A sword is a bladed weapon (edged weapon) used primarily for cutting or thrusting. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographical region under consideration. In the most narrow sense, a sword consists of a blade with one or two edges, a hilt, and a crossguard. But in some cases the term may also refer to weapons without crossguard, or with only a single edge (backsword).
The basic principles of swordsmanship have remained fairly constant through the centuries, but the actual techniques vary among cultures and periods as a result of the differences in blade design and purpose. The names given to many swords in mythology, literature, and history reflect the high prestige of the weapon and the wealth of the owner. The sword is said to be the emblem of military honor and should incite the bearer to a just and generous pursuit of honor and virtue. It is symbolic of liberty and strength. In the Middle Ages, the sword was often used as a symbol of the word of God.
Historically, the sword developed in the Bronze Age, evolving from the dagger; the earliest specimens date to ca. 1600 BC. The Iron Age sword remained fairly short and without a crossguard. The spatha as it developed in the Late Roman army became the predecessor of the European sword of the Middle Ages, at first adopted as the Migration period sword, and only in the High Middle Ages developed into the classical Arming sword with crossguard. In the Early Modern period, the sword developed into the rapier and eventually the smallsword, surviving into the 18th century only in the role of dueling weapon. By the 19th century, swords were reduced to the status of either ceremonial weapon or sport equipment in fencing.
Non-European weapons called "sword" include single-edged weapons such as the Middle Eastern saif, the Chinese dao and the related Japanese katana; these would more accurately be described as sabres or backswords, but their high prestige in their respective cultures favoured the use of "sword". The Chinese jian is an example of a non-European double-edged sword, like the European models derived from the double-edged Iron Age sword.
- 1 History
- 2 Morphology
- 3 Sword scabbards and suspension
- 4 Typology
- 5 Crossed swords symbol
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The sword developed from the dagger when the construction of longer blades became possible, from the late 3rd millennium BC in the Middle East, first in arsenic copper, then in tin-bronze. The oldest sword-like weapons are found at Arslantepe, Turkey, and date to around 3300 BC. However, it is generally considered that these are longer daggers, and not the first ancestors of swords. Sword blades longer than 60 cm (24 in) were rare and not practical until the late Bronze Age because at longer lengths, the tensile strength of bronze starts to decrease radically, and consequently longer blades would bend easily. It was not until the development of stronger alloys such as steel, and improved heat treatment processes that longswords became practical for combat. They were also used as decorations.
The hilt, either from organic materials or bronze (the latter often highly decorated with spiral patterns, for example), at first simply allowed a firm grip and prevented the hand from slipping onto the blade when executing a thrust or the sword slipping out of the hand in a cut. Some of the early swords typically had small and slender blades intended for thrusting. Later swords were broader and were both cutting and thrusting weapons. A typical variant for European swords is the leaf-shaped blade, which was most common in North-West Europe at the end of the Bronze Age, in the British Isles and Ireland in particular. Robert Drews linked the Naue Type II Swords, which spread from Southern Europe into the Mediterranean, with the Late Bronze Age collapse.
Sword production in China is attested from the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty. The technology for bronze swords reached its high point during the Warring States period and Qin Dynasty. Amongst the Warring States period swords, some unique technologies were used, such as casting high tin edges over softer, lower tin cores, or the application of diamond shaped patterns on the blade (see sword of Goujian). Also unique for Chinese bronzes is the consistent use of high tin bronze (17–21% tin) which is very hard and breaks if stressed too far, whereas other cultures preferred lower tin bronze (usually 10%), which bends if stressed too far. Although iron swords were made alongside bronze, it was not until the early Han period that iron completely replaced bronze.
In South Asia earliest available Bronze age swords of copper were discovered in the Harappan sites, in present-day Pakistan, and date back to 2300 BC. Swords have been recovered in archaeological findings throughout the Ganges-Jamuna Doab region of Bangladesh, consisting of bronze but more commonly copper. Diverse specimens have been discovered in Fatehgarh, where there are several varieties of hilt. These swords have been variously dated to times between 1700–1400 BC, but were probably used more notably in the opening centuries of the 1st millennium BC.
