World Building Tips: Swords

Flamberge, claymore, rapier, xiphos, dao, kopis. All funny words, all swords. But which sword is the right sword for your world? Each one is unique with features that are exactly the way they are to suit the needs of the person wielding it. Swords differ somewhat from bows in this regard (we talked about bows in another article here, BTW). Bows are all quite similar for the most part; they’re all designed to function in much the same manner: throw the pointy stick at the bad guy really hard. The differences between bows are more about tailoring the weapon to the user rather than tailoring it to the enemy one is facing. Not so with swords. No two types are intended to be used in precisely the same way. This one cuts well, this one is particularly good at stabbing, this is one is designed to look like a… well, let’s just say getting killed by a kpinga is particularly emasculating. I’ll leave it there. The point is that swords are built with a specific style of use in mind, against a specific type of target in mind. We’ll cover some of those specifics here in order to help you world build the best blades for your story.

There are two main factors that dictate what sort of sword is likely to be used in any given time and place. The first and most important of these two factors is the armor currently in use. Think of it like a chess game. Armor is the opening move (though may have itself been a response to a previous advance in sword or other weapons tech) while a sword is the counter move. A rapier is all but useless against plate armor, just as a claymore is probably too slow to fight a lightly armored foot soldier. When you visualize armies in your world, what do you see? There are exceptions, but a good rule of thumb is that the stronger the armor, the heavier the sword.

See, there’s a bit of a misconception about armor out there that we need to clear up. It’s actually crazy hard to “beat” most armor by slashing or even stabbing. Armor is a lot better at doing its job than we (or hollywood) tend to give it credit for. In the era of plate armor, longswords were incredibly popular, not only because of the whole cutty-stabby thing that they’re really good at, but because they offered two direct counters to plate armor. First, the murder stroke (my favorite thing to say ever). This is when a soldier would hold onto the blade with both hands and uses the pommel/guard of the sword as a hammer. Plate is great at defending cuts and stabs, not as good at resisting blunt force trauma. The second technique also involves grabbing the blade, this time with only one hand, in a move called half-swording. By holding the blade in this way the swordsman can direct the tip very accurately towards the small gaps in their opponent’s plate armor to hopefully get in a killing blow. Furthermore the weight of the sword can be effective in and of itself in delivering enough raw force to at least stun a heavily armored opponent.

That said, knights didn’t tend to use their swords except as a backup weapon. Pole weapons like halberds, spears, pikes, and the like were often the primary weapon, as well as maces and other bludgeoning weapons. Don’t just assume your medieval character wields a sword because it’s…well…medieval…Things like social class, difficulty of use, etc. all need to be taken into account. The weapon of choice throughout history for the common footsoldier has not historically been the sword, but the spear. For someone with little armor or experience, the advantage of distance provided by a pole weapon and the ease of simply jabbing with a pointed stick really can’t be overstated. Combine this with the fact that swords are costly and often restricted to the nobility by law, and it’s unlikely your wide-eyed farm boy would have ever seen a sword up close, let alone have mastered its use in his spare time by the time he’s sixteen.

It’s hard to be exhaustive in a subject as broad and diverse as swords, but the point here is that just about no sword ever was designed with no thought over and above “sharp metal thing cut stab KILL” or “stick ‘em with the pointy end.”

Got chainmail? Congratulations, stabbing is now significantly more effective! Slashing is still pretty ineffective in most cases, but at least you’ve got the stabby part going, right? Now that doesn’t mean just any old sword will be able to thrust effectively, it’s still really hard to do and will require a specific blade profile. A hard, narrow, straight point might be able to puncture mail with enough force, but anything else probably won’t be very good. Curved blades are out, and so are rounded tips. Historical exceptions exist, but for now let’s just say that the exception proves the rule.

Now we’re getting to lightly armored opponents, whether that means a gambeson, leather, or even no armor at all. Slashing, stabbing, it’s all fair game now. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but it’s at least an option now. Get out your curved blades, your skinny blades, pretty much whatever you want. Now the question is, why would armor be so lax? It exists to keep slashing and stabbing from being effective, so you’re going to need a pretty strong reason to keep armor out of the equation. The key to all of this is to treat swords and armor as equal parts of one equation. Each exists to counter the other, and if that balance is off your believability will suffer for it.

So, you might ask, what are some circumstances that might lead to a society using little/no armor? I’ll cover a few reasons here, and in no particular order:

  1. if your story takes place in an intensely hot area it stands to reason that warriors in that region would wear less armor. Armor is heavy and usually made of metal or multilayered, padded cloth, not exactly the kind of thing you want to sit and bake in for an extended battle, or walk around in all day. This can lead to troops wearing less armor, thus allowing for the emergence of curved slashing swords over time.

  2. Another reason, albeit an obvious one, is technology level. Simply put, good armor is more technologically advanced than most swords, so in early civilizations you could easily construct a scenario where you have swords but not sophisticated armor, and what armor is there probably wouldn’t stand up to much abuse, so slashing swords might be in play. Be careful that you don’t go too crazy here though, a lot of swords are pretty advanced technology-wise, so you need to be careful about putting your sword-cart before your armor-horse. For instance, bronze is too soft to make durable longswords, which is why bronze weapons tended to be short, thrusting tools.

I know we haven’t really gone over lots of specific types of swords here, and as regrettable as that is, it can’t really be helped. There are literally thousands of different types, and we just can’t cover them all. I’ll give you a few names to help you find what you’re looking for though.

Curved swords: Scimitar, cutlass (sometimes), katana, klewang, talwar, shamshir, falchion.

Straight swords: Arming sword, longsword, claymore, zweihänder, gladius, dao, khanda, pata, and of course many others.

Look some of those up for some inspiration, and have some fun with this! Even if it’s just for you, knowing the style and makeup of your swords can bring fresh life to your world. Happy world building!