Time to take a slightly different approach to the history I tend to write, normally I would speak of societal history but this time is different, though not completely separate from society. This article is about swords, yes, swords; bloody, violent weapons designed to kill (much like the gun, just… better).
Today we see all sorts of swords in all sorts of films, programmes, period drama’s and so on, but the sword is not really something to be admired, think of a guillotine, that’s not a pleasant thought, correct? Beheadings and such, nightmarish, no? So why is it that the sword is seen as some sort of beautiful, awesome and cool thing in this modern day? Honestly I could spend an entire day answering these questions but I will just get to the history.
Swordplay, in modern times is looked at as some sort of gentlemanly sport, for example fencing, this ‘modern’ sport was actually developed more as a sport in the 17-18th century but it’s roots go far deeper, as far back as the Bronze age.
Origins of the sword were the natural ‘evolution’ of the dagger which was a staple tool during the Stone age and through the transition from Stone age to Bronze age, the earliest ‘sword’ is placed to be around 1600 B.C. when it first makes its existence present, though the sword at this time was quite short and without a cross/handguard (arguably a long dagger) and remained this way until late Roman Empire. Though the sword was still mostly a short sword for some time, that does not mean that there was no variations in size or style.
The 2 handed-sword was a large, heavy and solid weapon that required special training to use effectively, knights were quite adept at using the large weapon with the blade weighing at around 2.5KG and with a length of roughly 50-72 inches from blade to hilt. There were larger versions of this weapon that were handled, at least most effectively by the Landsknecht Doppelsoldners who were german soldiers and mercenaries. The design of many of these swords were double edged most sharply at the tip roughly 2 inches either side for thrusting and piercing medium armour, though they were also sharpened along the blade, largely due grant decapitation of an enemy with as little pain for them as possible. That being said the weight of the weapon also made it a good concussion weapon for more heavily armored enemies but not an effective killing weapon for them.
-Rapier, Espada, Epee (and foil)
The rapier was introduced in the early 17th century, the design of the blade is essentially a very long blade with and incredibly sharp tip, originally designed for thrusting and stabbing. The Rapier’s blade usually weighed around 1KG and had a hand guard at the top of the hilt. The rapier’s effectiveness lay in it’s light weight and its length, longer than many blades to keep enemies at a distance, sharp and light enough to move quickly and strike at vital organs. The rapier though designed for thrusting could also slash, though not as effective as other swords some rapiers were sharpened along the sides and few have been recorded to be used as ‘slash and thrust’ swords. The word Rapier itself is ambiguous as the germans were the only ones to call it such, Italians, French and Spanish had different names for it such as the Epee, Espada and and Spada. The foil which is designed after the Rapier is a sports weapon for the gentleman’s sport of Fencing, it is rectangular in shape and most (not all) have electric receivers through the nub at the tip and down through the blade and handle. Truly a gentleman’s blade and perfect for dueling.
The first recorded Shamshir is around 9th century, it was a staple weapon of the Mamelukes and was introduced by the Seljuk Khanate. The blade is light and easy to wield and was essentially designed as a slashing weapon. The blade was designed with an exaggerated curve, it was sharp along the curved side of the blade, with the sharpest part of the sword at the tip. This same design was adopted by the Mughal Empire and Turkic soldiers. The tip was sharp easily enough to use for thrusting but the curve of the blade made accuracy an issue, not that it was never used as to thrust in battle. Another version of the Shamshir is the Shamshir Shekargar which roughly translates as the ‘Hunting Sword’ these hunting swords were much more decorated, usually engraved with hunting scenes.
The Cutlass was introduced,, at least named as such during the 17th century, it was designed and modified in the same shape as the Falcion based on the Chinese Dadao. The blade was much like the Shamshir, with a curve but had a much broader blade, it was light enough to be handled with a single hand. Though the blade was light it was heavy enough to cut through thick roping and, of course do some serious damage to an enemy, for this reason it was very much favoured by seaman for use of cutting through rigging. The Cutlass is well documented as the weapon of choice of pirates, though not so well known also naval commanders. This weapon’s versatility was the perfect accompaniment of pirates who needed a light enough, short enough and effective enough weapon to board enemy ships kill their enemies and cut through enemy rigging. The versatility of the Cutlass does not end in only blood and violence as it was also used as an agricultural tool for cutting down sugar cane and even as a tool for cutting through forest environments much like the modern machete.
-Katana (samurai sword)
The Katana, arguably the most beautiful blades were Katana. The Katana is one of the most unique blade types ever existed, it is first introduced during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) it was an evolution of the previous thin Tachi and Chokuto style blades, the evolution was largely forced after the Mongol invasions in which the previous blades would chip and break against enemy blades and armour. The Katana was made into a longer, sturdier blade with a thick back part of the blade used for defense and an extremely sharp front part that was an effective cutting weapon. The Katana continued to develop and was more or less a weapon of master craftsmen by the end of the Muromachi Period (1337-1573), the blade metal was folded numerous times to ensure the strength of blade and only the purest metal was accepted by the blacksmith, any irregularity in the metal before forging was rejected and if at any point during the forging of the Katana any irregularity formed the sword was destroyed and the forging would be started from the very beginning, a Katana could take up to 100 hours to make and throughout the entire process the blacksmith would be awake and manage the forging of the Katana. A perfectly forged blade can cut through steel. Master samurai were said to be able to cut, and kill in a single stroke from sheath to enemy, in earlier times the sharpness and effectiveness of the sword against prisoners by chopping of their limbs, later this was seen as a bit… excessive and the practice was replaced with the cutting of tatami mats which had the same consistency as human limbs after being soaked for a while and dried.
Swords can of course be beautiful and there are some extremely beautiful swords but the fact of the ‘Sword’ is, unless ceremonial or decorative it is an effective, bloody and gruesome weapon. There are numerous legends about various swords but the sword was designed to kill, slash, stab, de-limb and even behead an enemy. The sword is a close quarters combat weapon and relied heavily on skill, finesse, agility and some serious guts to use. Think about it, in battle you would see your enemy face to face, cut bleed and be covered in enemy blood as well as your own. The real beauty of the sword, at least for me, isn’t the sword itself but the amount of training, skill and mastery of using one, that being said though I suppose I am guilty of thinking the sword is a ‘cool’ weapon.