Iron became increasingly common from the 13th century BC, mainly due to the collapse of the bronze producing Civilizations. The Hittites, the Egyptians and the Proto-Celtic Hallstatt culture (8th century BC) figured among the early users of iron swords. Iron has the advantage of mass-production due to the wider availability of the raw material. Early iron swords were not comparable to later steel blades. The iron was not quench-hardened although often containing sufficient carbon, but work-hardened like bronze by hammering. This made them comparable or only slightly better in terms of strength and hardness to bronze swords. They could still bend during use rather than spring back into shape. But the easier production, and the better availability of the raw material for the first time permitted the equipment of entire armies with metal weapons, though Bronze Age Egyptian armies were at times fully equipped with bronze weapons.
By the time of Classical Antiquity and the Parthian and Sassanid Empires in Iran, iron swords were common. The Greek xiphos and the Roman gladius are typical examples of the type, measuring some 60 to 70 cm (24 to 28 in). The late Roman Empire introduced the longer spatha (the term for its wielder, spatharius, became a court rank in Constantinople), and from this time, the term longsword is applied to swords comparatively long for their respective periods.
Swords from the Parthian and Sassanian Empires were quite long, the blades on some late Sassanian swords being just under a metre long.
Swords were also used to administer various physical punishments, such as non-surgical amputation or capital punishment by decapitation. The use of a sword, an honorable weapon, was regarded in Europe since Roman times as a privilege reserved for the nobility and the upper classes.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions swords of Indian iron and steel being exported from India to Greece. Sri Lankan and Indian Blades made of Damascus steel also found their way into Persia.
Chinese steel swords made their first appearance in the later part of the Western Zhou Dynasty, but were not widely used until the 3rd century BC Han Dynasty. The Chinese Dao (刀 pinyin dāo) is single-edged, sometimes translated as sabre or broadsword, and the Jian (劍or剑 pinyin jiàn) is double-edged.
Europe and the Middle East
During the Middle Ages sword technology improved, and the sword became a very advanced weapon. It was frequently used by men in battle, particularly during an attack. The spatha type remained popular throughout the Migration period and well into the Middle Ages. Vendel Age spathas were decorated with Germanic artwork (not unlike the Germanic bracteates fashioned after Roman coins). The Viking Age saw again a more standardized production, but the basic design remained indebted to the spatha.
Around the 10th century, the use of properly quenched hardened and tempered steel started to become much more common than in previous periods. The Frankish 'Ulfberht' blades (the name of the maker inlaid in the blade) were of particularly consistent high quality. Charles the Bald tried to prohibit the export of these swords, as they were used by Vikings in raids against the Franks. Wootz steel which is also known as Damascus steel was a unique and highly prized steel developed on the Indian subcontinent as early as the 5th century BC. Its properties were unique due to the special smelting and reworking of the steel creating networks of iron carbides described as a globular cementite in a matrix of pearlite. The use of Damascus steel in swords became extremely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.[nb 1]
It was only from the 11th century that Norman swords began to develop the quillons or crossguard. During the Crusades of the 12th to 13th century, this cruciform type of arming sword remained essentially stable, with variations mainly concerning the shape of the pommel. These swords were designed as cutting weapons, although effective points were becoming common to counter improvements in armour, especially the 14th century change from chain mail to plate armour.
It was during the 14th century, with the growing use of more advanced armor, that the Hand and a half sword, also known as a "bastard sword", came into being. It had an extended grip that meant it could be used with either one or two hands. Though these swords did not provide a full two-hand grip they allowed their wielders to hold a shield or parrying dagger in their off hand, or to use it as a two-handed sword for a more powerful blow.
The earliest evidence of curved swords, or scimitars (and other regional variants as the Arabian saif, the Persian shamshir and the Turkic kilij) is from the 9th century, when it was used among soldiers in the Khurasan region of Persia.
