1902 Encyclopedia > Sword



Origins and Early Forms.—The sword is a hand-weapon of metal, distinct from all missile weapons on the one hand, and on the other hand from staff-weapons, —the pike, bill, halberd, and the like,—in which the metal head or blade occupies only a fraction of the effective length. The handle of a sword provides a grip for the hand that wields it, or sometimes for two hands; it may add protection, and in most patterns does so to a greater or less extent. But it is altogether subordinate to the blade. For want of a metal-headed lance or axe, which indeed were of later invention, a sharpened pole or a thin-edged paddle will serve" the turn. A sword-handle without a blade is naught; and no true sword-blade can be made save of metal capable of taking an edge. There are so-called swords of wood and even stone to be found in collections of savage weapons. But these are really flattened clubs; and the present writer agrees with Gen. Pitt-Rivers in not believing that such modifications of the club have had any appreciable influence on the form or use of true swords. On this last point, however, the opinions of competent archaeologists are so much divided that it must be regarded as fairly open. We will only remark that the occurrence in objects of human handiwork of a form, or even a series of forms, intermediate between two types is not conclusive evidence that those forms are historical links between the different types, or that there is any historical connexion at all. In the absence of dates fixed by external evidence this kind of comparison will seldom take us be-yond plausible conjecture. A traveller who had never seen velocipedes might naturally suppose, on a first inspection, that the tricycle was a modification of the old four-wheeled velocipede, and the bicycle a still later invention; he would perhaps regard the two-wheeled " Otto " as the historical link between tricycles and bicycles. But we know that in fact the order of development has been quite different.

It is more difficult as a matter of verbal definition to distinguish the sword from smaller hand-weapons. Thus an ordinary sword is four or five times as long as an ordinary dagger: but there are long daggers and short swords; neither will the form of blade or handle afford any certain test. The real difference lies in the intended use of the weapon; we associate the sword with open combat, the dagger with a secret attack or the sudden defence opposed to it. One might say that a weapon too large to be concealed about the person cannot be called a dagger. Again, there are large knives, such as those used by the Afridis and Afghans, which can be distinguished from swords only by the greater breadth of the blade as com-pared with its length. Again, there are special types of arms, of which the yataghan is a good example, which in their usual forms do not look much like swords, but in others that occur must be classed as varieties of the sword, unless we keep them separate by a more or less artificial theory, referring the type as a whole to a different origin.
Of the actual origin of swords we have no direct evidence. Neither does the English word nor, so far as we are aware, any of the equivalent words in other languages, Aryan or otherwise, throw any light on the matter. We only know that swords are found from the earliest times of which we have any record among all people who have acquired any skill in metal-work. There are two very ancient types, which we may call the straight-edged and the leaf-shaped. Assyrian monuments represent a straight and narrow sword, apparently better fitted for thrusting than cutting. Bronze swords of this form have actually been found in Etruscan tombs, and by Dr Schlie-mann at Mycenae, side by side with leaf-shaped specimens. We have also from Mycenae some very curious and elab-orately wrought blades, so broad and short that they must be called ornamental daggers rather than swords. The leaf-shaped blade is common everywhere among the remains of men in the " Bronze Beriod " of civilization, and

FIG. 1.—-1-5, Greek swords of the classical type (Gerhard's Griechische Vasen, bilder). 6-15, Roman swords from Lindenschmit, Tracht und Bewaffnung des römischen Heeres wahrend der Kaiserzeit, Brunswick, 1S82. 6, So-called " sword of Tiberius" from Mainz (Brit. Mus.); 7, Bonn (private collection), length 765 mm.; 8, legionary (monument at Wiesbaden); 9, cavalry (monu-ment at Mainz); 10, cavalry (monument at Worms) ; 12, 13, sword handles (Kiel and Mainz); 11,14, 15, from Trajan's column.

