"You can't give her that!' she screamed. 'It's not safe!' IT'S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY'RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE. 'She's a child!' shouted Crumley. IT'S EDUCATIONAL. 'What if she cuts herself?' THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON."
Swords are probably the most commonly used weapon in Fantasy, especially by main characters. While certain fantasy races have certain specific weapons associated with them (Dwarves and Axes, Elves and Bows), all of them will make use of swords at least on the sidelines.
Real life shit: A sword is a melee weapon comprised of a long, sharp blade and a hilt to hold it with. In the real world, the blades of swords normally range between 50 to 150cm long and typically weigh between 1 to 4 kilograms, depending on the size and composition. Numerous variants of swords exist and have been employed since some ancient Mesopotamian metalworker decided to make the blade of a dagger much longer than usual.
- 1 Love and Hate
- 2 So why are swords so popular?
- 3 Dissection of swords in battle
- 4 Types of Swords
- 5 Sword-related stupidity
- 6 Swords in Fantasy & Science Fiction
- 7 Worldbuilding Considerations
Love and Hate
There are various types of sword related retards.
- Sword Wankers: Overly romantic morons who believe that the sword is the be all end all weapon until people got good with guns and tragically ended that. Buying into all that chivalry/Bushido nonsense when it was really just a hypocritical class control measure.
- Anti-Sword Wankers: People who respond to the sword wankers by going too far the other way. Seeing swords as worthless weapons that were only carried by overly romantic morons. Thinking that sword blades would always shatter on impact with plate armor and ten swordsmen would easily die to one guy with a spear and ignoring how basically every civilization with metalworking and some that didn't have it all used swords at some point.
- Nipponese Wankers: People who claims that Japanese swords are THE BEST, magically sharp and indestructible because the metal has been folded a thousands times, able to cut through a Tank's armour and pierce steel plate. Western swords are, by comparison, unsharpened metal slabs used by hairy barbarians.
- Western Wankers: On the opposite spectrum, these guys think that katanas are at best crude baseball bats that stands no chance against GLORIOUS EUROPEAN PLATE, and that by comparison European swords are the best thing around in terms of technology, sharpness, usability (such as glorious half swording and usage of mordhau tactics), and resemblance to the cross.
All of them are stupid. Swords were not the be-all end-all of medieval warfare. Other weapons did have their advantages. Maces did concussive damage even if someone was wearing heavy armor and could break bones. Spears had a longer reach and were better against cavalry. Halberds could deliver a devastating chop at range. This did not mean that swords were worthless. They were versatile -- short swords were excellent as a fallback weapon: when the foe was trying to get your spear out of his shield, you gutted him with your sword. Double-handed Zweihanders could be devastating. Nevertheless, morons who think in bare basic binary believe that they are either the weapon of the gods or worthless rubbish. There is a reason why any civilization that developed metalworking (and a couple that didn't) eventually came up with swords in one form or another, and there is likewise a reason why the sword was not the only weapon ever created.
In the same way, people comparing western and eastern swords should take in account that while Europe was and is a big place with lots of trade and plenty of steel, Japan was not. So European swords faced lots of tough metal armour, and there was a sort of "arms race" where swords became increasingly good against armour, that in turn became better at stopping swords and so on. This got to a point where people stopped carrying shields around because armour was just that good, and swords became increasingly narrow and quick because slashing or piercing plate armour was totally ineffective and your best bet was stabbing weak points.
Japan on the contrary had a lot less metal around, so there was less armour and good quality metal was rarer and costly. There was just no point in developing pointy (AH!) uber-piercing swords, and they had to use the metal they had in a smarter way, such as the practice of 'folded steel', a smithing technique to make crappy steel more passable in quality (hence that '1,000-folded metal' bullshit that weeaboos go on about). This does NOT mean they were worse: they were perfectly good for use in the role they had in the place they were, and developing European-like swords would be pointless. This is discussed below in greater details.
So why are swords so popular?
Swords generally have five major advantages over other weapons:
- Ease of carrying - Almost all types of swords fit in a sheath or scabbard and are generally compact and light enough to not cause any discomfort when carried on person. If you have a sword, you can keep it as a backup weapon for when your main one is at major disadvantage, is damaged or lost, a bit like a pistol to modern soldiers (and even this comparison gives the sword less credit than it deserves, as the former criteria was a lot more likely than a modern soldier having their rifle break/run out of ammunition throughout a battle). You can also comfortably carry it out of the battlefield as a self-defense weapon.
- Versatility - While most battlefield weapons are specialized in chopping, piercing or crushing people, swords can generally do anything, if a bit worse than any weapon specialized in it. Even if the sword is specialized, like the thrusting rapier or the slashing sabre it still gives you more options than say an axe or a spear.
- Reach - Swords are good at a wide array of ranges, most importantly at extremely close range, where most other battlefield weapons suffer badly. If you're stuck in a close melee, fighting indoors or in the narrow streets, sword is your friend.
- Defense - Swords are made of metal, are generally quite long and most have crossguards or some other hand protection, which means that aside from the shield no other weapon is as good at parrying enemy blows.
- Lethality - Swords are great at disabling and killing unarmored humans with as little strength spent as possible. They generally don't cut through any kind of armour, but on the plus side most people didn't wear full sets on the battlefield (and in the hot regions it was quite common for people to go to battle almost naked), and advanced control of the blade sword provides makes hitting unarmored body parts easier than most other weapons.
There is also another half reason of status - quality metal was often relatively expensive, and the skills required to make a sword were likewise very specialised and expensive. Therefore, swords were a good way to show off how baller you were.
Considering all of this, the sword was mostly used on the battlefield as a backup weapon, as while most soldiers through history went to battle with something way more specialized, almost anyone who could carry the sword would, often even choosing it over better armour if he cannot afford or carry both. Out of the battlefield it held the title the best self-defense weapon up until revolver pistols were invented.
That being said, swords are weapons and weapons only. You cannot use them to cut firewood like battleaxes, construct the camp or set field fortifications like warhammers, or use them as carving knives like daggers and have you ever heard of people going hunting with a sword? (Actually, yes. There were specialized hunting swords, as well as hunting axes, and crossbows, and even maces. Basically the entire arsenal could be used for hunting. The Hunting Swords are believed to have been used as a way of finishing off injured and dying prey without expending ammunition, and more daring noblemen would use them exclusively for the thrill of it. There also obviously existed daggers that could be used to do this, but the sword option is definitely available. And let's not kid ourselves, there were battleaxes and warhammers that couldn't be used for anything but combat.) Going against a bear with a sword is generally a fucking stupid idea, even more so if you face things like battle elephants; you need either pole-arms or ranged weapons against them unless you have a death wish. Their sole function is to kill other humans. To warriors and societies run by warriors it's only natural that some symbolism would wear off.
Considering all this, it's strange that swords are the go-to weapons of your average melee murderhobos in any fantasy setting where they are supposed to fight giants and dragons on a daily basis. Though this may partly be the fault of unimaginative game designers or GMs, as the majority of magic weapons tend to be swords, or else you need to specialize in order to train with another weapon even if said weapon would realistically require less training in real life. Then again, murderhobos almost exclusively fight in duels and smaller skirmishes rather than large formation warfare, where bringing a pike or other main battlefield weapon would be stupid in comparison. The close confines of the average dungeon also rule out the use of polearms in most cases, to say nothing of the ability to carry a sword and still leave the other hand free.
Dissection of swords in battle
Because swords are so versatile, it's best to go over a few of their various benefits to the user and why they're so commonly used:
- Balance: To start off, most combat swords have their center of mass near the handle. This means you have much better control over their movement than with any other weapon, able to stop it or change the movement angle much faster. However this same balance has a double edge, thanks to their good balance a sword can't hit as hard as an unbalanced weapon since you have less weight and mass at the point of impact. It's why relatively untrained axemen and halberds are still a strong threat, the heavy weight of the head means that when you hit, you hit hard, even if it is hard to change your blow's speed or angle and it's why swordsmen need more training than with other weapons.
- Defense: Swords also offer more protection than most other weapons - most swords are one handed, so it's easy to use a shield with most types. You can also use them to parry other weapons if you're really desperate, however parrying anything but another sword is generally difficult and/or dangerous. Spears, pole-arms, and other weapons designed for thrusting (including some swords) are hard to parry, weapons that have gathered huge momentum, such as axes or maces, would have a high chance of damaging either your weapon or your hand, or throwing you off your balance and flails (at full speed) can hardly be parried at all, but that's to be expected given it's their main shtick. However the sword shines in attacking first before they build up the momentum which the sword's superior agility can allow. Or, if you are skilled enough, you can try to redirect their momentum so their weapon misses you instead of parrying it head-on with your edge and then counter-attack while they are trying to recover. Most swords also usually include crossguards to protect the hands of anybody using them unlike... pretty much every other common weapon.
- Training Time: One of the worst things about swords, they require more skill than most other close combat weapons, and while untrained militiamen with spears, halberds, or axes still could be a threatening foes, untrained men with swords possess a danger mainly to themselves. While high skill floor is a definite disadvantage, skill ceiling with a sword fighting is also much higher than with most other weapons, meaning if you can dump a lot of time into training sword, that training would give you more result - one more reason for it to be a staple weapon of warrior/noble classes in most culture. Additionally, a sword is just a sharp metal stick with a handle, so if you manage to master it, most of the core swordsmanship skills and martial art basics in general transfer well to other long, shafted weapons like axes, spears and quarterstaves, if you decide to train in using them.
- Space: One-handed swords require much less space to build momentum, so you can effectively use them in a tight shoulder-to-shoulder formation (unlike axes, maces and hammers), even two-handed swords will usually have a Ricasso (an unsharpened part of the blade immediately above the crossguard) which can be used to allow them to fight better in close quarters and even if they don't, they still don't require nearly as much space as great axes or two-handed warhammers and if you're really hard pressed (let's say somebody comes at you in armor), a fighting technique of the time was to just hold your sword by the blade and just clobber your opponent with the guard (a German technique called "mordhau" meaning "murder stroke"). Or you could hold the sword in the middle (even though it's sharp, it's okay if you use gloves; it's called half-swording) and use it like a makeshift short spear, doing quick jabs with its point or trying to wrestle your opponent to the ground by using your sword as a lever. All of these are fairly good techniques for very close quarters combat, and can be seen in historical manuals (yes, manuals).
- Availability and Reliability: Swords ran the gamut between very cheap and very expensive, more so than pretty much any other weapon of the time. Using England in the middle ages as an example, a sword could cost between 3 pence and thousands of pounds. A line archer made 3 pence a day on average while a professional archer made around 10. This means that the cheapest of swords were extremely affordable for pretty much anyone who actually needed them (remember, mythical beasts didn't tend to run around in real life), even if the sword was of lower quality it was still a tool of war and useable. Depending on the period of time and region, swords were legally made "nobility only" weapons of status, though in practice many people got around this through rule lawyering, most commonly by simply calling a particular type of sword a "big knife." Fun-fact: the rapier (commonly thought of as a nobility-only dueling sword) was an extremely common back-up weapon for soldiers.
- Lethality: How a sword kills is entirely dependent on the type of sword that it is (this will be covered more later). The main types of damage they inflict could be divided into three categories:
- Slashing deals huge, extremely painful and bleeding wounds. The pain alone would incapacitate most foes, leaving them to the finishing blow, and if you didn't finish them, they would just bleed to death in a matter of minutes. It's effective against opponents with partial armor, prevalent through most of the history, as limb hits are just as painful and lethal as body hits, and limbs are usually more exposed, and if your opponent happen to have no chest piece, disemboweling becomes a nice effective option. Two main issues with slashing is that pretty much any armor renders it completely useless, and that opponents with high enough pain tolerance (Berzerkers and Mameluks did it through painkiller drugs) can continue fighting for minutes even with their lethal wounds, taking their killers (and likely more poor bastards) with them.
