technological skill and minerals. The first swords were made from bronze not because no one had conceived the notion of a sword before the invention of bronze but because it was one of the first metals strong enough to tolerate robust usage in the form of a weapon. In the Americas where the bronze and iron were unknown, Inca and Aztec warriors wielded sword-like weapons made of wood fitted with pieces of obsidian, a stone to which a far sharper edge could be given than could be achieved with bronze or, indeed, iron and some steels. All this had a direct bearing on the sort of injuries such weapons could inflict.
The earliest metal swords date from around 3,000 bce. Made of bronze, these were sickle-shaped and intended only for cutting or slashing. The Sumerians, Assyrians, Canaanites and Egyptians all used these weapons, now commonly called by their Egyptian name, khopesh. The weapon remained largely unchanged for almost 2,000 years, even after iron superseded bronze. The first European swords date from around 1,700 bce and were also made of bronze. They were produced in the region between the Black Sea and the Aegean. These had long straight blades and were meant for thrusting as well as cutting. Some appear to have been intended purely for thrusting as the blades were extremely narrow; these are often called rapiers because of their resemblance to the renaissance weapon of that name but the term is rather misleading.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Its hardness and its brittleness are dependant on its tin content. Chinese bronze blades of the same period tended to have a higher tin content (17–21 per cent) than their European counterparts which made Chinese blades more brittle but harder than European blades. Their hardness allowed them to hold an edge. European blades usually contained 10–12 per cent tin which allowed a degree of pliability so that they tended to bend rather than break but were less able to retain an edge than Chinese blades. Bronze swords of the Chinese Warring States Period (c.480–230 BCE) had a more sophisticated structure: a soft core and a hard exterior. These weapons were resilient and less prone to breaking yet were capable of holding a good edge. This sort of structure implies that by the fifth century BCE, the Chinese had developed a sophisticated sword fighting technique. Even at this early period, it is evident from surviving weapons that parries or blocks were made with the flat of the blade rather than the edge to avoid damaging it. Moreover, such blocks were probably made with the forte where the blade was strongest (because it was closest to the handle).
Once smiths realised they were making improvements to the metal when they worked it in a particular way, the process of steel-making began to develop. The ideal carbon level in steel was 0.3–1.2 per cent by weight but since the smiths had no quantitative test to determine the carbon content of the metal, they could only go by its appearance and how it behaved as the iron was worked. When the smiths understood how to make good-quality steel, they were able to make a blade with a soft core, which gave it resilience and flexibility, yet a very hard exterior which would take and retain an edge far better than iron or bronze. These qualities made steel blades superior to everything else. However, steel did not quickly become the standard material for sword blades as it was very labour intensive to make them and required much skill which had to be learned. Thus, only men of status owned steel-bladed swords until the process became more commonplace.
In Europe, a process called pattern welding emerged during the third century ad. The swordsmith hammer welded together strips of wrought iron and steel which he then forged into square-section rods. He twisted together groups of three or four of these and hammer welded them again, then folded over the result and hammered that into a bar which he then hammered out and folded over again. The process was repeated several times before the smith hammered the metal out into a strip. This became the core of the blade to which he then hammer welded the hard steel edges and the whole sword was finished off by grinding and polishing. Later blades did not possess a pattern-welded core, merely a soft iron one.
Swords of the sixth to eleventh centuries, particularly those made by Frankish and Viking smiths, had mostly pattern-welded blades. By the eleventh century, however, the process had gone out of favour and was eventually forgotten. European swordsmiths rediscovered it a few hundred years later when Europe began to import Indian steel (Wootz steel) via the Middle East. This steel was known as Damascus steel and blades made from it were called Damascene. European swordsmiths tried to replicate Damascus steel and this led to the rise of Toledo in Spain and Passau (from about 1300) and Solingen (from about 1400) in Germany as centres of fine steels during the Middle Ages. Good quality swords had always been made in the Passau and Solingen regions because of the high-grade iron ore found there and sword making in Toledo went back to around 500 bce.
Damascus blades were renowned for their sharpness and myths grew up about their astonishing qualities. Among these was an alleged ability to sever a hair that fell across an up-turned edge and a capability for slicing through a gun barrel as if it were no more than butter. Sadly, neither is a true. Modern steels are able to hold a sharper edge than any ancient steel and no modern blade can perform such feats. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such notions highlights the fact that many steel blades were not of high quality, could not hold an edge and were prone to bending or breaking in combat. Armies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which relied on pikemen to protect arquebusiers, equipped their soldiers with cheap swords for self-protection. Not all of them were of the best quality as they were produced as cheaply as possible, an early form of mass production.
