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Article - 'History of the Sword' by Angroth

An item about Miscellanious posted on Nov 11, 2004

Blurb

More information on swords, seeing as they appear to be GW's favoured fantasy weapon.

Body

Brief History of Swords & Metals

Since the first caveman grabbed a piece of stone and sharpened it into a knife, edged weapons have existed. In almost every civilisation swords have had a large role, especially in Japan and for the Samurai. Proper swords can be traced back around the times of the Egyptians (probably not much before). Due to stone being impossible to make a sword with (or at least one of any good) the first swords were made of copper. Although copper isn’t a very durable, flexible or strong metal it was much more common back thousands of years ago and worked well due to armour being of a comparable quality.

Seeing as copper was so soft and weak it was only a matter of time before bronze weapons came along. It was made as an alloy of tin and copper. These new bronze weapons were much more efficient as they would be stronger and more flexible than copper, also not dulling so quickly and remaining sharper for longer periods of time.

The next material used for weapons was iron. Iron was significantly better than any previous metals used and could be found all over the place (as an ore). It simply took people how to refine the iron ore into iron to be able to use it. Iron brought a new age of empires and power into the fray.

Finally there was one more metal that would be used for weapons. An alloy of iron and carbon known as steel was discovered. Iron swords were great but really they were still a little too soft so with steel came more possibilities. It was more easily shaped, flexible, harder and much more resistant to rusting. Steel is such a good material that we still use it today!

Exactly what type of steel alloy a sword smith would use hangs heavily on what attributes they want their sword to have. Carbon is almost always used to give the metal extra strength and to make it more able to hold an edge however too much carbon would make the blade too strong and it would lose out on its flexibility. This means that the sword would turn out more likely to break when being used. Below is a list of some of the most common elements a smith would use to bring in various supplementary attributes to the blade.
Chromium is helpful for hardening of the blade. It can however make the steel crack (when forging).
Manganese allows extra strength whilst in the heat-treatment point of forging.
Nickel simply adds more strength (not hardness).
Tungsten is good for getting a longer lasting and sharper edge.
Silicon will make the blade more flexible and usually harder.

After about 4000 – 5000 years, swords began to lose their usefulness around the late 18th century. The invention of gunpowder took the focus off swords and their military uses. However with that said cavalry sabre charges still took place even as late as World War II. But today you’re unlikely to see any wars fought with men wielding swords.


The Parts of a Sword
Here is a picture I drew earlier to show the basics parts of a sword:


Obviously the blade is the part where you’d hope to be hitting something with a sword. The blades varied much across the world, from straight with no edges (estoc) to a curved double-edged blade (shotel).
The fuller is simply the length wise shallow groove in the blade. This was often only to make the blade slightly lighter but as not to destroy its strength.
The grip would be placed over the tang for comfort and security whilst wielding the weapon. Wood and horn were often chose for making the grip. There was also a degree of fashion in the grip, after all a good looking, well designed and fitting grip wasn’t always too common,
The tang is the unsharpened part of the blade that is covered by the grip (as already explained). Sometimes the tang would be made separately from the actual blade and welded onto the base of it. If a sword maker were proud of his blade he would probably leave his marking on the tang.
The pommel is the ball shaped disc at the base of the hilt. Its use was to counterweight the blade and give extra security for the wielder. Pommels could be made from wood, stone or even bone but most were iron and bronze.
The lowerguard refers to the section between the blade and the grip. Often made in the same base material as the upperguard, although it was sometimes covered with silver or gold.
The upperguard is merely the slightly shorter version of the lowerguard. It would be next to the pommel on the opposite side of the grip from the lowerguard.
The quillion is the term for each of the crossguard’s limbs. Most European medieval swords had two quillons.


Types of Swords
I have broken different sword types into categories. This isn’t all of the swords by all means but it should help give a better insight into how much variation there is within swords.

Daggers
Some may say a dagger isn’t a sword but just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean to say it’s something else. So to start off, a dirk is the merely Scottish version of a dagger, and a dagger is a blade up to almost 2 feet in length. Daggers are unlikely to have a guard of any form. Baselards are like daggers but have a hilt forming a similar shape to ‘I’. A Kris would be similar to a dagger but with a wavy blade, like a flamberge. Sometimes a Kris is referred to as a Basilisk’s Tongue.

Short Swords
Taking off from where daggers left us, short swords are about 2 feet long (longer than average daggers and shorter than normal swords). Short swords were especially favoured around the time of the Romans. Often equipped with a shield in the other hand, a short sword’s strength was in quick stabbing thrusts. A Wakazashi was the Japanese version of a short sword. It was the same length as an average short sword (2 feet).

Long Swords
Around twice the length of short swords, long swords are often seen as the standard sword type. They were usually wielded with one hand. Broad swords were very similar but with wider blades, this meant they were more of a bashing weapon (not sharpened as much, relying on the weight). Bastard swords were also much like long swords but with a longer handle giving slight more weight but the ability to wield two handed.

Rapiers
Very unusual swords, rapiers / foils / estocs wouldn’t have an edged blade instead there would be a long, thin and flexible bar of metal with a stabbing point. They didn’t quite have the reach of long swords and were used to stab instead of slashing.

