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2006-02-02 03:52:32
Last author: Mister Saint
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TD - Swords
By [Mister Saint]

Back to Technical Details


This article will cover some literary generalizations about swords, the most abused tool in the history of literary weaponry. We'll briefly look at different styles of swords, analyze each one, and tell you how it might be useful in your little world. Hopefully you'll learn a thing or two.

[#Section 1: Introduction]
[#Section 2: The Sword]
[#Section 3: Sword Types]
[#Section 4: Japanese Weapons]
[#Section 5: Final Thoughts]


Section 1: Introduction


Especially for the fantasy writers out there, melee combat has become an essential part of a gripping story. defines 'melee' as "a confused struggle; especially : a hand-to-hand fight among several people". Melee weapons are, therefore, hand-to-hand weapons. Of all the melee weapons involved in literature (close combat being a staple of many stories) the sword is probably the most commonly employed. So... let's chat about it! For the benefit of our non-American members, I'll try my best to provide the metric measurements alongside the English ones, but exact lengths are not for certain.

Special note: I will often make mention of eastern equipment in comparison to western (European) equipment. Please understand that my words are not meant to make any nationalistic statements, and are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of the weaponry discussion. Note that some of what I say is opinion, and like all other articles, should more or less be taken with a grain of salt. Onward!


Section 2: The Sword


The sword is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most used and abused weapon in literary history. From rapiers to zweihanders, shamshirs to wazikashi, literary warriors have carried around swords in every element, setting, and situation one can think of. Often enough, though, the sword is given so little attention when it is used that it is forgotten in the point of the story. Let's have a look at some common sword statistics and conundrums, starting with some generic names.


Section 3: Sword Types


Smallsword/Dueling/Fencing Sword

Vague terms that we see relatively often in literature, that evoke vague images of sharp pointy things of various sizes. It's probably safe to say that these terms are more or less based on European designs, so let's have a quick look at a common sword that fits each description.

Shortsword: the Gladius

The famous sword used by Roman Legionnaires in the early centuries of A.D. was about twenty-four inches (61 cm) in length, and used mostly for stabbing in its early form. The gladius shortsword was designed to be comfortably used with one hand against unarmored to lightly armored foes, sometimes in conjunction with a shield. There was little finesse involved in combat with a gladius, the primary idea being to simply thrust the blade into the foe's unarmored belly area. Later designs allowed for slashing attacks as well, but thrusting remained the most functional use. As a shortsword, its strengths laid in its light weight, relative ease of use, and relatively simple design. Its weaknesses were few, but serious enough to be considered... short length meant that attacks had to be performed in quite close quarters. Though legionnaires rarely, if ever, had to deal with heavily armored foes, one must consider that the short sword lacks the weight and power to effectively pierce such a defense. Shortswords like the Gladius are practical, and to the travelling adventurer type, probably the best choice of swords to take depending on the level of training that person has.

A word on training. Using a gladius/shortsword is a simple art. Jab, stab, thrust. Any idiot can use a gladius (though make no mistake, a trained soldier can use it better), but the other famous breed of shortsword, the rapier, is a different beast altogether. Referring to a rapier-type weapon as a shortsword is probably a bad idea in your writing, as the functional differences between the gladius and rapier are immense.

Smallsword: The Rapier

The rapier (sometimes referred to as the 'smallsword') is a much newer weapon than the Gladius, and therefore it is significantly more refined. It is a European sword with an extremely slender blade (less than 1.18 inches (3 cm) wide!) that nonetheless extends to a length of around 36 in. (90 cm). The famed 'dueling sword' was designed in the same capacity as the Gladius - for thrusting - but was unsuitable for the sort of chaotic battles for which the Gladius gained its fame; whereas the Gladius was a war sword, the rapier was a personal defense weapon, designed in a time period when handguns hadn't yet become practical. Dueling swords such as the rapier require a more graceful touch and skilled hand to use effectively (look up 'fencing' on google sometime) and wouldn't be practical for mass combat. Remember to differentiate between the two in your writing, specifying which types of sword your fighter is using. The strengths of dueling swords lie in... well... bravado. Flashiness, finesse... these were more or less the strongest points of the weapon. Its length allows for mid-range combat outside of the short sword's effective range, and its lightweight design allows for quicker thrusts than the shortsword. Light and easy to carry, it is a choice weapon for noble-types looking to protect themselves. Its weaknesses are, of course, utter uselessness against heavily armored enemies, and its requirement of a greater knowledge of swordplay than the simplistic shortsword.