- Stabs from a sword on the on the other hand can be instantly fatal since if you hit someone pretty much anywhere on the torso you are almost guaranteed to hit an organ that's full of blood like a liver or a kidney, and then have the blood pour out of the big hole you just made in them. The issue with stabs is if your opponent wears any kind of metal armor on his torso (like all soldiers worth their salt before the age of the musketeer), your stabs generally cannot do shit unless you manage to get that sharp point between the gaps between the plates. Another issue with stabs is that they lack in stopping power, and while they're considerably more immediately lethal than any other attacking move other than chopping the head off, they're not instantly lethal, so they guy you've just impaled on your sword still have few seconds to take you with him if he's angry, crazy or high enough.
- Half-swording, or grabbing your sword by the blade and stabbing it at the enemy like a spear. It may seem utterly retarded at first, and you need a bit of practice not to cut off your fingers, but works surprisingly well against armoured opponent. If you encounter an enemy in full plate, chain-mail, or a fully padded gamberson, you'd better forget about hitting him with a blade, as it would only serve to damage your weapon, as swords don't cut through metal well. Like at all. You'd be far better with bashing him with a pommel with a related half-swording technique known as "mordhau" (German for "deathblow"). Alternatively called Mordstreich or Mordschlag, it consists of holding your sword by the blade with both hands while the pommel is facing forward, and bashing your enemy with a pommel or a cross-guard like a makeshift mace or warhammer respectively. A good tactic would be using the mordhau to either beat your armored opponent senseless (assuming your sword doesn't have a sharpened crossguard to pierce stressed metal like a pickax) or snag his leg by the crossguard and pull to trip him before flipping the blade and half-swording it to stab into any gaps in their armor such as joints or the neck. The two techniques were infamous to the point that swordsmanship manuals had whole pages dedicated to countering half-swording and mordhau techniques. By the end of the Medieval period, when plate became widespread, pommels and cross guards became arguably more important than the blade itself, especially if you want to End Him Rightly. And if you hold your sword with the main hand on the handle and the off-hand on the blade close to the tip you get a short spear or a dagger with a very long handle, that you can jam between the plates of your opponent's armor. It was also a good way to use the Zweihander against pike and halberd formations: You used the long blade to cast the pikes aside, and when you're inside the ranks you switch to half-swording and started slashing and stabbing around.
- "Chopping" is more common in axes, but the element is still present in some swords. The chopping value of a heavy, weighted sword allows it to slice through tissue and bone, cutting off part or all or a limb or neck. In areas with plentiful armour, this feature is less effective and therefore less common. However, warm areas such as Southeast Asia have machete-like blades intended to do just that.
Types of Swords
Unlike, say, the spear or the mace, which were pretty much the same all over, swords, being essentially jack-of-all-trades weapons that could also be designed to excel in specific circumstances, came in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes to fit the needs of the people using them. This is not a complete list (nor should it be, go to wikipedia's page on sword types), but it should give you a good introduction.
The Ancient Days
A fair number of early bronze age swords look like big knives, because that was basically what they were. Societies figured out bronze working or learned it from someone else, found out that they could make serviceable bronze knives like their older rock ones, then began enlarging the shape. They also were composed of just a blade with a handle (or hilt) bolted on, rather than having a tang, Others were simply a single piece of bronze with maybe some leather or cloth tied around the handle to make it easier to hold. While bronze is quite easy to forge and shape, it's relative rarity compared to iron and it's softness means that bronze wasn't an ideal cutting material; swords made of bronze can't be too large or they'll bend after a strike, and they can't hold an edge as well. Later societies moved to iron, and then steel, once they mastered the smelting techniques necessary, which made swords more available.
- Khopesh: One of the oldest varieties of sword with a distinct sickle shape. Originally of Egyptian design, this weapon's distinctive blade allowed it to cut, hook shields, and even thrust. It was fairly good for its day in the bronze age, but in that day armor better than leather or padded cloth was a rarity. Its time was done once chainmail and scale armor became common in the iron age. Despite most fantasy depictions of khopeshes having them as long as longswords, these blades were fairly small at 50-60 cm, since anything bigger made out of bronze tended to get bent easily. A related blade, the shotel, was also used among the Ethiopian people while other similar blades were adopted in the Middle East during the Bronze Age.
- Kopis: An ancient Greek short sword from the age of Hoplites, about 50-70 centimeters long. It curved inward and was a single bladed weapon on the inward curve. This did limit flexibility in slashing attacks somewhat when compared with swords with blades on both sides, but meant that a sharper edge could be put on the edged side, which was important since at this point the Greeks only had bronze to make weapons, which does not hold an edge very well. A similar sword, the Falcata, was used by the Spanish, which also featured a knuckle guard.
- Xiphos: Another Greek short sword, this one was double-edged and the blade resembled more of a leaf shape, giving it some extra heft toward the point. A secondary, cut-and-thrust weapon.
- Gladius: The standard sword of the Roman Legions, a short sword about 60 to 80 centimeters long. This sword was the (main?) weapon for the average Roman legionary. As one of the smallest one handed swords of its time, the gladius was decent at chopping and slashing, but excelled at stabbing; combined with Roman shield formations and the bash-step-stab-block move, this gave it a deceptively large effective range surpassed only by polearms. The fact that Roman legionnaire maniples were able to crush Macedonian phalanxes in melee should tell you a lot about their effectiveness (though outflanking the formation helped). It was later phased out in favor of the longer spatha (a cavalry weapon adapted by the infantry, mainly as a reaction to increasingly mounted adversaries), which was itself a precursor to the viking sword, and by extension arming swords and longswords. (Historians are actually still divided on whether the pilum, a cross between a javelin and a spear, or the gladius was the legionnaire's main weapon. What is know is that each legionnaire carried two pilii and a gladius, but whether they were supposed to throw both and engage with their swords or keep one to engage in melee and only draw their sword later is unclear, with surviving evidence hinting at both tactics being used.)
- Macuahuitl: Also called the Macana or just "obsidian sword", these were Mesoamerican swords, made without the use of any metalworking. They consisted of a sturdy wooden paddle whose edge was beset with rows of sharpened obsidian. This made the sword ridiculously sharp, but also ridiculously prone to chipping.
- Leiomano: The Polynesian version of the macuahuitl, usually made of hardwood clubs strung with "blades" of shark teeth. Some versions were made with marlin/swordfish bills as piercing weapons, or were given spiked wooden pommels so you could cut and stab with opposite ends of the weapon.
As a rule, during the Middle Ages in Europe most peoples settled on straight double edged swords for the most part.
- Arming Sword: Also known as the side-sword, this was a one handed weapon about 70 to 90 centimeters pretty much carried by every decently equipped man-at-arms/archer/spearman/knight ever. This was also the sword that developed the cruciform crossguard, which would be used by nearly every European sword design due to its defense value and versatility. Often carried with a shield of some sort, it can also be used if your main weapon breaks or happens to be too long to use in corridors. The standby weapon of knights, it retained some degree of use even after the advent of longswords due to their greater degree of adaptability. When most people hear the word "sword", this sword is what most often comes to mind. Often incorrectly called a longsword in games and other fiction.
- Viking Sword: Often considered the progenitor of the arming sword, the Viking swords featured ornamental hilts, and many had unusually high-quality steel for their time, particularly the Ulfberht swords. Viking Swords are descended from "migration period" swords of the late Roman Empire.
- Messer A straight single-edged sword, this German weapon also featured an early knuckleguard called a "Nagel", or nail, which became very useful for parrying blows. It may have later had a role in the evolution of the dussack, and other proto-sabers. The word "Messer" means knife in German and gets its name from how it was constructed; instead of having a shaft and pommel, the sword had a tang with rivets. The reason behind this was so knife-smith guilds could make them without getting into hot water with sword-smith guilds, as by legal definition messer counted as a knife.
- Longsword: A 90 to 120 cm long knightly sword, befit of any self-respecting knightly individual, it's your two-handed or hand and a half go-to man killer with multiple functions such as sword(duh), crowbar, spear, and hammer. Though there are dozens of techniques to use the longsword, two of the most common and useful styles (and two whose manuals have survived somewhat intact to be studied by HEMA practitioners today) were the Italian and German styles. The Italian longsword technique allowed wielders to strike and parry quickly, greatly emphasizing on using the general physics of a longsword combined with well-planned footwork, and creating a unified combat system that also incorporated things like grappling and wrestling. The German style of gripping the sword with the right hand on the handle and the left on the percussion point of the sword (creating a characteristic “thumb grip“ that makes it easy to tell whether or not a sword was built for German fencing based on whether or not it incorporated a “thumb ring“ to guard the finger) emphasized heavy aggression and trying to take out the opponent before they had a chance to react with explosive speed and power, treating other weapons and modes of combat as their own distinct disciplines. It is also good to note that the longsword strikes faster and harder than the arming sword because two hands are used to wield it (though it could be wielded with one hand in order to use a shield in the other, albeit not quite as effectively).
- Falchion: This single-edged sword almost resembles a great machete, designed to combine the advantages of a sword and an axe. The blade is much wider in order to increase its weight, giving it better chopping power at the expense of balance and thrusting ability. Interestingly enough, there is very little information on how falchions were used in combat, though it is theorized that it was used with a shield (quite unlike the common fantasy depiction of a big two-handed fuck-off machete).
- Cinquedea: Literally "five fingers", this Venetian blade straddled the line between a short sword and a long dagger (about 18-20 inches). One noteworthy feature was that the blade was obscenely wide, being as wide as five fingers, hence the name. It was a civilian weapon used in narrow streets, and frequently pimped out with etched blades. While the wide blade won't do much good against armor, it can give an unarmored opponent a pretty nasty wound.
- Estoc: When plate armor became more common, some men carried the Estoc, which was basically a longsword with no sharpened edges but a very sharp and narrow point. The edges were left unsharpened, partly because a slash does no good against most armor, and partly because the actual blade wasn't flat and wide, but thick and narrow, reducing flex and making it more rigid for dealing with heavy armor. The blade could be triangular, square, or even hexagonal.
- Greatsword: Or Zweihander, is a mighty 120-150 centimeter blade that appeared somewhere around the 15th century which was mainly carried by fuckhuge men with fuckhuge biceps and fuckhuge balls whose jobs were to run forth as the vanguard and hack enemy pikes, pikemen, swordsmen, and occasionally cavalry to meaty chunks or to guard vulnerable flanks. Greatswords bear many of the same qualities as the longsword, though it was a bit slower and struck harder due to the weight, and also require even more training. One unique ability of the Greatsword was that it could be wielded like a short spear, featuring an extra handguard past the primary hilt. Good greatswords were some of the most expensive close combat weapons in medieval Europe, and good landsknechts were the most expensive foot soldiers, but for the good reason, as they combined the devastating killing blow and armor piercing capability of the axe, speed of the sword, and were also able do chop through tough spear or halberd formations (and mind you Swiss pikemen, and later halberdiers, were the deathstars of this era). This, however, comes at a great risk, as while a highly skilled landsknecht can swing the zweihander pretty fast, he cannot react fast enough to reliably block enemy strikes because of the fuckhuge momentum of his sword, leaving him vulnerable to counter-attack if something survives his swing - even while they usually wore heavy armor, landsknechts were known to die young.
- Claymore: Scottish variant of the Greatsword. The claymore is distinguished by its forward-sweeping hilt ending in quatrefoils. Not to be confused with later basket-hilted swords of the same name. These things stuck around for use as weapons into the Napoleonic era, for their intimidation and national pride as much as practicality.
The Far East
"In few countries has the sword had so much attention and honour paid it as in Japan; for regarded as being of divine origin, it has been worshipped as such."
- – Francis James Norman, The Fightning Man of Japan (1905)
Like in the West, the peoples of East Asia made use of a wide and diverse variety of swords which evolved on their own lines. Here are a few of these.
- Katana: The unstoppable God-weapons that can cleave through tanks, cut through time, and cure cancer. No wait, come back! That's all bull and no one who isn't stupid disputes this. But, they were perfectly functional swords for their place and time. See the "Folded a thousand times" section below to learn why.
- Wakizashi - essentially a shortsword version of the Katana, it is usually worn alongside the the Katana as a visual badge of status for the samurai but can also be used in situations where a katana would be too unwieldy to use (e.g. in narrow corridors).