Egyptian
Ancient Egyptian weapons were so weird that they had to have their own section. Their swords (like the Kopesh) would often resemble a weird fusion of a sickle and a sword. This couldn’t be achieved by copper because it wasn’t flexible enough (they used bronze).

Scimitars
Around 3 to 4 feet in length, they had a curve and a single edge. Scimitars had very extreme curves unlike many of the other kinds of swords like this. Sabers were much favoured as a military weapon, they had a curve bit it was only minute. Cutlasses were similar but thicker and favoured by pirates and sailors. The Katana was much like a long sword, namely due to its length. This single edged bladed weapon was slightly curved (like sabers). And finally, falchions were like a thicker, heavier version of a scimitar.

Great Swords
These swords were around 6 feet in length and are just about the biggest swords you could find. Always wielded with two hands due to their weight (unless you were a fool or inhumanly strong). Flamberges, unlike the rest of these great swords were very distinct in that the blade had a wavy, snake like edge. Another kind of great sword is the Claymore. Predominantly used by Highlanders, this sword was slightly shorter and lighter than most other two handed swords. Nodachis were the great swords of the Samurai, they could be anywhere up to 8 feet in length with a 3 feet long hilt. Very cumbersome but very dangerous!

Double Bladed Swords
A very bizarre kind of sword. There was no pommel to the sword, instead there would be two blades connected by one handle, much like Darth Maul’s weapon in Star Wars.


Civilisations & Their Swords
Despite swords being made independently across the world, throughout the ages. They still all have a similar anatomy and very similar look & functions. Yet each civilisation made slightly different swords due to their circumstances. Let’s take a brief look into several civilisations and what their own bladed weapons were like.

Japanese Swords
In Japan, the sword signified more than it did anywhere else. In early times the power of the sword depicted the Samurai’s responsibility. The Samurai were legendary for their immense swordsmanship, bravery and their very advanced weaponry. If you were looking for the functional and aesthetical peak of swords, the Japanese had it.
Blending the idea of raw cutting power and high endurance (lots of blows and no breaking) the Japanese blades were made up of a soft yet durable iron core covered in a hard outer layer of steel. They were said to be folded thousands of time during forging. The distinctive curve from the edge allows all of the pressure to hit at one point, but requires a full slicing motion for maximum effect. Below are various types of Japanese swords.
The Katana is the most commonly known sword. It was much like the long sword was to European knights.
The Tachi is a slightly longer and even more curved blade; it was an older style of sword.
The Kodachi was like a Tachi but smaller. (see Wakizashi)
The Nodachi is basically a larger Tachi with an increase handle length. It would often be worn slung over the back.
The Wakizashi was the Japanese equivalent of the short sword. Sometimes it’s considered as just another name for Kodachi.

Chinese Swords
Chinese swords were often exquisite, exotic and treated with great respect. The scabbard would be covered in gold and silver inlay, very artistic and very beautiful. The dragon motifs on the fittings were the distinct style of the Chinese and represented their civilisation in its full glory. Their sword making would involve advanced styles of forging compared to many other civilisations of similar times. The blades would be folded and laminated (by hand) with good precision and patterning on the blades. Two main types of Chinese swords are as follows.
The Wen Jian was a pretty light sword and often used as a weapon for self-defence.
The Wu Jian is a reasonably heavier and longer sword also known as Martial Sword.

Scottish Swords
The traditional highland clansman’s weapons were used to get their freedom from the English. With a double edged blade, Scottish swords are known for their power. They were carefully hand forged with triple fullers. The blades would cut very strongly; they were wide and had a special cross section shaped like a ‘V’. To balance the weight of the large blade they would make the pommel very heavy. The great symbol of the Scot’s heritage is the Claymore. It was feared for its strength and size and was a common weapon amongst the many Scottish battles that took place. Below are various types of Scottish swords.
The Broad sword is also known as the Claymore. It is the powerful sword of the Scottish clansman.
The Back sword is much like the broad sword but instead of being double edged, it is only single edged.

Roman Swords
At one time, the Romans were a highly powerful and successful civilisation. They built their empire upon ideas they stole from the Greeks. Unlike the Greeks, they put all of their ideas to practice and not just sit and contemplate about new ideas. Using superior weapons and tactics the Roman army became feared throughout history. The Gladius Hispaniensis was the dominant sword style in the Republican period. As always, the Romans took this idea for their own (from the Spanish) and this became their renowned sword type. The Roman sword went through many changes. The best known of their sword styles was the 30 inch long, narrow guarded, short sword with a round ball for a pommel. Another type which isn’t heard of so much had a slight curve in the blade. The Gladius eventually turned out to be a cut-and-thrust type sword. The Roman Legion had two main types of sword.
The Gladius was the short sword. It had a wide blade, thin guard and was double edged. It had a strong sharp tip complete with a ball (or sometimes an eagle head) as a pommel.
The Spatha was longer than the Gladius. It was actually much similar to the English long swords.


Finishing Note

All in all, swords are one of the most favoured weapons of the ancient world. They symbolise courage, power, responsibility and determination. I hope I’ve managed to give you a slightly better insight into the very vast scope of swords that have existed.