The blades of European swords generally became slightly longer between the eighth and eleventh centuries while otherwise remaining much the same shape; parallel edges which curved to a point near the tip, or a blade that gradually tapered its whole length. By the eighth century, blades ranged in length from about 70 cm to about 80 cm, while by the eleventh they had increased in length to 84–91 cm. The width remained much the same, about 4.5–6.2 cm at the hilt. Earlier iron and bronze blades had been flat, their thickness varying from region to region, but steel swords from about the fifth century ad had flattened lozenge or diamond cross-sections with the apex on each side ground away to produce a broad shallow channel, known as a fuller, that ran almost to the tip.
These channels, ground into the pattern-welded part of the blade, both stiffened and lightened the blade without reducing its strength. Romantically gruesome notions that they were there to allow the blood to run out of a stabbed adversary are quite false. Earlier Iron Age swords tended not to have these channels and consequently they were often heavier because they were thicker to give them rigidity. Nevertheless, they were prone to bend in combat. During the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BCE, for example, when the Romans defeated a combined army of Teutones and Cimbri (both Germanic tribes), Teutone warriors were observed to straighten their iron swords using their feet after the blades had become bent in the fighting.
The shape of the blade point and the dimensions of the crossguard are strong indicators of how these swords were might have been used. Indeed, the channels in the blades show that these weapons were definitely intended for use, since lightness is indicative of practicality, that the weapons were not merely adornments or status symbols despite the fact that many of the blades were inlaid with silver patterns or lettering. The same cannot be said of all leaf-shaped bronze swords, however. Many of the surviving examples have blades that are too flimsy for practical use. Neither do they show evidence of ever having been provided with a sharp edge, a rather essential requirement for a sword. That could mean that the manner in which bronze swords were intended to be used differed substantially from what we understand as swordsmanship but the blades show no signs of wear to suggest that they might have been used.
Although the exact manner in which the weapons of the seventh to eleventh centuries were used in combat – the techniques of swordsmanship – is unknown, certain inferences can be made, based on the dimensions and shape of the swords. Such weapons were primarily intended for attack rather than defence. The idea that swords could be wielded in a purely defensive way did not become part of the grammar of swordsmanship until about the fifteenth century. That is not to imply that swords were not used to block (parry) attacks before then. Indeed, the difference between blocks of the eighth century and parries of the fifteenth century was probably not that great but the level of sophistication of swordsmanship before about the fourteenth century is difficult to determine as there are no illustrations or clear descriptions. Take these translated extracts from The Life and Death of Cormac the Skald, written in Icelandic c.1250–1300, for example:
The viking laid bare his side, but the sword would not bite upon it. Then Ogmund whirled about his sword swiftly and shifted it from hand to hand, and hewed Asmund’s leg from under him.
Then it was Cormac’s turn. He struck at Bersi [Cormac’s adversary], who parried with Whitting [his sword]. Skofnung [Cormac’s sword] cut the point off Whitting … The sword-point flew upon Cormac’s hand, and he was wounded in the thumb. The joint was cleft, and blood dropped upon the hide [on which they were fighting].
Bersi hacked away, but Whitting his sword stuck fast in the iron border of Steinar’s shield. Cormac whirled it up just when Steinar was striking out. He struck the shield-edge, and the sword glanced off, slit Bersi’s buttock, sliced his thigh down to the knee-joint, and stuck in the bone.
From two of these extracts, it is clear these fighters were armed with swords and shields while in the first extract, at least one of the fighters was ambidextrous with his sword. These encounters were not battles but feud fights. They also illustrate just how sharp the blades were and show the ease with which the swords could be wielded. It was common to give swords names and for a good sword to be passed from father to son.
While the hilts of Bronze Age swords were cast in one piece with the blade, iron and steel swords had hilts made up from several pieces. The crossguard was shaped to slide over the tang and sit on the shoulders of the blade (where the tang emerges from the blade). A grip was constructed to fit over the tang flush against the crossguard and the whole assembly was secured in place by the pommel which was hammered on to the end of the tang. By about the eleventh century, swords used a small block that fitted over the end of the tang above the pommel to secure the pommel and the grip. The protruding end of the tang was hammered over, a processing known as peening. This peen block acted as a rivet head.
