Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/May 1882/The Genesis of the Sword

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THE idea of employing weapons for assault or defense was a logical result of the first contests that took place between man and man. In these contests the strongest man with his native weapons—his fists—was unconsciously the father of all arms and all armed strength, for his weaker antagonist would early seek to restore the balance of power between them by the use of some sort of weapon. The shorter-armed man lengthened his striking power by the use of a stick, and found, after a time, the help its leverage and weight afforded him. The first case in which the chance-selected, heavy-ended staff or club showed that weight or hardness had its value, was a first step toward furnishing it with a strong head. Hence the blow of the fist was the forerunner of the crushing weapon. In the same way the pointed stick became the lance or dagger; and the thrown shaft, helped, as knowledge increased, by the bow or "throwing-stick," was the precursor of the dart and arrow. The character of the first weapons was largely determined by the nature of the materials from which they were derived, and their shape partly from this and partly by copying the forms of the weapons possessed by the animals the primitive men slew. Hence arises the general similarity in character and shape of the earliest tools from all parts of the world.

The weapons of animals are piercing, striking, serrated, poisoned or missile; and weapons made directly from those of some animals were used for similar purposes. Spears and lances are found made from the weapons of the walrus, boar, gnu, rhinoceros, sword-fish, narwhal, and antelope, to be used for piercing, as the animals themselves used them. The serrated bone of the sting-ray furnished both the material and example for many a South-Sea Island spear. The saw-fish's snout has given the natives of New Guinea a ready-made weapon (Fig. 2), and the setting of the shark's teeth in the jaw has suggested their employment in making deadly the edge of a Tahiti sword (Fig. 39). The curved buffalo-horn and the wavy antelope-horn gave the types of the Indian kandjar. (Fig. 1) and many other Eastern weapons. The hollow poison-fang of the venomous serpent not only gave a lesson to the South American Indians, who use a poison-tipped spear, but indirectly suggested holes for poison in the poisoned arrow-heads, and grooves for the same purpose in the mediæval stiletto. The barbed arrow-head was suggested by the barbed sting of the insect, which stays in the wound it makes; and the Bushman may have learned to half cut off his arrow close to the head, so that it should break off in the wound, from observing how stings thus break off in the body they have penetrated. Other patterns have been furnished by the stones which the primitive men have had to use for crushing and cutting tools, and have been developed in working them out. Thus we have the axe, spear, lance, or dart, and arrow (Figs. 3, 4), of the palælithic men, the stabbing dagger made from reindeer-horn (Fig. 6), and the stone lance-heads (Fig. 5) of the cave-men. In the next stage, that of the "neolithic" men, the tools are a little better finished; the weapons

PSM V21 D088 Paleolithic neolithic and animal form weapons.jpg
Weapons from Animal Forms. Palæolithic. Neolithic.

cut better, the lance-heads are thinner, sharper, and finer, and provisions for fastening to handles appear (Figs. 7, 8, 9); and the dagger (Figs. 8 and 9) has developed the form from which all the other hand-weapons have come.

The bronze age, having the art of working in a more tractable material, gave an improved weapon. Its dagger is thinner, broader, more pointed, and more dangerous, but yet bears evidence, in peculiarities of shape, that memories of the stone age still survived in the fabricator's mind. The blades are still short, but the weapon is furnished with a handle of wood (Fig. 11) or bronze (Fig. 10) or ivory (Fig. 12), often richly decorated and quite small. The ancient nations furnish us longer daggers, or swords of bronze, of various patterns, as the Egyptian (Fig. 13), Assyrian (Fig. 14), and Grecian (Figs. 15, 16) swords.

The earlier swords were used exclusively for stabbing. Adaptation to cutting was begun after bronze was introduced, and was developed

PSM V21 D088 Swords and daggers of the ancient world.jpg
Irish. English. Egyptian. Assyrian. Grecian. Roman

as the art was learned of forging iron and steel into weapons. The first iron swords copied the shape of their bronze ancestors, and, while they were longer and more formidable stabbing instruments than those, were not much better for cutting. They were broad, edged, and in time pointed. Finally, the Romans made the gladius—sharp, of highly-tempered steel, and strongly piercing—the first real sword (Figs. 17, 18, 19), of which only five specimens are now known to exist.

The well-tempered and well-made Saxon sword was the property only of those who had the rank of thane. As a rule, it was a straight, cut-and-thrust Made, with a double edge and a broad point, though other shapes have been found.