this was the shape used by the Greeks in historical times, and is the shape familiar to us in Greek works of art. It is impossible, however, to say whether the Homeric heroes wore the leaf-shaped sword, as we see it, for example, on the Mausoleum sculptures, or a narrow straight-edged blade of the Assyrian-Mycenaean pattern. In any case, the sword holds a quite inferior position with Greek warriors of all times. We have not the means of pronouncing which pattern is the older. To a modern eye the Assyrian or Mycenaean sword looks fitter for thrusting than cutting. The leaf-shaped sword, so far as we know from works of art, was used with a downright cutting blow, regardless of the consequent exposure of the swordsman's body; this, however, matters little when defence is left to a shield or armour, or both. The use of the sword as a weapon of combined offence and defence—swordsmanship as we now understand it—is quite modern. If the sword was de-veloped from a spearhead or dagger, one would expect it to have been a thrusting weapon before it was a cutting one. But when we come to historical times we find that the effective use of the point is a mark of advanced skill and superior civilization. The Bomans paid special atten-tion to it, and Tacitus tells us how Agricola's legionaries made short work of the clumsy and pointless arms of the Britons when battle was fairly joined.1 The tradition was preserved at least as late as the time of Vegetius, who, as a technical writer, gives details of the Boman soldier's sword exercise. Asiatics to this day treat the sword merely as a cutting weapon, and most Asiatic swords are incapable of being handled in any other way.
Historical Types.—The normal types of swords which we meet with in historical times, and from which all forms now in use among civilized nations are derived, may be broadly classified as straight-edged or curved. In the straight-edged type, in itself a very ancient one, either thrusting or cutting qualities may predominate, and the blade may be double-edged or single-edged. The double-edged form was prevalent in Europe down to the 17th century. The single-edged blade, or backsword as it was called in England, is well exemplified in the Scottish weapons commonly but improperly known as claymores, and is now exclusively employed for military weapons. But these, with few exceptions, have been more or less influenced by the curved Oriental sabre. Among early double-edged swords the Roman pattern stands out as a workmanlike and formidable weapon for close fight; the point was used by preference. In the Middle Ages the Roman tradition disappeared, and a new start was made from the clumsy barbarian arm which the Romans had despised. Gradually the broad and all but pointless blade was lightened and tapered, and the thrust, although its real power was unknown, was more or less practised. St Louis anticipated Napoleon in calling on his men to use the point; and the heroes of dismounted combats in the Morte Darihur are described as " foining " at one another. In the first half of the 16th century a well-proportioned and well-mounted cut-and-thrust sword was in general use, and great artistic ingenuity was expended, for those who could afford it, on the mounting and adornment. The growth and variations of the different parts of the hilt, curiously resembling those of a living species, would alone be matter enough for an archaeological study. One peculiar form, that of the Scottish basket-hilt, derived from the Venetian pattern known as schiavone, has persisted to our own day without material change.

Quite different from the European models is the crescent-shaped Asiatic sabre, commonly called scimitar. We are not acquainted with any distinct evidence as to the origin of this in time or place. The fame of the Damascus manufacture of sword-blades is of great antiquity, as is also that of Khorasan, still the centre of the best Eastern work of this kind. Whoever first made these blades had conceived a very definite idea,—that of gain-ing a maximum of cutting power regardless of loss in other qualities,—and executed it in a manner not to be improved upon. The action of the curved edge in deliver-ing a blow is to present an oblique and therefore highly acute-angled section of the blade to the object struck, so that in effect the cut is given with a finer edge than could safely be put on the blade in its direct transverse section. In a well-made sabre the setting of the blade with regard to the handle (" leading forward ") is likewise ordered with a view to this result. And the cutting power of a weapon so shaped and mounted is undoubtedly very great. But the use of the point is abandoned, and the capacities of defensive use (to which Orientals pay little or no attention) much diminished. These drawbacks have caused the scimitar type, after being in fashion for European light cavalry during the period of Napoleon's wars and somewhat longer, to be discarded in our own time. But, as long as Easterns adhere to their rigid grasp of a small handle and sweeping cut delivered from the shoulder, the Persian scimitar or Indian talwar will remain the natural weapon of the Eastern horseman. Indian and Persian swords are often richly adorned; but their appropriate beauty is in the texture of the steel itself, the " damascen-ing" or "watering" which distinguishes a superior from a