As steel technology improved, single-edged weapons became popular throughout Asia. Derived from the Chinese Jian or dao, the Korean hwandudaedo are known from the early medieval Three Kingdoms. Production of the Japanese tachi, a precursor to the katana, is recorded from ca. 900 AD (see Japanese sword). Japan was famous for the swords it forged in the early 13th century for the class of warrior-nobility known as the samurai. A samurai's primary weapon was the katana, which was used for infantry. Other infantry swords included: wakizashi (shorter companion sword for katana), nodachi, kubikiri, tantō and hachiwara. Cavalry swords were the tachi and ancient tachi. Temple swords included the one-handed tachi and Chokutō. Anti-cavalry swords such as the extremely long Song Dynasty era zhanmadao (literally "horse chopping sword") and the Japanese Zanbatō also developed at the time.
The Japanese katana reached the height of its development in the 15th and 16th centuries, when samurai increasingly found a need for a sword to use in closer quarters, leading to the creation of the modern katana.
South and Southeast Asia
The swords manufactured in Indian workshops, such as the Khanda, find mention in the writing of Muhammad al-Idrisi. In Sri Lanka, a unique wind furnace was used to produce the high quality steel. This gave the blade a very hard cutting edge and beautiful patterns. For these reasons it became a very popular trading material.
The Talwar is a type of curved sword that was introduced to India in the 13th century by invading Muslim conquerors and was adopted by communities who favoured the sword as their main weapon, including the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs. It became more widespread under the Mughals who fought with curved swords from horseback. It was revered by the Rajputs as a symbol of the god shiva, and is still used today as the primary weapon of the Sikh martial art Gatka and also by South Asian Shiite Muslims for Tatbir.
The Firangi ( //; derived from the Arabic term for a Western European a "Frank") was a sword type which used blades manufactured in Western Europe and imported by the Portuguese, or made locally in imitation of European blades. Because of its length the firangi is usually regarded as primarily a cavalry weapon. The sword has been especially associated with the Marathas, who were famed for their cavalry. However, the firangi was widely used by the Mughals and those peoples who came under their rule, including Sikhs and Rajputs.
In Indonesia, the images of Indian style swords can be found in Hindu gods statues from ancient Java circa 8th to 10th century, which means swords already known in ancient Indonesia culture. However the native types of blade known as kris, parang, klewang and golok are popular to be used as weapon rather than sword. These daggers are shorter than sword but longer than common dagger.
In The Philippines a large swords known as the Kampilan and the Panabas were used in combat by the local Moro tribes in the southern island of Mindanao. A notable wielder of the kampílan was Datu Lapu-Lapu, the Muslim king of Mactan and his warriors who defeated the Spaniards and killed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan at the Battle of Mactan on April 27, 1521.
Late Middle Ages and Renaissance
From around 1300 to 1500, in concert with improved armour, innovative sword designs evolved more and more rapidly. The main transition was the lengthening of the grip, allowing two-handed use, and a longer blade. By 1400, this type of sword, at the time called langes Schwert (longsword) or spadone, was common, and a number of 15th and 16th century Fechtbücher offering instructions on their use survive. Another variant was the specialized armour-piercing swords of the estoc type. The longsword became popular due to its extreme reach and cutting and thrusting abilities.
The estoc became popular because of its ability to thrust into the gaps between plates of armour. The grip was sometimes wrapped in wire or coarse animal hide to provide a better grip and to make it harder to knock a sword out of the user's hand.
A number of manuscripts covering longsword combat and techniques dating from the 13th–16th centuries exist in German, Italian, and English, providing extensive information on longsword combatives as used throughout this period. Many of these are now readily available online.
In the 16th century, the large zweihander was used by the elite German mercenaries known as doppelsoldners. Zweihander, literally translated, means two-hander. The zweihander possesses a long, blade, as well as a huge guard for protection. It is estimated that some zweihander swords were over 6 feet (1.8 m) long, with the one ascribed to Frisian warrior Pier Gerlofs Donia being 7 feet (2.13 m) long. The gigantic blade length was perfectly designed for manipulating and pushing away enemy pole-arms, which were major weapons around this time, in both Germany and Eastern Europe. Doppelsoldners also used katzbalgers, which means 'cat-gutter'. The katzbalger's S-shaped guard and 2-foot-long (0.61 m) blade made it perfect for bringing in when the fighting became too close to use a zweihander.
