Many years ago, when I was choreographing the Henry VI trilogy at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, I needed to design some weapons that were both functional and matched the genre of the costume design which was highly stylized and somewhat science-fictiony. As I was playing around with various designs, a thought came to me: what if you were on the battlefield and someone came at you with a weapon completely outside your experience – a weapon you had never seen before, including in use? How could you extrapolate from its design information to get some inkling of its fighting methodology before first contact? (after which it might well be too late)
Let’s look at swords of various designs and see what their visual presentation – the shape and design of the blade, the configuration of the hilt – can tell us with regard to their method of usage.
First, the medieval European sword consisting of two edges, (generally – the falchion being an exception) a quillon and a pommel. The first obvious thing is that since it is double-edged, a back-cut with the false edge is possible without having to turn the wrist to present the true edge. The power of such a cut is somewhat diminished until you increase the length of the grip to accommodate two hands such as in the Long Sword, at which time the ability to push with the lower hand and pull with the upper imparts tremendous power into a back-edge cut. And although I have no physical evidence for this, I would imagine that if the true edge were to have gotten significantly nicked, a simple quick turn of the sword would essentially make the former false edge the new true edge, giving you back a more efficient cutting surface.
The quillon can not only protect the hand from slide-downs, but also be forcefully employed to redirect your opponent’s blade which presents the possibility of a swift back-slash or utilizing the pommel to … well – pommel the face or skull. This is a particularly important attribute in Long Sword combat where half-swording – wielding the sword with only one hand on the grip while the other hand grasps the blade about two-thirds of the way up its length, was prominent. Half-swording in full armour was a good way to insinuate the point in between the joints of the armour with considerable precision. The face, exposed by a raised visor or the armpit between the breastplate and palderon were two particularly tempting targets.
Just a short excursus on the quillon: There are those who contend that it wasn’t there primarily for hand protection since you supposedly never parried with the edge, which would create nicks sufficient to compromise the edge. I would agree that it was a superior technique to attack edge into flat into your opponent’s cut but in the heat of combat if you had to take a parry with the edge, you most certainly would have done so and swords I have examined in museums show just such evidence. Ideally, you would take the blow on the bottom third of the blade which would provide the greatest amount of leverage in your favour. And in point of fact, several masters have admonished that it was unnecessary to even bother sharpening that portion of the blade (the forte or stark) since you never cut with it. One person even believed that the quillon was there to protect the sword hand from hitting your opponent’s shield. Since the Viking swords usually have very short, even perfunctory quillons and the shield was a main tool of defense, I would imagine the Vikings would have developed considerable knuckle callous were this to be true.
How about the point? Is it pronounced? Some medieval one-handed swords had a pronounced point combined with a very wide forte at the quillon.
Let’s skip ahead in history to the rapier. Originally, when used in coordination with the buckler, there was not much difference between its design and that of a military sword. However, over time, blades began to narrow and become longer and eventually, the bars of the hilt acquire a significant addition – shell guards. Why? The answer is that rapier play was evolving to favour the thrust. (although cuts and slicing or drawing cuts were still used) The problem with the previous bars is that they allowed a point through. Being hit on the sword hand inside your own hilt would be embarrassing to say the least. Would this be a realistic possibility? I’ve accomplished it many times in bouting – albeit not a life-and-death situation, but it demonstrates that it’s quite accomplishable. (Hint: I can manage it…)
Eventually, the cup-hilt appears, which protects the entire hand inside a bowl, and, at least in Spanish rapiers, a pronounced wide quillon. What does this design tell us about the fighting style? Well, it might indicate that thrusting is the predominate method of attack requiring maximum protection for the hand. The quillons might also be indicative of a highly evolved defensive action. Consider the presentation of the sword in the Spanish Destreza. The weapon is held in pronation, supination or the quillons vertical. In all these positions, long quillons can be used to turn away a thrust simply by a quarter or half-rotation of the wrist where your opponent’s sword also be lifted or taken down by a simple raising or lowering of the wrist or arm. But it also allows for an instantaneous counter-thrust done in safety since your opponent’s sword point is safely deflected and his blade may even be trapped between the wide quillon and the forte of your blade.
On to the Small Sword – a logical development from the rapier. Observe it’s blade – an equilateral triangle, hollow-ground, (which would lighten the blade and make the weapon capable of great speed) with no cutting edge and a needle-sharp point. A stiff sword with great penetrative power, but also one you could obviously grasp by the blade with the bare hand. However, there was a precursor to this sword – the Colichemarde, typified by a wide forte suddenly narrowing to a slim point starting from the forte. To use a modern colloquial, “Whuffo?” One theory is that the greatly widened forte strengthened the blade. However, since the metallurgy of the day was quite highly developed, I personally don’t find this particularly plausible. Could it be that the widened forte was designed to resist heavier weapons, particularly those that cut? After all, ruffians and foot-pads were often ex-military and may well have retained their former weapons to pursue their current illegal career. This feature gives plausible clues to its defensive capabilities.
