Sharper Edge: Beating a Dead Horse, Sort of (pt 2)

Last time, I addressed a few myths regarding swords (and other blades).  This time, I’d like to look at another myth: how one uses a sword.

There are two common views that I’ve seen all over the place when it comes to using swords.  The first is the “grab the handle and put the pointy end in the other person” view.  The other is the view that swords were and are only used as stabbing weapons (this is one I see more often in articles from so-called, or self-proclaimed, experts).

Both are true to some degree, but largely false.

The first treats the sword like a fancy, expensive, steel club.  The second is based on the writer’s knowledge of, or experience with, modern fencing, not the historical reality of swordsmanship in cultures around the world (or physics, in the case of mounted swordsmanship).

I’m going to use nine blades from my own collection as examples here.  My goal is to examine different blade types, designs, architectures, whatever to demonstrate the most effective usage of the given blade.  Yes, every blade I’ll discuss can be swung or thrust, but there are many ways to swing/thrust and many of the blades are less effective when used for thrusting.

(Uploading pics isn’t working, I’ve messed with this enough, I’ll include links)

First, the common fantasy staple broadsword.  It has a really quite simple straight edge that tapers near the end to a point.  The broadsword is a chopping weapon.  It is not a stabbing weapon.  Look at the tip.  Notice that, although it has a point, the point is fairly rounded and kind of blunt.  This is not a piercing weapon.  On the other hand, it has a long edge, but not a curved, cutting one.  Rather, its edge is intended to chop through leather, mail, and possibly even steel plate.

The Swiss baselard is a fairly similar blade.  The baselard is a child of the broadsword, modified for Swiss pikemen and eventually used throughout Europe.  The blade’s a bit wider and a bit shorter than a broadsword, it also feels a bit heavier, but is not.  Like the broadsword, this is a chopping weapon that is capable of, fairly blunt, thrusts.  It is also built to stand up to a broadsword or heavier weapon.

Then there is the rapier.  A fairly late development, compare the blade to the broadsword.  Notice that it is only about half as wide, comes to a very narrow point, and it notably longer.  This is a stabbing weapon.  It can slash and cut, but is definitely not a chopper and is at its best when used in a lunge thrust.

And the qama.  Another stabbing weapon, this one a child of the Roman gladius.  Like the gladius, it is a very simple blade: straight edge, sharp point, no frills.  While it can be used to cut, the qama is a stabber.  But, it is not particularly good at the rapier-like lunge thrust.  Rather, it is made for the gladius-like rapid stab thrust, much more practical for battlefield use (as opposed to the rapier’s better use in duels, although it was used in battle).  The qama, like the gladius, is best when used to stab around or under the protection of a shield.

Another short blade, the coustille.  This short sword’s tapered blade is mediocre for both cutting and thrusting, but neither is its primary purpose.  Note the wide, triangular blade.  This weapon was developed for commoners for defense against longer, heavier broadswords (due to sumptuary laws that made it illegal for commoners to carry blades above a certain length or shields).

And a French fighting knife.  This is a utilitarian blade developed from the Nordic saxe.  The curving, wide head makes for better cutting power and moves the blade’s weight toward the point.  This helps both cutting and thrusting.  Like the saxe, it works well for both fighting and more everyday purposes.

Then the kindjal.  My kindjal is a short, Cossack version, although other Russian and Persian versions exist.  Obviously, being of Cossack origin, this is a blade used by people used to fighting on horseback.  Note the fairly deep curve and light, narrow blade.  This is not primarily a stabbing weapon (although a fairly simple wrist snap at the end of a swing can twist the tip around a shield to stab an opponent’s arm).  It is a cutting blade, specifically a slashing blade.  This kind of sword will not inflict deep cuts, but is more designed to produce myriad shallow cuts quickly, my guess is largely against unarmored or lightly armored opponents.

The kukri mentioned last time.  Despite overuse in fiction, this is a very nice weapon.  Obviously, the forward curve makes a thrust difficult.  After years of Scouting and some handling of the kukri, I’ve described it as a well balanced hatchet.  The weight at the end of the blade makes it an excellent chopping weapon, equally at home going through a tree branch or an arm.  The curve can also make it an excellent throwing knife-sword, in fact there are a number of modern versions of the kukri made specifically for throwing (one thrower noted that the pommel cap makes a traditional kukri dangerous for the thrower as it can strip skin and flesh from the thrower’s hand).