Swords of the early Middle Ages had grips long enough for a hand to hold comfortably and were typically 8.5–9.5 cm long, although some were shorter, while others were as much as 10.5 cm in length. All these grips were intended to be held in one hand, not two. The grips were mostly leather-covered wood but some were also wound with metal wire, while others had metal bands of bronze or steel inlaid with gold and silver. The pommel had some weight to it and acted as a counterpoise to the blade and it could be used to strike an opponent; hence, to pummel someone.
The cutting edges of the blade extended round its tip. Some blades had rounded tips which made them less suitable for thrusting than weapons with more pointed tips, bearing in mind that men wore armour. For any sword to be usable as a weapon in combat, the balance point has to be well placed. This ensures that the effort to wield it is directed into delivering blows and the swordsman does not have to work against the weight of the weapon. More important when it comes to cuts, is the centre of percussion, a point on the blade at which the maximum force can be delivered to the target with the least effort while the hand experiences the least shock on impact. Striking with any other part of a blade can cause severe vibration in the grip and even make the weapon jump out of the hand. Usually, this point is about a third of the blade’s length from the tip, where the foible meets the middle section of the blade. Its position is determined by the weight distribution in the blade but can be adjusted by fitting heavier or lighter pommels. The balance point can be similarly adjusted.
The length of the crossguard started to increase during the ninth century. Whereas up to about the sixth century, the crossguard was barely longer than the width of the blade, just large enough to prevent the hand from slipping off the grip and on to the blade, by the tenth century, it often extended 3 cm on each side. By the eleventh century, the length of the crossguard was up to four times the width of the blade. Moreover, these longer crossguards were no longer ornamented with inlaid silver as many of the crossguards of earlier swords had been. One reason for the increasing length of crossguards was to increase protection for the hand. Whereas earlier guards would have afforded some protection, the very short ones would have provided very little against a cut aimed at the hand or against a blade deliberately slid down the defender’s blade. In the latter instance, the attacking blade would bounce over the short crossguard and strike the hand or forearm.
By about the middle of the thirteenth century, a larger version of this type of sword began to appear, intended for both one-handed and two-handed use and, with that in mind, it a had bigger hilt. Such weapons are often referred to as hand-a-half swords, bastard swords but more correctly as longswords. The blade was about 100–120 cm long and the sword typically weighed in the region of 1.5 kg. They are most associated with mounted knights but could be just as easily used on foot as on horseback. They remained in use until the second half of the sixteenth century. The cross-sections of the blades of these weapons were far more varied than those of earlier one-handed swords and were mostly diamond-shaped or lenticular. Fullers were not necessarily present but were sometimes ground in narrow parallel pairs although not for the whole length of the blade. Some blades were of hexagonal section and some were hollow ground (in effect, shallow channels in each face of a diamond-section blade to make them concave). These were quite sophisticated weapons which required a considerable amount of skill to wield effectively (as discussed in an earlier blog).
In Europe, the two-hander was carried at the slope, ie against the shoulder in the same way that a soldier carries a rifle, whereas, in Scotland, the two-hander was carried in a scabbard worn across the back. All other types of sword were carried in a scabbard of wood and carried either in a baldric or suspended by straps from a sword belt worn round the waist. These scabbards were sometimes lined with untreated wool which retained its lanolin to keep the sword free of moisture. Many swords of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries have a metal plate, called a chappe, attached to the cross. When the sword was sheathed, this slid over the throat of the scabbard to keep out the rain. The end of the scabbard was protected with a metal cap called a chape (not to be confused with the chappe). The earliest scabbards for Bronze Age and Iron Age swords had been made of bronze.
Typically, the blade of a two-hander was 120–150 cm long, 3–5 cm wide and had a grip of 35–60 cm. Such weapons weighed around 3.0–6.5 kg. Some of the sixteenth-century blades had scalloped or wavy edges, while others widened towards the tip. The sixteenth-century two-hander had so-called parrying lugs, absent from earlier two-handers, about a hand’s width (sometimes more) below the hilt. These were projections from each edge of the blade to help the swordsman block an attacking blade as well as to enable him to shorten his grip by holding the weapon below the crossguard yet still be protected. The space between the projections and the crossguard, termed the ricasso, was often covered in leather to facilitate holding that part of the blade but it also facilitated carrying the sword at the slope as the ricasso rested on the shoulder.
The crossguards of sixteenth-century two-handers often had side rings which projected at right-angles from the centre, one on each side of the hilt although some had only one. Their purpose was to increase the level of protection for the hands beyond what a crossguard alone could provide. In the previous century, a short right-angled bar was sometimes added to the crossguard to protect the hand in the same way.
