The key factor that allowed the modern long-bladed sword to develop was, of course, metallurgy. A knife blade, spear point or axe head can be made from a relatively small or very solid piece of metal, and is thus unlikely to break under the stresses of combat. As blade length increases, so does the difficulty of creating a weapon that will remain useful after a couple of blows.
To be effective, a sword blade must be able to take a good sharp point and/or edge, and to keep it despite contact with flesh, shields, armour, opposing weapons or anything else that may be struck – deliberately or otherwise. If the blade is too soft it will simply flex and remain bent; too hard and it will crack or even shatter.
The very first ‘swords’ actually resembled a hand axe in many ways. The blade was of a single piece of metal, however, and was bellied forward to create a striking surface. This weapon, known as a sickle-sword, khopesh or sapphara, was initially made of bronze, though some later examples did use iron. The sickle-sword was used to make slashing cuts rather than hacking like an axe, and might well have bent on overzealous contact.
It is ‘swords’ of this type that are referred to in ancient texts such as the Old Testament of the Bible or the records of Ancient Egypt. Later eras have re-imagined the people of these times fighting with more modern cruciform swords, leading to many depictions that are in fact quite wrong. However, the method of use was more sword than axe, and these weapons required skilled craftsmanship to make. They were the top-end military weapon systems of the day, and as such were status symbols as much as they were tools for combat.
Improvements in metalworking, and increased understanding of how to work iron, allowed the humble knife to grow into a more effective replacement for the sickle-sword. As blade lengths increased, the weapon had to either be able to flex and return to its normal shape unharmed, or be heavily constructed and fairly short.
In time, weapons like the Iberian falcata or the Greek kopis appeared. These had a forward curve on the blade, which was not of uniform width. This construction method concentrated the force of a blow near the tip of the weapon, but also allowed the blade to slide and cut. The overall form of the Greek kopis is not enormously different to that of the khopesh, or sickle-sword, but there is an obvious evolution towards the modern form of the sword. Some machetes and similar weapons still use this blade form, and it remains very effective.
However, by the time that the Roman Republic had become an empire, its troops (as well as many of its enemies) were armed with a true sword. The Roman sword was short by modern standards, and lacked much in the way of hand protection, but the gladius was extremely effective in combat. So effective, in fact, that its users could often outfight swordsmen equipped with longer weapons. The advantage may not have been so much in the design of the weapon as in how it was used … but then those two factors are always intertwined.
As we shall see in the coming chapters, there are as many approaches to swordsmanship as there are designs of sword. What they all have in common is the means by which a sword causes damage to the target, and the basic principles that underlie every successful sword-fighting system.
Martin J. Dougherty is a prolific historical and technical author, fencing coach, and the current president of the British Federation of Historical swordplay.