- Tachi - The katana's predecessor was between 68 to 79 cm long and had slightly more curvature, though direct visual comparison would be difficult. The real difference is how the blade was signed by the smith and the way it was worn (edge down) compared to a katana (edge up), even the word "Katana" means "Sword that is different from a tachi." The additional length and the extra curvature made the blade more suitable for cavalry, which was the primary role of the samurai at the time. The later katana was shorter and straighter which was more practical for a footman or a duelist. It replaced the old single edged, straight bladed swords in Japan called "Chokutō" after the Japanese were subject to the effectiveness of curved sabers during the Mongol invasions. Another related type of blade, which descended from the Tachi, is the "Uchigatana."
- No-Dachi (or O-dachi) - Translates as "Fuck-Massive Tachi" which was the Japanese version of the greatsword. Made famous to the west by Sephiroth. They had a blade usually 120 to 150 cm length and was a weapon intended for infantry, though the shortest could also be used on horseback, though it then focused on downward cuts rather than side to side slashes which could rape hordes (Samurai prefered to use bows or Yari (Sengoku) and Naginata (prior Sengoku) when on horseback, since it did a better job than making one's Tachi longer). Some of the biggest Nodachi include Tarômaru (Nagasa 180cm, Zenchô 262cm, 7.2 kg, forged in Kamakura period, widely considered to be the golden age of Nihontô), Nenekirimaru (Zenchô 324cm, Nagasa 215cm, weight unknown, forged in Nanbokuchô period) or Tarôtachi (Nagasa 220cm, 4.5 kg, total lenght around 3m). The latter belonged to a Sengoku period General, Makara Jûrôzaemon Naotaka, who actually wielded it on horseback. Such swords are the longest, biggest and highest quality blades around. Generally got banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate when they legislated how long a samurai's swords could be, so most of them got cut down or relegated to ceremonial duties. A lower quality version of the Nodachi called Wodao (Japanese Sword) was used by the Chinese after a Kage-ryû manual got looted by the Chinese Imperial army, who then mass produced it to use against northern barbarians in specialized units, unlike in Japan where only specialized individual fighters used them (contrary to popular Shogun Total War induced beliefs).
- Kodachi Like the Messer mentioned above, a sword that's technically a knife for classes not allowed to own/carry swords.
- Legendary Blades: So you might have heard in RPG's of the the Masamune and Muramasa blades, but in real life these actually refer to specific swordsmiths (though Japanese swords are often called by the name of their smith in a pseudo-brand sort of way) of which Masamune is the most famous, being lauded as one of the greatest sword-smiths of all time and his swords are held as national treasures even today. Muramasa came 200 years later and produced swords during the Muromachi period. In modern fantasy fiction, Masamune's blades are far more elegant and the mark of a more refined warrior while Muramasa's blades were considered to be bloodthirsty and were even banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Though directly comparing them is unfair, as they were both the greatest masters limited only by the processes of their time. Masamune's era had less technical knowledge to process the impurities from iron creating brittle metals, but Masamune worked this disadvantage into his blades as an artistic expression, causing crystals of impurities to form making his swords appear to sparkle. By contrast Muramasa most likely had all the same technical knowledge of Masamune in addition to 200 years of engineering development and suffered a bad reputation because the shogun of his time found himself on the wrong end of Muramasa's blades frequently enough to order them banned out of spite.
- To: Korean sabers were 60 to 86cm in length and have a very similar appearance to Japanese katanas, though straighter and often with a shorter handle, making them primarily one-handed which is more suitable for its function as a cavalry saber. In fact, many katanas could have been converted into To by cutting down the length of the handle, but considering the shape of most surviving Korean swords, it is unlikely they did it a lot. Contrary to popular belief on both the Western and Eastern side of the Internet, caused by K-Pop propaganda, the Koreans DID NOT had traditional schools of swordsmanship, Muyedobotongji was published in 1790. This is because Korean had a mainly Confucianist society dispising violence under the Kingship of the Joseon dynasty, and as such had no martial culture. Before the Invasion of Korea by the Toyotomi clan's Hosts (1592 - 1598), they used mostly Chinese style Jian (referred to by them as the Geum/Gum), which the Koreans wore hung diagonaly from a waist or a shoulder in back to front. This is because the only traditional martial art of Korea was archery. Because of those reasons, the Imjin war was initialy a huge success for the Japanese Samurai armies ; on the land it failed in the end for logistic and strategic reason rather than tactical ones, and on the sea it failed due to very recently developped Korean warships (ironicaly, based on the Japanese warships), as it is often the case (for exemple, in the Satsuma rebellion during the Meiji era, the samurai rebels killed twice their numbers, but lost because they were outnumbered and lacked guns, artillery, munitions, comfort, support...). Even after the war, the Korean used mostly blades who were abandoned / forgotten during the Japanese retreat, or low quality replicas of Nihontô. All those swords were often rusted, because unlike the Japanese, Koreans didn't knew how to maintain them healthy. Some other exemples of the low quality of ancient Koreans replicas of Japanese swords include the absence of Kogai (kind of stylet) and thus the uselessness of holes in Korean Tsuba, the absence of Shinogi (or only 1 sided Shinogi) or the use of hardware to keep the blade inside the sheath (while the Japanese Sword do have a Habaki that will fit the Saya perfectly). Those latter Korean swords' sheath were not kept hung by the swordsman, but thrown away as to not be bothersome, and indeed, none of the many illustrations of Korean ancient martial arts books are shown wearing a sheath, and does not mention the sheating process (unlike Japanese Iaijutsu and Battôjutsu). One might hence wonder from where does come from Haidong Kumdo, Taekwondo, Hapkido and others. Those were in fact derived from Japanese Martial Arts taught to Koreans by the Japanese for purposes of cultural exchange and peaceful cohabitation through sportsmanship, mostly during the occupation in the Shôwa era, which is why they use Japanese inspired clothing, weapons and techniques, but also have controversial stories when trying to pass as older as they really are (mostly for Nationalistic purposes).
- Of note, you might have heard of the ninja-to, a fictional weapon invented by Hollywood to be used as props for movie Ninjas and perpetuated by RPGs and video games (including D&D). Well the Korean to is probably the closest physical analogue to the ninja-to (besides the Chokutō that was replaced by the Tachi and Katana) as there has never been any historical evidence of ninja-to's as a ninja would never be stupid enough to carry a weapon that would identify him as such. Save for the Japanese Historicaly acurate Shikomizue, which came in a variety of forms, some easier to hide than others (similar to the European cane sword).
- Dadao: A Chinese sabre meaning "Big Knife" in English. It has a thick, long, curved blade, and often has a handle half-as big as the blade itself, much like a very thick falchion or großemesser two-handed sword. Alongside it's smaller partner, the Jian, it was a member of the classical Chinese quartet of weapons as mentioned below as is called the "General of Weapons." This made the blade extremely durable and tough. During World War II, the Chinese Nationalists used them for defending Chinese territory against Japanese invaders. To just about everyone's surprise, was actually fairly effective in deterring any Japanese troops from getting too close, which was very useful when your foe likes to bayonet charge when they run out of ammunition. One highly specialized division, the 29th, (Ershi jiu jun) specialized in the dadao and became infamous for their beheading cavalry raids used at night against unsuspecting IJN troops at the Great Wall during their Inner Mongolian Pacification campaign in 1933. It's name is also shared by a sword from the Naga people of India alongside other tribes in south eastern asia but that design has a long rectangular shaped blade with no pointed tip and slightly wider edges at the front. Another relative, the dha, is a form of curved saber in South Eastern Asia, it is also referred to as the daab or darb and featuring a round cross guard like those on Japanese swords.
- Jian: A straight, double edged sword from China, it was first made during the Warring States Period with a wide blade similar to a gladius before evolving overtime with the blade become narrower and with a wider crossguard (similar to the arming sword in Europe). It was deemed the "Gentleman of Weapons" within the classical Chinese quartet of weapons (the others being the Gùn staff, Qiang spear, and the Dao sabre). A related sword, the "Taijijian," is also used alongside it on classical sword play.
- Bolo: A Phillipine sword that resembles a machete in almost every aspect. Originally designed as an agricultural tool for cutting rattan and bamboo, it comes in many shapes and lengths, but your battle-ready bolo was typically between 60-90cm with a wide, slightly curved blade. The bolo lacks a cross guard, leaving the hand vulnerable, but the traditional martial arts of the region (Kali/Eskrima/Arnis, depending on when/where/who you’re asking) favor using it more like an axe, with the sword arm frequently in constant motion. When the Spanish showed up in the 16th/17th centuries they outlawed both the weapon and the martial arts, leading it to be kept alive through practice and ritual using hardened rattan sticks which are still used for practice in the sport today. Sometimes paired with a second Bolo (for maximum shred) or a dagger called a Begaw or, the latter of which grew in popularity under the Spanish who imported their style of Espada y Daga (English: sword and dagger).
The guys outside of east Asia and Europe did some swordsmithing of their own, here we acknowledge their contributions to the world of swords.
- Ida: A sword design native to Sub Saharan Africa (specifically Nigeria). There were a fair number of several types of swords used by sub-Saharan African peoples, some of which being similar to Middle Eastern scimitars, a few of which having a fairly common straight sword shape more commonly associated with European swords and others had rather exotic shapes. The ida is notable for having a straight blade which bulges towards the point.
- Macuahuitl: Some would dispute this weapon is a sword, but it still deserves a mention. The macuahuitl is from Central America and was used by the Aztecs and such civilization. Basically, imagine a paddle with grooves in the narrow faces that hold sharpened obsidian to make the cutting edge. Shards of obsidian can get really really damn sharp, sometimes having a monomolecular edge (confirmed by electron microscope imaging), and as such a macuahuitl could cut through flesh and bone like nobody's business. But this sharpness comes from obsidian's nature as a volcanic glass, which means when a macuahuitl went up against metallic armor (such as, for example, the breastplate worn by a Spanish conquistador), said bits of glass would shatter and leave its wielder helpless against the wearer of the aforementioned armor. The Spaniards, though, feared the Aztec warriors, who could almost behead their horses in but one swing.
- Scimitar: A family of swords of Middle Eastern design, including a number of offshoots such as the tulwar or shamshir, the scimitar was a curved single bladed sword, but could be one-handed or two-handed depending on its function or region of manufacture. Was made extremely popular by Drizzt, who was famous for fighting with two of them on foot, though historically they were far more suited for fighting from horseback as the curved blade allows for fly-by attacks without the blade getting caught in the victim's bodies and pulling the rider off his horse. Replacing the double edged straight Saif swords that the Arabs used to use after seeing the speedy effectiveness of Turkish & Mongol sabers, these blades were lighter than European counterparts (such as the sabre and the falchion) and had limited flexibility (since they only had one edge), but they were remarkably quick and sharp. Scimitars are one of the few blade weapons still in actual use today, with some Middle Eastern nations using them for executions of criminals. Fantasy scimitars and real scimitars are often two entirely different beasts. Fantasy scimitars tend to look like thinner, slightly more curved sabers while real scimitars were usually very thin and had such an extreme curve it was essentially impossible to stab with them.
- Yatagan: An inward-curved sword, popularized by Turkish Janissary, and adopted by many nations that fought against them or were conquered by them. Legally counted as a knife (seeing a trend here?), since Janissary being slave-soldiers weren't allowed to wield swords which were weapons of free people. Notable by being the least skill-demanding sword in the Middle East and later Balkans and being not as terrible at fighting people in armor as most other swords.
Sword and Shot
The age of the sword did not end the second someone worked out that a combination of a strong tube with one end sealed off, some black powder, and some pebbles could be used to shoot one's enemies. Swords and guns coexisted for nearly a thousand years. The following latter-day swords arose and were used alongside (and sometimes by) arquebusier, msuketeers, dragoons, and riflemen:
- Flamberge: Not actually a sword but a technique for making a blade meaning "Flame Bladed Sword" which was a primarily decorative single-handed blade usually used by officers who practiced rapier forms. While it could be said that the blades caused more damage due to the curves on the edge giving a saw-like motion with each swing; remember that rapier forms were practiced during the gunpowder-era where there were much easier ways to kill a man, and to properly utilise this in combat would require a very different form that required swinging rather than thrusting. Therefore the flamberge's REAL benefit was that anyone who attempted to parry a strike from a waved blade would catch their sword on the curves and unbalance their hold on their own weapon or make their arms ache. This is all theory, of course, as the minor discomfort from parrying a flammarded blade would only really build up over time... and personal combat doesn't last that long.