Civilian use of swords became increasingly common during the late Renaissance, with duels being a preferred way to honorably settle disputes. The practice of civilian dueling, with specifically designed civilian swords such as the Italian Cinquedea and Swiss Baselard, became so popular that according to one scholar: "In France during the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610), more than 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels in an eighteen-year period...During the reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643)...in a twenty-year period 8,000 pardons were issued for murders associated with duels."
The side-sword was a type of war sword used by infantry during the Renaissance of Europe. This sword was a direct descendant of the arming sword. Quite popular between the 16th and 17th centuries, they were ideal for handling the mix of armored and unarmored opponents of that time. A new technique of placing one's finger on the ricasso to improve the grip (a practice that would continue in the rapier) led to the production of hilts with a guard for the finger. This sword design eventually led to the development of the civilian rapier, but it was not replaced by it, and the side-sword continued to be used during the rapier's lifetime. As it could be used for both cutting and thrusting, the term cut and thrust sword is sometimes used interchangeably with side-sword. Also of note is that as rapiers became more popular, attempts were made to hybridize the blade, sacrificing the effectiveness found in each unique weapon design. These are still considered side-swords and are sometimes labeled sword rapier or cutting rapier by modern collectors.
Also of note, side-swords used in conjunction with bucklers became so popular that it caused the term swashbuckler to be coined. This word stems from the new fighting style of the side-sword and buckler which was filled with much "swashing and making a noise on the buckler".
The sword in this time period was the most personal weapon, the most prestigious, and the most versatile for close combat, but it came to decline in military use as technology, such as the crossbow and firearms changed warfare. However, it maintained a key role in civilian self-defense.
Early Modern period
The rapier is believed to have evolved either from the Spanish espada ropera or from the swords of the Italian nobility somewhere in the later part of the 16th century. The rapier differed from most earlier swords in that it was not a military weapon but a primarily civilian sword. Both the rapier and the Italian schiavona developed the crossguard into a basket-shaped guard for hand protection. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the shorter smallsword became an essential fashion accessory in European countries and the New World, though in some places such as the Scottish Highlands large swords as the basket-hilted broadsword were preferred, and most wealthy men and military officers carried one slung from a belt. Both the smallsword and the rapier remained popular dueling swords well into the 18th century.
As the wearing of swords fell out of fashion, canes took their place in a gentleman's wardrobe. This developed to the gentlemen in the Victorian era to use the umbrella. Some examples of canes—those known as sword canes or swordsticks—incorporate a concealed blade. The French martial art la canne developed to fight with canes and swordsticks and has now evolved into a sport. The English martial art singlestick is very similar.
Towards the end of its useful life, the sword served more as a weapon of self-defense than for use on the battlefield, and the military importance of swords steadily decreased during the Modern Age. Even as a personal sidearm, the sword began to lose its preeminence in the early 19th century, paralleling the development of reliable handguns.
However, swords were still used in combat, especially in Colonial Wars between native populations and Colonial Empires. For example, during the Aceh War the Acehnese Klewangs, a sword similar to the machete, proved very effective in close quarters combat with Dutch troops, leading the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army to adopt a heavy cutlass, also called klewang (very similar in appearance to the US Navy Model 1917 Cutlass) to counter it. Mobile troops armed with carbines and klewangs succeeded in suppressing Aceh resistance where traditional infantry with rifle and bayonet had failed. From that time on until the 1950s the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, Royal Dutch Army, Royal Dutch Navy and Dutch police used these cutlasses called Klewang.
Swords continued in use, but were increasingly limited to military commissioned officers' and non-commissioned officers' ceremonial uniforms, although most armies retained heavy cavalry until well after World War I. For example, the British Army formally adopted a completely new design of cavalry sword in 1908, almost the last change in British Army weapons before the outbreak of the war. At the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914, infantry officers in all combatant armies still carried swords as part of their field equipment. The high visibility and limited practical use of the weapon however led to it being abandoned within weeks, although most mounted cavalry continued to carry sabres throughout the War. In China troops used the long anti-cavalry Miao dao well into the Second Sino-Japanese War. The last units of British heavy cavalry switched to using armoured vehicles as late as 1938. Swords and other dedicated melee weapons were used occasionally by many countries during World War II, but typically as a secondary weapon as they were outclassed by coexisting firearms.
