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Swords, Arms and Armors

with John Clements

When we think about swords the immediate thing that comes to mind is sword-fighting. That is, swords versus swords. While this is the most interesting (and the most celebrated) aspect of how swords were used, as it evokes images of knightly judicial combats and cavalier duels of honor, it's far from the whole story. The reality is, throughout history and cultures around the world swords were just one of many weapons that existed on the battlefield.

Though it is the one weapon most closely associated with individual self-defense as the trusted side arm of aristocratic warriors, men-at-arms, and courtiers, the sword did not exist in a vacuum. It was developed to deal with combat situations that more often than not involved all manner of arms and armor. As a long-edged blade weapon for close combat, what the sword in all its many incarnations did best was efficiently deliver debilitating and lethal wounds. It achieved this by being reliable in its sturdiness and versatile in utility. With its hardened edge and piercing point, in skilled hands it was able to repeatedly strike with speed and power as well as guard with confidence. It was fearsome and formidable. Its science and art of fencing (applicable as it was to most all fighting with any weapon) typically offered the ability to both offend and defend and to do so in more ways. Compared to all other such hand weapons—from daggers to various clubs, axes, flails, and even pole arms—the sword gave the fighter the comparative advantage.

Because it was easily worn on the body rather than carried, safely tucked away yet available in an instant wherever the user went, it offered tactical convenience along with an implicit warning as well implied threat. The fact that its construction was part mystery, surrounded in mystique at a high cost and production time, only added to its allure and prestige as with no other weapon. Though it was not always the ideal weapon in every martial situation, whether on the battlefield of war, the rush of a skirmish, or the danger of individual challenge, the sword surely offered tactical practicality in the widest array of combat conditions. And of course, as with no comparable hand weapon, the sword was regularly paired with a shield, buckler, off-hand dagger, or any number of other implements.

The history of arms is intrinsically linked to the history of armor for the simple truth that people have always sought to wear materials that protect them in close combat. They did this for the obvious reason that they really worked. Besides, a fighter who was better protected from injury was a fighter who could devote better effort into attacking. As military methods changed, technology improved, and new armors were devised, swords were adapted to the challenge. This was always the dynamic at work. Sword makers modified their products as needed and swordsmen further honed their skills with them.

We know that some swords were specialized more for mounted combat than foot combat, sometimes specialized for battlefield use in close rank, for use with a shield more so than not, dealing with heavier armors, or for unarmored private duels and self defense in sudden urban encounters. Specialization in sword design is the very history of the weapon. Swords almost always had to encounter different kinds of armor that fighting men wore and the assortment of weapons that they carried. It was just as likely to go up against someone wielding an axe or a spear or any number of other staff weapons as it was to encounter an opponent armed with a shorter or longer length sword (or vice versa). A sword had to be capable of dealing with all manner of weapons and whatever armor defenses an adversary might be expected to wear at the time. A strong case can even be made that a great deal of (pre-modern) arms and armor history itself can be viewed as a reaction to the effectiveness of the armored swordsman in close combat.

When looking at any type of sword then—single to double-edge, straight to curved, one to two-handed—its design and its use must be considered within the context of the different kinds of fighting it was likely to engage. No sword was just about striking blows with cut or thrust in various combination, emphasizing one over, or to the exclusion of, the other. Instead, a sword had to also deal with blows defensively—meaning it had ward them off or otherwise parry and counter them. Being able to handle the shock of impacts as well as deliver force is the very essence of any viable sword design. A sword's ability to specifically defeat certain kinds of targets, either softer or harder armor, combined with its ability to optimally make either a cut or thrust, is what ultimately actually defines it. The dimensions of swords and their overall geometry, with different point angles, different edge bevels, different cross-sectional blade shapes and hilt configurations, all factor in to this.

It's easy then to understand the appeal of the sword. But it would not exist if it were not needed to overcome weapons and protective garments that each had their place in the violent history of human personal conflict. Distinct as they are, swords, swordsmanship and sword-making often seem to be their own separate domain, yet they were but part of a much larger culture of arms. To understand them, whatever style or kind, means also seeking to explore and know about the diverse arms and armors they faced. Indeed, this is another reason for why swords are so challenging in both the craft of their construction and the mastery of their handling. It's also a large part of why they are so damn interesting.