- Flambard: Forget what you think you know from fantasy books and video games, flambards are the two-handed versions of flamberges. Unfortunately, the terminology has been confused mostly by fanboys and collectors in the same manner as katanas have been. Just like a zweihander blade, flambards were meant to be heavy and the blows inflicted by them were absolutely lethal, so you could easily chop lumps out of dudes stupid enough to get close to you. On the other hand, the waved blade served a different purpose than the flamberge, of focusing force in a smaller area, thus increasing cutting power in a similar way axes do. This allowed it to cut through shields and armour almost as good as great axes (and don't get stuck inside them as often as axes tend to), while retaining the speed and versatility of the zweihander. Flambard got a really bad reputation, due to ragged wounds left by its waved blade having a nasty tendency of catching a gangrene (as this factors in after the battle it does not give the wielder any advantage, maybe aside some psychological pressure if his opponent knows about this effect), so people assumed the blade itself was "wicked", "cursed", or even "demonic" - during the Reformation wars people carrying ones were often blamed as Devil-worshipers by Catholics (who banned it as unholy weapon) and subsequently BLAMmed, which naturally meant surrender was not an option for flambard-wielding protestant landsknechts. In a way this reputation had partially carried to modern days, where flambards are often carried by villains and outright demons in fantasy or even historical fiction. Once again, this is all theory and there has been no proven advantage to having a flammarded blade. In fact, many historians lump the flamberge style weapons in with the flambard style weapons as it is simply that, a blade style.
- Kriegsmesser: A single-edged rigid top-heavy balanced longsword (sometimes slightly curved, sometimes not), favored by many German and Swedish mercenaries during the clusterfuck the 30-year war was. Basically what katanas should have been if Japanese swordsmiths had all the technology Europeans stole from Arabs (who stole it from Indians) and all the juicy high-quality iron ore - it had the same benefit of easy cutting even without much training (very useful for a merc), but made with a spring steel it was quite resilient to bending and chipping, and of course it had cross-guards and a pommel, unlike it's eastern analogue. Despite the benefit of ease of use, however, the main reason mercenaries used kriegsmesser was because in some of the German states it was illegal for a commoner to own a "knightly" longsword. It was mostly used as a sidearm alongside some-pole-arm or a musket, and later fell out of use in favor of much cheaper arming swords.
- Cutlass: A European broadsword from the age of Enlightenment. Cutlasses had a point which went off to one side and were often slightly curved, but were usually double bladed. A very effective weapon for chopping and cutting. The stereotypical user of this sword is a pirate, which is not an exaggeration as it was commonly used by sailors and pirates during the age of sail, though it also saw use on the ground in the hands of infantry. Cutlasses were still used into the first world war, although they had largely been superseded by close-combat firearms.
- Basket-hilted sword: A medium length, heavy, straight, double edged blade with a heavy guard for the hand. Suitable for both chopping and stabbing, these were generally used by armored cavalry between the English civil war and the Napoleonic wars. The basket hilt served to protect the sword hand (try fighting and controlling a horse one-handed) and could be used to punch with.
- Rapier: As firearms became more prominent, swords became relegated to the purposes of self-defense and dueling rather than full-fledged military warfare. Unlike most swords, rapiers possess long, thin blades (commonly about a meter long and 2.5 centimeters wide) with a sharpened point- useless for cutting, (somewhat untrue. While there were edgeless rapiers, the term "rapier" comes from and includes the Spanish espada ropera "dressing sword" which popularized the thin, long sword archetype in europe and was sharp enough to allow a strong man to cut a pig in two. They were used mostly for thrusting simply because period clothing was too thick to reliably cut through regardless of blade edge) but perfect for thrusting. They were frequently made with elaborate hilts meant to guard the wielder's hands more effectively, preventing them from being disarmed (both figuratively and literally). They could theoretically be wielded in pairs (dubbed a case of rapiers), but doing so was difficult and reserved for experts. Over time, the rapier evolved into the smallsword; as the name suggests, the blade was made shorter and the hilt was simplified. At this point, they served more as status symbols than weapons in their own right, as duels to the death (at least with swords) had become increasingly frowned upon. While often portrayed in media as light and flexible due to their conflation with their descendents, the modern fencing foil and épée, real life rapiers were nothing but: they were about as heavy as an arming swords and about as stiff as technologically possible, and given they were longer than arming swords, fighting with a rapier was actually more taxing on the wielder's strength, contrary to "go-to weapon for girls and feminine guys" reputation they have nowadays. Rapiers were actually extremely common as infantry weapons and were not the sole purview of the nobility, with their identification as a noble's weapon occurring long after their military use had ceased. Smallswords are still used by some military branches as part of their formal/ceremonial uniforms. In some dense areas, such as Venice and Italy where street violence was common but guns would attract attention, rapier fighting evolved to use small metal shields as well.
- Pistol Sword: In the 1600s, someone got a bright idea that seemed ingenious at the time: what if you stuck a gun barrel onto the side of a sword so you wouldn't have to fumble around changing your weapons in the middle of a battle? Unfortunately they were born well before they could make this into a videogame weapon, and much like most things in real life, the answer was not as cool as it sounds - instead of getting a weapon that could be used both as a sword and a pistol, you got a sword that was unbalanced and a pistol that was too heavy to aim with (and was also too expensive to mass-produce). Needless to say, they weren't all that popular, and remained more of a curiosity than anything else. The one thing they were good at was finishing game, so rich guys bought them to show off when hunting.
- Backsword: An in-between between Cutlasses and Sabers, Backswords (Or Pallaschs in German, Pallos in Hungarian, where they originated) were heavy, strictly single-handed straight swords intended for heavy cavalry. Contrary to Cutlasses, they only had one sharpened edge.
- Saber: The last type of sword to see any type of major military use. After firearms became the dominant battlefield weapon, sabers were still primarily used by infantry officers and cavalry up until WWI, when cavalry was finally made obsolete by machineguns and trench warfare, and more portable short-range firearms such as revolvers and submachineguns were readily available. Some officers still carry sabers today, such as those of the US Marine Corps, though for purely ceremonial purposes. While both cutlasses and sabers are curved weapons, the saber is distinguished from a cutlass in that they were mostly derived from the Middle-eastern Mameluke sword, being longer and more slender than the thick and short cutlass. The extra reach was more useful for cavalry while the weight of a cutlass was unnecessary for attacking at a full gallop.
- Shashka: When Russians conquered the Caucasian mountains, they banned locals from owning swords because they tended to rebel all the time and because it was a good excuse to prosecute undesirables. Apparently, Russians weren't paying attention to German and Turkish history, and predictably the Caucasians made a saber that by legal definition counted as a big knife and named it (you guess it) "A Big Knife", or Shashka in Adyghe. It's heavier and straighter than a proper saber and lacks a guard, so it's a bit worse at drive-bying people from a horseback, but better at slicing them open when fighting on foot, being a bit of an all-rounder well suited for a region that favors cavalry that can fight on foot (because of all that mountains and valleys). Naturally, Russian cossacks that handled the brunt of peacekeeping/oppressing (depending on your view) work in the region found out it was a damn fine weapon for the task and adopted it to the point it quickly became their hallmark weapon. Later shashkas became so popular in Russia they almost pushed out sabers from the military and civilian use and by the late 18th century only hussars and high nobility were still using sabers instead of shashkas. Modern Russian Cossacks still wear them, but nowadays they're mostly ceremonial. Though is it really a good idea to piss off a Cossack?
- Cane Sword: A thin straight sword which can be concealed in a walking stick. Popular among elites in the 18th and 19th century among gentlemen which might find themselves accosted by crude ruffians.
- Machete: Somewhere between a short sword and a long knife, the machete is, like the bayonet, still with us today. Essentially a short one-handed blade with a curved edge, it is mostly intended for cutting through undergrowth in tropical climates in the modern era. However, it is just as effective at cutting through flesh, and the ease of their acquisition by civilians has made them popular among guerillas and other paramilitary forces, especially in Latin America and parts of West Africa.
- Kukri: Same story as the Machete, except in Nepal, India, and surrounding areas. The sharpened edge curves forward in a vaguely boomeranged shape, excellent for chopping through vegetation. Still standard issue in several armies and paramilitary police units, famously the Gurkha Contingent in Singapore.
Oh there is so much of it...
Carrying a sword
For some reason, everyone in fiction carries their sword on either the left hip or on the back, from the right shoulder to the left hip. The latter we will come to in a moment, first we will discuss the hip-holstered sword.
While it is certainly true that carrying a sword on the hip opposed to one's sword arm, one has plenty of room to dramatically unsheathe their sword. In the Middle Ages and earlier though, this was not always done like that for a few practical reasons. First up is the shield: when one is in formation and wants to draw their swords having a raised shield in one hand means that one has to keep their shield hand out of the way when drawing their sword, compromising their defense. If one is mounted on a horse (like a knight) however, the sword is not carried on the opposing hip for a different reason: drawing one's sword form the opposing hip would mean either pulling the sword past the reins or the horse's neck, which might very well result in cutting the reins or the animal's neck. These two problems for both mounted and pedestrian soldiers was solved in a very simple way: the sword was carried on the same hip as one's sword arm. This limits one's drawing distance, but unless one is a deformed munchkin you should be perfectly fine drawing a one-handed sword from the same hip as the sword arm. Romans for instance always carried their swords on the right for this reason. The katana on the other hand were always carried on the opposite hip, but this was because the Katana was a slashing weapon as such you could turn your draw motion into a cut.
The second point is back-mounted sheaths. Useful for carrying, not combat. Unless you are Dhalsim from Street Fighter or are armed with knives you are not going to be able to draw a single-handed sword from your back. Doing so would involve over-stretching, pulling the sheath down with your shield arm (giving up your defence, a big no-no) and a short sword. Go watch a movie featuring someone with back-mounted swords: you never see them draw their weapons on-screen. And two-handed weapons are right out. Carrying a sword on your back is for hiking across open country, NOT marching to the battlefield. Soldiers armed with large two-handed swords carried them into battle much like their spear-wielding colleagues: held over the shoulders as the soldiers sung songs of war and victory.
There are two misconceptions about swords - one is that combat swords were rather blunt and relied on the power of impact, and another that they were sharp enough to shave with and could cut padded cloth with little to no effort. The truth as always in the middle - blunt blades are obviously stupidly impractical (such a "blunt edge" usually comes from a flanged mace, not a sword), and extra sharpness leads to a brittle blade, making the edge extremely vulnerable to chipping. Sure, in some cultures swordsmiths could get away with razor sharpness if metallic armor and shields weren't widespread and fencing styles developed in ways to avoid parrying, but really it only lasted for very long in Japan. With modern swordsmithing, using modern materials and techiques it's quite possible to make the blade both resilient and razor sharp, but even then most HEMA practitioners prefer reasonably sharp swords, because they last fucking FOREVER when made with top-grade modern steel, while razor-sharp ones made from the same stuff would eventually wear down from use.
Ironically, some of the absolute sharpest swords are also the most primitive. Stone swords made from obsidian or other vitreous (i.e, glass-like) rocks are absolutely sharp enough to shave with- hell, obsidian blades can have a cutting edge as thin as 3 nanometers (which incidentally makes them prized by surgeons, who appreciate the need to make precise incisions). However, any sort of vitreous material tends to be quite brittle. Some swordsmiths circumvented this by setting many sharp "teeth" into a sturdier frame (e.g. the Aztec macuahuitl/macana that used obsidian shards embedded on the edges of what was essentially a cricket bat).
