Sword (from Old English sweord, cognate to Old High German Schwert, literally "wounding tool" from a Proto-Indo-European root *swer- "to wound, to hurt") is a term for a long edged weapon, fundamentally consisting of a blade, usually with two edges for striking and cutting, a point for thrusting, and a hilt for gripping. The basic intent and physics of swordsmanship remain fairly constant, but the actual techniques vary among cultures and periods as a result of the differences in blade design and purpose. The names given to many swords in mythology, literature, and history reflect the high prestige of the weapon.
Hilt of the 18th century smallsword used by Captain John Paul Schott
in the American Revolutionary War
Humans have manufactured and used bladed weapons from the Bronze Age onwards. The sword developed from the dagger when the construction of longer blades became possible, from the early 2nd millennium BC. Swords longer than 3 feet were very uncommon and not practical during the bronze age as this length exceeds the tensile strength of bronze. It was not until the development of stronger alloys such as steel, that longswords became practical for combat.
The hilt at first simply allowed a firm grip, and prevented the hand from slipping onto the blade when executing a stab. Bronze Age swords with typical leaf-shaped blades first appear near the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and in Mesopotamia. Swords from the Nordic Bronze Age from ca. 1400 BC show characteristic spiral patterns. Sword production in China is attested from the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty.
Iron swords became increasingly common from the 13th century BC. The Hittites, the Mycenean Greeks, and the Proto-Celtic Hallstatt culture figured among the early users of iron swords. Iron has the advantage of mass-production due to the wider availability of the raw material. Early iron swords were not comparable to later steel blades; being brittle, they were even inferior to good bronze weapons, but the easier production, and the better availability of the raw material for the first time permitted the equipment of entire armies with metal weapons, though Bronze Age Egyptian armies were fully equipped with bronze weapons.
Eventually smiths learned that by adding an amount of carbon (added during smelting in the form of charcoal) in the iron, they could produce an improved alloy (now known as steel). Several different methods of swordmaking existed in ancient times, including, most famously, pattern welding. Over time, different methods developed all over the world.
By the time of Classical Antiquity and the Parthian and Sassanid Empires in Iran, iron swords were common. The Greek xiphos and the Roman gladius are typical examples of the type, measuring some 60 to 70 cm. The late Roman Empire introduced the longer Spatha (the term for its wielder, spatharius, became a court rank in Constantinople), and from this time, the term "long sword" is applied to swords comparatively long for their respective periods.
Chinese steel swords make their appearance from the 3rd century BC Qin Dynasty. The Chinese Dao ( pinyin dāo) is single-edged, sometimes translated as sabre or broadsword, and the Jian ( pinyin jiàn) double edged.
Roman Spatha - replica
The Spatha type remained popular throughout the Migration period and well into the Middle Ages. Vendel Age Spathas were decorated with Germanic artwork (not unlike the Germanic bracteates fashioned after Roman coins). The Viking Age sees again a more standardized production, but the basic design remains indebted to the Spatha.
It is only from the 11th century that Norman swords begin to develop the quillons or crossguard. During the Crusades of the 12th to (13th) century, this cruciform type of arming sword remains essentially stable, with variations mainly concerning the shape of the pommel. These swords were designed as cutting weapons, although effective points were becoming common to counter improvements in armour. Single-edged weapons became popular throughout Asia. Derived from the Chinese Dao, the Korean Hwandudaedo are known from the early medieval Three Kingdoms. The Japanese Katana (刀; かたな), production of which is recorded from ca. 900 AD, is also derived from the Dao.
Late Middle Ages and Renaissance
From around 1300, in concert with improved armour, innovative sword designs evolved more and more rapidly. The main transition was the lengthening of the grip, allowing two-handed use, and a longer blade. By 1400 this type of sword, at the time called langes Schwert (longsword) or spadone, were common, and a number of 15th and 16th century Fechtbücher teaching their use survive. Another variant was the specialization of armour-piercing swords of the Estoc type. The longsword became popular due to is extreme reach and cutting and thrusting abilities. The estoc became popular because of its ability to thrust into the gaps in-between plates of armor.The grip was sometimes wrapped in wire or coarse animal hide to make it harder to knock a sword out of the hand and to prevent the sword from slipping out.
In the 16th century, the large Dopplehänder (called the Zweihänder today; both German names refer to the use of both hands) concluded the trend of ever increasing sword sizes (mostly due to the beginning of the decline of plate armor and the advent of firearms), and the early Modern Age returned to lighter one-handed weapons.
The sword in this time period was the most personal weapon, the most prestigious, and the most versatile for close combat, but it came to find a greater role in civilian self-defense than in military use as technology changed warfare.
The rapier evolved from the Spanish espada ropera in the 16th century. Both the rapier and the Italian schiavona developed the crossguard into a basket for hand protection. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the shorter smallsword became an essential fashion accessory in European countries, and most wealthy men carried one. Both the smallsword and the rapier remained popular dueling swords well into the 18th century.
As the wearing of swords fell out of fashion, canes took their place in a gentleman's wardrobe. Some examples of canes—those known as sword canes or swordsticks—incorporate a concealed blade. The French martial art la canne developed to fight with canes and swordsticks and has now evolved into a sport.
