The sword is an iconic artefact, both in reality and in fantasy. Today’s masterclass takes a look at the development of this weapon in the real world. Unfortunately, this is a very Eurocentric history – I don’t have time today to make it globally comprehensive; also, much of the information I’ve found on the web also focuses mainly on the European tradition of sword-making and use.

Definition and Etymology

A sword is a weapon made of a long blade with a sharp point and one or two sharp edges; it is held by the hilt, which is protected by quillons or crossguard. Swords are used for slashing, hacking and thrusting (depending on the design and composition), and differ from many other basic weapon types (such as the axe and bow and arrow) in that they have no other purpose but warfare.

The word sword comes from the Old English sweord, from the (hypothetical) Proto-Germanic swerdan, and ultimately from the (also hypothetical) Proto-Indo-European swer-, meaning ‘to cut’.

Bronze Age Swords

The earliest bladed tools made by humans were made from stone, such as flint. Stone, however, is much too brittle to have been made into the long blades required for swords, so it wasn’t until people discovered how to work metal that swords were developed. Simple metalworking – hammering – goes back at least 9,000 years and likely involved the metals gold and copper. Smelting ore to create pure metals may have evolved from annealing – heating beaten metal to restore its malleability. This development led to the creation of bronze about 5,000 years ago, which is an alloy of about 90% copper and 10% tin (different combinations were also used).

Bronze was stronger than copper and allowed knives and daggers to become longer until they became swords (the difference between sword and dagger is essentially arbitrary). Bronze swords were still quite short, however – 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 cm) in length; longer weapons would have lower tensile strength and break easily. Bronze swords were cast in clay or stone moulds and their edges were then forged to create cutting blades.

One of the earliest swords was the sappara or khopesh, a Sumerian sickle-sword. This was apparently used from the third millennium BCE until 1300 BCE and evolved from the crescent-bladed axe.

In Europe, early swords could be divided into two types: dirks (a type of dagger) and rapiers (swords designed for piercing thrusts rather than hacking and slashing). Such blades were originally cast without tangs (the part of the blade extending into the grip), and instead had hilts of horn or wood riveted to the bronze. These rapiers were broad-bladed – for extra strength – yet light.

Other types of Bronze Age sword include the leafbladed sword – one that, from the hilt, narrows, widens, then narrows again to the point – and the Naue II, a straight-edged and long-lasting design. During the second millennium BCE, the Chinese developed swords with a high tin content, which made their weapons more brittle. In India in the same period, swords were commonly made out of copper alone.

Iron Age Swords

There was actually a long overlap between the use of Bronze Age swords and that of Iron Age weapons. By the end of the Bronze Age, sword makers had reached the pinnacle of design and technology; iron working, by contrast, was still relatively primitive. Although iron would come to be a much more reliable material, in the early Iron Age, bronze and iron swords were fairly equally matched. For instance, Roman writers commented on Gaulish warriors having to pause to bend their iron swords back into shape during battles.

The major advantage iron had over bronze was the availability of the material; tin was quite a rare substance. Bronze Age swords were status items that were owned only by chieftains and the rich. With the advent of Iron Age technology, whole armies could be equipped with swords, a fact that helped the advance of the Greek empire, and later the Roman empire. Densely packed bodies of men fighting in such armies needed to be armed with short swords to avoid interfering with their neighbours (even though iron would ultimately allow for much longer weapons).

The process of creating pure iron for swords involved removing the oxygen from iron ore with a bloomery. Iron ore was heated along with charcoal; the carbon in the charcoal combined with the oxygen in the ore, thus leaving a pure iron ‘bloom’, which was then hammered to remove further impurities. The resulting metal was wrought (or worked) iron.

Iron swords spread throughout Europe during the Hallstatt perdiod – from around 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. When this culture ended, swords were briefly replaced by knives, but were revived with the advent of the La Tene culture (6th to 1st centuries BCE).

