Tag Archives: swords

Q&A: Longswords

Sorry for the stupid question, but what actually is a longsword? Is it a sword intended for 2 handed use but can be used with 1? Most rpg games have longswords classified as 1 handed weapons, but from what i’ve read on the internet a longsword is supposed to be mainly 2 handed.

That’s not a stupid question, it’s reasonable confusion based on some idiosyncratic classifications created centuries after the weapons saw use. The very simple answer is, the longsword was “a sword.” Most of the specialized names for swords, particularly anything ending in “sword,” is probably a modern classification which doesn’t fully reflect the weapon in question.

Historically you wouldn’t have described your weapon as a longsword, it would have simply been your sword. A lot of the modern terms like longsword, shortsword, bastardsword, greatsword, broadsword, arming sword, and so on are exactly that: modern. Many of these terms only date back to the 19th century, when antiquarians were attempting to classify swords into very specific categories.

In some cases, these categories accurately reflect weapons that existed, and can give you a quick shorthand to understand what the weapon was, and how you used it. For example, “shortsword” and “greatsword” are useful terms. They describe distinct classes of swords that existed historically. That said, the edges are a bit, “fuzzy.” For example, determining when a knife becomes a shortsword isn’t an exact science. There’s no specific length where you can say, “nope, no longer a knife, now it’s a shortsword.” How the weapon was used can help to inform what you want to call it, but these are not hard and fast rules. Your shortsword may be a long knife to someone else.

To expand on this, something like an executioner’s sword is a useful name, because it refers to the function of the weapon, and it has a distinct stylistic element that makes it easy to identify and distinguish (in this case, a flat end instead of a sharpened tip.) There are also plenty of weapons that incorporate distinct elements which make them unique. Another example would be the estoc, which has a mostly unsharpened blade, but boasts a very sharp tip, primarily for piercing the joints of plate armor.

So, there’s three specific examples I should probably expand a bit, because you’ll run across them all the time in RPGs and other media, the Longsword (which you asked about), the bastard sword (which you asked about incidentally) and the greatsword.

A longsword can be anything from a Viking era iron blade, up through to some small two-handers. Usually defined as having a straight blade, these cover dozens of distinct sword designs, which popped up in Europe over nearly a millennia. Because the term is so diverse, there’s really no one “true” longsword, even in popular media. Even within a single game you may see weapons ranging from 8th century one-handed swords next to 15th century two-handed longswords. Usually games will present these as weapons you can wield one-handed, though even this is a bit misleading as most greatswords can be wielded with one hand, at the cost of some finesse and efficiency.

Bastard Swords are… something. There’s no certainty on what the term meant historically, and unlike some other names kicking around, bastard sword was a historical term. The modern meaning of a bastard sword is (usually) a longsword blade with a greatsword grip. That’s, basically, fantasy. Swords like that did exist, but they weren’t considered a unique class of blades until the 19th century.

Greatswords are a modern weapon (though, in this case I do mean early modern, so 15th to 16th century.) The actual names vary by culture of origin. There’s something of a theme here, with most cultures naming their greatswords some variation of “big” or “large” and “sword.” The German Zweihander is a minor departure, as that simply means, “two hands.” While I’m not completely certain, I think the term “greatsword” comes from the translation of Claymore. (Specifically from the Gaelic claidheamh mor.) Historically, the greatsword fell out of use as European armies transitioned to longer polearms, and by the 17th century, firearms were becoming an increasingly important part of warfare, so these enjoyed a brief moment before disappearing.

It’s probably also worth remembering that swords are very light weight. A 4lb longsword would be heavy, most ran 2 to 3lbs. With two-handers the norm was slightly under 8lbs. Substantial for a weapon, but not heavy to the point that you’d be unable to lift it with ease. Real world swords have (basically) never been about overall weight, so much as finesse. This is part of why I said earlier that you can wield a greatsword with one hand. It wouldn’t be as effective, but you could still maneuver the blade. The entire point was to open your opponent up, usually by finding vulnerable points and then exploiting those. This is part of why Europe transitioned to lighter, faster, blades, which could get in and out quickly. It’s also why weapons like the Estoc existed at all. Allowing the user far more control when they drove the tip through a joint in their foe’s armor.

Most swords can be used two handed. Even if your off hand won’t fit on the hilt, you can use your fingers to help control and direct your strikes. Even with larger swords like the zweihander, your off hand isn’t there to provide more strength, you use it to stabilize and guide your attacks.

