Before the emergence of flintlock muskets in the 17th century and matchlock Arquebus even before that, armies and militias relied almost entirely on bladed weapons for combat. These bladed or edged weapons include knives, daggers, swords, and bayonets.
Though no exact definition of sword exists as they differ extensively in shape, size, and even names, swords can generally be described as double-edged weapons attached to a handle or hilt, which are longer than a knife.
A Brief History of Swords
Swords, or weapons that can be described as one, first appeared sometime in the 17th century BCE during the bronze age. The early blades, mostly made of arsenical bronze, were considerably shorter (around 60 cm) and rough around the edges.
Due to the relatively low stiffness of bronze, swords longer than 60 cm were not practical at that time. However, with the advancement in sword-making techniques, the maximum length of swords gradually increased to 100 cm during the height of the bronze age.
By the 13th century BCE, the bronze swords were replaced by iron ones. These hammered-down iron swords were slightly more robust than the bronze ones. Iron blades became common in Europe and Asia by the 8th century BCE. Later, during the middle ages, the sword-making techniques improved significantly, leading to the introduction of hardened steel blades.
Key Terms Related to A Sword
Hilt: The hilt of a sword consist of the grip, which can either be single-handed or double-handed the pommel and a cross-guard.
Cross-guard or quillons: A cross-guard, or simply guard, is located between the grip and the blade to protect the sword wielder’s hands. They come in various shapes and sizes.
Pommel: The pommel, located at the top of the hilt, was initially designed to stop swords from slipping out of hands. They also act as a counterbalance to the blade.
Scabbard: The scabbard is, simply, a protective cover for the sword blade.
Many swords have originated throughout history, but only a few of them are known for their distinct style and shape. From the early-bronze age to the modern period, we have listed eleven different types of swords.
1. Basket-hilted Sword
A late-17th century basket hilt
The basket-hilted sword is characterized by a basket-shaped guard or quillon to protect the sword-wielding hand. Such swords were modeled in both single-edged and double-edged variants. The double-edged version, with a widened blade, is often referred to as the broadsword.
The earliest recorded appearance of the basket-hilted sword was in 16th century Europe and gained popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in the heavy cavalry units.
The Jacobite army (on the left) with basket-hilted swords against the Royal Army during the Battle of Culloden (the Rebellion of 1745)
Some popular variants of the basket-hilt swords prevalent in the 17th century were the Sinclair hilt, mortuary sword, Scottish broadsword, and schiavona.
A saber (spelled as sabre in British English) is a single-edged curved bladed sword, which first appeared in Europe during the early modern period (1500-1800 AD). However, the origin of curved blades can be traced back to at least the 8th century BCE (the Turko-Mongol sabers).
In Europe, the first widespread use of the sabre was done by the Polish hussars, an elite light cavalry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the late 17th century, different versions of the curved blade swords were in use by light cavalries and even infantry around Europe.
A 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry sabre of the 16th Light Dragoons, British Army
Perhaps one of the most famous European sabers is the Pattern 1796 light cavalry sabre developed by the British for its light cavalry and hussar regiments. Based on its design, the Prussians and later the Portuguese developed their own sabres.
In the United States, the last saber issued by the US cavalry, named Patton saber, was in 1913. In Poland, the Szabla wz. 34 became the last saber to enter the service (still used for ceremonial purposes) in 1934.
Zweihänder Greatswords at Basel Historical Museum
Originated In: Europe
Total Length: 130 cm
The term ‘longsword’ doesn’t characterize a blade’s length, but the size of its hilt or handle. Originated in Europe, the longswords have been recognized by various names through different periods, such as the “bastard sword” and Viking sword.
The average length of a longsword hilt is about 20 cm, which is ideal for two-handed use. These swords can weigh up to 1.5 kg. Based on the morphology of the blades, longswords are classified into six different types. One of those types is the Greatsword developed during the Renaissance in the 15th century. Another popular example of the longsword is the Zweihänder, which was primarily used by German forces and mercenaries.
The German school of fencing, a school of combat in the Holy Roman Empire, focused on the broadsword as their primary weapon.
A contemporary Wushu practitioner with a Dao
Country of Origin: China
Blade Type: Single-edged, curved
Dao, also known as the Chinese saber, is a group of single-edged swords that first appeared in China during the bronze age. They are found in both straight-edged and slightly curved variations.
Due to its relative ease of use, durability, and curved design, dao was increasingly used by mounted soldiers during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century AD. Later dynasties featured straightened blades, and during the Tang dynasty (7th to 9th century), dao swords became a standard sidearm in the military.
In Chinese culture, dao is considered a traditional weapon, alongside Qiang (spear), Jian (Chinese double-edged sword), and gun (staff).
Jian sword with scabbard | Image Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Country of Origin: China
Blade Type: Double-edged, straight
Jian is the most extensively used sword in Chinese history, other than dao. First appearing in the 7th century BCE, Jian swords were initially made of bronze and then steel. In rare cases, blades carved out from a single piece of jade have been found.