FIG. 2.—Oriental swords (reproduced by permission from Egerton's Illustrated Handbook of Indian Arms, published by the India Office, 1880). 1, 2, Decorated Persian arms; 3, gauntlet sword ; 4, common type of tulwar (North-West Pro-vinces); b, yataghan type; 6, Persian talwar; 8, kukri (Nepal); 7, 9, 10, Mahratta, showing transition to gauntlet sword.

common specimen. This process, long obscure to Euro-peans, has in recent times been explained (see below).

There are special Asiatic varieties of curved blades of which the origin is more or less uncertain. Among these the most remarkable is perhaps the yataghan, a weapon pretty much coextensive with the Mohammedan world, though it is reported to be not common in Persia. It has been imported from Africa, through a French imitation, as the model of the sword-bayonets which have been common for about a generation in European armies; probably the French authorities caught at it to satisfy the sentiment, which lingered in Continental armies long after it had dis-appeared in England, that even the infantry soldier after the invention of the bayonet must have some kind of sword. A compact and formidable hand-weapon has thus been turned into a clumsy and top-heavy pike. If we try to make a bayonet that will cut cabbages, we may or may not get a useful chopper, but we shall certainly get a very bad bayonet. The double curve of the yataghan is sub-stantially identical with that of the Goorkha knife (kukri), though the latter is so much broader as to be more like a woodman's than a soldier's instrument. It is doubt-ful, however, whether there is any historical connexion. Similar needs are often capable of giving rise to similar inventions without imitation or communication. There are yet other varieties, belonging to widely spread families of weapons, which have acquired a strong individuality. Such are the swords of Japan, which are the highly per-fected working out of a general Indo-Chinese type; they are powerful weapons and often beautifully made, but a European swordsman would find them ill-balanced and clumsy, and the Japanese style of sword-play certainly has nothing to teach us.

Other sorts of weapons, again, are so peculiar in form or historical derivation, or both, as to refuse to be referred to any of the normal divisions. The long straight gauntlet-hilted sword (pat,d) found both among the Mahrattas in the south of India, and among the Sikhs and Bajputs in the north, is an elongated form of the broad-bladed dagger with a cross-bar handle (Icatdr), as is shown by a transi-tional form, much resembling in shape and size of blade the mediaeval English anlace, and furnished with a guard for the back of the hand. This last-mentioned pattern seems, however, to be limited to a comparatively small region. When once the combination of a long blade with the gauntlet hilt was arrived at, any straight blade might be so mounted; and many appear on examination to be of European workmanship—German, Spanish, or Italian. There are various other Oriental arms, notably in the Malay group, as to which it is not easy to say whether they are properly swords or not. The Malay " parang latok " is a kind of elongated chopper sharpened by being bevelled off to an edge on one side, and thus capable of cutting only in one direction. The anlace incidentally mentioned above seems to be merely an overgrown dagger ; the name occurs only in English and Welsh; in which language first, or whence the name or thing came, is unknown (see Philol. Soc. Diet., s.v.).