The production of replicas of historical swords originates with 19th century historicism. Contemporary replicas can range from cheap factory produced look-alikes to exact recreations of individual artifacts, including an approximation of the historical production methods.
Some kinds of swords are still commonly used today as weapons, often as a side arm for military infantry. The Japanese katana, wakizashi and tanto are carried by some infantry and officers in Japan and other parts of Asia and the kukri is the official melee weapon for India. Other swords in use today are the sabre, the scimitar, the shortsword and the machete.
Swords are commonly worn as a ceremonial item in many military and naval services throughout the world. Occasions to wear swords include any event in dress uniforms where the rank-and-file carry arms: parades, reviews, tattoos, and changes of command. They are also commonly worn for officers' weddings, and when wearing dress uniforms to church—although they are rarely actually worn in the church itself.
In the British forces they are also worn for any appearance at Court. In the United States, every Naval officer at or above the rank of Lieutenant Commander is required to own a sword, which can be prescribed for any formal outdoor ceremonial occasion; they are normally worn for changes of command and parades. For some Navy parades, cutlasses are issued to Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers.
In the U.S. Marine Corps every officer must own a sword, which are prescribed for formal parades and other ceremonies where dress uniforms are worn and the rank-and-file are under arms. On these occasions depending on their billet, Marine Staff Non-Commissioned Officers (E-6 and above) may also be required to carry swords, which have hilts of a pattern similar to U.S. Naval officers' swords but are actually sabres. The USMC Model 1859 NCO Sword is the longest continuously-issued edged weapon in the U.S. inventory
The Marine officer swords are of the Mameluke pattern which was adopted in 1825 in recognition of the Marines' key role in the capture of the Tripolitan city of Derna during the First Barbary War. Taken out of issue for approximately 20 years from 1855 go 1875, it was restored to service in the year of the Corps' centennial and has remained in issue since.
The blade may have grooves known as fullers for lightening the blade while allowing it to retain its strength and stiffness, similar to the effect produced by a steel I-beam used in construction. The blade may taper more or less sharply towards a point, used for thrusting. The part of the blade between the Center of Percussion (CoP) and the point is called the foible (weak) of the blade, and that between the Center of Balance (CoB) and the hilt is the forte (strong). The section in between the CoP and the CoB is the middle. The ricasso or shoulder identifies a short section of blade immediately forward of the guard that is left completely unsharpened, and can be gripped with a finger to increase tip control. Many swords have no ricasso. On some large weapons, such as the German Zweihänder, a metal cover surrounded the ricasso, and a swordsman might grip it in one hand to wield the weapon more easily in close-quarter combat. The ricasso normally bears the maker's mark.
- In the case of a rat-tail tang, the maker welds a thin rod to the end of the blade at the crossguard; this rod goes through the grip. 
- In traditional construction, Swordsmiths peened such tangs over the end of the pommel, or occasionally welded the hilt furniture to the tang and threaded the end for screwing on a pommel. This style is often referred to as a "narrow" or "hidden" tang. Modern, less traditional, replicas often feature a threaded pommel or a pommel nut which holds the hilt together and allows dismantling.
- In a "full" tang (most commonly used in knives and machetes), the tang has about the same width as the blade, and is generally the same shape as the grip. In European or Asian swords sold today, many advertised "full" tangs may actually involve a forged rat-tail tang.
Single-edged blades do not fall under the term "sword" in the narrow sense (see sabre, scimitar), but are often included in a more loose meaning of the term. These blades often have a secondary "false edge" near the tip.
The hilt is the collective term for the parts allowing for the handling and control of the blade; these consist of the grip, the pommel, and a simple or elaborate guard, which in post-Viking Age swords could consist of only a crossguard (called a cruciform hilt or quillons). In addition to improving the sword's balance and grip, the pommel can also be used as a blunt instrument at close range, and its weight affects the center of percussion. It may also have a sword knot or tassel. By the 17th century, with the growing use of firearms and the accompanying decline in the use of armour, many rapiers and dueling swords had developed elaborate basket hilts, which protect the palm of the wielder and rendered the gauntlet obsolete.
