Everybody has their favorites among swords, differing in weight, looks, and sharpness. There have been so many over the centuries that have caught the eye of mankind. Here, we give you a brief description of the different types of swords that have been around.
‘Sword’ was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root swer, which means to wound or cut.
Swords have been in use since ancient times, to defend our lands and mostly our pride. Though our cultures and languages differ, our values remain the same. Swords became popular because they are easier to use and swing around. While some love it for its dexterity, some prefer it for its sharpness, and others love it aesthetically because of the various designs of sword hilts. The knives and daggers that we know today have been made in reflection of swords.
The quality of a sword even reflected the respect that an individual garnered in society. Swords have been used to spread the word of God as well as uphold it. It is a symbol of liberty and virtue. By the 19th century, swords were used for ceremonial purposes mostly. They have been popularized by the famous samurai movies, and revered for their use in movies like Kill Bill.
Swords have been tempered and forged, dipped in the flames of hell, to come out shining as a beacon of hope. What made these swords so enchanting was that people spent a lifetime perfecting them and making them a part of their daily lives. Let’s have a look at the different types of swords over the centuries, for better understanding.
The Bronze Age is the time when civilizations were formed and writing was invented. Societies were at an infant stage, and needed to be defended from the barbarians who still followed the rules of old. These were perhaps the first weapons that were made before they discovered steel.
Derived from the Greek word ‘machaira’, it resembled a knife more than a sword, that had a single-edged blade with a curved edge. People may mistake it for a boomerang, but it was a small sword intended to be used by the cavalry.
The Celtic sword was a double-edged sword with a lenticular cross-section. It was used by the infantry division, and would later be responsible for the evolution of the claymore.
This weapon was a favorite among the gladiators who fought in arenas for entertainment. Gladius was a dual-edged sword with a wooden hilt, used by Roman soldiers. It was of three main types: Mainz, Fulham, and Pompeii. The Mainz had a longer blade length, while the Fulham was derived from the Mainz, but with a triangular tip. The last and most popular one, the Pompeii, was the shortest among the three, which made it easier to handle.
Medieval swords owe their designs to the Chinese, the progenitor of swords. Long swords were used by the Franks and Celts. With the coming of the Vikings, they changed the hilt and made different pommels for a better grip. The Normans invented the cross guard, which improved their defense. With the advent of the Holy Church, the hilt was designed in a cruciform, and has retained its form till the present day.
This was a Scottish two-handed sword developed during the Medieval Age, and was most probably influenced by the longsword. It’s characterized by its cruciform hilt, double-edged blade, and lobed pommels on either side. It was wielded by mostly foot soldiers. Excalibur, the sword wielded by King Arthur, was a claymore. It was even dramatized in an anime series called Claymore. For a familiar reference, a claymore was used by William Wallace fighting for Scottish independence, portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie ‘Braveheart’.
This was a short, broad saber, with a straight or slightly curved blade, mostly used by the navy. It had a pistol-like grip, which made it easy for drawing at a moment’s notice. It gained notoriety because it was constantly used by pirates like William Kidd and Blackbeard. In the 20th century, it was declared by rule that cutlasses would be used for ceremonial purposes and not by landing parties.
This sword belongs to the Viking Era. These were double-edged with triangle, lobed, or cocked-hat pommels. A subset of these swords, ‘Ulfberht’, were made of higher carbon content and few impurities, and probably procured from high-quality steel ingots from Central Asia. Steel of this quality were made in crucibles, a container that could withstand intense temperatures.
This one had a straight blade with a 3-shaped hilt, mostly favored by naval officers. It had a five-ball stirrup for a hilt. A spadroon had a central fuller with a single edge. It was similar to the German rapier, except that it had a double edge. This style spread to France, and was called a’la anglaise (English sword). The US adopted this pattern to create Federal Period eagleheads.
A rapier is a sharp-pointed sword used for thrusting attacks. It’s characterized by a complex basket hilt aimed to protect the wielder’s hand. The word ‘rapier’ was derived from the Spanish espada ropera or dress sword. It was used in defense along with daggers and cloaks. It gave way to the evolution of the epee sword, used in fencing. It has been used in movies like The Princess Bride and Reine Margot.
European Style Saber
This one was a single-edged curved blade with a large hand guard, used by the cavalry and infantrymen of the British army. Though sabers are used for cut and slash, the French preferred it for its clean thrust, which made for a clean kill. It was usually placed in a scabbard and worn at the side. Saber blades are worn by the army, navy, air force, marine and coast guard officers as a part of their ceremonial uniform. It bears little resemblance to the sabers used in modern fencing, which has a thin blade used for fast movements.
This was the earliest of the Medieval swords from the 6th century. The broadsword had a dual-edged blade with a single fuller that stretched towards the edge. Though most broadswords had a basket hilt, it was eventually replaced by an even hilt, and used as a two-handed sword. It was termed ‘broad’ to distinguish itself from the rapier, which was its thinner version. They later influenced the designs of sabers and claymores.
The longsword was known for its longer grip, which made it a two-handed sword, and was nicknamed ‘hand and a half’ sword. The sword was used in conjunction with armor mostly during the ‘Hundred Years War’. It was rendered obsolete by the Zweihander, which was used by the Germans in the 16th century. The sword laid the foundation for later weapons, such as polearms, staves, and spears. Later weapons also adopted the use in fencing.
The Zweihander is simply a larger version of the longsword. It was a two-handed sword used by German mercenaries. It was not worn at the waist but carried across the shoulder. Later, they only seemed to be used for ceremonial purposes. Guts in the anime Berserk wields a Zweihander, to kill off his enemies.