Yes, reverse-grip fighting looks really cool with lightsabers in Star Wars. But in reality, except in some fringe cases (finishing a downed enemy, for instance) reverse-grip was not used in swordfighting. Now, early medieval daggers were held in reverse grip to stab down with more force and pierce through mail, that is indeed correct. Open any serious book on knife-fighting today and you will find some reverse grip techniques, correct again. But those are meant for small and light weapons. The moment you reach the size of a larger parrying dagger, it simply becomes impractical to use a reverse grip as it greatly reduces reach and control one has over their weapon. This is even more true for even a small sword like an arming sword, and becomes ridiculous for one meant to be used with two hands. As a general rule, the longer the weapon is, the less practical it is to use reverse grip.
Cutting off limbs and heads
Possible, but heavily impractical and dangerous (to one attempting it). The reason is swords are really bad at cutting through solid hard materials, and one of such materials is bone. You can cut through a bone with a sword, but it needs excessive force, meaning either excessive speed of a swing or mass of a sword itself, to a point it becomes hard to control the sword and can lead to a dangerous overswing that leaves you dead open to counterattack if you don't end up hitting yourself by mistake. And because the sword blade isn't magically immune to damage, it would blunt, chip, or even break in contact with a human bone. Worse even, it could stuck in the bone, effectively disarming you. And the best part is, cutting to the bone most times does as much damage as cutting through it - a man with his neck arteries and veins cut is just as dead as the one with his head chopped off, and an arm or leg with severed muscles and strings is just as useless and painful as the one cut off clean. And don't even start with cleaving people in half. Machetes are better at damaging bone because they are meant to chop hard material such as wood and sugarcane, though at best it would cause a compound fracture. There are a few varieties of swords created for untrained peasants that were made to be both heavy and cheap, hoping to cause a single limb or head cut. Some swords were specifically made to cut off heads, but they were meant to be used as executioner's tools rather than weapons and are highly unlikely to have been used on a battlefield.
Parrying all day long
If you have a sword and your enemy has a sword, one thing that you can do is use your sword to stop the enemy's blade. This is called Parrying and it is a valid action in a sword fight. However, in fiction (especially visual fiction) sword fights will often involve each side constantly slashing each other for minutes at a time hitting nothing but the opponent's blade. In real life this did not happen. Usually a sword fight is over in a few swings, especially one on a battlefield. Even in a "pure" sword duel (No shields), opponents do not slash and parry continuously like how they're stereotypically portrayed in media and instead only attack in short intervals before retreating and attacking again or until one of you suffers a fatal wound. This was the case for three reasons:
- Eventually, you will suffer from fatigue and make a mistake, costing you your head if you don't take a few seconds to catch your breath and your rational opponent will be thinking the same.
- Dodging the attack completely is preferable to parrying as it leaves your sword intact and actually leaves your opponent open for an attack.
- Unless both of you have Slaaneshi-tier reflexes and are telepathic, it is nearly impossible for any sword fighter to match their opponent's moves in that magnitude for minutes-on-end that doesn't involve the duel being choreographed like a play (even if you were trained by the same teacher).
A real sword fight is NOT parrying all day, as seen here
The first reason why this is the case is simple, the objective in a sword fight is to get your sword to hit the enemy, not his blade. The second reason is (if you have one) a shield is better suited to staving off an enemy blow than a sword. The third is that in a battle situation, you are vulnerable to another attacker if you are occupied in endless parrying. The fourth is that swords are not magically immune to other swords. If you parry a blow, your sword gets damaged, which is why the sort of "edge-to-edge" parry you always see in movies are questionable. It would dig huge divots out of the softer sword, if not both of them at once. Sword fighters of some schools tended parry with the flat of the blade unless they're using a specialized weapon with flanges or notches to catch and disarm or break the other weapon, while in others edge-to-edge was considered an acceptable move, since it provided better grip, more reliable block, better use of cross-guards and inevitable blade damage could be repaired later, while your cracked skull could not. It was a matter of skub both when sword-fighting was relevant and in modern HEMA community.
For those wondering why movies do this if it's so unrealistic and bad, it's simple: most actors and stunt doubles aren't trained swordsmen. But, considering even a dull prop sword without edge is still a heavy lump of metal that can hurt someone very badly if taken fully in the face; parrying all day is performed for safety reasons. The trick here is that, while learning to correctly handle a sword takes a long time; it is easy to train someone that has never wielded one before to perform a couple of very basic and predictable routines that make it looks like they're trying to hit their opponent. Said routine is then mirrored by the other person they're 'fighting' with, resulting in safe moves where the swords rhythmically and repeatedly clang loudly against one another (a practice called "Flynning" or "pirate halves" after Errol Flynn swashbuckling pirate movies; or "ferrailler" in French, i.e. clanging metal together.) The cool metal-on-metal sound effects give the impression both 'combatants' are really going at it, where in reality they actually are playing it really safe with moves both know are coming and how to deal with. Said impression of a dynamic can then easily be enhanced even further with taking shots from different angles and other camera tricks for a movie, and by having the two characters play off each other in various ways during the fight.
Swords and dual wielding
If you go to battle with a one-handed sword, you'd generally want some other weapon in your off hand as well. Ideally it should be a shield or a buckler, but lets face it: if you're going into battle, a sword is probably your sidearm, and your main weapon is likely to be two-handed or incompatible with shields in some other ways, and if you use a sword for self-defense against bandits or assassins on the town's street, chances are you didn't bring a huge-ass shield as part of your civilian outfit, and the only other weapon on you would likely be a dagger. So you grab your other sidearm, like a dagger or a small axe, or maybe even a mace or warhammer. Why not another sword? Well, wielding a single sword requires a lot of skill and attention to do it properly, and operating two requires more than twice of both, since you use the other sword with your off-hand, which by definition is weaker and less dexterous. That's not to say, master swordsmen didn't try it - some of them did, often with quite a success on tourneys and duels, but none of them was crazy enough to go to war with double swords when sword and something less skill-intensive is so much more sensible. Once you got two weapons in your hand you do not get to attack twice as often, like it's normally portrayed in traditional or video games - a good attack move requires muscle effort from a whole body, but by attacking with both hands simultaneously (like with showy "scissors" move movies and video games so love) you can only use your arms and to an extend shoulder strength. What dual wielding is really about, is attacking with one weapon and defending with another. This allows you to parry an enemy attack with one weapon and simultaneously retaliate with another, or attack with one weapon without compromising your own defense (much). So contrary to how it's normally portrayed in media and games, dual-wielding is a defensive technique rather then offensive one. And you'd need that extra defense, since with one-handed weapons you would have lower reach. This is also the reason why people didn't block enemy attacks by both their weapons crossed, which is another showy but extremely impractical move popularized by media - one weapon is almost always enough to deflect a blow, and using both you'd just throw away the immediate counter-attack feature, which is the prime selling point of double-wielding. Now double-wielding might look to you like a poor man's sword-and-shield style, but there is one more thing: your options for attack angles are doubled with two different lethal weapons no less, which makes defending against your attacks hell of a lot more difficult for your opponent. Sure, shields and bucklers could and would be used for bashing people, but it's nowhere near as lethal as dagger or axe to the face.
Now, in the Renaissance there was such a thing called the main-gauche or "parrying dagger," but these usually required special training to use effectively, and some models came with specialized designs to aid in parrying; for example, "swordbreakers" had notches to catch the enemy blade and twist it out of their hands, while the trident dagger had spring-loaded sides that could also catch the blade. However, daggers were not used to attack unless the wielder was able to lock blades and close in... which would put you in range of the other guy's dagger as well.
Another notable exception are the Chinese Butterfly Swords, a pair of short single-edged swords used in Wing Chun martial arts. The blades have to be short so that the user doesn't accidentally stab themselves as they swing them around; its also very handy to keep them short since using the swords just require the same moves as unarmed Wing Chun, so no specialized training was needed if you were already a practitioner. As far as we know, these were never used as battlefield weapons, but were pretty handy in a street fight.
There were also several schools of swordplay that focused on the use of two full-sized swords, such as the Japanese Niten Ichi-Ryu school founded by the swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi, but these took years of training to become proficient in let alone master. Generally, these schools required that would-be practitioners have extensive experience in wielding a sword in the off-hand and strongly advised against use by amateurs.
Cutting arrows and bullets
Actually, this is possible: if hit straight-on, a sword will cut a bullet in half in mid-flight. Sometimes you'll see this as evidence by the Katana-cultists (The glorious bastards actually tried it!) that the Katana is a uniquely sharp/strong weapon, but any blade will cut through a fast-moving block of lead, even a butter knife. The problem with this is that you are standing right behind where the bullet is going, meaning that unless your sword is shaped in such a way that it causes the bullet to split in a wide angle (This is usually done by shaping the sword's blade like long, flat diamond/parallelogram.), you are now shot twice. If you're not standing right behind where the bullet is going... why are you bothering cutting it in half? The same goes for arrows, but there is likely more batting aside involved (sort of like it goes in Star Wars with lightsabers and blaster bolts). Also the arrow won't split in half like a bullet, for various reasons related to wood grain, arrow wobble, etc. and unrelated to swords. The thing is, if you can move so fast that you can deflect incoming projectiles (the projectile from a decent bow can easily go faster than your car does at close range) you should be able to just dodge them instead of bothering with looking fancy. But no human being is capable of dodging a battlefield's worth of arrows/bullets because those thing are just too fast and you do not (or even cannot) see them coming. So unless you're precognitive or have some kind of Weeaboo Fightan Magic you're not going to do well stopping projectiles with your sword. Oh, and this damages your sword of course. As you can see in the test video above the blade only broke on the seventh impact, but each bullet being cut chipped away at the blade... and would all other things have been equal, forging a blade costs one hell of a lot more money and time than casting and loading a cartridge. Just get the hell out of the way!
Pistol and Sword
40k is in love with combining a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other and as far as 40K weapon stupidity goes, Games Workshop actually gets it almost right this time. In ye olden times, pistols were slow to reload and inaccurate so it only made sense to have a melee weapon along with the pistol. Pirates were partially famed for this combo. Rather than shoot at range and run the risk of missing, they would close to melee range, deflect the enemy's sword, then stick the pistol in the enemy's gut and pull the trigger. Afterward, they would either drop the gun and draw another or flip it round and hold it by the barrel to use it like a club, only reloading in opportune times. Beyond pirates, this was basically universal practice among all civilian or military sailors at the time.
The other and somewhat more relevant reason that 40K uses pistol and sword was because this was a common weapon combination of the assault troopers in World War I; if you look at the Imperium's other tech, they take a lot of "inspiration" from WWI (several tanks are blatant ripoffs of real world tanks of the era). As the war progressed, commanders realized that defending a trench from an oncoming wave of men was handled sufficiently with bolt action long rifles supported by static machine guns, but these were useless when assaulting a trench. Thus, after discussing with the men who had the most experience in taking enemy trenches, they gave them the weapons they requested: small, handheld weapons that were easy to use and wield within the confines of a trench: especially pistols, trench knives, clubs, sharpened shovels (and later trench guns and sub-machineguns). These were much easier to bring to bear in narrow, muddy trenches where the rifles of the defenders were much harder to maneuver. Officers in WWI were also equipped with a sword and pistol as standard, and they weren't just for show, they'd get used both to direct their own troops and to clear trenches, both theirs and the enemy's.
Also, there are several additional reasons why it makes perfect sense in the 40k or 19th century context:
- A sword can never run out of ammunition. Handy when you are engaging a swarm of enemies. Though you still need to sharpen and repair it from time to time, this isn't nearly as much of a problem as it is for earlier firearms.
- A sword can parry. If you are fighting in melee against an opponent who prefers hand weapons, and are armed with just a rifle or a pistol, you can only hope to hit your enemy and incapacitate him before he chops you down. Good luck doing that to an Ork. On the other hand, having a sword means you can at least try to defend yourself against other melee weapons. Makes sense now why a sword continued to be an officer's and nobleman's weapon well into the gunpowder age?
- A sword is not that noisy compared to firearms (or bolters, for that matter). Sure, a melee fight isn't silent, there are bound to be clangs and screams, but it's not nearly as overt as an unsuppressed firearm discharge which can easily reach an ear-shattering 130 dB. There is a reason why people need to wear ear protection at gun ranges. Never mind it also produces flash and smoke, more so if you are using non-smokeless powder. So if you, say, managed to take an isolated enemy position within a wider front line with melee weapons only, there is a good chance the enemy won't know about it for a while. Granted, you can snipe from afar using advanced suppressed rifles and scopes- but you don't always have the luxury of doing that and swords are still quieter. All of this is assuming you aren’t using a chainsword of course.