Iron Age swords include the Greek xiphos (which was originally made from bronze) and Roman gladius (which was inspired by swords of Iberian warriors; it’s also the origin of the word gladiator); the Romans later developed the gladius into the longer spatha (the word spatha is the root of spade, the playing card suit). At lengths of 24 to 34 inches (60 to 85 cm), the spatha provided a longer reach. When wielded by infantry, it had a sharp point; the cavalry version had a rounded tip to avoid riders stabbing themselves in the foot.

Medieval Swords

The spatha evolved in the late Roman era and beyond –  first into swords of the Migration Period, measuring 28 to 32 inches (71 to 81 cm) in length; then into the 8th century Viking sword. Viking swords were even longer – 37 inches (93 cm) and up to 40 inches (100 cm) in Norman times – but they remained single-handed weapons. A fuller (a groove along the flat of the blade) was used to improve the sword’s flexibility and keep its weight down.

During the late first millennium, the technique of creating swords from steel was perfected. Steel is an alloy of iron and about 1 or 2% carbon. Carbon was added to iron by a process of migration, heating the iron in a container made of a high-carbon substance so that the iron absorbed some of the carbon and thus became steel. The Chinese had another method of making steel – hammering iron and pig iron together.

And this practice of forge-welding metals of differing composition together became pattern welding, of which Damascus steel is perhaps the best known example (although no one now knows exactly how Damascus steel was made); swords made in this fashion could be made harder and tougher than blades forged from single metals. The surface of these blades retained an attractive ripple effect.

Viking swords themselves developed into arming swords – also known as knight’s or knightly swords – which were used from around 1000 to 1350 CE. These weapons measured about 36 inches in length (91 cm) and weighed about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg). They were single-handed weapons that were used in conjunction with a shield or buckler and were worn by knight even when not in armour. The arming sword was one of  the first to sport the classic cruciform shape by incorporating a more pronounced crossguard.

As the medieval period progressed, swords changed in response to new types of armour. Swords needed to be heavier to be wielded with sufficient force to pierce mail or, later, plate armour. Nevertheless, swords were rarely the ungainly monsters of Hollywood movies. For instance, the two-handed longsword, which was used from the 14th to the 16th centuries, was 41 to 47 inches (105 to 120 cm) long and weighed 3.1 pounds (1.4 kg). The longsword was a quick and versatile weapon, the use of which was taught by schools of swordsmanship.

Renaissance and Modern Era Swords

On the other hand, some swords did become huge. The Zweihänder (literally, ‘two-hander’), also known as a greatsword, was up to 71 inches (180 cm) long and weighed as much as 7 pounds (3.2 kg). One sword, supposedly wielded by the legendary Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia, is 84 inches (213 cm) long and weighs 14.5 pounds (6.6 kg). Some Zweihänders had long ricassos (a blunt part of the blade close to the hilt) protected by flukes that allowed them to be gripped near the middle. They were used for chopping and batting aside pikes and other polearms.

The arming sword eventually (via the side-sword) evolved into the rapier of the Renaissance period. The rapier was a sword with a long, narrow blade of maybe 39 inches (1 m) and was lightweight at around 2.2 pounds (1 kg). It often had a complex basket or cup encompassing much of the hilt and the ricasso, so that the rapier wielder could grip the sword around the crossguard for better control. Some designs had sharp edges along their length, other only from the middle to the tip and still others were only sharp at the point. Rapiers were popular among civilians and many lost their lives in duels using them.

The next step in the evolution of the sword was the small sword (or dress sword or court sword), which developed from the rapier and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries – and even up to the early 20th century. The small sword was around 24 to 33 inches (60 to 85 cm) long. The sabre, a curved, single-bladed sword was used by cavalry during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Although the development of firearms has made the sword obsolete it is still used by military forces around the world, either as part of regular or dress uniform. Sword fighting in its various forms is also a popular martial art in many places.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bronze Age Craft, Bronze Age Swords, Suite 101, Rise of Civilization, 2-Clicks Swords, Iron Age Armoury, How Stuff Works, ARMA,