Swords are Overrated

Posted: April 22, 2014 in On Writing
Tags: , ,

Swords in fiction are overrated. There. I said it. They show up everywhere, being the weapon of choice for heroes and villains. Even pieces set in futuristic societies can’t escape the ubiquitous nature of the weapon.

Here’s the thing, swords were never that common. For one, they use an extraordinary amount of costly material to make. A spear with a wooden shaft, a hammer or axe with a wooden haft . Iron, and more importantly, steel, was never cheap. It requires quite a bit of specialized skill to forge a sword that will stand up to combat. It’s a time consuming process, and not something the village blacksmith is just going to be able to bang out with a bit of pig iron. To be sure, some armies were equipped with swords. The Roman Legions for example, but they are an anomaly as they were the product of a well-organized military state. The auxiliaries that fought alongside the legions? Not nearly so well equipped.

Swords require a lot of training.  It was a weapon of the warrior class, a group of individuals who were trained almost exclusively in warfare from a very young age, and not the sort of thing a commoner would ever have reason to learn.

So if not the sword, what then?

halberd

 

One substitute to explore would be the halberd. Look at that beast! It’s got a nice hook on the back for tripping foes or pulling them down from horseback, it has an axe head perfect for splitting even plate, and it has a spear on top for when you are keeping people at bay. It’s versatile, it lets you keep your distance, and enemies are going to be hesitant to go after the person with the axe on a stick.

macewar hammer

 

You then have your mace and war hammer.

These are armor crackers of the first order, designed to transfer as much force as possible through the swing. They don’t even have to penetrate the armor all the way to ruin someone’s day, as the force from the blow will be transferred through the armor to whatever poor unfortunate is in front of you. If your opponent is wearing mail, all those nice flexible links will be embedded in their flesh, while if they are wearing plate, you are going to knock it out of shape, disorient them, and possibly immobilize them when their armor can’t move anymore. Looking for a mythological character with a hammer? Look no further than Thor’s Mjolnir.

axe

I know at least one person who would be deeply upset if I didn’t include the axe on the list. No mere woodcutter’s tool, the axe has a long and storied history. Norse warriors were fond of the cutting power of the axe, but Medieval fighters as well were aware of the usefulness of the weapon. Many varieties exist, from humble one-handed affairs that could be thrown at enemies before closing to larger two-handed monsters designed to split a foe from skull to groin. Armor again was less effective against these types of weapons as the blows were more designed to convey forces than they were to cut. They were also ideal for making short work of shields, stripping opponents of any hope for defense.

 

spear

Then there is the humble spear. It isn’t as intimidating as the halberd, not quite as effective against plate as a war hammer or mace, but it still has a number of advantages. For one, they are (relatively) cheap to produce. For another, they are fairly simple to use. Sharp end goes in the bad guy, makes sure the opponent doesn’t get too close to you, and if you have a bunch of friends that all have spears as well it can seriously put a damper on someone’s day. Opponent on horseback? The spear, especially a nice long one, is a great equalizer. This is why the Greeks were able to dominate on the field of battle for as long as they were. Spears make their way into mythology as well. Odin and Cuchulain are two legendary figures who reached for the spear over a sword.

So, next time you are looking around for a weapon to give your hero or villain, why not reach for something other than a sword for a change?

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Comments
  1. gotimtim says:

    Hey Matt!
    I really enjoyed this article. It was well written, thought out, and, best of all, about a subject I really enjoy.
    A couple interesting footnotes for you- The weapons of the various forms of Kung Fu, many of them, are little more than weaponized farm implements. Shovels, pitchforks, a staff, rope, chain, all find their places as tools, and are used as weapons too.
    Other weapons of note- the bola, sling, atlatl, just to name a few.

    • Matthew X. Gomez says:

      Hey Tim,

      Well my focus was on Western arms, but you are correct. Then again, many Western polearms evolved from farm implements as well (see the bill hook for example). Many of what we consider martial arts weapons from China, Japan and other Far East locales were adopted because of stringent laws and customs preventing certain classes from carrying weapons, swords among them. I notice you also mentioned certain ranged weapons as well. The bola is a rancher’s tool from South America), and the atlatl (more a tool to help propel spears and less a weapon in its own right). The sling I feel gets a lot less respect than it deserves, but can be absolutely devastating in proper hands. All are ranged weapons, and not a good substitute when someone is up close and personal.