Broadsword: The... wha??

The term broadsword is a slightly misleading word, used to describe pretty much every European sword that isn't a shortsword or dueling sword. Historically, the term broadsword wasn't actually used until more recently, and even then as a broad generalization. According to some sources, broadsword refers to large, double-edged swords favored by mounted soldiers (who didn't have to carry those things on their own!). Other sources state that the heavy broadswords were blunted on the edges, and only sharpened on the tip so that soldiers could knock down armored enemies from horseback, and then stab downward to pierce the armor once the foe was down. In general, broadsword is a term that could be used to describe a sword that has more length than the shortsword (in the 36" (90cm) area and up) and quite a bit more weight. However, it is not a term that denotes anything specific, therefore, usage of other sword terms might be more practical. Even better, use the actual name of the word you might be referring to.

Greatsword: The Zweihander

Don't you just love those anime shows where a guy fights with a gigantic greatsword, swinging it with speed and using it to parry smaller, weaker swords? Yeah, me too. I also like it when they shoot beams from their hands and girls' skirts fly up for no particular reason at all. I say these things because the greatsword has been given a very incorrect legacy by certain entertainment bastions, and usage of it should be carefully scrutinized.

Let me start by bringing up Final Fantasy 7. A lot of kids just *love* Cloud's huge Buster Sword and Sephiroth's gigantic katana, and really enjoy the way that they swing those weapons around as if they were weightless. It's just not realistic in the least. Let me explain why.

The Zweihander is probably the definitive greatsword, though how useful it actually was in combat is difficult to say. It attained fame for being used by the (some say) legendary Doppelsoldner, elite German troopers who fought at the very front of the formation, and reputedly received twice the pay of a normal soldier. There's a fair chance that, as their duty was to charge pike (polearm) formations and smash up enemy weapons, this high pay was compensation for the fact that their job was basically suicide.

The sword itself was anywhere from five to six feet (1.52 to 1.83 meters) long, and weighed about seven and a half pounds (3.4kg). I know that it doesn't seem like much, but with the weight dispersed over such a long area, efficient use becomes a task requiring a great deal of strength. In addition... after that first swing, you're screwed if your enemy isn't dead. A weapon with so much weight is going to carry a lot of momentum with each swing, so changing directions is going to be a tough order. Add that to the fact that the wielder's arms are going to get tired really fast, and you've got a weapon that should only ever be used sparingly, by men of tremendous strength. If you recall, Cloud from FF7 was a little skinny guy, the kind of guy who'd get passed around in prison like a bottle of moonshine at a redneck convention. Sephiroth was no giant (and his sword was even longer!).  Nevermind the fact that these guys were carrying their tremendous weapons great distances and never seemed to tire.

The strengths of the greatsword, if you could use it well, are many. Firstly, it has tremendous power. Its weight, as previously stated, produces a lot of momentum in a swing and could easily dispatch an enemy in a single blow, possibly even those with heavy armor. (note that the Zweihander got famous about the time firearms were beginning to come into play... most notably the Aquebus, a musket-type weapon. As a result, heavy armor was beginning to fall out of favor. ) Its length allowed for longer ranged combat than shortswords and most longswords, and its weight could turn aside a blow from such swords without sacrificing much power. The weaknesses, of course, are its heaviness and size, difficulty to carry, and general impracticality for casual use. In a duel, my money would be on a guy with a knife as opposed to a guy with a greatsword, if the knife guy was quick enough to avoid a stroke or two.

And a quick note: the Buster Sword in FF7 looked like a gigantic steak knife with a smaller handle. Single edged, useless except for chopping. The Masamune (named of course for the famed swordsmith Goro Nyudo 'Masamune') found in the game looks nothing like the real things. Nyudo's swords looked just like any other katana, for all purposes, and served the same purpose.


Section 4: Japanese Weapons


I don't know how it is in other countries, but in the United States there has been a gigantic surge of Japanophilia and Otaku-anime-obsession in the last few decades. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it certainly breeds a lot of ignorance (not stupidity. Ignorance is a very different thing) and spreads that ignorance out like jelly on bread. I'm going to use this section to very briefly detail two Japanese weapons of note, but I'm also going to use it to try and educate you on the fundamental differences between Japanese and Western weapons. Trust that what I'm saying is simply my opinion, though it is based in fact.