A lot of games use longswords as one handed weapons because it’s easier and simpler. It provides the player with a clear delineation between that weapon and a two handed weapon class. You know, when you find one, what it will do and how you can use it. This is further reinforced in many video games, where you would need separate animation sets for wielding the weapon one handed vs two. In cases like this, there’s a real incentive to lock it into one mode and leave it there, especially if a two handed weapon class already exists.

So, the short answer would be: It’s a sword.

-Starke

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Q&A: Swords

Can a sword cut through steel bars, or is that fantasy? Also, how much space is needed to use a sword correctly and is there a lot of difference between say, the space needed to use a long sword as opposed to a short sword? I’m guessing an enclosed space the size of a closet would suck. I’ve tried searching through your tags for an answer to this but didn’t find it.

For the first question, the short answer is no. There’s a full discussion to be had on metal hardness

As I said, there are a lot of relevant factors here as well, such as how easily the object will bend out of the way, but when you’re talking about trying to cut your way through a bar of metal, you’re going to need a lot more than just, “a sword.”

I should probably add, you also don’t simply hack through metal armor with a sword. It doesn’t matter how sharp the blade was when you started out, that kind of brute force will wreck the weapon. Instead, you’re looking for openings, which are necessary to allow the user to move.

This still applies for cutting through bars. While the bars and sword may have similar hardness as materials, the blade’s edge will be more fragile, and any attempt to simply hack your way through won’t end well for the sword.

When it comes to simply hacking through objects, you’re better off with an axe. Those are designed to deliver a lot of blunt force along the edge. You still shouldn’t expect much from taking a steel axe to steel bars, but it is better suited for that kind of abuse.

Now, if you’re using some kind of fantasy weapon, like an impossible blade that breaks down anything it connects with on a molecular level, like Warhammer 40k’s power weapons, or a lightsaber, then steel bars aren’t going to pose much of an obstacle. However, in cases like that, you’re not really concerned with how sharp it is.

Okay, back to the second question. There isn’t a concrete answer, because it will be determined by the sword and the techniques your character’s been trained in. It is entirely possible to use swords, even fairly large ones like the zweihander, in fairly tight quarters.

For a lot of European sword combat, the tip of the blade is the most important point of contact, so you’re more interested in linear thrusting strikes, rather than large slashing patterns.

Even when you are whipping the blade around, there’s still a major focus on being efficient with your motion (at least in most of the surviving schools of thought). There are still a few surviving manuscripts and approaches which focus on wider arcing strikes, which would require more space.

Remember, one major use for swords in Europe was in tight quarters while assaulting castles and fortresses. If the sword couldn’t be used in close, it wouldn’t have remained in use for long. This does mean that, sometimes, you need to get creative. There are a number of grips where you’ll control a sword with one hand on the blade (called half-handing, or half-swording), and others where you’ll strike someone with the pommel, which can be executed at much closer ranges.

With very few exceptions, you don’t wave your sword around in large telegraphed strikes unless you need to. It may look cool, but it’s far easier to defend against. Just like in hand-to-hand, exposing your movements to your opponent is something you want to avoid whenever possible. Keeping movement inside your silhouette makes it harder to track. With that said, the circular sword styles you’ll see in something like The Witcher 3 do have a basis in history, and those can work, for a trained practitioner on open ground.

Historically speaking, shortswords weren’t really a thing, sort of. Bladed weapons in the range of 12 to 24 inches existed, were, and are, real, but, like the greatsword or bastard sword the term is almost certainly modern.

Depending on the era, a shortsword would either be a sword, or a variant of knife. This has to do with the overall technological development. The Roman Gladius was a sword, but, turn the clock forward 1500 years, and a similar weapon would have been a knife or bayonet.

If it’s a sword, it’s probably a sidearm. An early iron era soldier would probably carry a spear or some other polearm as their primary weapon, with a backup sword if their primary weapon was lost or destroyed.

If it’s a knife, it’s probably a backup sidearm. An early modern solder, or even a soldier today, will likely carry a knife as an emergency backup should their primary weapon and sidearm fail, or if they need to use it in very tight quarters. For example, if a soldier was tackled to the ground, stabbing their opponent with a knife would be a legitimate option.

It’s probably worth mentioning, a smallsword is actually a rapier, epee, or another sword with a similar long, slender, blade. The name referred the weight of the blade, rather than it’s length.

