Anatomy Lesson

Talking about swords is kinda difficult. Case in point: last week I tried to give a definition, and ended up skewing off into the weeds of history almost immediately. In discussing this very difficulty with Tom (who has just founded the Albany Study Group of Schola Saint George) he suggested I leave you with the definition with which I started last week, and tell you to go an prosper, under the assumption that suffering produces better art. Now, I didn’t tell him to get bent (I figure his mettle is better than *that*) and I’m not going to let him know his oh-so-clever japes actually helped.

You see, for every rule I can give or make up about swords, there’s an entire host of exceptions. After all, a gladius (despite simply meaning “sword”) is not a shamshir, is not a katana, is not a rapier, is not a light cavalry saber. Though, the shamshir and the light cavalry saber do share a number of similarities …

Still! We have to start somewhere. Swords always have a blade and a grip. From there, things start to get interesting. For the purposes of writing, medieval swords have a specific anatomy we can leverage to make things more interesting. Or, at least to make it all clearer in our heads, as our readers are often less interested in the arcane details than they are in who sticks the sword into whom.

Your basic arming sword, as used by countless Crusaders, was a cruciform sword, with a blade pointed enough for thrusting, and wide enough for cutting. (In our discussions, I’ll be using cutting instead of slicing or chopping or striking (assuming I can remember to do so) as the basic use of a blade is to cut, and the other synonyms, while serving to spice up actual fiction, change the action just enough to muddy the conversation.) Said arming sword was intended for use in one hand, leaving the other free for a shield or buckler (*sigh*, yet another discussion). The blade usually demonstrated both distal taper (the blade got thinner from the guard to the tip) as well as profile taper (the blade narrowed from the grip to just behind the tip). The guard was a simple crossbar, usually of steel or iron, through which the tang of the blade was inserted. These are often called quillons (or quillions, thank you linguistic drift). The grip was of wood, often wrapped in leather, and sometimes wire or cord to give a better, well, grip. (Wire usually went around the outside of the leather, while cord was wrapped around the wood under the leather.) At the butt end of the grip was a pommel, often a wheel shape, but often the so-called “scent stopper” shape, a roughly quadrangle solid that looks, basically, like the stopper for an old-fashioned perfume bottle. Even then, early medieval arming swords had a brazil-nut shaped pommel, a carryover from early Viking-style swords. The portion of the sword comprised of the pommel, grip, and guard are collectively called the hilt.

The blade itself has a few distinct features, as well. Arming swords usually had distinct points, to enable effective thrusting. They had two edges, both equally suitable for cutting. The sword (the complete product, as distinct from just the blade) has the center of balance, around which the sword moves most easily. It also has the center of percussion, the spot on the blade most suitable for striking (though that’s debated.) Additionally, you’ll find discussion of the forte and foible, the strong and weak of the blade. The former is the portion of the blade just above the guard, while the latter is the length below the point. Even then, those terms usually refer more to fencing.

Now, this is the part where we start to get tricky. I mentioned a while back that you should think on fitting the swords your characters carry to the setting. A vaguely European setting will often have straight swords. But, then, so will a Chinese-ish setting. Even a roughly Arabic setting is going to see some straight swords, as the characteristic curve of the scimitar, shamshir, and tulwar were imports from parts even more easterly, like Persia and India. And speaking of India, you can find plenty of straight bladed swords there, too. Even the iconic katana wasn’t always curved. Go back far enough in time, and you find straight bladed swords manufactured in Japan.

Basically, you can almost always find an exception to any given rule, because the point of weapons is to kill the other guy, and so form follows function in how they were made and what forms they took. The trick for fantasy, and even more so for SF that takes a quasi-fantastic form (alt history, or something like the Ringo/Weber March series, or Weber’s own Safehold books) is that the weapons used should conform to the purpose for which they’re used. If you’re writing marine warfare using triremes (or any of the other oar-powered galleys) in a late Iron-age setting, think about equipping your marines with short, stabbing swords. If it’s much later in technological development, think about longer blades with more complex hilts. Or even later, when your marines are less likely to be wearing armor, equip them with cutlasses, boarding axes, and marlin spikes. Smallswords for the officers.

And when you have an except, let the reader know why it’s an exception. The scene in the 13th Warrior is almost perfect for this (though painful in other, more technical regards) where the viewpoint character is demonstrably unable to use a “heavy” Viking sword, and has a more familiar one crafted for him. The view immediately understands that he’s incapable of basic competency with the strange weapon, but an expert with a familiar one. I object to that on other grounds, but it serves as an excellent means for impressing upon the reader why an exception is just that.

Writing swords is hard. Scratch that. Remove “swords.” Now it reads right. Research, research, research. Get it as right as you can, and then talk to experts. There are sword experts out there. I’m not one, truly. Show your work to an expert, and then discount anything that would hurt the story. And remember the mantra: “It’s more complicated than that.”