Of the three ways in which a sword may be used for cutting, that called chopping, in which the work is done with the shoulder and fore-arm and little play of the wrist, and the blow comes down straight with a whack, is of the most value against body-armor. The medieval swords, therefore, were stout, straight, and wide (Figs. 20 to 23), and adapted to that kind of work. The hands being clad in mail, no attempt was made to protect them, and the hilts were plain and simple, except that a groove was sometimes made in the side of the blade to diminish the weight of metal without causing a loss of strength. The character of the sword varied little except as to the fashions suggested by fancy, till armor was done away with about 1600. Then, the change

PSM V21 D089 Medieval swords and rapiers.jpg
Mediæval. Rapiers.

of the sword into the single-edged weapon or the rapier-blade began to become common. While rapiers with flat or very slightly triangular blades, and often immoderately long, were used in France, Spain, and Italy in the sixteenth century, the full development of this form of arm (Figs. 24, 25) took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The blades were narrow, the hilts had merely a single narrow guard for the back of the hand, with a broad base to protect the fingers in thrusting, and the rhomboidal or triangular section of the blade was altered, lightened, and stiffened by grooving (as in the group of figures, 26). The fighting-swords of the latter part of the eighteenth and former part of the nineteenth centuries (Fig. 27) were not very good, either as rapiers or sabers, and marked a period of transition to one

PSM V21 D090 Sectional views of sword blades.jpg
Sections or Sword-Blades.

almost of decadence. The cavalry-swords of the early part of the present century were clumsy and unscientific. With great width of blade and a tendency to increase the width toward the point (Fig. 28), they were not intended for cutting weapons, and were almost useless PSM V21 D090 Swords of the 18th and 19th century.jpg as thrusting ones. The idea that weight at the. sword-end was valuable in enhancing the force of the cut was faulty in theory and practice, and was rather a retrogression to the principle of the axe than an advance in the true method of construction of the sword. This has given way to the modern sword, which combines within itself all the powers of which the weapon is capable, is good as a guard for thrusting and for cutting. Slightly curved, but not so much as to impede its pointing power, nor so wide as to be too heavy, stiffened by grooves so as to be capable of use as a rapier, its blade, with an edge on one side along its length, is flattened at the point, where it is ribbed, for strength, into a two-edged sword (Fig. 29). The hilt has a wider guard, and is intermediate between the rapier type and that of the basket form. Adopting the principles that have obtained at various times, it is a good all-round weapon in skillful hands. While Western nations have thus tended to adopt a straight blade, Eastern races have almost without exception preferred a curved sword. By reason both of their physical peculiarities and of the lighter character of the armor they wear, they have been accustomed to administer cutting blows with their weapons rather than the straight, down-right strokes that are adapted to Western strength and armor, and a curved edge is more suitable for cutting blows. The hilt of the Eastern sword is small, and the boss, or pommel, at the end of the hilt is large, so as to prevent the sword from slipping when the drawing cut is made. The Asiatic swords exhibit, moreover, greater divergencies of type than the Western swords. Some, like the Persian cimeters (Fig. 30), and the Malay creeses (Fig. 31), are often wavy, sometimes resembling the conventional tongue of fire (flamboyant), forms which may be due to the influence of the priests of the fire or the sun, or may be copied from the curvature and ornamentation of the antelope-horn dagger. The Albanian sword has the edge thrown forward by the slight forward curvature of the blade, a feature which is heightened in the Goorkha knife, the owner of which, it is said, can decapitate an ox with one blow of it (Fig. 32). Some of the Eastern swords, as those of the Chinese, the Bashi-Bazouk or Circassian dagger, with its blade resembling the Roman gladius, and the Mahratta sword, are straight, like the Western weapons.

The ornamentation of all these weapons is very frequently only the survival of the methods by which the blades were fixed to their hilts, which was generally by thongs or rivets. Thus the Malay creese (Fig. 33) and the tulwar (Fig. 34) are made clearly to indicate the way in which the blade was originally lashed with cords to the hilt.

The sword does not rank so highly with savage nations as the spear

PSM V21 D091 Asiatic curved swords and surviving methods of attachment.jpg
Asiatic Curved Swords. Survivals of Methods of Attachment.

or club, and belongs to a higher civilization than that which is satisfied with hand-to-hand weapons of stone. But the development of the club into the sword is easily traceable, though the ultimate resultant is far inferior to the metal blades of even the bronze age. Figs. 35 to 41 show the successive steps. The New Zealand club (Fig. 35); the Indian collaree-stick (Fig. 36), often used as a missile; the Iroquois club (Figs. 37, 38), rendered good for piercing or cutting as well by a deer-horn point at first, and by an iron blade later on; the Marquesas (Fig. 39) or Tahiti cutting instrument, armed with sharks' teeth; the. Esquimau or Australian sword (Fig. 40), in which strips of meteoric iron, obsidian, or glass are inserted in a cleft in the side of a stick; and fastened by cement; and, lastly, the Mexican maquahuilt (Fig. 41), or wooden sword, armed with sharp, razor-like flakes of obsidian, are the progressive steps of savage life toward the sword. The last-mentioned weapon was deadly enough to be ranked with its iron compeer, for it is said to have been capable of cutting off a limb. In this respect it is the highest type of a sword of other materials than metal.

Of all weapons, the sword has held throughout historic time the highest place. Its use implied the personal courage of the individual at close quarters. The arrow might slay at a distance, and be discharged by a coward. The spear, again, if long enough and deftly

PSM V21 D092 Development of the sword among savages.jpg
Development of the Sword among Savages.

held, could kill without risk to the holder thereof, unless the adversary were similarly armed. But the sword meant personal conflict, where the victory was not always to the strong. Rightly it is the sign of might and governance, for it implies both the will and the power to execute the behests of its holder. It is one of the insignia of authority, because it is the sign of courage and skill.


  1. From a paper by C. Cooper King, of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.'s "Science for All."