Sideswords are another descriptive variation. These were longswords specifically intended for use as sidearms. Depending on the individual blade’s country of origin, these could also be a smallswords. They’re not so much a distinct kind of weapon, as a distinct use for one.

There’s an entire discussion to be had on how modern sword names actually make things more complicated than they need to be. The abbreviated version is: A lot of descriptive sword names come from the 18th or 19th century. They classify a lot of  blades idiosyncratically. It’s where we get the modern meaning for terms like long sword, bastard sword, or short sword. Historically you would not have had “a short sword,” it would have simply been, “a sword,” or, “a knife.” There are a few more egregious examples, like the broadsword, which was never used historically. And, as I’ve mentioned, the term “bastard sword,” isn’t new, but on one knows what these referred to historically. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those terms, just understand, most never really meant anything, historically.

So, in spite of not being a thing, short swords, or long knives, or bayonets, had a role as an emergency backup weapon. That, really hasn’t changed. The way you’d use a combat knife today is fairly similar to what they would have been used for eight-hundred years ago.

-Starke

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Q&A: Basket Hilt Broadsword

so silly question(s), time. Was/is there any account of people wearing gauntlets while wielding a basket/complex hilted sword? I feel like most of the appeal of the basket hilt is how it functionally replaces arm protecting armor when expecting a fight, and if not expecting a fight isn’t so much to lug around. but then are people Doing (insert type of sword with a simple cross guard)Sword Wrong because they aren’t wearing the appropriate armor? it’s probably more complex than that ….

Matt Easton will explain the purpose of the basket-hilt broadsword better than I can. You can also look at the Wikipedia entry.

The short answer is that the basket-hilt broadsword is from the Napoleonic era and was primarily a military sword rather than a sword that saw use in civilian life like a rapier or a smallsword. So, yes, it would have been used with leather gauntlets and the armor of the period. (Like the Cuirassier.) More hand protection for the grip does not equate a replacement for armor. It just means more hand protection. Hand protection is important because the hand is one of the first (and best) targets to strike for with a sword, if they don’t have a hand or if the hand is injured then your opponent can’t use their sword. (The fact that the basket hilt exists at all should tell you how important that hand protection is to a soldier.)

Most people who’ve never engaged in any sort of martial training, martial arts tend to think the center is the first place one strikes toward because (obviously) that’s obviously the quickest way to end the fight. Ranged weapons aim for center mass, but in a duel, in hand to hand, or with an armored warrior on the battlefield, that center is going to be the most well-defended part of the body. Your extremities like your arms, your legs, and your hands are much easier to reach, and just as necessary to your opponent putting up a defense or retaliating. They’re also more likely to be open to attack, so you go after those first.

However, for every advantage given to a weapon, there is a disadvantage. The problem with the basket-hilt in civilian life is, as Easton points out in his video, the sword is potentially difficult to draw quickly and provides more opportunity for fumbling than a sword with a less complex hilt. The more protection you give a sword’s hilt then the fewer options you have to just grab and go. The same rules you’ve applied to your enemy also apply to you, the wielder. For the civilian, who has different priorities from a soldier, this is an issue.

A civilian is going to be going around their daily life with their sword sheathed, and need to draw quickly in case of emergency. They’re going to face surprise violence from unexpected places. The soldier will likely already have their sword drawn when the battle starts. The civilian needs speed over additional protection, where the soldier needs that extra defense. You see this concept painted most clearly with the Old West gun duels, but the general answer is: he who draws first wins. Your sword has a lot of hand protection, but that won’t help you much if you can’t get it out of its sheathe. (The same is true in the knife versus gun debate. The gun has range over the knife, but that doesn’t matter if the knife is out and close enough to strike while the gun is still holstered. The fight will be over before the one with the gun has time to draw.) The civilian, for the most part, doesn’t have extra armor to buy them time. They need to be quick, and they need to grip the hilt from any potential angle. In that scenario, the basket-hilt hinders more than helps.

Just because one person adds more armor doesn’t mean they’re doing that so they can take away from somewhere else. The soldier is still going to wear their gauntlets and gloves to protect their hands, they’re just reducing the chance of being struck further with the basket-hilt or quillions on the cross-guard. After all, the basket-hilt only protects the hand and not the rest of their arm. Someone sticks you in the bicep or triceps, good luck using your arm. After all, if you can’t use your muscles then there’s no way to move the arm, or you’ll be doing so while in extreme pain.

