Of all the weapons ever invented, none has the mystique of the sword. It remains a symbol of authority and strength long after its day on the battlefield has passed. Swords feature in figures of speech, in statues and monuments, and in company logos. They are used in solemn ceremonies and hung on walls as decorations. The sword remains a potent symbol of authority, strength and power.
Yet the word ‘sword’ can actually mean entirely different things to different people. The Japanese katana, the Roman gladius and the Scottish claymore are all swords, and they are all quite different from one another. The khopesh of ancient times, though quite likely the first weapon known as a ‘sword’, does not resemble any of the weapons a modern person would recognise as one. It could be argued that many of the implements known as swords are so different from one another, and are used so differently, that they constitute an entirely separate group of weapons.
There are, however, some similarities. Swords are weapons intended to cut or puncture the target, and rely on concentration of force at a sharp edge or point to do so. They have a metal blade, which can be curved or straight, and usually feature some form of protection for the user’s hand. This also defines knives, which is not surprising since the basic form of the sword, consisting of a handle and a blade, is essentially that of an overgrown knife.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that some knives are large enough to be considered sword-type weapons, and there is some debate about exactly how much blade is necessary before a knife becomes a sword. Some weapons, such as machetes, are highly similar to swords but are not described as such, and are usually considered to be a distinct and separate weapon type.
As a useful working definition, a blade weapon becomes a sword when it satisfies enough of these criteria:
- It has a metal blade running the length of the weapon, and a hand grip.
- The blade is a single piece, i.e. there is no haft and head in the manner of an axe.
- It has enough blade length to extend the user’s reach significantly on a thrust or cut.
- It has enough mass to make a cut bite into the target.
- It has enough mass to be used to parry an attack, and is large enough to reliably stop one.
- It has significant protection for the user’s hand.
- It is too large to be carried concealed.
This is not a hard-and-fast definition, but such a thing is always going to be elusive when even apparently specific terms like ‘rapier’ or ‘sabre’ can actually refer to a range of somewhat dissimilar weapons. Perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that a sword is a metal-bladed cutting or thrusting implement large enough to be considered a combat weapon, rather than an emergency expedient or a tool that could be pressed into service at need.
Not all swords fulfil all the criteria noted above. Many have no point, no edge, or virtually no hand protection. Some Eastern and Asian weapons are highly exotic and push the boundaries of what can rightly be considered a sword. For this reason we will consider only European swords – although those have, at times, been the subject of external influences – and we will begin our examination of swords and swordsmanship at a time when the sword had taken on at least one of its modern forms.
There have been various attempts to impose a rational terminology on sword types, although this presents an enormous challenge for various reasons. Idiom and the difficulty of translating from one language to another have created bastardised terms or corrupted names, while some apparently descriptive terms actually mean different things at different times. For example, it seems reasonable to describe the gladius hispaniensis of the Roman soldier as a ‘short sword’, but the term was also applied at times to the knightly arming sword, which was a full-length combat sword whose blade might be 50 per cent longer than the gladius. The arming sword was ‘short’ in comparison with the two-handed longsword, so the distinction made sense in its context, but it causes confusion to those looking back over all of history.
Terms like broadsword seem like a logical distinction, so it might be assumed that the term was used at the time during which the weapon it describes was in service. However, this is not always so. The term broadsword was imposed by relatively recent historians to describe various broad-bladed cutting swords, but was probably not used by the people who fought with those weapons.
Martin J. Dougherty is a prolific historical and technical author, fencing coach, and the current president of the British Federation of Historical swordplay.