  2. wcfx says:

    Man, this is very inspiring. I’ve never really thought about that, swords wouldn’t have been affordable. I now feel the urge to write a battle scene … One were the sword carriers get their asses handed to them. Excellent post, man.

    • Matthew X. Gomez says:

      Crecy. Agincourt. Teutoborg Forest. Granted, there were other factors in play at each of those, but would be good starting points. A look at some of the 1st Crusade battles would be a good point as well. European weapons were fairly effective against lightly and medium armored foes alike, while their opponents tended to favor lighter, slashing weapons that fared poorly against armor.

  3. Hello from Writer’s Carnival!!! Nice to be following your via WordPress. MMmm… woooords. Teheheh. Ta!

  4. Karen Holt says:

    This is food for thought. Axes, the larger two-handed monsters, were designed to split a foe from skull to groin: that thought is chilling. Were swords a status symbol in medieval times? Being expensive, I wonder if they were in part at least, a show of wealth? In Britain, we ‘drive on the left’, is this a throw back whereby your ‘fellow men’ pass by on your right side, and if attacked your weapon arm is at the ready to defend yourself? I have just written a fight scene, this is great writers fodder for future events. ~~ Karen

    • Matthew X. Gomez says:

      Hey Karen,

      Swords were absolutely at least partially social status, being expensive to make and requiring a degree of specialized skill your village blacksmith just wouldn’t have, all Hollywood evidence to the contrary. And yes, you wanted to keep your weapon arm clear, which is why you lot still drive on the left. An interesting link on the evolution of “what side is proper” can be found here: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/634/why-do-the-british-drive-on-the-left.

      Want to give a classically trained swordsman a unique challenge? Have him face a lefty. The left-handed fighter will be at an advantage since they’ve trained more against right handed fighters due to their prevalence whereas the right handed fighter will have faced much fewer left handed opponents. (This difference tends to vanish when using two-handed weapons).

  5. Nick Thomas says:

    Hi there, Nick S. Thomas here, Novelist and sword enthusiast and instructor. I run and teach at the Academy of Historical Fencing in the UK, with over twenty years of sword experience, research and use. I write novels by day under the same name (look me up on Amazon). You can checkout our Youtube channel, called Academy of Historical Fencing, it is packed with articles and lessons on swordsmanship, and fight footage.

    Right, on to the subject at hand. if swords seem overrated in fiction it is more because armour is underrated. It is the classic stormtrooper condition, the more armour you wear, the less effective it is, especially in movies for example. This is a work of fantasy, but swords cannot be blamed for it.
    A core problem with the article is that it presupposes that a great many people were wearing heavy armours that encased most if not all of their body, but the reality is that most people, in most cultures, in most parts of human history, wore partial armours, or none at all, even in the front line of battle. Against very heavily armoured opponents like a fully armoured knight of the 15rh century, most swords are not very useful at all, but this is in itself a rare and unusual occurrence in human history.

    A key point is that you do not distinguish between battlefield use, and civilian use. In civilian use the sword is king. Easy to wear, and extremely effective against unarmoured opponents.
    Next – swords were not that common? Not true at all. In fact most cultures around the world have sword based cultures, sometimes even at the peasant class. And especially when you move to the late 15th and early 16th century (the period of the halberd you mention), sword production was vast. Blades were being mass produced and shipped to furniture makers to keep production up and prices down. In this period the wearing of swords on a daily basis became common for everyone but the very poorest, and the emerging merchant class caused an explosion in sword wearing, use and training.

    At the same time, armies of the 16th century had swords manufactured in vast quantities at a munitions grade, and this process continued for hundreds of years. A simple way to provide a sword for most men on the battlefield, often as a sidearm in favour of pike and musket, but sometimes as a primary too (see the famous Spanish Rodeleros for example). When Cortez went to south America, up to 80% of his force were equipped with sword and shield, a classic example of common sword usage. In the English civil war of the mid 17th century, large quantities of pattern shorts swords (cutlass or hanger they would be called) were being manufactured to equipped common soldiers. In the 18th century, short swords were commonly equipped to all common soldiers too, and many into the 19th century. Throughout several hundred years of history at this point, thousands upon thousands of cavalry were equipped with swords as a primary weapon as well, and these were not officers or gentlemen. The nomadic peoples used the sword extensively as well, at all class levels, and to the Chinese, the sabre was a peasants weapon.

