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What Makes a Blade?

We’re still alive, here at Caer Dave. The last assault was repulsed with a barrage of cupcakes. It was close for a bit, there, but one of the battle pucks managed to turn on the television, and the Horde is nothing if not easily distracted by the sweet and the shiny. Unfortunately, the ongoing vegetal threat has brought us all a great deal of discomfort. Wee Dave’s cough has been mistaken for the cry of the hunting hellhound. Wee-er Dave’s sinuses are an ever-giving wellspring of life-giving fluid (well, it’s fluid, and stuff can grow on it *shudder*). And me? Dave is fighting off a full-blown sinus infection through frequent application of saline wash, pseudoephedrine, and that wunderdrug: Afrin. With some success, I’m pleased to relate.

Now, to the topic! What makes a sword? Not who: that’s a blacksmith. A swordsmith, specifically, but that’s for another discussion. Mirriam-Webster has two … semi-useful definitions, only one of which is technical: a weapon with a long blade for cutting or thrusting. Which is sort of accurate. A sword, at base, is length of sharpened metal with a grip on one end, used as a weapon. Early swords were functionally large knives made of cast copper, and later bronze, often leaf-shaped blades with a notable point.

Later swords became longer (with some curious diversions like the Egyptian sickle-sword, the khopesh, or the Iberian falcata) as forging technology improved and allowed iron to be worked in place of bronze. Forged iron, and later and more importantly steel, have a significant advantage over bronze: iron is far more commonly found than copper or the other elements used to turn it into bronze. It also has a higher tensile strength which allows for longer and thinner blades. On the downside, steel takes an edge no better than bronze, and it corrodes much more readily. Mostly, though, iron requires higher heat to smelt than bronze does to melt, and that and the relative ubiquity of iron ore doomed bronze as a common weapon metal.

Curiously, swords were rarely a primary weapon in muscle-powered militaries. The hoplites used spears, as did Chinese armies. The sword – and this is a key piece of understanding – was a sidearm, and a symbol. As I’m delving into HEMA, I’m finding that many of the fencing treatises are primarily for civilian use, and upper-class civilians, at that. The class of people who could afford a sword.

As I’ve mentioned before, HEMA, or historical fencing typically follows one of two traditions. The Italian school and the German school. Ultimately, there’s just enough difference to keep things interesting, though it seems mostly to be a matter of emphasis. Interestingly, Japanese kenjutsu bears significant resemblance to Western swordsmanship, from a purely biomechanical perspective. There are, after all, only so many ways to effectively use a sword.

Now, HEMA is a pretty broad umbrella. The primary historical treatises for specifically medieval swordsmanship are for one or two handed swords (ignoring for now any and all gaming terminology, please). They instructed for one purpose: self-defense. From there, things begin to get knotty. Fiore has sections treating on unarmed wrestling, dagger, spear, sword in one hand, sword in two hands, sword in armor, spear, and polearm (I’m nearly certain I’ve forgotten something).

From there, in the late medieval period and into the Renaissance period, there are treatises of instruction in the rapier, and then schools teaching rapier, saber, and then small sword and stick fighting. Like I said: HEMA is a BIG tent, and since most of the work is being done by enthusiasts, there’s a distinct tendency to take what you love and run with it.

For the discerning writer, then, how do we deal with the multiferrous multifarious bladed weapons? Common sense, honestly. Which can be extraordinarily difficult for genre writers, but I trust we can manage. Let your technology level dictate your weaponry. Setting something in late Bronze Age and your characters aren’t likely to be walking around in plate armor carrying long swords (let alone longswords). For one, bronze thick enough to act as armor is *heavy*. And bronze is expensive. Even at the height of the technology, terrestrial deposits of copper are few and far between, often boosting those owning them to the heights of power and wealth.

This is at once invigorating, and discouraging. Every line I write gives me more questions to ask. Honestly, I often feel like chucking realism, and diving into pure fantasy and obeying the Rule of Cool when it comes to writing about swords and writing sword. But that way lies anime and Victorian misconceptions. Next week, I’m planning to lay out useful terms to know when discussing swords and what makes an effective one. This is proving a much more in depth discussion than I’d expected, and I’d appreciate it if you would help keep me honest and on track. And not boring. The last thing I want to do is bore you. That would be … dull …

15 Comments
  1. A topic after my own heart!

    April 30, 2019
  2. Margaret Ball #

    Oh, goodie! Another series of informative posts that I can stash for future reference, thank you!

    April 30, 2019
  3. Looking forward to more of this.

    April 30, 2019
  4. Always make sure your sword does not have an off-switch…

    The giant dog got up and ambled over to stand next to George, sniffing the air.

    “Spike!” exclaimed George ruffling the dog’s ears. “Who’s the best dog ever?!”

    Spike gave George a poke with his nose and little lick of greeting. He was the best dog, obviously. Then he sniffed the air again and growled briefly.

    “Yep, they’re here,” agreed George. “This time we protect you, okay? No need to bite them unless it all goes to hell.”

    Spike grumbled at that but lay down with his head up and ears up. He wanted to bite them. Biting the one in the park had been excellent. The first one was getting close, and it smelled like fear. Spike gave it a woof of warning.

    George watched his sensors on the drop-down visor of his helmet. The five human shaped figures were painted on the clear, see-through surface. The first one stopped walking forward, froze in his tracks. All five pointed their guns at the dog, clearly in close communication with each other. Then they all started checking their guns, as the intended conflagration of plasma fire did not occur.

    “Oops,” said Cook absently.

    “That first guy in line looks like he might need to change his pants,” commented George heartlessly. The consternation of the figure was comically obvious. “Major malfunction, code brown.”