Japanese Swords: The Katana and Nodachi

The Katana is the sword most associated with Japan, with Samurai culture, and with lots of anime-ish heroes fighting it out in modern situations. However, most people have very little actual knowledge of the weapon, and simply go with the stereotypes based on it. Let me give you some details, then I'll talk about those.

There are dozens of designs of Katana. We'll go with the short to long sword of the pack, the daito, but remember this is a generic term. Measuring upwards of twenty-four inches (sixty-one centimeters), the Katana was a sword whose overall existence changed drastically over its centuries of use. It is a blade with a slight curve, lacking the pointed tip (though it was still sharp, just flat) of the European longsword, meant to be used with two hands. Its single edge and somewhat stubby design indicates its use as a slicing weapon, though it could be used for thrusting in a pinch. The quality of the weapon wavered between periods of war in Japan, sometimes having little battle use but tremendous artistic value, and vice versa. These weapons were worn blade-up in the sheath, and had (and still have) supernatural myths associated with them.

Now, onto the dispelling.

The Katana is the best sword ever made. It is superior to weak European weapons.

The short answer is 'no, it isn't, and it isn't.' Japanophiles will hate me for saying this, but in truth the Katana was no better than any other sword. In fact, in a great many ways, it is weaker than other weaponry (especially European weaponry, and I will say why in a moment) due to its lack of versatility. A Katana is obviously designed for quick, powerful slicing movements against unarmored to lightly armored foes. Against an opponent with a polearm, the Katana has little use... the same goes for an in-close battle with someone carrying a knife. If you think that your fighter can trot into a narrow alley, whip out the katana and kick some ass, you're wrong. The length of the sword, in addition to the horizontal motions employed by many of its styles, would be greatly hindered by in-close combat... this is why Samurai (more on them in a minute) carried wazikashi along with katanas... a shorter weapon, better for close encounters.

Japanophilia has really darkened the rich history of Western pre-machinegun warfare. The term 'martial arts' is now synonymous with 'Asian fighting style', but the fact is that European warriors, as well as Middle Eastern warriors who have perhaps the longest and richest history in the world, possessed just as much fighting ingenuity as any Asian warrior. Perhaps more, when you consider that European warriors had to deal with all sorts of nationalities in their fighting... the Swiss created the magnificent Halberd, the Germanic peoples, the zweihander. The Spanish, the Espada. The Italians, the Gladius. The Claymore. What about the Middle Easterners? The Scimitar, the Shamshir? Do not allow pop culture to darken your understanding of their histories... in so doing, you are robbing yourself and your characters of a plethora of weaponry choices that might actually make more sense than a weapon created on an island that was, up until the end of the nineteenth century, largely isolated.

The Katana is a Samurai's most trusted weapon, and the Ninjas'.

First off, the Katana was too long for 'ninja'. Assassinations (ninjas were assassins, not noble warriors, if anything) could not be performed well with a long sword... too much mess, too obvious. A ninja would probably have used hand claws, short daggers, and/or hand-to-hand combat to dispatch an enemy in close quarters. Think logic, people.. the last thing a ninja wants is to be seen or heard.

As for the Samurai... the Samurai were, in battle, primarily mounted archers. Few people talk about how they redesigned stirrups so that they could stand up on a horse without bouncing, steadying their aim. Everyone seems more interested in the Katana, which was of course the Samurai's standby weapon. However, Samurai also used yari (thrusting spear) and naginata (a form of polearm) in combat. In a one-on-one battle, in an open place, against an unarmored opponent, yes, a Samurai would use a Katana. But in most combat situations, a bow and arrow were his most trusted weapons. In fact, the reason that the katana is curved (whereas it had once been straight) is because cavalry combat became so important in their history. Fighting on horseback requires a curved edge that won't stick in an enemy and/or tear the weapon from the user's hands.

A Samurai with a Katana would easily defeat a European Knight.

There's a great article about this, if you have patience to read. It's and it is well-thought out piece of work.

As for us... first off, a Samurai and a Knight would probably never come into contact, so the discussion is moot. Secondly, both warriors are not necessariliy perfectly elite; Samurai were only human. Not all of them could be Kenshins (reference to an anime character, as I couldn't think of any outstanding real life Samurai by name) just as not all Chinese soldiers could be Lu Bu (look him up sometime. China has a rich history of warfare, as well) and not all Knights could be Lancelot. However, both warriors were trained in different styles, to accomplish different objectives. It would essentially end up being the luck of the draw.