    Swords require a lot of training? Not quite. To excel in a one-on-one duel can require a lot of training. To become battlefield proficient with a sword is actually quite easy. In the Napoleonic era for example, we know that swordsman were trained with the sabre in six weeks. Using a rapier or a smallsword in a one-on-one fight is difficult, using a mixed cut and thrust sword in a melee is much easier. The larger the melee, the less individual skill counts for.

    Axes? Ever wondered why they have seen pretty little use in war in most parts of history? Because they are unwieldy compared to a sword, and create massive openings on the user. The sword and spear are infinitely superior in most situations. They had their uses, but nothing like the popularity of sword and spear.

    Okay so lastly you are talking about weapons for heroes and villains. Well the thing is that most heroes and villains in fiction spend their time wandering vast lands, Lord of the Rings comes to mind. A whole lot of walking and little fighting. You have to carry your weapons, now wonder why people didn’t walk around carrying shields like in Skyrim every day? The sword is easy to carry, versatile in a range of scenarios, fast and agile, and easily pairs with other items to make it a powerful combination, like a dagger, shield or pistol. Polearms are tanks of a weapon. Great if you are wandering off to battle against large formations of heavily armoured opponents, but suffer many disadvantages the rest of the time. A staff is an excellent multipurpose tool and weapon for travelling distance and defending yourself along the way though.

    So in summary, no, swords were not rare in a great many periods and locations. They weren’t even particularly expensive in many places. They don’t always require a great degree of skill to use. They are very handy and effective on a great many battlefields, as well as off them. They are incredibly practical, and more versatile in a range of scenarios than most other weapon types. They were incredibly common throughout history for a good reason!

    • Hi Nick,

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to craft such a detailed and thoughtful response.

      At the time I wrote this, three years ago, it was for a specific audience and purpose- namely speculative fiction writers at writerscarnival.ca where, at the time, I was responsible for drafting content to get discussion going. This was once such post. My aim was not at historic use of weapons in the main or historic fiction generally, but at fantasy writers who seem to go for the sword at the expense of all other weapons regardless of setting or relative time period or technology level. I do appreciate your correction to my statement that swords were not common, to the point of becoming ubiquitous in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. In fact, I was forced to go against my better instincts, but decided to treat it as a think piece given the limited word count I had at that particular venue (I think the word cap was 1500).

      I do have some experience in historic martial arts, having studied some Talhoffer, Agrippa, Capo Ferro, and George Silver. My first exposure may have been sport fencing (foil to be exact), but I do appreciate the utility and versatility of a good blade. Not to say that I am in any way an expert, but I know a bit more than “the pointy end goes in the other guy.” That is to say, most of my training was on one-on-one duels, not massed combat, and hence my views are distinctly colored through that lens. Probably also why I, personally, have an easier time writing small combats as opposed to mass battles.

      As a final thought, you were correct in thinking that I was writing this with armor in mind instead of partial or no armor. There is a good reason why the saber and rapier were developed and used as civilian weapons after all.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts and apologies for any apoplexy my poor excuse of an article may have caused.

      -Matt Gomez

      • Nick Thomas says:

        No problem, glad I could provide some extra insight.

        However, I must respond to that last point in your response.

        ‘There is a good reason why the saber and rapier were developed and used as civilian weapons after all,’

        That is not correct. The sabre dates back to the 9th century and is, and has been throughout almost all of history, a weapon of war, their use in civilian life is quite unusual.

        The rapier was not developed as a civilian weapon.either. It’s origins are in the late 15th and early 16th century, a time when armour began to decrease, but was still very much common in battle. In partial armours, (again most people in most eras did not have full armours), the rapier is excellent, and remained a standard sidearm, and even principal weapon for some, until the end of it’s use. Those carried specifically for in civilian life did often get a little longer and thinner, but they are all still rapiers and in the same family of swords. Ever wondered why in three musketeer movies they all use rapiers? Because they are soldiers, and that is what they were supplied with, being one of the most common swords of the day for military and civilian use.

        The reason people assume the rapier is a civilian weapon is because at the time of its introduction, sword use, wear and practice was exploding across Europe, and it was one of the go to weapons, being a common and successful type. This is where the common misconception that the rapier is just a dueling sword comes from. All swords that were common in their day were used for dueling, it is just that sword wear in civilian life was exceptionally high in the age of the rapier.

      • Hey Nick, I stand corrected. Perhaps a better way of stating it would be: Rapiers and sabers (and their like) were adopted into civilian life as opposed to developed for. Again, thanks for the correction and additional insight.

        -Matt

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