For thousands of years, swords played a decisive part in conflicts in many parts of the world. From copper to bronze to iron and steel (and even obsidian), swords hacked and slashed their way through history, leaving a bloody legacy in their wake.
As one of history’s most important weapon concepts, swords evolved into many different forms, each designed to deal with certain contexts. Like natural evolution, the evolution of swords produced some pointless dead-ends, as well as metaphorical apex predators.
Here are 5 of the deadliest sword designs.
Cut or Thrust?
The pervasive ideas behind sword design are dominated by the need to either slash or to stab. The vast majority of swords employed designs that functioned as both cutting and thrusting weapons, but in varying degrees of each.
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There is a myth that Europe was engulfed in a great debate about whether cutting or thrusting was better, but in truth, this discussion only appeared from the 18th century onwards. The truth is that it depends on the context. Certain situations required swords better suited to slashing, and some situations demanded swords suited to thrusting. Most cases, however, demanded both. And sword design followed these needs.
1. The Katana
Finding its way into the collective imagination of pop culture, the katana is a sword that has generated much myth and legend surrounding its supposed mystical properties. While the sword cannot cut through steel and snap other swords in half, as is widely believed, it is still a formidable weapon that embraces the ability to slash and slice.
The katana was used for hundreds of years, evolving from older swords around the 10th century, with the first swords that resembled the classic katana being made around the first half of the 14th century. Using the katana as an actual weapon was most popular around the feudal era in Japan, although the sword was not the most popular weapon on the battlefield. That honor went to bows and polearms for practical reasons. Nevertheless, the katana gained a reputation as a sword of unmatched cutting power.
The design of the weapon is very complex. Its overall shape is that of a curved, single-edged blade with a hilt designed to accommodate two hands. Forging the blade is a time-consuming process that requires decades of practice and has been passed down from masters to apprentices for centuries. Many of the methods used are unique to each sword-maker and are closely guarded secrets.
One interesting feature of the forging process is that the blade is made from different layers of steel with varying hardness. The hardest steel is found on the edge, while the softest steel is found on the blunt side. For the majority of the forging process, the blade is actually straight. It is only when it is heated and quenched in water that the hardness and softness of the different steel used cause the blade, in a matter of moments, to gain the signature curvature for which the katana is famous.
2. The Zweihänder
At first glance, this sword may seem like an impossibly large and ambitious weapon that would have been very difficult to employ effectively. In truth, however, the Zweihänder was actually a very graceful weapon as it represented a crossover between polearms and swords, and it was used as such. Wielded thus, the weapon was very quick and very deadly.
It was used in the 16th century primarily by the German Landsknechte, who were elite mercenaries. En masse, the swords were used in conjunction with pike formations and also used to defeat pike formations. The exact technique is subject to debate.
From historical treatises on the subject, much more is known about using the Zweihänder as a dueling weapon.
Those who wielded these enormous swords, the flamboyantly attired Landsknechte, were also commonly employed as bodyguards. The imposing sword, coupled with a scarred veteran who knew how to wield it, was generally enough to deter any would-be assassins.
Sword design for the Zweihänder varied widely. They generally had “parrying hooks” as a second crossguard below which the blade was blunt, allowing the user to wield the sword several ways, including allowing the wielder to swiftly pivot the weapon and use the pommel and the cross-guards to bludgeon the opponent. A typical Zweihänder measured 1.4 meters (4 feet 7 inches), with the largest one known to be used being 213 centimeters (84 inches). It is on display in the Fries Museum in the Netherlands and was used by rebel leader and pirate Pier Gerlofs Donia.
3. The Rapier
Primarily a thrusting weapon, the rapier was used during the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe as a dueling weapon, although it was not uncommon for it to be found on the battlefield. Sword designs regarding the rapier made the sword incredibly effective and very quick. Most combat involving rapiers did not last long at all.