Towards the end of its useful life, the sword served more as a weapon of self-defence than for use on the battlefield, and the military importance of swords steadily decreased during the Modern Age. Even as a personal sidearm, the sword began to lose its preeminence in the early 19th century, paralleling the development of reliable handguns.
Swords continued in use, but were increasingly limited to military Commissioned officers' and Noncommissioned officers' ceremonial uniforms, although most armies retained heavy cavalry until well after World War I. For example, the British Army formally adopted a completely new design of cavalry sword in 1908, almost the last change in British Army weapons before the outbreak of the war. The last units of British heavy cavalry switched to using armoured vehicles as late as 1938. Cavalry charges still occurred as late as World War II during which Japanese and Pacific Islanders also occasionally used swords, but by then an enemy armed with machine guns, barbed wire and armored vehicles would usually completely outmatch swordsmen.
The sword consists of the blade and the hilt. The name scabbard applies to the case which covers the sword when not in use.
Three types of attacks can be performed with the blade: striking, cutting, and thrusting. The blade can be double-edged or single-edged, the latter often having a secondary "false edge" near the tip; when handling the sword, the long or true edge is the one used for straight cuts or strikes, while the short or false edge is the one used for backhand strikes. Some hilt designs define which edge is the 'long' one, while more symmetrical designs allow the long and short edges to be inverted by turning the sword.
The blade may have grooves or fullers for the purpose of lightening and stiffening the blade while allowing it to retain its strength, in the same manner as an "I" beam in construction. The blade may taper more or less sharply towards a point, used for thrusting. The part of the blade between the Center of Percussion (CoP) and the point is called the foible (weak) of the blade, and that between the Center of Balance (CoB) and the hilt is the forte (strong). The section in between the CoP and the CoB is the middle. The ricasso or shoulder identifies a short section of blade immediately forward of the guard that is left completely unsharpened, and can be gripped with a finger to increase tip control. Many swords have no ricasso. On some large weapons, such as the German Zweihänder, a leather cover surrounded the ricasso, and a swordsman might grip it in one hand to wield the weapon more easily in close-quarter combat. The ricasso normally bears the maker's mark. On Japanese blades this mark appears on the tang (part of the blade that extends into the hilt) under the grip.
From the 18th century onwards, swords intended for slashing, i.e. with an edge, have been curved with the radius of curvature equal to the distance from the swordman's body at which it was to be used. This allowed the blade to have a sawing effect rather than simply delivering a heavy cut. European swords, intended for use at arm's length, had a radius of curvature of around a meter. Middle Eastern swords, intended for use with the arm bent, had a smaller radius.
The hilt is the collective term of the parts allowing the handling of the blade, consisting of the grip, the pommel, and a simple or elaborate guard, which in post-Viking Age swords could consist of only a crossguard (called cruciform hilt). The pommel, in addition to improving the sword's balance and grip, can also be used as a blunt instrument at close range. It may also have a tassel or sword knot.
The tang consists of the extension of the blade structure through the hilt.
Swords can fall into categories of varying scope. The main distinguishing characteristics include blade shape (cross-section, tapering and length), shape and size of hilt and pommel, age and place of origin.
For any other type than listed below, and even for uses other than as a weapon, see the article Sword-like object
Single-edged and Double-edged swords
As noted above, the terms longsword, broad sword and great sword (and Gaelic claymore) are used relative to the era under consideration and do themselves designate a particular type of sword.
One strict definition of a sword restricts it to a straight, double-edged bladed weapon designed for both slashing and stabbing. However, general usage of the term remains inconsistent and it has important cultural overtones, so that commentators almost universally recognize the single-edged swords such as Asian weapons (dāo, Katana 刀) as "swords", simply because they have a prestige very similar to that which attaches to the European sword.
Europeans also frequently refer to their own single-edged weapons as swords — generically backswords, including sabres. Other terms include falchion, scimitar, cutlass, or mortuary sword. Many of these refer to essentially identical weapons, and the different names may relate to their use in different countries at different times.
A machete as a tool resembles such a single-edged sword and serves to cut through thick vegetation, and indeed many of the terms listed above describe weapons that originated as farmers' tools used on the battlefield.
Katana of the 16th or 17th Century, with its saya
In both Europe and Asia, wooden "swords" were created to practice fencing without the physical danger of a real sword. These were known as wasters in Europe and bokken in Japan. Special sparring weapons, such as the bamboo shinai, the wooden singlestick, and the steel Federschwerter, were also devised and used.
Certain martial arts styles, such as kendo, use shinai as their primary weapons, both in training and in competition.
Jan Petersen in De Norske Vikingsverd ("The Norwegian Viking Swords", 1919) introduced the most widely-used classification. Ewart Oakeshott in The Sword in The Age of Chivalry (1964, revised 1981) introduced a system of classification for medieval sword blades into types, numbered X – XXII as a continuation of Wheeler's system.
Another example of this metaphorical significance comes in the old saying "The pen is mightier than the sword" - attributed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
In the following cases, the sword stands for arms in general, and has often been retained as a symbol even after it had in operational practice been replaced with firearms etcetera.
Apart from the abovementioned types of symbolical swords, the following individually named swords are noteworthy:
Swords in History
Excalibur - King Arthur's sword is known as Caledfwlch in Welsh legend
Swords of Myth and Legend
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