Despite what pop culture says, knights were not sluggish barbarians bashing away at each other with lethargic swords and clubs. They were well trained elite warriors who knew exactly how to move in their armor and how to weild their weapons; their form of combat was no less deadly than Asian martial arts, only different. Don't let the stereotypes blind you. Samurai were trained to kill, as were knights... nothing more, nothing less.

The Katana is, as such, a vastly overrated weapon... but it is a weapon, no more. It is a sharp piece of metal, and no better than any other sword. Please, I beg of you, if you must use a katana in your story, research it and know what you're talking about. And please, make it fit into the story... if Johnny the fifteen-year-old sword prodigy lives in Paris in 2005, he has no credibility. Katanas would not shatter European swords, would not split shields or armor, and would certainly not chop through trees or pillars. When writing with weapons, unless that weapon is magical, you have to consider the logistics of it.

Now that that's done, let me briefly talk about the Nodachi (odachi). This is a sword that has been made popular due to a few video game/anime references, but let me make clear that the Nodachi was a cavalry weapon... used either on horseback, or to take a man off a horse. Its length (up to 2 meters, about 6'7'' in some cases) made it impractical for ground combat, especially one on one. It was also awkward and heavy... basically without use against a faster weapon.

I hope you're a little wiser now. Give credit where it is due, people, despite what your Japanese TV show tells you about Japanese weapons.


Section 5: Final Thoughts


In choosing a sword for your storybook warrior, take iinto account the terrain, the social situation, his/her size and strength (sorry, but massive zweihanders probably aren't for your female characters and teenagers), level of skill, and social status. Remember that a sword isn't your only choice, though... daggers are much more useful to untrained people, spears can be far more dangerous weapons due to their lengths, and a shield is actually far more effective one-on-one than a second sword. Let me give you a quick alternative.


Polearm: The general term for a group of pole-mounted weapons usually featuring a cutting or slashing weapon on one end. The halberd, guisarm, bill, bec-de-corbin, and poleaxe are all specific kinds of polearms, rising in popularity during the 15th century and into the 16th amongst the infantry.

Basically, a polearm is a weapon on a stick. Evolving in part (at least in Europe) from farm tools, polearms were designed for the obvious purpose of fighting enemies at a considerable distance. In addition, polearms could be constructed from simple materials in a pinch... an axe head tied to a pole becomes a pole ax and so forth. It had its strengths and weaknesses, like any other weapon. Let's look at one.

Polearms: The Halberd

A Swiss weapon, possibly the pinnacle of polearm development. Forged of an axe head of varying lengths with a hooklike pick on the reverse side, and a spear tip at the end. Up to seven feet (2.13 meters) in length (though not necessarily that long) and with flattened sides, a swing from a halberd carries tremendous force... enough to pierce armor or de-horse an enemy. Its length, and resultant awkwardness, is balanced by its versatility... the spear head allows for thrusting, the pick side allows a fighter to put a hole in armor and shove an enemy around, while the axe head, well... cuts things. Its length means that a user should be well trained in its use before attempting to fight with it, or else risk making wide, awkward strokes that could result in easy defeat.

The strengths of the halberd are its versatility, its range, and its immense power caused by the momentum of a swing. It is difficult to get in close to an efficient halberd fighter. The weaknesses of the halberd are its awkwardness, its difficulty of effective use, and its minimum range. Minimum range basically refers to to how far away an opponent must be in order for your weapon to be useful... if someone is standing close to you, your halberd will be less useful as you would have to step back to use it effectively. In addition, a halberd is not a very convenient weapon to travel with... due to its size, it is difficult to stow. A halberd is a soldier's weapon, not something that a private citizen would probably carry.

See? Fun weapon to use, if a bit impractical. Study up on your character and hir situation, and then choose the best weapon for them. Look up fun new weapons, even, or make up your own. There's no limit to the choices at your disposal!

Update! Finally, I got permission to post this link. This is an Elftown wiki dedicated to dispelling some weapon related myths in roleplay, which translates well to writing. Very informative.

By the way, you know who wins the duel of Samurai vs. Knight? Neither of them. The cowboy with the Sharps rifle wins. ^^

By [Mister Saint]

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2006-01-29 [Kiddalee]: YaY! Thanks, [Mister Saint]!

2006-01-29 [Mister Saint]: Welcome. ^_^

2006-01-29 [Kiddalee]: Hey... wait a sec... what about the Back to... section that was supposed to be on every article?

2006-01-29 [Mister Saint]: it's hidden in the tall gras. I finished this at seven this morning, so I prolly just forgot

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