Such rings and projections were not peculiar to two-handers. Indeed, they were indicative of the increasing complexity of hilts on all types of sword from the fourteenth century onwards, although they did not become common until the end of the fifteenth. Eventually, they led to the basket hilts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The object of this complexity was not mere decoration or fashion but protection. One of the earliest swords to have an extra protective piece added to the hilt is an Italian weapon dating from about 1350. This has a hook-like projection which extends from underneath the crossguard towards the edge of the blade, both hook and blade being in the same plane. Later, some of the blades were forged with an indentation beneath this hook. The reason for the ring was to project the forefinger which was put over the crossguard to help the swordsman thrust more accurately. The indentation was there to help the swordsman secure a firmer and more comfortable grip. The habit of putting one or two fingers over the crossguard continued well into the eighteenth century.
During the fifteenth century, some swords began to be fitted with a knuckle guard that extended from the crossguard to the pommel. One of the earliest known examples is a single-edged weapon found at the site of the Battle of Wakefield, fought in 1460. A similar weapon is in the Tower of London. The knuckle guard on the latter weapon is an extension of the crossguard, the other end of which curves down towards the blade. The blade has a flat straight back edge and a curved cutting edge which tapers to a sharp point. These single-edged weapons are referred to as backswords and are distinct from the medieval falchion which had a curved single-edged blade which had evolved from the Saxon seax.
Curved bars that came down from the crossguard and touched the blade edges began to be added on both sides of the crossguard, then additional rings, loops and bars were added to connect the side rings. Protective shells, dished metal plates, were also added to fill in the spaces between some of the rings. Bars swept up towards the pommel and a variety of basket-like hilts evolved from around 1400 for the next 200 years or so. Some of these new hilts were distinctive of particular regions of Europe where the swords were manufactured. In the mid-sixteenth century, ribbon-like bars and rings were typical of German weapons, for example, while bars of circular and rhomboidal section were typical of Swiss swords. As these changes occurred, the shape of the grip developed a bulge at its centre, especially with longswords, to help the swordsman retain his grip on the weapon. Pommels changed from the wheel shapes of the Medieval period to variations on drop shapes.
Between about 1450 and about 1550, hilts evolved into full hilts. The quarter hilt was the first development and is often seen in Spanish and Italian weapons of the second half of the fifteenth century. This retained the crossguard, now termed quillons. Each quillon could be curved in or out, up or down. In addition, two side rings, termed arms (sometimes called pas d’anes) came down from the quillon block (centre of the quillons) and were linked by a half-ring guard that crossed the ricasso, plus another guard, termed a looped backguard, to protect the back of the hand.
The half hilt had an extra ring guard (coming out of the quillons at a right angle) and a double backguard, while the three-quarters hilt lost the rear quillon but gained an extra ring guard and a knuckleguard. The backguard was now a double loop. The Landsknecht sword, the Katzbalger, was a variation on the half hilt, its quillons being S-shaped at right-angles to the grip and the blade. This weapon, dating from about 1515 to the 1550s, was popular with German mercenaries. Katzbalger is German for cat bag which refers to the swords being kept in a fur scabbard (reputedly cat fur, hence the name) rather than a conventional one. The full hilt retained both quillons, had multiple ring guards and loop guards, while the backguard was now a treble loop. This style of guard became popular from the late sixteenth century until about the 1640s by which time shell guards had been added to fill the lower ring or loop guards.
At the same time as the hilt evolved and changed, so did blades. The blades typical of the early Middle Ages went out of use during the thirteenth century. The diamond and lenticular profiles of the longsword also applied to other swords types in use during the later Middle Ages. The wide parallel-edged blades of the tenth and eleventh centuries were replaced by narrower blades and by blades that were broad at the hilt and tapered all the way to a sharp point, typical of some Italian swords of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but also of some English swords. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries these were all termed arming swords, the larger ones being called great swords. By the late fifteenth century, these had given way to a range of different swords, partly because the sword was decreasing in importance as the chivalrous arm of the knight on the battlefield. In the sixteenth century especially, the sword was supplanted by firearms and other weapons, particularly in the hands of common foot soldiers.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the infantry sword had become no more than a sidearm, a weapon of last resort of self defence for arquebusiers and pikemen as battlefields became dominated by pike and musket infantry tactics. Nevertheless, the sword remained the shock weapon of the cavalry right up to the end of the nineteenth century.