-Michi

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So I just played the Witcher 3 game, and I was marveling at the fighting style Geralt uses. Obviously there are so many differences between that game and realistic swordplay, but the main one I wanted to know about was where you’d store your sword when you’re not fighting. I know you’ve said storing a sword on your back isn’t very practical, but what I’m wondering is where you’d store a long sword or a hand-and-a-half sword. Would it still be at the hip? Thanks in advance for the reply!

I love the Witcher 3′s combat system, so you get no arguments from me.

The sword is called a sidearm, you may have heard that term before in reference to handguns. It’s the same, the modern handgun has replaced the sword as a weapon but serves a similar purpose both functionally in combat and culturally. You wear it buckled on your hip.

For a weapon to function, it needs to be in a place that’s easily reached and at the ready. Whether it’s a sword buckled on our back or the staff we left in our room or the pepper spray buried at the bottom of our purse. A weapon doesn’t do us a lot of good if we don’t have access to it.

When you’re trying to come up with ways your character might store or what places on their body they carry their weapons, here’s some simple rules.

1) Accessible

2) Easily drawn

3) Nowhere that hinders

4) Sensible i.e. not annoying

The action of drawing your weapon, whether it is a knife, a gun, or a sword should be one smooth motion that transitions quickly into a defensive stance. If you’re about to be attacked or in process of being attacked then time is a luxury you don’t have.

On to the Witcher:

The Sword’s Path has a great breakdown on The Witcher 3 combat vs HEMA (Historical Martial Arts) fencing. I would give it a look. He talks a lot about the fundamentals of sword combat and how you could use techniques similar to what we see in the Witcher 3 but would actually work. He also does a great job of explaining the fundamentals and logic behind it. He’s got a nice video for beginners interested in HEMA with a great breakdown of the longsword and lots of resources.

I’d also checkout sieniawskifencing, a channel run by
Sztuka Krzyżowa dedicated to the Polish fencing discipline called Cross-Cutting, Sabre Cross-Cutting, or Polish Sabre Cross-Cutting. Compare with Scholagladiatoria dueling with what will be probably be the more familiar 19th century British military sabre.

The Witcher 3 is a video game made by Polish developers. The games are loosely based on The Witcher series. The books are written by a Polish author, Andre Sapkowski and are basically the Polish Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. If you ever want to hear Sapkowski get testy about the video games, you can find it. (Read his books, you’ll understand.)

Both draw heavily on Polish history, Polish culture, Polish fairy tales/mythology, and the Polish approach to medieval/renaissance/longsword combat in their design rather than what we see from Western Europe like France, Germany, England, etc. They’re Polish. Sword combat in Western and Eastern Europe is not unified, it varies culture to culture, sometimes a lot within the same culture, and the limitation in HEMA is that its a historical reconstruction based on the sources available. The only documentation we have is from the people who bothered to write it down, and were lucky enough to have their writings survive. So, pointing to a historical text and saying “that’s how this German swordmaster did it” doesn’t help us that much when it comes to looking at Poland.

Geralt’s fighting style is obviously over the top and built on flourishes, but I remember seeing that The Witcher 3′s combat was based off a fencing style or there were fencers who consulted. I unfortunately can’t source it. However, if you look at Polish Sabre Cross-Cutting you may see some move sets that are similar even though they’re performed with a sabre instead of a longsword.

The combat in The Witcher 3 is not quite as far out of reach as you might think. It just needs a little tweaking and less spinning.

-Michi

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hey i’m creating a race of fairies and since they generally have small builds and metal such as iron cold steel are deadly to them what are some good materials to use for the fairies to craft their weapons, i considered gems but doing some research i realized substance like diamonds and crystal are utterly impractical even for the fairies.

Well, fairies are magic. If a fairy wanted to wield a diamond sword, they could and no audience would question it. Magic is the solution to a lot of problems. The weakness of a weapon forged with magic is, of course, a steel blade but that only matters if they’re encountering humans wielding steel on the regular. Fairies can do whatever they want and dance merrily on the graves of scientists the world over, so don’t let that stop you.

Blades of pure light.

Blades of diamond.

Blades from plants.

Fairies wielding magma blades or swords forged from stardust.

A sword of glass containing the beating heart and heat of the sun.

Futuristic fairies who behave like aliens in Iron Man style power armor formed from plastics/polymers wielding lightsabers and firing bolts of plasma.

