Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 1

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Disclaimer: Swords are a sticky subject among writers and readers alike and there's a lot of debate on the subject. I don't claim to be an expert on... Well, anything really, and this is just what my own research has turned up. There are a lot of debates and questions out there. My advice to writers is to use this information as a starting point. Use your own best judgment, do your own research, and find the best sources you can. Then write it the way you want to.

Also, this series is split up into 6 parts, because it's quite long.


There's a lot of information and misinformation about swords and largely this comes from the fact that people's lives don't depend on them anymore. While they were the main weapon of the soldier for centuries, we are looking backward into history and extrapolating, sometimes from historical accounts or training manuals. These sources are not always accurate, especially historical accounts which could well be embellished or biased, and are sometimes contradictory.

Swords come from cultures all over the world and their social and cultural connotations differ depending on the area, the culture and the period. That's a topic for specific research, and here I'm just covering some of the basics, so I'm going to--mostly--steer clear of the cultural ideals and ramifications of the sword. Those are the things that are mostly likely to change in a written world context anyway. Your culture's views on the sword may not be the same as those from history, but even if they come out in the same way it should be through the building of your own culture that you reach those views and conclusions. So, I'm going to (try) to stick to the physical realities of the historical sword and its use.

Training is Key

Swords, while unquestionably deadly, are not elegant weapons in the hands of the untrained. That's an important distinction. Swords are versatile weapons in the hands of someone who knows how to wield them, but are difficult to wield effectively for those who have not had training. And if your army is made up largely of conscripted untrained peasants, other weapons are going to be more useful and less awkward for them. However, this is not as clear cut as it may appear.

Swords are hard on the untrained because there are so many techniques and body motions involved in their proper use. You can't just walk in swinging a sword like a club and expect you'll absolutely make it out again, especially if your opponent is trained. It isn't about the weight of a sword because most swords are much lighter than many people think. Generally, about 2.5-3.5 lbs. is the average weight of a sword meant for fighting, but there are many examples that weigh less than 3. (Parade swords and replicas often weighed more, but even ceremonial swords rarely weighed over 10 lbs. and these weren't meant to be used as weapons.)

Balance also plays a key role in swordplay, but it's not just the balance of the wielder. Two-handed swords have a long hilt (around 9 inches) in order to balance the weight of the blade. The dimensions of the crossguard are also meant to bring the weapon into balance, distributing the weight so that it's comfortable to use even at the higher weights. Poor balancing of the aspects of the sword can make it feel heavier and this is a problem with many modern-made swords, even replicas.

There's also a misconception that a soldier will grab the heaviest sword they can lift. The problem here is that too heavy a sword means it can't be moved with as much force and too light a sword can sometimes cause the wielder to feel the air resistance against the blade. So, a soldier wants a sword that they can wield with maximum force without feeling resistance, not the sword that is the biggest and heaviest. A sword that's so heavy as to be unmanageable will get the soldier's butt kicked, even if they think it makes them look big and bad.

In the next post, we'll look at the evolution of the sword, training and general styles of combat.


Liberty said…
Wonderful timing! There's going to be lots of sword fighting in my NaNo novel this year, so hopefully I can, you know, actually make it look authentic. :D
Marion Sipe said…
LOL! I'm glad I got it started in time, then, and that's it's a help! It's been fun to research and there's still *tons* to write on the topic, but I figured if I didn't at least get some of it up I'd be writing it forever, you know? Good luck with NaNo!!
J.A. Beard said…
I look forward to the entire series.
Marion Sipe said…
Yay! Thank you both for reading!
J. R. Tomlin said…
It is, I think, important to bring in facts with a discussion like this and not just opinion. The fact is that the a longsword normally only weighed about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and those were the most frequently used swords. Even a two-handed sword such as the medieval claymore known as the Wallace Sword (on display in the Wallace Monument) only weighs 6 pounds. The idea that a heavy sword is better is a modern misconception and not something any medieval knight would have looked for.
Marion Sipe said…
I absolutely agree about facts, and about the weight and misconceptions. However, I think "most commonly used sword" really depends on what time period, country, and region you're talking about. Not all soldiers are knights and, of course, not all swords come from the medieval period.

In Roman times the Gladius was quite popular, and it wasn't a long sword. And even that's a generalization as, over time, different sword designs, lengths and types develop and become popular with different groups, or don't.
Anonymous said…
What a great series! I'm bookmarking this for editing reference :)
Marion Sipe said…
Thank you! I'm glad to be of help!

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