Historically, weapon designers also had to consider a number of other factors, not least of which was the ability of the user to carry and effectively wield a weapon. Most swords are carried as side-arms rather than as the main combat weapon. That is to say, if the user were expecting to fight a battle then he would probably equip himself with a ‘battlefield’ weapon. Depending on the era this might be an axe or spear, a large mace or lance, an arquebus, or even a rifle. He would fall back on his sword only if necessary.
Some swords are large and potent enough to be considered ‘battlefield’ weapons, i.e. they have the reach and the capability to cause injury through the armour of the day and are thus highly effective in open combat. However, many of these swords are also too large to be carried as a side-arm. They would be taken into battle or a threatening situation, but when the owner was about his daily business he would probably carry something less clumsy.
Thus, swords need to strike a balance between ease of carrying and effectiveness as a combat weapon. There is a limit to how long a weapon can be and still be drawn quickly at need. Another consideration is where the weapon may have to be used. An open battlefield usually has plenty of room to whirl a flail or swing a two-handed axe, but the alleys of a town are a different matter.
There is also the question of usability. A sword is a large, heavy piece of metal, and is tiring to use even for a swordsman who is well conditioned by constant practice. A tired sword arm results in weak, ineffective blows or inaccurate ones. It causes thrusts to miss due to mistakes or because the opponent saw the clumsy attack coming and evaded. It makes parries late or weak, and can thus open up the swordsman for a killing strike.
A sword, then, cannot be too heavy if it is to remain effective after a couple of exchanges. As a rule, fights are won by the swordsman who keeps good control of his weapon for longest. A well-controlled sword can slip through a small opening and land a telling blow, whereas a wild swing might be extremely dangerous for anyone nearby but can often be parried or avoided with minimal effort.
A long blade gives good reach, allowing the opponent to be hit from a safe distance, and a heavy blade delivers a lot of impact that can push aside an opponent’s weapon and deliver a powerful blow. However, length comes at the cost of weight, and weight makes a sword slower and more tiring to use. Length of blade can be translated into time to react, but a heavy sword cannot change direction as quickly as a light one and cannot take advantage of opportunities in the way that a lighter weapon can.
Thus there are many factors that can give one sword an advantage over another. Speed, reach, powerful impact and ease of use are a few, along with what might be described as ‘handiness’ at close quarters. Different weapons are suited to different applications, and one sword is not necessarily better than another. Ultimately, the swordsman who makes best use of the advantages his weapon gives him will emerge victorious.
Martin J. Dougherty is a prolific historical and technical author, fencing coach, and the current president of the British Federation of Historical swordplay.