Jian swords, unlike dao, are double-edged and have a straightened blade. Their hilt consists of a pommel at the top and a guard to protect the sword-arm from the opposing edge. The oldest surviving Jian blade, known as the Sword of Goujian, is 55.6 cm long and weighs 875 grams. The sword is known for its unexpected sharpness and corrosion resistance ability.
In Chinese mythology, Jian is regarded as the “sword of wisdom,” and many Taoist immortals are associated with the sword. Today, both dao and Jian swords are used extensively in martial arts training.
Country of Origin: Korea
The traditional Korean swords have a rich history, just like Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Though, for most of history, blades remained a secondary weapon (next to bows) in conflicts.
The Korean swords can be distinguished into two major types: the Geom (double-edged swords) and Do (single-edged ones). However, in native speech, all swords can be identified as Geom.
The earliest production of blades in Korea can be traced back to the 1st century BCE. These early swords, called Hwandudaedo, are classified by the design of their pommel. During the Joseon period (between the 15th and 19th century), most military swords in use were straight and single-edged with an average length of 121 cm.
Two traditional Japanese swords alongside their cases. The larger one is katana (at the bottom)
Country of Origin: Japan
Blade Type: Single and double-edged, curved
Nihonto is an umbrella term for traditional Japanese swords, whose origin can be traced back to as early as the 4th century AD. Some of the widely popular nihonto or Japanese sword types are katana, odacho, and tachi. The Japanese swords are categorized into different types based on shape, size, and method of production.
A katana can be recognized by its perfectly curved, single-edged blade that is longer than 60 cm. The katana is developed from older Tachi swords, which are longer and more curved than the katana. Another famous Japanese sword, the odachi, is much longer than the katana, with an average blade length of 90 centimeters.
While most nihonto are single-edged and curved (in varying degrees), there are a couple of exceptions, such as chokuto (the straight sword), one of the earliest Japanese blades forged as early as 8th century AD.
These early straight swords were popular in Japan until the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 to 1333) but were later replaced by the curved after the Mongol invasion of Japan.
An Indian Talwar | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Common/Archit Patel
Country of Origin: India
Blade Type: Curved blade
The talwar is a curved sword or saber that first appeared on the Indian subcontinent in the 14th century. They can be identified by distinctive Indian-made hilt designs. The emergence of talwar in India occurred alongside other Asian sabers such as Afghan pulwar and Turkish kilij. Most talwars feature a distinctive hilt of Indian design with an attached thin knuckle bow.
The unconventional design of the hilt allows a secure grip over the talwar at the expense of maneuverability. Unlike the sabers with radial curve blades, the talwar displays an increased curve near its lower end, similar to kilij swords.
The talwar blades, although curved, can be found in different variations. One unusual version features scissors-like double-pointed tips. The later talwars (made after the 16th century) often featured western-styled blades with traditional Indian hilt.
Multi-bladed urumi swords
Country of Origin: India
Blade Type: Whip-like, made of steel
The urumi is an unusual sword with a flexible, whip-like blade(s) made of steel. It originated in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka, and is believed to have first appeared as early as the 6th century BCE. Their hilt is identical to that of Indian saber, or talwar, and is made of iron or brass.
A single urumi sword usually has multiple blades. A Sri Lankan version has as much as 36 blades attached to the hilt. The average length of these blades is between 4 feet to 5 feet.
The urumi swords require wielders to learn and control the momentum of blades through various maneuvers to properly display the urumi technique. These swords, however, needs less arm strength.
10. Xiphos And Makhaira
A modern reconstruction of Xiphos | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Origin: Ancient Greece
Around the 12th century BCE, following the bronze age collapse, swords made of iron emerged in ancient Greece and several Asian empires. These swords were considerably different from earlier bronze ones, mostly by the method of their production.
The two famous examples of early iron age swords are xiphos and makhaira, both of which originated in ancient Greece. The xiphos is a double-edged straight sword with a maximum blade length of 60 cm. A prominent characteristic of the sword is its leaf-like blade shape, which makes xiphos useful for cutting and thrusting. Early xiphos swords were actually made of bronze and were cast, not forged.
Makhaira is a Greek term used to describe ancient single-edged weapons or swords. In historical texts, the makhaira may refer to a simple knife, a scalpel, or a sword. In the military context, however, the term is solely used for swords.
Country of Origin: Western Europe, India
Blade Type: Single and double-edged, straight
The firangi, literally meaning “Frank,” is a straight-bladed sword that appeared on the Indian subcontinent from the 16th century onwards. A large number of firangi blades were, in fact, imported from western Europe and were then attached to a traditional Indian hilt.
The length of the blade of a firangi sword varies between 90 to 96 cm. They were made in both single-edged and double-edged variations, while all have a pointed tip. Due to its length, the firangi swords were mostly used by the mounted soldiers or cavalry.