Modem European Developmients.—In the course of the 16 th century the straight two-edged sword of all work was lengthened, narrowed, and more finely pointed, till it became the Italian and Spanish rapier, a weapon still fur-nished with cutting edges, but used chiefly for thrusting. We cannot say how far this transition was influenced by the estoc, a mediaeval thrusting weapon carried by horsemen rather as an auxiliary lance than as a sword. The Boman preference of the point was rediscovered under new conditions, and fencing became an art. Its progress was from pedantic complication to lucidity and simplicity, and the fashion of the weapon was simplified also. Early in the 18th century, the use of the edge having been finally abandoned in rapier-play, the two-edged blade was supplanted by the bayonet-shaped French duelling sword, on which no improvement has since been made except in giving it a still simpler guard. The name of rapier is often but wrongly given to this by English writers. About the same time, or a little earlier, the primacy of the art passed from Italy to France, and there it still remains. It would take us too far to consider the history of fencing here; Mr Egerton Castle's work will be found a trust-worthy guide, and almost indispensable for those who wish really to understand the passages relating to sword-play in our Elizabethan literature, of which the fencing scene in | Hamlet is the most famous and obvious example.

Meanwhile a stouter and broader pattern, with sundry minor varieties, continued in use for military purposes, and gradually the single-edged form or broadsword prevailed. The well-known name of Ferara, peculiarly associated with Scottish blades, appears to have originally belonged to a Venetian maker, or family of makers, towards the end of the 16th century. The Spanish blades made at Toledo had by that time acquired a renown which still continues. Somewhat later Oriental example, imported probably by way of Hungary, induced the curvature found in most recent military sabres, which, however, is now kept within

FIG. 3.—Typical European swords, 16th-18th centuries. Reproduced by per-mission from Mr Egerton Castle's Schools and Masters of Fence. 1, Early 16th cent.; 2, German, c. 1550; 3, Italian rapier, third quarter 16th cent.; 4, Spanish rapier, late 16th cent.; 5, Italian, same period; 6, English, same period; 7, English musketeer's sword, early 17th cent.; 8, Spanisii broad-sword, early 17th cent.; 9, Venetian, c. 1550; 10, Italian, late 16th cent.; 11, English, time of Commonwealth ; 12, French rapier, c. 1650 ; 13, German flam-berg, early 17th cent.; 14, 15, small-swords, 1700-1750.

such bounds as not to interfere with the effective use of the point. An eccentric specialized variety—we may call it a " sport"—of the sabre is the narrow and flexible "schlager " with which German students fight their duels (for the most part not arising out of any quarrel, but set trials of skill), under highly conventional rules almost identical with those of the old English " backswording" practised within living memory, in which, however, the swords were represented by sticks. These "schlager" duels cause much effusion of blood, but not often serious danger to life or limb.

There are plenty of modern books on sabre-play, but comparatively little attention has been given to its scientific treatment. It is said that the Italian school is better than the French, and the modern German and Austrian the best of all. Some of the English cavalry regiments have good traditions, enriched of late years by the application of a knowledge of fencing derived from eminent French masters.

The Manufacture of Swords.—Mechanical invention has not been able to supersede or equal hand-work in the production of good sword-blades. The swordsniith's craft is still, no less than it was in the Middle Ages, essentially a handicraft, and it requires a high order of skill. His rough material is a bar of cast and hammered steel tapering from the centre to the ends ; when this is cut in two, each half is made into a sword. The " tang " which fits into the handle is not part of the blade, but a piece of wrought iron welded on to its base. From this first stage to the finishing of the point it is all hammer-and-anvil work. Special tools are used to form grooves in the blade according to the regulation or other pattern desired, but the shape and weight of the blade are fixed wholly by the skilled hand and eye of the smith. Measuring tools are at hand, but are little used. Great care is necessary to avoid overheating the metal, which would produce a brittle crystal-line grain, and to keep the surface free from oxide, which would be injurious if hammered in. In tempering the blade the workman judges of the proper heat by the colour. Water is preferred to oil by the best makers, notwithstanding that tempering in oil is much easier. With oil there is not the same risk of the blade coming out distorted and having to be forged straight again (a risk, how-ever, which the expert swordsmith can generally avoid) ; but the steel is only surface-hardened, and the blade therefore remains liable to bend. Machinery comes into play only for grinding and polishing, and to some extent in the manufacture of hilts and appurtenances. The finished blade is proved by being caused to strike a violent blow on a solid block with the two sides flat, with the edge, and lastly with the back; after this the blade is bent flatwise in both directions by hand, and finally the point is driven through a steel plate about an eighth of an inch thick. In spite of all the care that can be used both in choice of material and in workmanship, about 40 per cent, of the blades thus tried fail to stand the proof, and are rejected. The process we have briefly described is that of making a really good sword ; of course plenty of cheaper and commoner weapons are in the market, but they are hardly fit to trust a man's life to. It is an interesting fact that the peculiar skill of the swordsmith is in England so far hereditary that it can be traced back in the same families for several generations.