- Bulletproof vests often struggle against knives (Armor resistance to piercing vs slashing vs. crushing damage is one of the most common "realism" systems done in RPGs and tactics games, both /v/ and /tg/, for a reason.)
- 40k has Power Armour, which can only be reliably threatened either by melee Power Weapons, or goddamn anti-tank guns. And unless you are a Space Marine yourself, you can't just fasten a Lascannon onto your belt and call it a day, so if you don't want to end up facing a Space Marine or a similarly armored xeno monstrocity with just a lasgun, grab that power sword. On the reverse side, while Space Marines are superior to regular humans at any combat range, this is particularly true at close range, where their shock value is much greater and enemies could not focus fire to capitalize on their numerical superiority or use cover to compensate for their squishyness compared to marines. Whether marines struggle against particularly competent force of humans or shooty Xenos, finding a way to break through their fire and enter melee (which is not always easy) is a key to victory both on tabletop and in the lore. Also, in fluff (and RPGs), power swords are remarkably good at breaking enemy non-power weapons while parrying or being parried, adding to their value in defense. Two reasons why they are very popular amongst officers and champions alike.
- This means there are gradations in weapon/armour interaction; flak armour defeats weaker firearms and lasguns, but falls to bigger and scarier advanced guns, which are nigh useless against power armour, which can't protect against power weapons or advanced anti-tank guns. So unless you happen to have the latter either on very fast elite melee units, on sufficiently mobile weapon platforms, or simply in abundance, when Adeptus Astartes come for you, you are beyond screwed, just as in fluff.
- While Terminator armor does protect against most common power weapons, the aforementioned advanced anti-tank guns still have a good chance at hurting them anyway and the greatly reduced speed puts them at a disadvantage against enemies that are either faster than they are or can hit them from far away. And while they do have Power Fists equipped as standard, they're slow enough to give an appropriately geared opponent the chance to kill them before they get a chance to use said power fists. So it all works out...unless you're dealing with Assault Terminators, that is. In that case, you're screwed if you're stuck in melee with them if you're not a Dreadnought or something equally big and nasty.
Quick: what sound does a sword (or any blade weapon) make when you unsheathe it? If your answer is something along the lines of SHWING!, think about how a sword would make this sound upon being drawn. It has to be dragged against other metal, but this can causes a whole series of engineering nightmares: if your sword is dragged alongside its sharp edge it blunts, which is obviously not desirable. If you draw it against it flat (or its non-sharp edge if your sword is single-edged) the engineering involved would have to be so precise that the sound is produced, but this would create such a narrow fit for your blade that it would be very difficult and heavy to draw and sheathe, and when temperatures cause the metal to expand or contract your sword gets either stuck or dangles loose in its scabbard. This is obviously not desirable as well.
A more accurate reproduction of what sound a sword makes is to pull up the sleeves of whatever shirt you are wearing: a soft "ffffp"-esque sound. This is because sword sheathes were often made out of wood or leather, with sometimes some kind of fur inside of it. This held the blade snugly in place, would prevent it from falling out if held upside down and would not provide more wear on your sword than combat would.
And whatever dumbass thinks he's 2cool4sheathes will soon learn that cutting his furniture/legs is a very good reason to start wearing a sheathe for his sword.
How not to make swords
Making a sword from steel is a fairly complex and tricky process. Generally it was done by specialized swordsmiths once societies got big enough to support them. Common village blacksmiths could make swords, though not good ones. Making a steel sword involves taking a form of ferrous metal (be it an ingot of iron, a hunk of scrap metal or a sandwich of different types of steels) and heating it until it got soft, gradually hammering it into a sword shape, re-heating periodically as it cools during forging and then getting reheating it again to temper it and quenching in oil to give it strength. A sword does take a fair bit of time to make. As it's a tricky job, swordsmiths did not live alone in isolated workshops but rather worked together in guilds to help train new swordsmiths, while whole families (male and female) were involved in the process of making swords one way or another. They were also not adverse to using mechanical assistance such as water powered trip hammers to help them get things done quickly and efficiently, though forging by hand did allow them to be more precise about things, so it was a case of "Am I being commissioned to outfit a unit in bulk or to make a masterpiece for an officer?".
In any case, as it gets the hell beaten out of it during forging what you start with does not look like what you get when your done. What a medieval swordsmith would not do is cast a sword shaped form of Pig Iron (the type of liquid iron which you can make with pre-industrial technology, full of impurities and carbon), wait for it to cool into a semi-solid form, hammer it on an anvil for a bit and dunk it into water. If you try that and it does not shatter on the anvil or shatter after being dunked into water due to cooling so rapidly, it will shatter after the first blow. Note that casting was a legitimate way to make one type of sword; the ones made of bronze, although bronze swords do not match up to the performance of a properly-made iron sword. (Note for the pedantic: you CAN quench in water instead of oil, but it's extra work for no real benefit since you risk warping the blade and need to temper it afterward).
Also, nobody ever quenched a blade by thrusting it into a living guy's chest. That is an obvious bit of often repeated embellishment and rumor about Damascus Steel blades (which were made with the previously mentioned sandwiches of steels) which wormed its way into folklore and you're a moron if you think otherwise. Firts there's a, let's say, logistical problem: a sword is a meter long or more, and you need to immerse it completely to get a proper quench - and the supply of people at least a meter thick is quite unreliable outside America... Or did they use elephants and walruses? Then there's the metallurgical problem: when you quench steel you want it to cool in a quick, controlled and homogeneous way to avoid warping and having differtial hardening where you don't want differtial hardening. Flesh is not a good at dispersing heat, so your sword will probably not harden at all, and even if this gruesome process did somehow work, you'd need an army of clones to get repeatable results.
Folded a thousand times
Ah, Guroriasu Nippon Sutiru, Foruded Ova 1000 Times....
This is, as you might expect, bullshit, even if it contains a (small) grain of truth. Japanese swords were created by combining three types of iron alloys, which (if you drop weaboo names) were basically low carbon steel, high-carbon steel and extra-high-carbon pig iron. The limitations of Japanese smithing techniques made it so smelting of those alloys happened below their melting point temperature (or, in other words, they became soft and malleable but not liquid), hence they were unhomogeneous and contained lots of impurities. So it was ultimately plain common sense to "knead" the mix (like you would do with bread) to get an homogeneous bar by stretching it on an anvil, folding it back, forge-welding the 2 parts together again. Repeat, repeat and repeat until (almost) all of the impurities were driven out.
This process, called lamination, was meant to spread the carbon content in the steel and remove inclusions by bringing them to the surface where they could be hammered away as slag. It also created layered laminated steel with layers of hard but brittle high-carbon steel and soft but plastic low-carbon steel (actually pig iron and high-carbon layers initially, but by the time laminating was done enough carbon would burn out of them to change their type) which combines the strong points of both, so the blade could be almost as sharp as hard steel and almost as flexible as soft steel. (You have to give it to them, the Japanese swordsmiths really did do a good job considering the limitations they had to work with.) This was however an horribly time-consuming process (and thus costly), not to say prone to errors. And even if everything works correctly, the very act of working the steel means you lose some every time you work it: external layers of steel burn off, slag detaches from the workpiece, small pieces fly away with every hammer strike - so you would try to keep work to a minimum. Keep in mind that the number of layers of your sword doubles with every fold: 2-4-8-16... and so on, so after 10 folds you get 1024 layers, and after 20 your steel is as homogeneous as it can get due to having over a million layers that blend in each other, losing all the sexy benefits of laminating. One thousand folds would theoretically get you more layers than there are atoms in the perceivable Universe (it's 302-digit number in case you wonder), you'd also end up with only a small fraction of steel you started working with, and almost all the carbon in it would burn out long before you reach 100 foldings, leaving you with almost useless soft iron. A traditionally forged Katana isn't folded a thousand times (perhaps a dozen, if even that), though it does possess over a thousand discernible layers in its structure when looked at with a microscope.
Other nations also used techniques similar to folding (welding) to get over impurities and make layered steel sandwiches, but then one day some smart Indian smith invented crucible smelting to make much purer steel right of the bat, and after that another Indian smith invented tempering which was cheaper, easier and more cost-effective than laminating. Some enterprising Chinese and Arabian traders spread these techniques all over Asia and Europe, so people there immediately stopped folding/welding their Glorious Steel and adopted the better (mostly less time-consuming and hence cheaper) technology. All, of course, except for the isolationist hicks that decided to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and only found about these technologies when Commodore Perry gently knocked their front door off.
A huge chunk of the reputation of Japanese swordsmithing comes from the fact that, by the time Europeans forced their way into the island, swords had became largely a ceremonial part of officers' uniforms in the Western militaries and so little attention was given to their crafting that their quality had become quite poor, not even half as good as they were made but a century before. Low-tech Japanese swords, on the other hand, were still crafted for actual battle and killing people rather then pointing at the enemy to inspire your troops, so they were of the highest quality their technology allowed. Naturally westerners were amazed by the quality of Japanese swords compared to their own stamped mass-produced junk (and keep in mind this was during a low point for Japanese swordsmithing due to reduced demand for swords- a law passed in 1876 banned the public carry of swords for all but a small number of military officials), and here's where the Glorious Nippon Steel bullshit took its origins.
One a sidenote: none of the swords the IJA used during WW2 were Katanas, they were actually similar-looking Guntō; mass-produced with modern means. The ones made for NCOs were produced from train tracks while the officers got hand made units, and due to a shortage of the steel traditionally used for making swords they were often made from steel that wasn't layered at all. While effective when compared to mass produced bayonets, this was the age of automatic weapons where bringing a blade to a gun fight was pretty much suicide in most instances- as a matter of fact, since they were made with the same mass production process that led to the decline of sword quality in the West, these swords were actually worse overall than the old Katanas. Anybody who claims that they got a genuine Katana from killing a Japanese soldier in WW2 or that their grandfather picked one off the body of a dead officer are full of shit, since construction of traditional-style katanas didn't restart until 1953. While modern katanas are of much better quality, this is due more to the extensive quality control standards placed on swordsmiths by the Japanese government rather than the quality of the steel itself. That said, you can always buy mall ninja grade trash that looks like a katana but is actually stamped stainless steel less deadly than a heavy stick.
Odds are if your buddies claim to own a genuine katana at all they're either mistaken or lying; genuine katanas cost $3,000 at the very least, and that's before factoring in the cost for a licence to own them due to their legal status as art objects. It's much more likely they own a replica made with modern machine production techniques and composed of ordinary stainless steel. While stainless steel may not get rusty and works fine for kitchen knives, it's much too brittle to be used for any sword that isn't purely ornamental.
Swords in Fantasy & Science Fiction
Swords are probably the most commonly used weapon in Fantasy, especially by main characters (the characteristic of the sword listed above makes it symbolic for a leader). While certain fantasy races have certain specific weapons associated with them (Dwarves and Axes, Elves and Bows), all of them will make use of swords at least on the sidelines.
Alongside the usual racial variants, many fantasy universes has some kinds of sword you wouldn't see in the real world.
Swords have an occasional presence in Science Fiction as well. Said presence is usually "justified" by the inclusion of either Magical Pseudoscientific Bullshit, or very special considerations, depending on how justified the "justification" is. (For an example of probably valid special considerations: You need a weapon that can be used around explosive gasses that also doesn't have any EM emissions and doesn't make much noise? You're pretty much down to a melee weapon (of which the sword is probably the best all-rounder) or a harpoon.) In Star Wars, the justification is that through use of the Force, they can make up for anything their weapon lacks in range, particularly by deflecting blaster bolts back at their shooters. In Star Trek, the justification is that in boarding actions which is the basis for most on-foot fights in the setting, fighting is usually done in relatively cramped spaces (though even still, to species who use them, they tend to do so partially for cultural reasons, as with the Klingons). In Halo, the energy swords and gravity hammers have deep cultural importance for the Sangheili and Jiralhanae respectively, hence why they often bring them into battle together with their other weapons. In Dune, the Holtzman Effect allows for shields which prevent anything that moves too fast from getting through, forcing battles to primarily be fought with blades. However, probably the easiest justification is by combining supersoldiers with melee weapons, as supersoldiers would often be most effective against regular soldiers at close range, as their protection tends to make them difficult to damage with most weapons that can be used at such a range and their value as shocktroops is greatly enhanced as well from such a range.