The popularity of the rapier was widespread, and wearing one was not just for defensive (or offensive) purposes. It was a fashion statement popular with the nobility who could afford such beautiful but deadly weapons. Many fencing schools were opened across Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and England, as it became not just popular to wear the sword but to actually be able to use it effectively.
The rapier has design features that set it apart from other swords. Contrary to popular belief, rapiers are not particularly light weapons. They contain just as much steel as their average contemporaries. But instead of the blade being compact by comparison, the rapier blade is elongated, giving the weapon a longer reach than other one-handed swords. It is also a very well-balanced weapon, with the point of balance being very close to the hilt, thus making the weapon feel lighter.
Where the genius of the design shines through is the design of the hilt. With other swords, the blade runs parallel to the outstretched thumb (pointing upwards), while the rapier hilt is designed in such a way as to make the blade rest naturally and at an angle almost in line with the forearm. It does this by employing the crossguard as a grip mechanism. In doing so, the blade becomes easier to control, making it more accurate and providing more speed and power behind the thrust.
As the rapier is a one-handed weapon, the off-hand is left open to wield any sort of instrument that might help the wielder. Generally, these included a knife known as a main gauche or a small shield known as a buckler. Historically, however, other items were used, including capes, pieces of cloth, and even pots and pans. When one is set upon by an assassin, one can’t really afford to be picky about what one should use to defend themselves.
4. The Arming Sword (or Knightly Sword)
As probably the first sword that pops into the imagination, the knightly sword, as its name suggests, was the symbol of the knight. Slightly shorter than the similar longsword, which was designed for use on horseback or as a dueling weapon, the arming sword had the advantage of accessibility and was easy to wield. As a one-handed weapon on the battlefield, it was often paired with a shield.
The arming sword was highly successful in that it was a very versatile weapon. With equal measures of cutting and thrusting abilities, the sword was at home in most combat situations. It was so successful that the sword design remained unchanged for half a millennium. From 1000 CE to 1500 CE, the arming sword saw common use not just on the battlefield but as a personal sidearm used by those who could afford them, as well as soldiers in everyday life. They were particularly popular among Crusaders and exist today as symbols of strength and chivalry. The shape is also reminiscent of the cross, adding weight to the symbolic image of the crusader.
5. The Pattern 1908 Cavalry Sword
Although the age of the sword was long over, the debate over cut or thrust was not. And by the time the First World War arrived, there were still those who envisioned the conflict ending with a great cavalry charge. Indeed, it was within the cavalry that the last swords were still employed in combat.
From 1908 to 1918, the last of the British cavalry intended for actual combat before horses were phased out of frontline combat duty was equipped with the Pattern 1908 Cavalry sword.
The sword design was that of a purely thrusting weapon, with absolutely no consideration as to cutting. The blade was a simple 34+3⁄4 inches (880 millimeters) length of steel tapered to a point, while the ergonomic grip brought the total length of the sword to 42 inches (1,100 millimeters).
Despite being regarded as the most effective cavalry saber ever designed, it did have its detractors. The sword was effectively a one-handed lance, and those who argued against thrusting on horseback pointed out that a straight blade can be the victim of its own success. Piercing through the victim’s body, the sword would be much more difficult to recover as the horse moved past, a problem that curved sabers rarely encountered.
The Pattern 1908 was the last service sword ever issued to the British cavalry.
Swords have existed in one form or another for thousands of years. Life has changed, along with civilization and, of course, warfare. The nature of conflict has created specific needs for what weapons need to be employed.
Swords are a perfect example beholden to these needs. And as warfare evolved, so did sword designs.
The claymore, the shamshir, the falcata, the gladius… the list goes on. They were all deadly in trained hands and in the right context. Choosing the deadliest swords throughout history is a difficult task that generates much debate, as it takes a lot of nuanced understanding of the specific contexts of each historical dynamic. Nevertheless, certain swords became popular while others did not.
While the age of the sword is most certainly over, they continue to be used in sports, Hollywood, and reenactments. And so they live on.