  1. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    I would love to have the time to do serious research. Just not gonna happen. I did read a few books about horses, so I wouldn’t totally screw them up, and I have referenced images of sword anatomy, but if I went much deeper it would take ten years to put out a book instead of 2-3.

      1. Honestly? Most of the time as long as you’ve read two or three halfway decent books on any given topic you know enough about it to avoid making any errors that more than 1% of your readers will notice.

        1. If you are writing hard sci fi, or a similarly demanding genre, that one percent might be seventy percent of your actual audience. It is probably possible to write sci fi so hard that your audience is mostly people who can tell which papers you based the story on, and have intuitions about which theories are correct or incorrect.

          I’m heavily drawn towards writing fanfic with entirely too many crossover fanfic elements. Watching all the animes carefully is well beyond the level of research I am willing to do. Yet, I am still doing some research. Long term, I may spend some time studying how small an amount of research I can get away way with on which sort of projects.

          I’ve spent six months on the current project, and refuse to think about how much longer it may take. I really do not want to be working at the same rate when I am more settled in my fiction writing. Lee’s comment about two to three years horrifies me.

          Yet, in theory I am willing to take on multiyear research heavy non-fiction writing projects. Am I not serious about writing fiction? Do I lack a production mindset when it comes to non-fiction?

          1. …and that 1% is why you find one, befriend them, write the darned thing anyway, and then hand it to them to critique as a subject matter expert.

            Or if you’re still not certain, you say to ’em, “I want to do this with my character.” When they respond with a long, drawn-out, “Ummmm….”, the next thing you say is “Okay, really, I want my character to somehow get from here to there, using this, I think, in order ot get this solution but also this problem.”

            And then your subject matter expert goes “Oh! You’re using entirely the wrong equipment! But if you do this, instead, and what’s your timeframe? How many people? Does it have to be a parachute jump, or would open-water ditching be okay?” …and then you are drinking from a firehose (which your prior research really helps you understand), and you end up with not the scene you envisioned, but one that really works. And then you throw it at a different subject matter expert to beta-read.

  2. If you need to give details, get them right. Otherwise know enough to get the big picture right . . . and a little more wouldn’t hurt.

      1. Mostly when they use three-plus all at one time. On the other other hand, we have Mack McGillicuddy, who has for each day of the week a sword particularly for warfare in the late afternoon.

        1. And these characters would get on a high horse if someone even suggested they trade in one of their swords. They’ve been using them for eleven levels now, and know all their quirks.

          Not to mention that when you pick up a legendary sword at first level, you’re kind of fond of it.

          (Don’t worry. Their superiors have been throwing them into water over their head ever since on the grounds that people with legendary weapons can cope with everything.)

      2. 3 or more swords means you’re probably writing about Moties, Velantians, Rigelians, Far East deities, Edosians, Nightcrawler from X-Men, etc. So either fantasy or science fiction worlds, and not historical fiction.

  3. Mostly when they use three-plus all at one time. On the other other hand, we have Mack McGillicuddy, who has for each day of the week a sword particularly for warfare in the late afternoon.

  4. “(Wire usually went around the outside of the leather, while cord was wrapped around the wood under the leather.)”
    That whole layering thing reminds me of baseball construction.

    IIRC, most swords used from horseback are either going to be designed to chop with, or to spear with. The choppers would typically be weighted more toward the distal end of the blade to increase the force of the blows; and might even reverse the taper so the point end was wider than the hilt. Those made for spearing would normal tapered, lighter point/heavier hilt, and often curved so that as the rider passed his target, the blade would pull free from the body more easily. A saber is kind of a compromise (general purpose?) cavalry weapon in that it was strong enough to chop with, but also curved and not point heavy.

    I do notice an extreme similarity in foil/epee techniques, and those techniques taugh to military members for fixed bayonet use; which primarily rely on point work and using the weapon itself for parrying.

    Yes, it’s easy to get lost in the details until hours later when the sun goes down and you can’t see the pages anymore (unless you’re looking at a screen.)

    To katana or not katana? I almost want to blame that on the Highlander influence. Between an expert katana wielder and an expert saber? I’d call it a draw (no pun intended.) The katana is going to have a more powerful strike due to the two-handed grip. I’d go with the saber having greater speed, being lighter and one handed. And in real life, both swords are going to end up being damaged if the fight goes longer than a single pass.

    Which brings up a final point. Real life swords in real battles get bent, broken, and chipped. If they’re not maintained, they get dull, and corroded, and the grips can rot. And even with maintenance, you may not be able to grind and polish out the missing chunk that last Reaver’s battle axe took out of your nice steel blade. Unless they’re magical, they have a limited life expectancy

    1. I smacked mine into a block of concrete (why, no, a pumpkin will not stop a sword). I was surprised that there was no damage, not even a knick, to the edge. The concrete, on the other hand, still bears the scars.

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