Lightsabers are the iconic weapon of the Star Wars universe, and argued over sufficiently enough - especially with regards to sword-related stupidity as covered in the section above - that we have an article linked just for them. Much of what's said there also applies to their many knockoffs throughout numerous sci-fi settings.
Named after the "Buster Sword" from Final Fantasy VII: these are basically unrealistically huge greatswords. By unrealistically huge; we mean that a Buster Sword is about as tall and wide as a fully-grown adult human, with the weight being a dozen or more kilos. Depending on the make, it's either shaped and used like a giant greatsword used to chop unfortunate enemies with extreme prejudice or it can also be a heap of metal affixed to a grip where it can be used to bludgeon targets with maniacal glee. There's no strict criteria on what exactly qualifies as a buster sword, but if its almost as tall and wide as its wielder (or larger); it gets lumped into this category. Much to the joy of neckbeards everywere, somewhere in Martha's Vineyard there's a guy who makes real Buster Swords and similar insane weapons for a living, and he's as awesome as you'd expect.
Realistically speaking: busters would be unsurprisingly unwieldy to use. Its heft and size makes would make it nearly impossible to be wielded effectively during a confrontation where a more agile opponent can simply avoid the first swing and attack while the wielder takes their time readying the damn thing for another go, it'd be like trying to swat a fly with a tree trunk. Not to mention because the weight of the sword isn't focused on single point (like how the weight of a battle axe is largely focused on the axe head instead of all over itself), trying to damage armored opponents would be an incredibly tough, if not impossible affair (Plus a blade this large would have to be hardened to withstand the heavy damage done by its attacks; so this also isn't counting the blade doesn't outright shatter under its own weight after striking plate armor).
That also isn't counting that your wielder would have to rival the strength of an Olympic body builder in order to even bring it to bear in combat in the first place (and using it combat is another problem due to the weight), something an army would not bother with, given the tons of better, much more cost-effective alternatives - most appropriately battle axes. When you swing a top-heavy heavy object in one direction with all your might; the inertia of that is incredibly hard, if not impossible to, stop mid-swing for a normal human being (if you do, your joints and muscles will pay the price), so unless you happen to be a heavily augmented super-strong cyborg or blessed with inhuman muscular bulk to put most strongmen to shame; you will either only be doing vertical downward slashes (which isn't really that effective, unless your opponent is stunned in place) or spin around like an out-of-control top while swinging it horizontally (in which case, you might get one lucky kill before you collapse from dizziness and someone else gives you a good stomping).
Unrealistic though they may be, there is however one RECORDED example of a buster sword. During the mustering of the Iowa militia in advance of the abortive Honey War with Missouri in 1839, one member (having no gun) arrived with nothing but a 6' homemade sword that was basically just a sharpened iron bar. Other improvised weapons in that mustering included several farm scythes and a flail made out of sausage grinder blades.
In fantasy, however, the rule of cool takes over and the lore can make up a proper explanation for why that particular universe need these fuckheug weapons. Busters in fantasy (or really any impractically large weapon) are typically used in settings where they make a lick more sense; a fantasy world populated by giant creatures. You see, if you were to bring something like a claymore or a gladius to your ho-hum fantasy setting; chances are that they'll lack the mass to cut through monsters the size of city buses and beyond. With a sword as big as a human being, however; the weapon's size and weight plus the user's presumably augmented strength and the fantasy's general disregard for inconvenient things like realism and physics, allows them to cleave through thick materials like scales, bones, armor, muscles...etc, with ease. Its not the most practical way to go about it, but then again this is fantasy; your imagination and sanity is the limit.
More examples of Busters could be the Iron Kingdoms, who have a type of sword called "Caspian Battleblades", very heavy, dull swords with a head that spikes out to either side broader than the blade, made crucial for warfare because of all the heavy armour walking about, and tend to have lots of cut-outs in the blade's center to reduce its weight. Berserk's Guts also wields an ordinary Buster Sword, though he's super-humanly strong, has a mechanical arm, and regularly battles giants and demons. Curiously 40k of all settings managed to make its two busters more or less reasonable or at least usable: Eviscerators are outfitted with their own anti-gravity propulsion systems, throwing most issues with busters out of the window, and Incubi Klaives ares made out of light materials and have extra grips, so they can be used like polearms despite looking like giant swords.
As mentioned before, they were an idea that started in Ye Olden Times of the 16th century, where a flintlock or revolver pistol was given a blade or bayonet attachment to so that the user could get the benefits of two weapons in one system- only to get the drawbacks of both weapons in just the right way to make it worthless as a sword or a pistol. It evolved from the idea of mounting daggers on pistols, which had a bit more practical sense in comparison.
Final Fantasy VIII, however, took it a step further and made a sword with a fucking pistol-grip for a handle, a revolver's chamber built into the hilt, and a long, rifle-like barrel welded to the flat side of its one-edged blade. Though, this is offset by the fact that the weapon isn't meant to be fired in the traditional sense at all; all bullets fired by a gunblade are blanks, intended to set the blade oscillating such that it cuts through monsters and other opponents better, like a chainsaw. (See also: Oscillating Blades.) Which begs the question: if it doesn't even deal damage by firing a projectile, why build a gun mechanism into the sword at all? The answer, of course, is the Rule of Cool.
In other works of fiction, this problem is solved with advanced technology. Starting off with the most well known /tg/ example from Warhammer 40K, we have the Sentinel Warblades used by the golden BFFs of the Emperor of Mankind. The Adeptus Custodes put the short barrel equivalent of a Storm Bolter with a halved range on their massive swords. Since Custodes are larger than a Space Marine on average, they might as well be full sized guns. They also have direct energy weapons on their Guardian Spears, which is a better option than a projectile weapon as the user won't have to reload as often. Reduced range is not much of a problem for the Custodes; there won't be many survivors left after they are hit with Melta Beams or Adrathic Destructors. After a few volleys, the Golden Bananas will charge the unlucky bastards who weren't vaporized.
The transforming variant from gun to blade or vise-versa is often used in Japanese Media, mostly Tokusatsu. The earliest examples are from Kamen Rider 555; one is a primary weapon of the main character, Kamen Rider Faiz. Toei, unlike a certain model making company, likes to stretch a budget and tries to outdo themselves as technology advances. Many Kamen Rider and Super Sentai (too many to list here) will have transforming Gunblades just about every other season, some bigger or more detailed than the last. If the Sentai Team or Kamen Rider of the season has tech based powers, these Gunblades fire lasers or some other form of energy beam.
Special Police Dekaranger has a strange example in the form of the D-Sword Vega, a sword that was used as a ranged weapon on two occasions. The special effects imply it is both a blade and a direct energy weapon. The primary user, Doggie Kruger, typically shoots lightening out of it as his finishing movie. However, since the Space Police in the show have more advanced technology than a typical terrestrial officer the D-sword Vega itself is a century or more ahead of anything in IRL or most works of fiction have.
So TL:DR. Gunblades, while possible to turn into a useful weapon sometime in the future, will require advancements that have yet to be made and are likely to require incorporating directed energy weapons rather than solid projectiles. While fixing the gun part will be easy enough, another problem is the blade itself, which can't be easily replaced on the user end. If and when this becomes possible. In practice, the sword part would still be of questionable use compared to the gun part, and we already have bayonets for that.
Also known as: "vibraknives," "high-frequency blades," et cetera, these are blades made so that they vibrate at such extreme speeds that they weaken the molecular bonds of the material being slashed, translating into the blade being able to cut things that a normal sword would snap against and making them nearly indestructible in the process. These actually have a real-world counterpart in the form of electric knives and jigsaws, which are saw-toothed and cut a variety of materials, but not to the degree or speed that proper HF blades can. Completely relegated to sci-fi stories and vidya.
In Star Wars, vibroblades are the standard issue blades for regular non-Force using troops, allowing them to cut through droids and armor if they ever need to fight at close range. In the Old Republic times, there was a time during which personal energy shields became effective enough that they could protect their users from blasters. During this time, sword-sized vibroblades became more common as the energy shields were much less effective against them. Eventually, blasters would become more effective at going through such shields, hence why vibroswords are rarely seen in the times depicted in most Star Wars media.
The Old Republic era is also a time during which Jedi and Sith were much more common than in times depicted in the movies and while regular troops would stand little change against strong Force users like Satele Shan or Darth Malgus, their abundance meant that there was plenty of weak Jedi and Sith around and regular troops received training in how to deal with them. For this purpose, vibroswords were made out of an alloy containing cortosis, a lightsaber resistant material which in it's pure form can force lightsabers to shut down. While a sword made of such alloy cannot quite do that, it does allow for the sword to be resistant against lightsabers.
One of the most famous examples of a high-frequency blade is Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, featuring a psychopathic weeaboo cyborg with a high-frequency katana against the world. The HF blade is depicted as being capable of slicing through everything, except materials capable of withstanding HF weapons. Against these, they have to be weakened enough that the HF blade can chop it into mincemeat.
The science SEEMS sound, but they don't ever explain how the extreme vibration needed to electrically sever molecular bonds doesn't shake apart the human wielder's skeleton or the sword itself, which is why even if it was possible to make them, they'd likely never be used in real life. After all, Newton's third law is still in effect. You can test this yourself and try holding any vibrating appliance for a few minutes; your muscles will start feeling numb from all the vibrations. They also state that the power of an HF blade is determined on how the original blade was forged before being modified, meaning that higher-quality blades yield better HF blades, as the HF technology only augments the properties sword. Though Jetstream Sam, a Brazilian samurai in the game, wields his own master forged high frequency blade, which is so good that it could slice pretty much anything, even the megalomaniac final boss who manages to block and snap Raiden's sword in half with his bare hands.
While his blade is apparently made from a well-forged katana that has been passed down in Sam's family since the 16th century; they don't ever really elaborate on how the blade's quality affects the transition into an HF blade, especially when Raiden's modern-forged blade is somehow of lesser quality than a genuine Japanese katana made of low-quality steel folded in forging to work out the heavy impurities. The only way this makes sense is if the Katana was reforged with more durable materiel. As even the best weapon will break down with regular use. It could have been explained better by stating that HF Blades have Monomolecular edges and are built with Carbon Nanotubes like the cyborgs themselves. But it seems that Platinum is ignorant about how swords are made like most fan fic writers. At least they acknowledge how bad of a weapon they are. As one character mentions that a Plasma Sword would be superior to High Frequency Blades. In a setting where lasers and vehicle/drone mounted plasma cannons exist.
A feature in some sci-fi RPG settings, particularly those with a cyberpunk theme, these are swords made of exotic but scientifically plausible materials such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, etc. A common element to these is that they are supposed to be exceedingly sharp, with a blade literally ending in a sharp line a single atom thick. They may also have other attributes such as being self-mending, or have electrical effects like heating up or being selectively flexible and thus worn as clothing (like a belt). Another quality of these sorts of blades is they almost universally defeat commonplace means of detection such as metal detectors and x-ray machines.
Tragically (or perhaps fortunately), research into metamaterials and carbon composites hasn't yielded anything that actually works like this, although maybe they have and the super spies are keeping it to themselves.
It should be added that monomolecular blades are a thing that actual exists in the real world; the trade off is that the edge rapidly decays. And we're talking as in an expected cutting lifetime before needing sharpening of seconds. More common is blades whose edge molecules can be counted in the hundreds, which are used in eye surgery and electron microscopes; the two materials used for these are diamond (which is expensive) and glass (particularly obsidian). Neither is a particularly sturdy material (while diamond is the hardest metal known to man, it's very hardness makes it particularly prone to fracturing when any amount of force is applied), so a large blade made of either is going to be useless pretty much instantly--although see the Macuahuitl in several places around this article for a way around that.
