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Swords in Your Kitchen

with John Clements

I've written before that one of the easiest ways to understand the differences among various types of historical swords is to consider common kitchen knives. Yes, that's right. Swords in the kitchen. In the average kitchen we have many different kinds of knives each suited to a different purpose and developed to optimally perform a  certain task. Some are better at some things than others. One might be the worst choice for doing a particular thing while another might be the best for it. Just as you wouldn't use a butter knife as a steak knife and you wouldn't use a paring knife when a carving knife is called for, you similarly don't want to use a meat cleaver when what you really need is an ice pick. Just like swords, kitchen knives will differ in their length and width, in their curvature, their edge configuration, and the shape of their point. A good kitchen has many different knives because there are different kinds of things to chop, slice, and carve up. Even if a few designs can do some of everything well enough, no one tool does everything the best. So, you need that variety and want to know how to handle each, perhaps eventually favoring a few.

Yet, many times to cut something in the kitchen we will just grab any sharp knife and make do with it because it will handle the job well enough. Specialization in a tool is great, but often it also requires a certain degree of  expertise to apply. If you've ever seen skilled chef in the kitchen though, you know how their knife-skills can make a novice look childishly clumsy by comparison. A knife of a particular design has its own particular way of being optimally employed for best effect and skill plays a part. It’s the same way with swords. (And just as with real things, the way they work can't really be learned using plastic toy versions a fraction of their weight.) The big difference, of course, is that kitchen knives never have to cover against and ward off the impacts of other kitchen tools or violently jab and cleave their way through the casings of assorted kitchen appliances. Swords had to do this kind of thing as a matter of regularity, if you follow the analogy.

It doesn't take a great deal of insight or any special culinary training to grasp how the shape and physical dimensions of a blade’s design determines its manner of use. As the saying goes, form comes from function. Anyone can readily pick up a particular kind of kitchen knife and intuitively feel that the wider heavier blade is better to chop with than a slender lighter one. It's no difficulty to notice that a curved edge slices more easily with less effort while the narrow pointy knife pokes into things effortlessly. Again, it's really no different with large fighting blades, at least when it comes to how there application influences their design. Different kinds of swords we're devised by experience to optimally perform different kinds of fighting techniques against general or particular kinds of opponents. Over time, specific fighting actions were then discerned to further optimized their performance. To put it another way, in a circle of positive feedback, good design permits better usage and more experienced usage in turn influences better design. This happens whether it's in the kitchen or in personal combat. Think about it. In a way, the history of swords is right there in your kitchen.