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The Tale of the Sword

By Matthew | April 23, 2008

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be briefly covering the histories of medieval weaponry; from their humble origins as tools to their implementations as weapons of war, I’m going to address one weapon type in each article.

This week, I’m going to cover the history of what is perhaps the most common and recognizable of all medieval weapons: the sword.

Background

The first bladed weapons (recognizable as swords) were manufactured by ancient peoples as early as the Bronze Age. This generally indicates a period of time beginning around 3,000 B.C. In order to avoid covering too broad of a time span, this article will relate solely to those swords manufactured from steel, and will cover a period in Western history dating from around the 1100s through the late 1600s.

Terminology

In order to understand the terminology of the sword, please refer to the diagram below of what is commonly referred to as an arming sword.

Figure 1: Image credit Wikipedia.

In the early 1100s, many of the greatest sword innovations came from the Normans who developed the crossguard (known as the quillion on rapiers). As armor improved, so did sword design and function. The most common of swords during the 1100s to the 1400s was the longsword, particularly the estoc (or “tuck” in English) type, due to its agility and ability to slide between armor plates. Rumor has it that the advent of the rapier (an offshoot of the estoc) began the steady decline of plate armor, due to its slenderness and ability to defeat both plate and chain armor in combat. Swords grew in length over the decades, finally reaching their ultimate size with the German “Doppelhänder” (two-handed sword) before their sharp decline as firearms became far more prevalent.

Sword Types

The most common sword types are as follows:

Arming swords (Katzbalger , Sidesword) – The arming sword is a weapon favored by Crusaders. It consists of a single blade with crossguard, forged to resemble a cruciform shape. It was used predominantly between 1000 AD and 1350 AD.

Backswords (Briquet, Cutlass, Falchion, Großmesser, Mortuary sword) –A Backsword identifies any weapon that has a single edged blade with a thick, dull back. Backswords were favored weapons of cavalry soldiers in the late 1600s AD.

Broadswords (Claymore, Schiavona) – Broadswords generally refer to the European design of a specific sword, namely a straight-bladed, double-edged, basket-hilted sword used from the 1600s through the 1800s.

Rapiers (Flamberge, Épée, Foil (fencing) ) – Rapiers are light, long, thin bladed swords, generally with complex and ornate hilts. They were designed primarily as dueling, piercing weapons. Some had sharpened edges, some did not.

Longswords (Bastard Sword, Estoc) – Longswords generally refer to those swords used between 1350 AD and 1550 AD. Longswords were most often wielded with two hands, had two sharpened edges, and were generally over 35” in length.

Shortswords (Bilbo, Falcata, Cinquedea) – Shortswords most often meant any sword that was larger than a dagger and smaller than a longsword.

Two-handed swords (Árije, Claymore, Executioner’s sword, Greatsword, Doppelhänder) – Two-handed swords simply refer to any sword that absolutely requires the wielder to use two hands.

Sabres (Karabela, Mameluke) – The sabre is a relative of the Backsword, and features a single sharpened, slightly curved blade (some are not curved) and is both a slashing and a thrusting weapon.

Forging the Blade

Historically, the best made swords were manufactured using hot-forged carbon steel . The amount of carbon added during the forging process would alter the material nature of the metal. A carbon volume of 2% would make the blades extremely hard but also brittle, while a 0.5% addition of carbon made the steel more malleable. In order to make blades both hard and malleable, a process known as wootz steel was created, which involved adding glass to a mixture of iron and charcoal. The glass would act as a flocculent, helping to separate out impurities thereby leaving a much stronger steel.
The steel was forged by hand, using a hammer and an anvil. The blacksmith would use a steel billet, heat it to red-hot in a forge, then carefully hammer the cooling steel into the proper shape over the anvil, periodically reheating the steel in the forge. Occasionally the blade would be fullered, which would create ridge or ridges down the blade (commonly and incorrectly referred to as a “blood groove”).

After the blade was forged, it would be normalized. The steel would be heated, then allowed to cool evenly, which allowed the stresses added to the steel during the forging process to release and even out.

The final step was to anneal or heat-treat the blade. This is sometimes referred to as tempering, which actually refers only to a part of the heat-treating process. In order to anneal the steel, the sword would be heated again, and then quenched usually in water, salt-water or olive oil. This quenching process would cause the crystalline lattices in the carbon steel to set, making the blade harder. The hardness also makes the blade more brittle, so, the sword is then tempered to make the lattices more fluid. Heat-treating is a painstaking process that can often ruin a blade by warping it.
Finally, the sword is sharpened and finished by polishing the blade, adding decorations (such as a maker’s mark) and a hilt.

Sword Myths Debunked

Topics: Medieval Weaponry |

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