Tag Archives: historical weaponry

Q&A: Flaming Weapons

How viable are non-magical flaming weapons? Like, coating the sword with a flammable substance and then setting it on fire. Would the trouble be worth it for the increased damage? Would they be more dangerous for the yielder? Would the fire negatively affect the blade?

No. At least not, that example. Also flaming arrows are out. The physics involved mean they either self-extinguish on launch, or they’ll ignite the user (I don’t remember which, and I kinda think it’s the former.)

That said, there are a lot of historical and modern military applications for flame.

The modern examples that come immediately to mind are napalm, dragon’s breath shells, and Molotov cocktails.

Napalm is, basically, jellied gasoline. It will burn, it will stick when it lands, and it will keep burning. Set something on fire and watch it melt. Napalm is, quite frankly, pretty terrifying stuff, and while the exact chemical formula is recent, the concept of launching burning liquids at people is not, going all the way back to Greek Fire. No one is exactly sure what Greek Fire was, but it would burn, could be lobbed onto ships or people you didn’t like, while burning, and would not stop burning once it arrived.

Molotov Cocktails are a medium ground here. You load a bottle up with alcohol, use an alcohol soaked rag as a fuse, light, and throw. There’s a little bit more going on here though. Alcohol solutions are only directly flammable if they’re more than 50% alcohol by volume. Most hard liquor is around 80 proof (40%), but, the vapors put off by the solution are still flammable (down to around 20%, if I remember correctly). So you can use a bottle of vodka as an improvised incendiary device. (Fair warning, it’s been a long time since I took a chemistry class, so those exact percentages may be a bit off.)

In spite of being named after a Russian Revolutionary, the idea of setting something on fire and chucking it someplace is not a new concept.

I know you can launch flaming payloads with a trebuchet, put them roughly where you want them, and set the area on fire. I’m not 100% sure of the military history, but it was used for centuries. Anything that will break apart on impact will spread the flame over a decent area and get a good blaze going.

Hot shots originally referred to cannonballs that were preheated before firing, with the intention of it igniting enemy structures or ships. This isn’t something we still think about (outside of the term “hotshot” seeping into idiomatic usage), but it did work, apparently.

The modern equivalent would be incendiary ammunition. There’s a lot of variety here, and they range from phosphorous rounds, which will ignite on contact with moisture, including the moisture in the air, to dragon’s breath shells which eject a mixture of highly flammable metals, such as magnesium, or potassium, which will ignite on contact with moisture.

Phosphorous was also a popular component for incendiary grenades, mortars, and other explosives. For example, one of the US military’s versions of a Molotov in WWII was produced by dissolving phosphorous and rubber (as a thickener) in gasoline). This mixture would self ignite on contact with the atmosphere (when the glass broke).

One variant of modern incendiary grenades use a Thermite variant
(called thermate)

to eject molten iron on detonation.

So far as it goes, most flare guns fire a 12 gauge shotgun shell. While the plastic ones won’t survive trying to put a conventional shell down range, the flare shell itself can result in horrific, and fatal, burns.

If you want a melee weapon to set someone on fire, you might be able to achieve that safely by heating the blade or using something like a thermal lance. The problem with simply coating a sword with oil and lighting it up is, they tend to drip. And, when you’re swinging the sword around, you’ll end up with burning oil getting splashed everywhere, including on the user. This is, “a very bad thing.”

Of course, shoving a torch in someone’s face is also a very bad thing, for them, and fits the definition provided.

So, the short answer is, yes there are a lot of real applications for setting someone on fire, especially when they’re all the way over there and walking is too much effort. Setting your own sword on fire is not a great idea, however.


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Speaking of sexist fighting advice! There’s this really great fiction writing advice blog I read years ago, written by a lady, shut down ages ago. But it claimed a few times that there was no way a woman could physically handle a zweihander or the like. I’ve always had a feeling that’s nonsense, but confirmation from a good source such as yourself would be great.

Consider this: the zweihander weighs seven pounds. The display version is ten pounds. If you can lift a backpack crammed with textbooks, you can lift a zweihander. House cats weigh more than a sword.

The issue with the zweihander is length, not weight. It is not a heavy sword. No swords are actually all that heavy, because weight defeats the purpose of the weapon. The heavier it is, then the faster your arms wear out and grow tired. This is a terrible, terrible thing.

Combat is highly frenetic. An easy comparison is sprinting, and it’s not just a regular sprint but wind sprints. You gotta go, go, go. You need to be able to move. So, a heavy weapon is detrimental to the goal of being able to fight as long as possible. Especially when that weapon is designed to give you an edge in reach, and counter pole arms. You want to be able to swing the weapon around for long periods of time because if you wear out first, you’re dead.

Endurance, not strength, is the great necessity for any warrior. So, everything your PE teacher punished you with is what you’re looking for (except dialed to eleven). Once you understand fighting is about going for as long as possible between energetic bursts, combat starts to make more sense. This is also why most action movies feature the pressure cooker, the slow grind down of the protagonist by giving them little to no rest between fights as they accumulate more injuries.

So, when people say strength in regards to combat, they don’t usually mean physical strength in what you can lift. They mean how long you can go, what you can endure before finally keeling over. This gets misinterpreted, mixed in with the confusion by historians about parade swords (which were incredibly heavy and often the only surviving weapons) and we get the beefcake barbarian.

Like all swords, and even shields, the zweihander is awkward to use if you don’t know how to wield it or have never held one before. This has to do with its balance point. Swords feel heavier than they actually are when we hold them because the balance is midway up the blade and that strains the wrist, which strains the arm, and causes the whole thing to tilt forward. Sometimes, the sword even gets dropped. You’ve got to learn how to account for it.

When you’re looking at actual combat considerations on weight, that’s in the armor. Armor is comparatively heavy, the warrior has to get used to carrying around fifteen to twenty or so pounds, or more depending on what gear they’re lugging with them between battles. So, if you’ve got a character going into battle without plate then they’re not going to have those weight considerations. Even if they are, the point of training is to build your body up to be able to handle it.

At the end of the day, its important to remember that, historically, large scale combat has been about being able to get the most bodies on the field as possible. You ran the gamut between trained warriors and farmers yanked off their fields with a hastily cludged together pole arm thrust into their hands. There are plenty of people who went into battle with no freakin’ clue what they were doing. The concept of a military as we know it today is a mostly modern invention.

The mystique of the knight and others like them came with their training, which is… they had some. Whatever they’d have liked us to think, there was nothing different about them compared to the farmers except the money, the (sometime) power, the time, and the “luck” of their birth. In the end, it’s less about what humans can or can’t do but what society corrals them from learning. It’s easier to control your population when only the powerful have access to weapons, educations, and castles.

So, yeah, a woman can use a zweihander if she trains on the zweihander. It also won’t be her only weapon, mostly because one never knows when they’ll have to fight indoors. (That’s a joke, HEMA peeps. I know half-holds are a thing, and it’s not a katana so it can strike straight.)


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