The Swiss saber is a type of backsword with a straight blade or a curved blade. These were set in regular hilts as well as pommels of different designs, usually plated with gold or silver. They were usually worn in a sheath.
Fencing originated in Spain, where it was prominent in the Basque region. It traveled to Europe where it was taught to aristocrats by Domenico Angelo. Though fencing was aimed to hit the vital points, Domenico was the first to emphasize on the health benefits of fencing. He founded most of the rules present today in his book ‘The School of Fencing’.
The epee is as long as the foil with a rectangular cross-section. It has a three-sided blade and a pistol grip. It was the most commonly used dueling sword in the 19th century, replacing the rapier. Battles were fought until first blood, i.e., a sufficient nick was enough to end the game.
Sabers have an elongated blade as compared to the epee, with the pommel extending outward to protect the hand from any injury. Sabers are mostly in use in the sport of fencing. These lightweight blades make it easy for thrusting attacks. A male wielder is called a sabreur, while a female is known as a sabreuse.
Foils have tapered blades with a sharp tip that bends when striking an opponent. The foil is used as a thrusting weapon for training purposes. It’s mainly responsible for the evolution of the sport of fencing. It has descended from the small sword. The foil is of 2 varieties, namely electric and non-electric. The electric ones are used for keeping score in fencing matches.
Scimitars are hunting swords, popular with the Persians. They had a distinct curved blade, ending with a sharp point. They were most prominently used by Saladin and his army against the crusaders who fought for The Holy Church. The lion sword and serpent sword that the Prince wields in Prince of Persia are scimitars, signifying their influence in Babylon as well.
The shamshir is a curved saber, which only tapers at the tip. It takes its origin from the city of Shamshir, which means paw claw. Shamshir also means ‘sword’ in the native Persian language. The shamshir was used for swift attacks while on horseback, and was beneficial in most war strategies.
A favorite of the people residing in Afghanistan, the pulwar is used for hunting as well as defense. It had a curved blade, influenced by the shamshir, and a cup-shaped hilt with bells attached to the crossguard.
This was a curved blade wielded by Turkish mercenaries, and later held by Mameluke slaves who ruled over Egypt. The blade was more curved than the shamshir, with a diamond-shaped hilt and a handguard. It was later adopted by the French, when they tried to conquer Egypt. It made its way to the Western shores where it was adopted by the United States Marine force, and is still used for ceremonial purposes.
The Chinese were the first to create swords from high carbon content instead of stainless steel. Their swords were more lean and sharp, unlike the Medieval swords which were heavy and meant for hacking. Their swords are characterized with a single fuller in the middle. Chinese swords are categorized into Jian (dual-edged) and Dao (single-edged). Though, Jian probably consists of swords and Dao of sabers. Most blades which were attached to pole arms were also called dao.
This is a sword used in contemporary Wushu exercises. Its blade is straight with an even hilt. Though most dao are curved, this one was probably influenced by the jian sword.
A heavy bladed weapon with a curved hilt, it was a sword primarily used by civilians. It was called the oxtail saber, seen in kung fu movies today. It was usually placed in a scabbard, and hung at the waist.
This is a deeply curved dao meant for slashing and draw-cutting. It bore a strong resemblance to the scimitar and shamshir. It was used by skirmishers in conjunction with a shield.
This is a straight two-edged sword used in the training of the martial art Taijiquan. A tassel is always attached to the pommel, which makes a noise when hit by the opponent. A thinner version is used in Chinese street plays for theatrical purposes, intended to add visual appeal to the performance.
Japanese swords have been popular with the advent of media and popular television. During the Meiji Period, swords were banned to be worn in public. This caused the samurai class to vanish. But with the Showa Era, Japanese swords made a comeback, in the form of military swords.
The katana is a single-bladed sword with a curved tip. The circular or squared guard was used to block swinging attacks. It was mostly associated with the Feudal Period, where samurai could wear their swords in public. It was banned in the Meiji Period, and only worn by the military police. The katana was popularized by many samurai soap operas and Period dramas. In popular culture, it’ seen wielded by Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.
Wakizashi (companion sword)
This was a companion sword worn by the samurai class, always hanging on the left side. It was more suitable for indoor fighting. If a wakizashi’s length is similar to a katana, it is called o-wakizashi, and if the length is similar to a tanto, it is called ko-wakizashi. The one who used a katana with a wakizashi was the founder of the Niten Ichi-ryu technique, Miyamoto Musashi, also known as the sword-saint. It was sometimes used to commit harakiri by samurai who refused to obey a new master.
Tanto had a thin blade, akin to a knife, and was worn in the absence of a wakizashi. Its design was popular enough to make it into America in the form of tactical knives. Because of its small size, it was used in martial arts such as aikido, jujutsu, and ninjutsu. The common tanto blade types are shinogi, hira, and shobu.
The bokken is a Japanese wooden sword used in place of a katana. The length of the sword ranges from 40 – 42 inches The bokken is made from flexible bamboo, and is deadly in the hands of a regular sword user. The blade differs when practicing different martial arts, as aikido is practiced with a blunt edge, and kenjutsu is practiced with a sharp edge. It was kept by the bedside of warriors who could handle any intruder without spilling any blood. Kaoru, from the anime Rurouni Kenshin, used this type of sword regularly.
The components of a shinai are made from dried bamboo. Some may be treated by soaking or smoking them in resin. It’s mainly used for practicing Kendo. A shinai is used as a practice sword in order to simulate the weight of a bokken or katana, without injuring the user or the target. The user also wears a bogu, intended to protect oneself from kendo attacks. Shinai is used in Kendo, which is a Japanese form of fencing.
Swordsmiths were the first to dwell into the art of metallurgy. Their opinions were valued before any king went into battle. Now, as swords have been replaced by guns, it is becoming a lost art.