The tang consists of the extension of the blade structure through the hilt.
Sword scabbards and suspension
Common accessories to the sword include the scabbard, as well as the sword belt.
- Scabbard: The scabbard, also known as the Sheath, is a protective cover often provided for the sword blade. Over the millennia, scabbards have been made of many materials, including leather, wood, and metals such as brass or steel. The metal fitting where the blade enters the leather or metal scabbard is called the throat, which is often part of a larger scabbard mount, or locket, that bears a carrying ring or stud to facilitate wearing the sword. The blade's point in leather scabbards is usually protected by a metal tip, or chape, which on both leather and metal scabbards is often given further protection from wear by an extension called a drag, or shoe.
- Sword belt: The sword belt is a belt with an attachment for the sword, used to carry it when not in use. It is usually fixed to the scabbard of the sword, providing a fast means of drawing the sword in battle. Examples of sword belts include the Balteus used by the Roman legionary.
Swords can fall into categories of varying scope. The main distinguishing characteristics include blade shape (cross-section, taper, and length), shape and size of the hilt and pommel, age, and place of origin.
The relatively comprehensive Oakeshott typology was created by historian and illustrator Ewart Oakeshott as a way to define and catalogue swords based on physical form, though a rough sense of chronology is apparent. However, this typology does not set forth a prototypical definition for the longsword. Instead, it divides the broad field of weaponry into many exclusive types based on their predominant physical characteristics, including blade shape and hilt configuration. The typology also focuses on the smaller, and in some cases contemporary, single-handed swords such as the arming sword.
For any other type than listed below, and even for uses other than as a weapon, see the article Sword-like object.
Single and double-edged
In most Asian countries, a sword (jian 劍, geom (검), ken/tsurugi (剣), pedang) is a double-edged straight-bladed weapon, while a knife or saber (dāo 刀, do (도), to/katana (刀), pisau, golok) refers to a single-edged object. In Sikh history, the sword is held in very high esteem. A single-edged sword is called a kirpan, and its double-edged counterpart a khanda or tega.
Europeans also frequently refer to their own single-edged weapons as swords—generically backswords, including sabers. Other terms include falchion, scimitar, cutlass, dussack, Messer or mortuary sword. Many of these refer to essentially identical weapons, and the varying names may relate to their use in different countries at different times. A machete as a tool resembles such a single-edged sword is used to cut through thick vegetation, and many of the terms listed above describe battlefield weapons that originated as farmers' tools.
A two-handed sword generally refers to any sword that usually requires two hands to wield. Throughout history two-handed swords have generally been less common than their one-handed counterparts, one exception being their common use in Japan.
Hand and a half sword
A Hand and a half sword, colloquially known as a "bastard sword", was a sword with an extended grip that could be used with either one or two hands. These swords did not provide a full two-hand grip but they allowed its wielders to hold a shield or parrying dagger in their off hand, or to use it as a two-handed sword for a more powerful blow.
Crossed swords symbol
The crossed swords symbol (⚔ at Unicode U+2694) is used to represent battlegrounds on maps. It is also used to show that person died in battle or that a war machine was lost in action. Two crossed swords also look like a Christian cross and the mixed symbolism has been used in military decorations, for instance in the Polish Order of the White Eagle (before 1730) and the Cross of Independence. Several German military orders in both world wars had grades adorned with crossed swords, e.g Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern), and so was the British Order of Merit when awarded for military achievements. Crossed swords are also used in tatoos as a symbol of power, violence and death.
- List of swords
- Japanese swords
- Chinese swords
- Korean swords
- Types of swords
- Oakeshott typology
- Sword making
- List of sword manufacturers
- Sword replica
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Europe JapanYayoi - Nara periodsMuromachi - Edo periods Middle East / Muslim worldScimitar type South and East AsiaFormative stageClassic stagePost-Classic stage
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