This basically means that the sword is powered by an external power source, like motors. The chainsword for example, is common in sci-fi worlds that have close combat, as it's basically a chainsaw in sword form and the motor helps the sword do more then if it was just a sharp chunk of steel. Realistically speaking, power weapons would be bottom heavy, making them awkward to use, and if it goes the chainsaw route, then it would be hilariously impractical to use at all in combat situations; things softer than wood or ice tend to get caught in and gum up the teeth of a chainsaw, flesh being one such material. So, your custom chainsword would be rendered useless almost immediately, and in fact would be rendered less useful than an ordinary sword against whatever you were trying to RIP AND TEAR at the time. And spinning blades such as saws carry so much angular momentum that they resist movement in the same fashion as a gyroscope.
One could argue that the chainswords in 40K are made differently from actual chainsaws in that they're designed for cutting people in mind; the teeth are mono-molecular and are shaped like knives rather than the thick, axe-like notched blades of real chainsaws (which are designed to chew away at thicker and harder materials, like wood); allowing them to nick through flesh more cleanly than your everyday chainsaw. The motor would have to be more powerful than a car's engine, yet light enough to be carried in one hand, allowing it to run the blade at speeds that it the teeth won't get caught, while still making it as maneuverable as a standard sword. But that's technology in the grim future, as trying to make a chainsword with today's technology and engineering would make for a very impractical weapon. []
Impracticality aside, there's an argument to be made that in the 40k universe that chainswords and their non-imperial equivalents have a well-established purpose in the setting, analogous to the Buster swords 40k generally eschews. Beyond rogue humans or possibly Eldar (for which any sharpened stick should be a more sensible weapon), most opponents of the imperium pack incredibly tough flesh, extremely heavy armor, sheer mass enough to ignore grievous wounds, or any combination of the three. A chainsword, for all its downsides, can inexpensively provide some measure of response to any of these. The additional power yielded by the engine would exacerbate physical trauma, blowing physical injuries way out of human proportion. The sharp teeth provide concentration of force beyond any sword and can scrape through or catch in the gaps and seams inherent in any armor designed to move. The added motion and dimensions of force applied would help the wielder cut through limbs or body parts far too thick to slice apart for the same reason a chainsaw can gouge through thick tree trunks. All in all a chainsword gives the imperium a cheap one-size-fits-all answer to killing up close, with the acknowledgement that the weapon must be wielded not like a sword but like a saw. For all its technological improvement, the downsides are largely the same as they would be today: the wielder gives up grace, balance, most ability to parry, and accepts that they will be wounded by almost anything they fight. To take it one step further, it's an apt metaphor for the imperium itself: capable of grinding down anything through sheer low-tech single-mindedness, but always at grim cost in blood and lives.
In folk lore you can make weapons, typically swords since they are the weapon most associated with nobles in most cultures, out of any of a number of different types of special materials that have properties that grant it magical properties. A few of the more common examples are:
- Treasure Steel: the legendary super-steel from the Slavic and Norse mythology. Legends attribute it with extreme durability and ability to cut through "lesser steel". It was for a long time thought completely fictional or just the name for an Iranian Bulat steel, but eventually historians found out the stories were based on the early steel-age forging techniques. IRL it was just an alloyed high-carbon steel in the early age of very low-quality unhardened steel. It was made with a very wasteful process that included burying a huge steel ingot into the ground (aka "Treasure"), letting it rust for few years and reforging the remnants - then repeating the process several times each time the ingot losing a sizeable percent of its mass to the rust and smelting burnout. As iron corrodes faster then natural alloys found in the ore and carbon, repeated treasuring and reforging increased alloy and carbon concentration resulting in a great metal for its time. Needless to say, only the nobility could afford to waste so much iron, so it also became a trademark of warlords and their champions. Mostly due to how shitty everyone else had it, these things were nasty.
- Thunderbolt Iron, which is a fancy term for weapons made from meteorites. In fantasy space iron swords tend to have magical properties or are treated as some kind of super steel: in D&D they are the source of adamantine. In real life, this was for many civilizations their first experience with iron and for some civilizations, a lump of iron-rich meteorite could be many times purer than what they could naturally forge and smith. That is if they could even make iron at all: the otherwise Bronze Age Egyptians managed to get a meteoric iron dagger into King Tutankhamun's tomb. The problem of course is the term "iron-rich" and many meteorites are either very small or made of rock or nickel that can't actually be forged; there is a good reason why Tutankhamun had a dagger and not a sword. Additionally, many meteorites have impurities that weaken the blade. Still, bad iron is better than no iron and we do get plenty of big meteors to make swords out of. The late Sir Terry Pratchett famously forged his own sword out of a meteorite when he was knighted.
- Cold Iron, On the other hand, just being made out of iron by itself was enough to grant magical properties, as Rudyard Kipling said, "But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all." Iron, and by extension steel, have strong folklore traditions perhaps because that blood smells and taste metallic due to its iron content, or perhaps the "mystical" attraction of a lodestone to iron. In folklore, you could use iron scissors to ward off changelings, nail an iron horseshoe to your door to give luck, while an iron knife buried under the entrance to your home would keep witches away. In the modern "sci-fi approach," fantasy iron weapon's "magical" abilities are sometimes explained by its magnetic properties that can disrupt "magical" being's senses and abilities based on electromagnetism, and in some instances can cause them great pain or even instant death just from a physical contact or even being near. "All well and good," I hear you say "but what does this mean for swords?", well honestly not much. It does mean your best weapon against things not weak to some other magical material like silver, such as fairies or demons, is a steel sword, but you were going to use that anyway since steel is better than any material not from the future. The importance of iron as an anti magic weapon only becomes important in settings where iron as a weapon is rare. The "cold" part is often a point of contention and it can mean that the iron has to be cold forged, i.e. never heated, or that it's just not hot now, or sometimes it's just a poetic term for any iron, Room-temperature metals feel cool to the touch because, when held, they conduct heat out of the skin more readily than air does, the same way we use the term "Hot Lead". Changeling: The Lost defines it to mean 'relatively pure iron (i.e. no steels, oxides, or alloys- if it's something that the average person would think of as being made of iron, it counts)'. While iron in general has adverse effects on anything touched by Faerie, the most potent kind of all is "cold iron" (that is, iron that was never worked using any kind of heat and did not involve magic being used in its creation at any point in time). This means iron fresh out of the ground does the most damage (but is obviously just a rock so using it is hard), and Meteoric Iron (see above) since it's never been heated by man, but re-entry smelted it making it easier to work with by comparison. On the other hand, weapons of pure iron tend to be less sharp and durable when compared to steel and other alloys- and are consequently much trickier to find outside of an antique collection. You're probably best off breaking off a piece of a wrought iron fence and making it into a weapon. Even then it's not guaranteed it'll be pure enough to have any special effects since almost all "wrought iron" products made nowadays are actually made of low-carbon steel.
- Silver, unlike iron and meteoric Iron, doesn't work as weapon material in real life. Cost aside, silver is softer, heavier, and dulls much easier than a steel blade, but silver's tradition of magic goes further back than iron and in settings with werewolves a silver sword may be your best friend. The reason why Silver's magical tradition likely goes back further than iron (at this rate may as well make a page for magical metals) is because of a unique property of silver: water in silver pitcher takes a lot longer for it to get scummy, as silver ions damage bacterial DNA and enzymes. This led to it having a reputation for healing and since healing is good (duh), for being holy. This trait of silver is also why we get the reputation for why vampires can't cast a reflection: old timey mirrors used a silver backing to get a clear reflection, and since vampires are unholy, they wouldn't cast a reflection in the holy silver. As for werewolves, in olden times it was thought werewolveism was also like rabies, hence the whole 'you become a werewolf if bitten by one', bring to mind rabid animals hence silver against werewolves stems from it's anti microbial, and so healing, properties. In modern times though the logic behind silver and werewolves tends to be that since silver is the same color as moonlight and werewolves are empowered by the moon, it would suppress their powers or otherwise weaken them. In fantasy settings, silver weapons often do less base damage but deal more damage against, or are the only thing that can hurt, unholy monsters like ghosts. It is also possible to coat your realistic steel blade with silver (or gold, for that matter) without dulling it too much, and keeping it dangerous for supernatural creatures weak against silver. Real world silver-coated stuff is usually bronze or stainless steel, as silver and iron themselves exhibit anode-cathode behavior (which will quickly oxidize the silver in a matter of weeks) and tends to be used in the chemical/maritime industry as silver is very resistant to chlorine.
- As an aside, The Witcher series' uses for silvered weapons are usually given a pass here due to two factors: 1) the silver sword is carried as a specialist weapon for silver-vulnerable monsters alongside an steel one , and 2) Witchers explicitly spend a lot of time maintaining their equipment, and a Witcher is at least as much an alchemist as a fighter so they'd know the hows and whys of effectively maintaining such a weapon.
Super Swords are a broad category of fictional weapons includes weapons made with advanced technology (Lightsabers, Necron Phase swords), Magic (Shardblades from Words of Radiance), divine origins or just are the product of super duper swordsmithing abilities (your memetic Katana). What they have in common is the fact that they can cut through basically anything with minimal resistance. They'll cut through armor and steel like nothing. Generally another super sword can resist them and maybe a few special items, but they'll go through a boulder like nothing.
One further point, if you're doing worldbuilding: Swords, due to their versatility, will always be important in military contexts until four weapons appear, each of which absorbs a lot of the sword's unique functionality:
- The decline of the sword will usually begin when guns start appearing; the obvious combination of guns and spears to protect them quickly moves combat ranges to the point that swords are almost never needed in planned, open field combat outside of full-on charges. At this point, they still have a role in unplanned or close-quarters combat and will probably still see civilian use, although that will diminish as gun technology improves. Further, the close quarters and unplanned combat utility will eventually be completely absorbed by knives and other weapons that double as useful tools. For example, you wouldn't use a sword to cut through thick vegetation while a Machete can do both that and fill the sword's combat niche for less money.
- Reliable repeating handguns finish removing the sword from civilian contexts, as they are both more comfortable, easier to learn to use, and less difficult to repair than a sword (although, admittedly, more prone to breaking in the first place). You don't have to be an expert armorer with thousand of dollars worth of equipment to fix a firearm.
- Shotguns and sub-machine guns are superior to swords in the field of close quarters fighting; as soon as this is realized, that's another major area the sword vanishes from. In particular, hallways are called "death tunnels/corridors" by the military for a reason: there is little room for fancy maneuvers such as dodging bullets.
- Reliable machine guns prevent open field cavalry charges, which is usually the last vestige of military value the sword has.
Equivalent weapons to the above work just as well in absorbing the sword's usefulness, so long as they remain reliable. As each of these show up, expect the sword to vanish steadily from importance; the last stop before vanishing entirely will probably be as a symbol of office for officers, even among republics swords have an a kind "nobility" air about them and still have strong associations with leadership, it's why even states born of revolution from monarchies tend to keep dress swords around.
Superswords, or shielding that interferes with guns but not short range weapons, are necessary for swords to reappear. Keep in mind, though, that this can easily be overdone to the point of wankery. If this supersword is in any way unique, you probably have a Mary Sue on your hands, which is usually felt to be a bad thing.
In more advanced settings a Plasma or Laser weapon could plausibly emulate an energy blade or create a Meltagun style burst (e.g. the Plasma Gun from Doom 2016 does the latter). While serving as a close range armor/door/wall breacher at the same time. This also makes swords redundant, but in situations where defenses against energy-based weapons and projectiles are used, the sword (and other melee weapons at that matter) can still make a comeback as a weapon. (Case in point, 40K- a bolter might not be able to penetrate power armor, but a power sword can do so, and unlike plasma guns, power weapons don't run the risk of a lethal overheating accident.) Or you can go the Dune route and make it so that armor is so advanced that only swords work on them because they're too primitive to be blocked so remain the only viable choice without being forced to chuck nukes at individual enemy infantry.
|Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace - Club |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
|Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling
|Armor:||Armor - Fantasy Armor - Helmet - Pauldron - Shield|
- The games make a hard split between steel==kill_people and silver==kill_any_monster, thus overusing the silver one, but in the core books steel sword is for anything that will bleed, while silver is for very, very special and rare occasions