They’re fairies. Sky’s the limit here. Except, it’s not because then we catapult ourselves out into space. Go however far your imagination takes you.

Look to myth for your solutions, especially the Celtic Sidhe. Unless you’re dealing with a modern setting (and even if you are) mythology has already developed solutions. It’s a great place to start your search.

However, here are some things I’ll point out:

Cold Iron/Cold Steel are a reference to a specific forging technique rather than a type of metal, though in folklore it can just mean steel swords. Still, this will open up your options some.

Cold Iron for fairies dates back to when iron forging was still mostly new, or less common. There’s certainly lore out there with mythological fairies fighting warriors wielding iron blades, but were unbeatable until new forging techniques were developed.

Ask yourself: is it the forging technique which makes these swords dangerous to your fairies or is it the metal itself? In which case, then you can cut out “cold” as it’s just steel.

Here’s the Wikipedia article about iron in folklore. It may help you some in your search.

If you want to write Urban Fantasy with fairies then I’d go with the forging process rather steel itself. The reason is that they couldn’t go anywhere. At least, not places like the US or Europe or anywhere there’s a high steel content in the buildings, cars, and sewer systems. Even with a shift to polymers too much of the major metropolitan centers in the developed world are built on steel bones. Science fiction fairies re-emerging in the future where all metals are polymers has more potential.

Honestly, any army from a period using steel or iron weapons could curb stomp fairies if they’re allergic to the metal. Using the forging process moves all to some and then down to almost none, making way for the future fairyocalypse of 2018.

-Michi

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Q&A: Mismatched Weapons

Hey I’m trying to write a scene where one character is fighting using hook swords while the other is simply using a mace. I want for the fight to end in the mace user winning, however I’m having issues figuring out some weaknesses to using hook swords online and I’d rather have them win the fight in a more creative way than just brute forcing it since even though physically the mace user is stronger, they’re effectively on the same level as far as actual fighting goes. Any suggestions?

You’ve got a serious problem and that problem is mismatched weaponry.

A mace is twenty six inches long.

A hook sword is roughly thirty three and a quarter.

That’s an almost eight inch difference in length, and it’s only the first issue.

The hook swords are faster with a longer reach, lighter, and there’s two of them. The blades on the hilt and the pommel mean they can still be deadly in close range, even potentially switching into a reverse grip.

The second point is these weapons were considered difficult to master, and due to Chinese traditions with martial combat come with the experience of an entire martial art behind them. That’s one of the northern styles like Northern Shaolin. The one aspect to ground yourself with about Asian martial arts tradition is: the more advanced the weapon, the later it’s learned.

For the purposes of these traditions your basic weapons serve similarly to the basic hand to hand techniques learned when we begin training in any style, and these weapons form the foundational understanding of all weapon types. We cannot battle the sword if we do not understand it, we cannot battle the staff if it is unknown. The technique used when wielding a basic staff are the foundation for those utilized with the three-sectional and so on.

European training systems don’t really work this way and were far less formalized, though it’s much more difficult to know what their training looked like. Either way, the mace has a much lower entry level in terms of skill.

Add to that, dual wielding weapons is extremely difficult and the longer the weapon the more difficult it becomes. Your hands and arms need to be able to perform complex techniques simultaneously, together and separately, with a balanced body. Your mind must track both weapons, and utilize both tactically against your opponent or the one you’re not using becomes a liability. A well rounded dual wield system will utilize one weapon (or in this case both) as a means of defense, to block, deflect, or disarm incoming strikes while the other attacks. Or, they attack together. Two weapons can blitzkrieg on a multitude of angles, strike one after the other, left and right, high and low, forcibly keeping their opponent on the defensive.

It is a very aggressive form of combat and difficult to master. When it is, (with workable weaponry designed for dual wielding) you’ve got a very dangerous fighter.

So, we have a the wielder of a complicated, unusual, difficult weapon designed for speedy, unarmored civilian combat and from a system requiring significant time investment against a guy with a mace.

Unless the one with the mace has armor and a shield, the hook swords have the advantage. They are also designed to be used in unarmored combat, and function in that role far better than a mace. The mace is a specific weapon with a very limited battlefield role as it’s meant to use blunt force to crack open tin cans.