And, finally, everyone’s favorite, the katana.  Designed for thrusting and cutting, the katana’s blade and most common techniques make it a slashing or cutting weapon, not a chopper.  Most styles of usage that I’m familiar with only cut with the top two to four inches of the blade.  Way back when, in the warring period, they had longer hilts and, my guess is that, more of the blade’s edge was used, since they had enough power to behead opponents.  Style makes a big difference with the katana.  My own practice has all been with two-handed use, but Musashi Miyamoto championed a one-handed use (with the shorter companion blade in the other hand).  To my taste, the long hilt makes the katana a bit unwieldy or uncomfortable for one-handed use,  but who am I to argue with Japan’s greatest swordsman (and Mitsugi Saotome Shihan as well, who performs two sword kata in ASU aikido).

Blade design clearly indicates intended use.  Culture does as well, so does physics.  As mentioned above, physics can influence design.  Take, for instance, the cavalry saber.  Culture created the design: reduced reliance on cavalry, increased reliance on unarmored infantry.  On another hand, physics came into play as well.  Can a cavalryman use a saber to stab an opponent?  Sure.  However, physics shows us that the sword will be stuck in the infantryman, causing the cavalryman to lose his sword, be dismounted, or dislocate/break his shoulder.  Instead, the cavalryman swings his curved saber at the infantryman.  This does have one drawback: a sharp sword driven by man and horse can cut bone and get stuck.  Which is why 18th and 19th century cavalry sabers are blunt edged, so they will break bone instead of getting stuck in bone (and causing the same trouble as stabbing those pesky infantrymen).

My point?  Basically, there are lots of different types of swords out there.  Don’t pick one just because it’s common or exotic.  Think about the culture in question and the intended use, ex. if the culture favors cramped quarters (say certain types of caves or subterranean types . . . you Dwarves over there) and prefers stabbing weapons, then a broadsword or kukri is kind of silly for them to develop or use, but a gladius or qama would be perfect.

Anyway, hope that helps someone or is at least interesting.  Until next time . . .

Sharper Edge, or Beating a Dead Horse (Sort of, pt. 1)

Every blog, book, or what have you on writing, worldbuilding, and gaming in the fantasy genre has an obligatory post on swords. I guess this one won’t be an exception.

The difference here is that I freely admit that I’m no expert. That said, I’ve studied European sword-shield fighting (informally), modern foil fencing (formally), and aikido’s version of the katana (formally). I have also done a bit of amateur study of the subject and have a small collection of blades from different eras and cultures to study.

Right off the bat, I’ll repeat information that’s been stated repeatedly: swords are not particularly heavy! Think of it this way: in an era when all weaponry was muscle driven and battles could last for hours, even half a day, would swinging around a 10+ pound steel stick one handed be practical? No. The last, scholarly, discussion I came across pointed out that one handed weapons (swords, maces, etc.) typically weighed between two and four pounds. Why? They had to be heavy enough to penetrate armor, but light enough to be used for hours at a time. (Two handed weapons get a bit heavier, but still seem to top out around eight pounds or so, give or take.)

For a better discussion, I highly recommend any book by Ewart Oakeshott (easily the top name in the study of swords throughout history). For a good idea of variety and weights, I recommend purchasing (or getting a free copy or going online) a catalog from Museum Replicas Limited. They make excellent blades (via Windlass Steelcrafts, in India) and Oakeshott was their historical accuracy consultant until his death.

Another major issue is the overuse of certain types of blades. Case in point, urban fantasy’s fixation on the katana and kukri. Both are nice weapons. I had my time, in high school, as a katana fanboy. Then I became disillusioned. Only recently, while studying aikido (and a small stint with the basics of SMR jodo) and practicing with a bokken, have I started to gain respect for the katana again. I understand why they are used so much as well. On one hand, they are distinctive. On another, they are exotic, yet familiar. On a third, most urban fantasy involves vampires or other species that can only be dispatched through arcane means or beheading. The katana (at least a war era katana, not a dueling era one; the former with a longer hilt) is an excellent choice for this, and in fact was historically used for beheading on the battlefield. It is also relatively easy to conceal. The kukri is even better, being short (less than two feet long), very easy to conceal, and equally capable of beheading strikes. Both are much better options than an axe or greatsword, from a number of perspectives, for urban fantasy. However, they’re overused and cliche now.

Besides, there are other options. For instance, the Korean gum is a first cousin to the katana. The kukri, believe it or not, is a descendant of the Greek kopis and Celtic falcata. The story goes that Alexander the Great brought the kopis to India, where locals loved the design and copied it. In fact, the kukri is the last surviving member of an entire class of swords adopted by cultures throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and Nepal.

(More, with pictures hopefully, next week; in the meantime, questions and comments are welcome. I’m happy to do some research in the next week or so to answer questions.)