    “Now what?” asked Sun a little testily. She was not in a mood for snarky banter. She had left her big Chinese sword in its scabbard on her back and her railgun on the lawn, but she was fingering her fighting stick in a meaningful way. Somebody was going to get a beating.

    “Now we check to see if those bodies are stolen,” said Cook.

    George nodded. “Let’s tear off the sheets and see what’s what.” George blinked and the five figures shimmered into visibility, their stealth suits sabotaged just as their plasma guns had been. Nammu Chen’s nanotech infection was as effective as she had said it would be. They stood revealed under the streetlights, five men in black armor and round, blacked-out helmets, looking at each other in surprise. “Evening, gents. Nice night for a stroll, eh?”

    Without a word the five of them slung their guns on their backs and took weapons from their belts. Metal handgrips extended glowing white wires, carbon nanotube monofilament swords. They could cut through armor easily.

    “Naughty naughty,” chided George, shaking his finger at them as their swords drooped and sputtered out. “You guys don’t seem to have grasped your situation here. You are busted. Put your weapons on the ground and surrender.”

    The five dropped the useless filament swords, seized knives off their belts and attacked. The first struck at George with an overhand stab. George calmly stepped into the swing, blocked it with his hand and punched the man in the face. He carefully pulled the punch so that it only shook the man’s brain inside his skull a little bit, rather than tearing his head off. The man dropped flat on his back, unconscious.

    Sun Phoenix grinned, more of a terrifying rictus of bared teeth than an expression of humor. “Allow me, Robert,” she said, and laid into the four attacking mutineers with her fighting stick. She could have decapitated them all with a couple of swipes, instead she fought them at human speed with human-level muscle power. She moved among them like a fox in a chicken coop, her stick flashing from helmet to knee to elbow to wrist. She disarmed them with blows to the arms and hands, slowed their movements with joint strikes, and finished them off with blows to the sternum, spearing each one with the tip of the fighting stick. There she used her full strength to defeat their armor and strike them with bone-breaking force. They lay curled-up on the asphalt, moaning faintly inside their helmets.

    Spike remained with Robert Cook on the front lawn, watching the proceedings with interest. Humans didn’t have proper teeth and they were a bit spindly, but their fighting was good. Sun had impressed him. He gave a deep wuff of approval and wagged his tail.

    Cook looked at Spike with a little suspicion. “How much of this do you really understand?” he asked the dog pointedly.

    Spike licked Cook’s gloved hand in answer. He understood enough to know which side he was on, and that was all that really mattered. Cook was one of his humans, and Spike liked it that way. He got up and wandered off to mark territory in the back yard, satisfied the action was over.

    April 30, 2019
  5. *happily bookmarks this post*

    April 30, 2019
  6. Mary #

    Aristotle commented on how iron meant the change from the noble warrior to the citizen one — you could arm that many more men.

    April 30, 2019
  7. Uncle Lar #

    Steel is just iron with a bit of carbon and some other trace elements.
    And somewhere in the distant mists of time a smith discovered that if you heat steel to a very precise glowing temperature then quickly cool the metal you can set the grain structure and make it much harder and have the ability to bend and spring back to its original shape.
    Probably somewhere in the middle east, Damascus perhaps.

    May 1, 2019
  8. Just sent in my Baen Fantasy entry with a Fae knight in bronze plate-armor, horse and all. When I read the remarks above I wondered if I should have changed it, but then remembered– this is Faerie we’re talking about. It’s supposed to be impossible. These Fae have flintlock firearms, space-time manipulation, and automobiles all running on magic. Why not enough bronze to plate a horse? Just don’t use (or make ’em touch) iron, and they’ll be ju-u-u-u-ust fine…

    Moral of the above: in Faerie, distrust your eyes because anything is probable. And the best way to break the rules– like laws of physics and such– is on purpose.

    May 1, 2019
    • Since these are hi-tech Fae, perhaps they use bronze thread interwoven with carbon fiber pressed into forms for their armor? It would be lighter, stronger, and use less material that way.

      May 1, 2019
      • Maybe. Or maybe it’s not bronze after all. They keep telling our hero not to trust anything he sees.
        (Of course, that can’t be trusted either, now that I think about it.)

        May 1, 2019
        • There was enough bronze around to make hollow statues of men, horses, and a chariot. So it indicates fabulous wealth, but is not ridiculous.

          May 1, 2019
          • Oh, and the current theory on the realism of Greek and Roman bronze statues is that they put clay all over a person or horse and used that as a mold, like casting a life mask.

            May 1, 2019
            • Mike Houst #

              Well that’s pretty smart if you ask me.

              May 1, 2019
  9. Apparently the other reason why bronze preceded iron was copper used to be found in pure native state, often associated with copper ore; and copper ore often contained various other elements, such as arsenic, which contaminated the melt (and incidentally poisoned the people smelting it), but also served to make a stronger alloy.

    Theory is that iron was discovered by accident, probably by someone using rocks of iron ore to line a fire pit with, and having an unusually hot fire that reduced the ore to metallic iron pieces.

    One of my projects this summer, if the bog behind the house dries up enough, is to see how much bog iron nuggets I can harvest from it. If I can get 25 pounds of ore, I’ll have enough to attempt a small bloomery furnace to see if I can get real iron out of it. (May have to invite some anthropology and engineering students from UNH over for that – their professors should love it.)

    May 1, 2019
    • Arsenical bronze was highly valued in some places. Arsenical gold was used in South America (and elsewhere) because the color made a nice contrast with pure gold, and it wasn’t as soft. The long-term effects on the guys working the blow-pipes to speed up melting, however…

      May 1, 2019

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