There’s the additional point that dual wielding effectively in battle also requires a fairly high level of training, as there’s much higher risk of the blades catching on each other. Also, given one weapon is European (assuming we’re discussing the European variants of the mace) and the other is Chinese (including the information that the hook sword was a fairly rare weapon to see in use) the idea that they’re on the same level so far as training is unlikely.

Two people from two different styles are unlikely to ever be “equally matched” due to stylistic differences and training approaches. This is part of why two different people trained in two different styles are so exciting when they’re fighting because “equally matched” is thrown out the window into the unknown. And anything so far as versus with these two is merely supposition anyway as the two cultures were at very different technological points when they encountered each other.

In fairness, the hook swords would be similarly mismatched against the rapier due to its length and might be cut to pieces about as quickly. What advantages the hook swords have versus, say, a spear, are out against longer bladed weapons.

Chinese weaponry like the hook swords tend to favor circular motion, the whole weapon is bladed, and falls towards cutting as opposed to striking with the tip. The dual hooks allows them to hook weapons for a disarm, or stop them midstrike. It can also hook arms, legs, or around the back of the neck, with blades on the pommel and handguard meant to keep it’s use in range transitions.

The mace is a weapon that also moves in circles because of how it gains force, the problem is it’s slower. The heavier head on the mace is means by which it generates force, creating greater momentum as it swings. It’s not a matter of strength, but physics and not entirely dissimilar in concept to a baseball bat. However, the heavy head means it will be slower compared to a light blade like a rapier or an epee which are closer in type to the jian and also designed around the idea of unarmored combat.

The one with the mace needs a shield. They needs some way to get close enough to their opponent to bring their weapon into play, otherwise they’re just sitting there with their thumb up their ass as they’re being carved to pieces.

The big issue with weapons is if the other guy can hit you before you can hit him then you’re in serious trouble. I’d worry less about brute force. If you want the wielder with the mace to win, they need a way to get close enough to hit before any other consideration comes up. Then there’s the hook swords’ and their ability to create an escrima stick like defense with blades. Blades whose design intent is to be wielded together.

There’s nothing equal about it, the character with the mace is at a serious disadvantage. One which will get him killed in a straight fight.This isn’t the kind of disadvantage which can be brute forced through, your hero is going to need to be clever. That cleverness begins with utilizing his environment in order to limit the hook swords utility and ability to move.

The answer to dealing with the katana in a modern environment is a tight hallway, preferentially with furniture. Best case, they unsheath it and it ends up in a wall. Worst case, they’re stuck with thrusts. The katana doesn’t thrust that well compared to other swords.

Figuring out potential ways to defeat a weapon in combat begins with understanding how the weapon moves and what you plan to bring against it. It’s not statistics. It’s not physical strength. It’s not equal levels of training. Or anything outside what’s happening in the moment. You have the person and you have the weapon, and it starts by figuring out how both work together (and separately).

Any “here are two cultures who never encountered each other, who had better weapons?” question invites fanboy infighting that usually benefits no one. Besides that, while there’s more available information on Eastern martial cultures than there used to be, the Chinese martial traditions are still insular. To really understand the weapon you’d need to have a conversation with those who practice with them, preferable the masters. Cross-referencing history for when the hook swords were in use and what kind of combat they saw would also be helpful. Fortunately, Chinese cinema and Hong Kong action films will provide you with lots of choreography to chew through.

The Chinese did have a mace variant called the
Chuí, which eventually lost it’s head and moved on to beating people with two metal shafts.

I have no idea if any of this helps, but hopefully it gives you some grounding to work from.

-Michi

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Q&A: Swords in the Modern World

Okay 1. I love your blog. 2. I have a character who’s very strong and she is constantly fighting for her life. I planned on giving her a katana as a weapon but after I read your post about how katanas suck I was like “Okay, so I won’t give her a katana.” But what sword would someone be able to use in the modern world pretty effectively while actually using it to defend themselves?

There’s a real reason why we don’t use swords anymore.

Beyond the problems posed by guns (and knives for that matter), the sword is simply inconvenient in a modern environment. You could still carry one (depending on country/state restrictions on weapons… maybe not, especially not without a permit), but people will look at you funny. And, maybe, be a little worried about your mental health if you walked into the local MiniMart with a real, sharpened, honest to god longsword belted to your hip.

It’s basically the equivalent of walking into a store or getting into a taxicab with an AR15 strapped to your chest. Except, weirder.

Also, you can’t conceal it. You’re going to get arrested. You’re gonna get tased. No, I’m not kidding that really happened to a man carrying a katana on his back in SoCal.