Now let’s look at military sabres and their variants.
There is a certain lack of consistency to cavalry sabres from the 1700’s to World War One. European sabres most usually have a slightly curved blade with a point that is double-edged for several inches near the point to facilitate thrusting. However, there are certain Dragoon sabres where near the point the blade increases in width. This most definitely creates a weapon with a weight bias in the tip. Even in some cavalry sabres with the normal taper to the point, the blade is often longer than that of a foot sabre and noticeably point-heavy in varying degrees.
I believe the answer for this rather simple, having done sabre work off horseback. You are usually engaging at a gallop, only slowing or stopping altogether if the crush of opposing horse demands it. If you were going to metaphorically “pull up” opposite your opponent and duke it out on stationary mounts, you might as well be fighting on foot.
At this speed, you don’t have much time to inflict damage. You either cut or thrust first, parry the counter-cut and maybe have time for a back-cut in passing. This also holds true for engaging soldiers on the ground. Whatever blows you land need to count. The tip-heavy weight bias helps facilitate this.
Of course, one addition to a sabre – the sword knot which slips over your wrist and tightens – is another giveaway that the weapon is designed primarily for cavalry. Lose a sword while on horseback, and it’s gone. Not a particularly good situation in the middle of a fray.
Towards the end of their usage, British and American cavalry sabres became straight-bladed. This too, suggests certain strategies. A slash is relatively easy to recover. Not so much when it comes to a thrust where penetration into a passing target can wrench the weapon from your grasp. Since power and leverage demand that you present the weapon in pronation, you would be foolish to allow the blade to withdraw itself by the expedient of your opponent simply riding past you. This could conceivably pull your shoulder out of its socket. More logical if, once seating the point in your enemy, you twist the weapon into supination and elevate the hilt to the position of octave, which would not only create a larger wound, but protect your entire right side from a passing cut. This also would position your sword for a back-slash to the back or the back of the neck.
If engaging an enemy on your left with a thrust, it would be logical to elevate the sword to a position of a sloping quinte, thus protecting your left flank, although a passing cut would be problematic.
Let’s briefly look at a couple of non-European swords in order to apply our visual analysis. First, the Shamshir. This weapon comes with both straight and curved blades. However, some models’ blades have curvature in the extreme. What does this suggest about the fighting style?
An extremely curved blade would suggest combat at very close range – obvious, since such a design lacks reach. And extreme curvature discourages thrusting. However, at in-your-face proximity, the radical curvature of the blade, especially on upward and downward diagonal cuts, keeps the maximum amount of edge on target throughout the greatest length of draw. This, with a sufficiently sharp edge, creates long and deep wounds. Your best defense would be to not allow your opponent to close.
Then, there’s the Turkish Kilij. This is a relatively wide blade that makes an oft-radical curve roughly half-way up its length, widening out in the process, with a defined point and the spine sharpened almost to the base of where it began to curve.
This weapon has massive close-range striking power. But if you experiment – carefully – you will find that the seemingly arbitrary oblique curvature combined with a distinct weight bias in the point, allows you to throw back-cuts in supination that can not only wrap around parries (especially when combined with proper footwork) but even power through a ward and deliver either a back-edge cut or point attack. In a somewhat similar vein, the long sharpened back edge plus the curve creates a marvelous hooking action against the back of the knee from either inside or outside the leg or the triceps.
Take a look at the photos accompanying this article with the above observations in mind. Can you see any other design features that might influence the fighting style? What are the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each design?
Finally, what can a sword tell us if we pick it up, and by this I don’t simply mean the obvious attributes of weight and balance?
Create an ample 360 degree safety zone around yourself. Now, close your eyes. Very slowly, begin to move the sword through space. Execute broad and tight circles, downward and diagonal cuts, both ascending and descending, horizontal cuts and moulinetes. Thrust both supinated and pronated. Still moving at slow speed, change the direction of the sword at the termination of a cut. Using the entire body, go through sweeping parries. Stop the sword in the middle of a movement. Execute moves from the shoulder, elbow and wrist, etc.
Feel the swords’ weight, momentum and inertia. As you move the sword through space, if you are sensitized to its motion, it will tell you the way its design prefers to be moved. Later, as you absorb this information and are able to gradually speed up the swords’ movement, it will tell you more.
A sword can tell you much regarding its usage by observing the various elements of its design with a skillful and informed eye. It will tell you the rest when you move with it.
The sword will never lie to you.