The best Eastern blades are justly celebrated, but they are not better than the best European ones ; in fact, European swords are often met with in Asiatic hands, remounted in Eastern fashion. The "damascening" or " watering" of choice Persian and Indian arms is not a secret of workmanship, but is due to the peculiar manner of making the Indian steel itself, in which a crystallizing process is set up : when metal of this texture is forged out, the result is a more or less regular wavy pattern running through it. No difference is made by this in the practical qualities of the blade.

[Further Reading]

The following list of works is intended to guide the reader, if desired, to fuller acquaintance with the literature and authorities of the subject, and will, it is hoped, be found useful for that purpose, but it does not profess to be in itself sufficient even as a selection.

Archeology and General History.—R. F. Burton, The Book of the Sword (only one vol. published), London, 1884; Colonel Lane Fox (now Major-Gen. Pitt-Rivers), Catalogue of Anthropological Collection, South Kensington Museum, London, 1874; "Primitive Warfare," in Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 1867,1868,1869. For special regions and periods, see Hon. Wilbraham Egerton, Illustrated Handbook of Indian Arms, published by the India Office, London, 1880 ; Lindenschmit, tracht und Bewaffnung des römischen Heeres wahrend der Kaiserzeit, Brunswick, 1882; Drummond and Anderson, Ancient Scottish Weapons, Edinburgh and London, 1881. The more general treatises and handbooks on arms and armour, such as Grose, Meyrick, Hewitt, Lacombe, Demmin, may be consulted with advantage, but are not always to be trusted in details. "The Forms and History of the Sword," in Proceedings of the Royal. Institution, 1883, by the present writer, gives further references and citations on various points.

Swordsmanship.—Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, London, 1885 (including a critical bibliography) ; Vigeant, Bibliographie de l'Escrime Ancienne et Moderne, Paris, 1882; Gomard (assumed name of Posscllier), Théorie de VEscrime, Paris, 1845 (historical introduction) ; Grisier, Les Armes et le Duel, Paris, 1847 (preface by A. Dumas); Chapman, Foil Practice, London, 1861 ; Notes and Observations on the Art of Fencing, 1864; J. M. Waite, Lessons in Sabre, &c, London, [1881] The French official Manuel d'Escrime (approved 1877) gives a very clear and concise summary of the modem school. Cordelois's Leçons d'Armes (Paris, 1872, 2d ed.) and Camille Prévost's Théorie Pratique de l'Escrime (Paris, 1886) are the latest and best treatises on the small-sword. There is forthcoming in England, in the "Badminton Series," a work on Fencing by W. H. Pollock and F. Craufurd Grove, to which is added Bibliotheca Artis Dimicatoriœ, a Complete and General Bibliography of the Art of Fence, by Egerton Castle.

Technology.—Wilkinson, Engines of War, London, 1841; Latham, "The Shape of Sword-Blades," Journal of the Royal U.S. Institution, 1862; Marey, Mémoire sur les Armes Blanches, Strasburg, 1841, transi, by Lieut.-Col. Maxwell, London, 1860. (F. PO.)


1 Agric., 36: "' jJritannorum gladii sine mucrone complexuni armorum et in aperto pugnam non tolerabant."

The above article was written by: Frederick Pollock, LL.D., Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Oxford.

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