This is not the only example. There are a lot of people who carry swords… and a lot people who get tased for their trouble.

The other human beings around you will see that sword as an active potential threat to their safety, and swords don’t have a gun lobby lobbying for the right to carry them wherever. The cops will arrest you. It is no longer culturally acceptable to openly carry these weapons as a matter of practice.

Society has moved on.

Now, in a fictional context we can fudge the rules a bit. Still, you should be aware of the realities especially if you’re writing toward modern fiction. The modern world is one you’re readers will be intimately familiar with, so if you’re working outside the set norms it’d behoove you to explain yourself.

Swords make sense in Urban Fantasy settings or cultures where guns have (inexplicably in many cases) ceased to work. (And if you’ve got any technology with a combustion engine, you’re going to have guns. Or explosives. The theory behind the gun is simply you use an explosion to propel an object at high velocities in the direction you want. What we have now is just a refinement of that thought process. If you have fireworks, someone will inevitably hit on the idea that you can shoot fireworks at your enemies then work to improve the process. We call this science.)

What a character does on their own property is their business, but it’s a different story when they’re out in public.

If you’re serious about your character carrying a sword, then these are issues that should be addressed or, at least, considered.

-Michi

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So in movies I’ve seen sword clashes where they will just try and use brute force to take out the other person until one succeeds or backs out. Is there a reliable other way to get out of that clash or is that actually how it happens?

So, Matt Easton over on his Scholagladitoria channel talked about how this was stupid in one of his videos, and we linked it in one of our asks, but I can’t find it now. The answer is when you’re looking at sword duels, those movie sword clashes are dumb. They’re an excuse for these protracted monologues which should end before they begin with someone being socked in the jaw.

See, that’s the thing. You can use other parts of your body. You disengage, they come forward, and you hit them with your fist.

Swords aren’t brute force weapons, and it’s actually fairly difficult to lock them together. This situation wouldn’t be occurring if both actors weren’t choosing to participate in this specific way. It doesn’t work like this because one of the key factors in basic hand to hand combat also applies to swords. This is that if you have two people shoving at each other, both applying equal force in an attempt to push the other back, one can simply let go. With no force to push against, the other person becomes unbalanced and they fall.

Strength isn’t the only way to win. In fact, it’s a fairly bad one to bet all your chips on. With movies, these scenes are supposed to be a symbolic expression of strength and combat ability. The winner shows his dominance over the loser. It’s the sort of stupid Alpha dog shit that will get you killed in real life because strength, at least the way most people think of it, means a lot less than it seems to. Combat and defense aren’t built on physical resistance all the time, they’re mutable, and shifting. Sometimes, you just let go and end up in a better position than the one you started in.

Say someone has you by the arm and their pulling you, but you don’t want to go with them. You can resist by planting your feet and drawing back in the opposite direction which is what they expect or you can go with them. By go with them, I mean physically throw yourself at them. They give you a nice hard yank and you use that as a launch pad, use it against them, and hit them so you both topple to the ground.

The logic of combat is conservation of energy. You only have so much to work with and are constantly expending it, so you want to win as fast as possible. Endurance training will expand your pool, martial training gives you more resources to work with, but the pool itself is always finite.

Pushing against another human who is applying equal force to you takes more energy than letting go. You use up that finite pool faster, wear out your muscles with constant tensing. It’s a bad position, one you don’t want to be in. With a sword, when you lose out you get stabbed. Unless you’re specifically of the mindset where you’re chasing death, you want to win.

The Hollywood version of the sword clash is there to give the actors a breather and spout their dialogue, which is the kind of talking you usually can’t get off in a tense fight anyway. You need that air to breathe so the oxygen goes back into your blood, and your attention on keeping the other person from killing you. Witticism is for when things aren’t serious.

-Michi

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You’ve talked before about how katana’s weren’t that great due to the low quality of the metal used way back when. But what if someone made one today? If you primarily used titanium instead of low-quality steel, plus modern forging techniques, could you develop a much better sword that a real person could use in a fight?

The poor quality iron that Japanese smiths had access to is
part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue. The design was (in part) a
result of that limitation. You can work around those, using high quality steel
forged directly from a billet, with a grip you can actually use in a variety of
situations, but you wouldn’t have a katana, you’d have a saber.

