Q&A: The Social Implications When Chosing Your Character’s Weapon

Hi! I have a character that used to be in the army and is now a guard for a lower noble family. I’m still deciding on what weapon she should use and I’m stuck with either a battle axe or a sword. What are the pros and the cons of using an axe vs. using a sword?

From a strictly realistic sense, it doesn’t matter. If your character has the background, experience, and resources to pick an effective weapon, they would select one appropriate to the job at hand. Either a sword or an axe would be an effective tool.

So, let’s look at how they got here. Your character is armed with a sidearm, meaning, they’re probably either guarding the residence or the family itself. If they were guarding the grounds, it’s quite possible they’d be armed with a primary weapon (like a halberd or spear, depending on the technology) in addition to their sidearm.

Depending on the army they served in, it’s possible they understand how to use both the axe and sword, though this gets deeper into world building than you might expect.

This leads to the one major drawback of the sword worth pointing out: If someone has been trained to fight with an axe, doesn’t know how to use a sword but picks one up and tries to use it like an axe, they will wreck the blade. If your character’s army experience did not include sword training, and the house guard are expected to carry swords, it would be the responsibility of the guard’s leadership to ensure your character received that training. Though, the actual training would probably be delegated to a senior guard.

The biggest question is, “which weapon is more socially appropriate?” This gets into a deeper discussion of your setting’s technology and culture. Further, their culture affects their perception on the weapons.

The more technologically advanced a society is, the easier it is to produce quality swords. Particularly, if your setting is based on the Early Modern period, getting quality blades would not be much of an expense. However, if you’re in an early medieval setting, it’s possible that quality swords would be quite rare and expensive, to the point that arming the house guard with axes would be far more economical.

There’s also a complex bit with symbolism. In European history, the sword has a link to nobility, which results in it sometimes being a flashcard for heroes in fantasy. The hero of a fantasy novel carries a sword… because they’re the hero, and the sword cues the audience in on that fact. It can even be mildly subversive to have a hero who favors an axe or mace instead of a sword.

In world building, it’s entirely possible you play this bias up further. It’s possible that you have a setting where swords are exclusively restricted to the nobility, and peasants who wield them being severely punished. This could also lead to a strange gray area, where the guards of royalty and nobles are considered to act as proxies for their lords, and are allowed to carry and use swords, but only as agents of their house. Even if it’s not to the extent of legal restrictions, there could also be a strong pressure on the nobility to arm their guards with swords over axes because the latter is viewed as a peasant’s weapon. While this pressure probably wouldn’t rise to the level of a legal requirement, for a noble, having their guards armed with hand axes could easily be viewed as embarrassing.

I toyed with the idea that you might have a setting which swapped the axe and sword, with the axe as the weapon of nobility, and the sword being a peasant weapon. You could certainly have a world with cheap, mass produced, iron swords (this happened in the real world at some points in history), and where the nobility held the axe as status symbols or badges of office, however, because the axe also doubles as a basic tool, you can’t have the same kind of draconian punishments. You need your lumberjacks and carpenters, so imprisoning them for carrying tools of their trades would be nonsensical.

There is the possibility of the military being allowed swords even under an extremely draconian system. Where you have a royal army, that are considered to be acting for the sovereign and are allowed to train with, carry, and use swords, while any forces brought up through a levy are still prohibited from doing so.

Finally, it’s possible that knights would be considered members of the noble class, even if they weren’t originally. This could be a lot more complicated if knights legally become nobles when knighted. This could also provide the illusion of opportunities for advancement, if peasants could (potentially) be knighted for their accomplishments, even if those promotions were extraordinarily rare.

You’ll notice that, basically, none of that has anything to do with how the weapon itself performs, and is entirely in the range of how society views the weapons. This is an important consideration when creating your world and populating it. Swords and axes are both effective weapons, however, the reason to pick one over the other has more to do with how your audience will perceive it, and how your character and their world would view it.

-Starke

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