Those design flaws are intrinsically what defines the katana.
Folding the blade is extremely fetishized in defining the quality of a katana.
It’s not just a defining characteristic, you will see people using the number
of folds as an indicator of how skilled the sword smith was. This is probably a large part of why they continued using the technique, while other cultures, like the Vikings, abandoned folded blades once they had access to better smelting technologies.

In fact, a lot of modern, “katanas,” you can buy, aren’t.
They’re not produced with the proper metal, and they’re using machine forged
blades. They’re just sabers. Ironically, even the junk ones are superior weapons
to traditional katanas. (For one thing, you can actually parry with the blade.)

Using titanium as your base material for a sword isn’t a
good option. It’s light weight, strong, and won’t hold an edge without becoming
incredibly brittle. Heat treating it is either functionally impossible or prohibitively
expensive (maybe a little of both). It’s a fantastic option for a lot of
applications, but combat blades don’t make that list.

I don’t really have a lot to say on the subject of titanium,
because I don’t do metalworking directly, but (nearly) everything I’ve read on
the subject says, “don’t.”

There
are titanium alloys you use, but the metal, in general, just doesn’t have the
characteristics you’d want in a sword (or machete).

It is an
excellent choice for items that need to survive excessive thermal shock and
constant wear, which is probably why you will find aftermarket titanium parts
for firearms, it just doesn’t work well for swords.

If you’re really dead set on getting a titanium blade, you
can buy titanium kitchen knives. Though, holding an edge while slicing carrots
and slabs of meat isn’t quite the same as doing so while slicing through
screaming slabs of meat who are trying to return the favor.

You can make excellent blades from high quality steel. No
folding required. Actually, please, don’t fold high quality steel. The entire
folding process was originally an act of necessity, to get functional steel out
of the iron the Japanese had access to.

You’d also probably want to add a functional hand guard to
the thing, and contour the hilt. These aren’t mandatory, but
they would help. The thing is, none of this is really necessary.

Real people did use actual katanas forged from tamahagane
(pig iron), and killed each other in the real world. Humans are very inventive
about making sure they have a way to kill each other, and the katana is an
excellent example of this.

Limited by their available resources, Japanese swordsmiths
found a way to turn the iron they had into something they could use in weapons.
Japanese swordsmen developed and refined techniques that allowed them to take
the resulting blades into combat while working around their inherent fragility,
and they used the things for centuries. They turned the blade into a symbol of
their identity.

To be honest, I don’t even hold this against the Japanese, the
katana is a symbol of their ingenuity. It’s not a particularly good sword, but
that’s kind of missing the point. It is, their
sword. It is a symbol. Hell, it is literally a holy icon.

What you can’t do is take a katana out of its natural
environment and expect it to flourish. Weapons are designed and adapted to deal
with the environment they’re used in. On the global scale, the katana was about
four centuries obsolete when it was first developed. Which, really doesn’t
matter, because the Japanese weren’t using them against anyone who had a
decisive technological advantage.

The problem is, a lot of people, look at how the katana
functioned in its native environment, and how the people from that culture
regarded it, and then assume that a civilization which had never engaged in
long range exploration and had no frame of reference, were able to accurately
assess that they had created, “the best swords,” in the world.

It’s a sword. You can make vastly superior ones by changing
the design, at which point it’s still a sword, but it’s not the same sword. The
katana was an excellent weapon for Feudal Japan, not because it was somehow the
best blade design ever envisioned, or because it had some superlative quality,
but because it was a symbol of who they were as a people.

Take it out of that environment, drop it into a world that
has moved beyond swords entirely, and you’re left with an object that can still
have cultural meaning, and personal importance, but trying to cling to it is to
deny the changing world.

Icons like that are still important to point to and say, “this
is where we came from; this is a part of who we are,” but, that’s not the same
as saying, “progress is irrelevant, this will always be the best solution.” And, yes, that second part is an element when discussing the katana. Folded steel was not, strictly, a Japanese invention, other civilizations did use that method to produce early steel weapons. They faced the same issues with fragile blades, and continued searching for better smelting methods and higher quality materials. The Japanese didn’t, and instead fetishized the blades. Make of that what you will.

I’ll still say, actual katanas are beautiful pieces of art. It’s
the entelechy of how a civilization viewed conflict. They’re an example of
serious ingenuity and craftsmanship. If you take it out of context, it’s not a
particularly good weapon, but that’s missing the point.

-Starke

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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.)

-Michi

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