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The Queen of Weapons
Some Thoughts on the Sword as a Facet of Heroic Expression
I highly recommend Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Book of the Sword
The first utility of the sword is that it is wedged to focus the energy of the stroke. The second utility of the sword is that it may be edged to prevent it from being grabbed and held, permitting the wielder to pull it from grasping hands—no, not if it is a flexible and minimally edged backsword [see the final duel in the movie Rob Roy] but if it is edged like a knife—making it ideal for the use of one against many lesser folk, the ultimate aristocratic weapon. Also, noting the improved balance of the sword favoring training over strength and wealth over brawn, in addition to the factor that longer hand weapons require longer time to proficient than smaller hand weapons or two-handed weapons, the sword was fated to become the symbol of will over mass and skill over energy.
In spring of 1739, while campaigning in Georgia against the Spanish, General Oglethorpe was attacked by a mutineer, and when he drew his sword, the mutinous British soldier grabbed it, took it from him and snapped it in half. This is a problem with the fairly dull, narrow, light and flexible dueling sword of the 18th century near the end of the sword’s trajectory as a martial weapon.
The simple balancing mechanics of the sword, whether descended from the heavy wedge, cleaving inspiration of the paddle and war club, the cutting inspiration of the knife or the stabbing inspiration of the dagger, the sword, depending on its design, will have 2 or 3 of these three qualities.
In Burton’s era, whence the armor of the knight had been driven into hiding by the ire of the gun, the precision of the stab against the unarmed foe proved lethal in duels, which were wed closely to social convention. Meanwhile, the slaughter potential of the usually curved cavalry blade, took hold of the popular imagination as a savage menace. Burton, who once commanded the savage “Troubled Head” unit of Balkan irregulars, pointed out in his book on the sword, that the stab of the straight sword—an easily accomplished bio-mechanical tasks given the requisite training—left a very narrow exsanguination channel when compared to the stab of the saber. That is kind of like saying, “It’s going to hurt more to have a hammer shoved up yours than a screwdriver.
The sword is best suited for three purposes:
-1. Being paired with shield, especially in combat with a spear and shield, which makes the sword and shield the natural back-up or last-ditch weapon in a spear and shield clash, and this would apply to lance and shield as well. [Roman]
-2. Being paired with the reigns of a horse in mobile use. [Asiatic]
-3. In any dueling context, as the sword is the dueling weapon par excellence, with more weight devoted to counterbalancing strokes than any other weapon. [Modern European]
The most highly effective swords of their types, where in Chronological order:
1200 B.C. Aor: Homeric/Biblical/Oligarchic: stabbing
600 B.C. Machera: Greco/Persian/Collective: cleaving
100 B.C. Gladius: Roman/Greco/Professional: cleaving/stabbing
A.D. 400: Spathe, established feudal order: slashing
A.D. 1000: Arming sword [looking like a cross between an aor and spathe, or a gladius] cleaving/stabbing
A.D 1500: two-handed swords give way to other two-handed weapons and firearms
A. D. 1600-1900: sword use in war was almost exclusively the edge and in the duel almost exclusively the point, slaughter and honor cleanly defined as separate, possibly the greatest contribution of ethics to the body of warrior means.
As late at 1910, men such as future U.S. General Patton, who was an Olympic team member with the sword, advocated the use of the thrusting sword for cavalry charges as opposed to using the slashing sword to ride past and slash, a lower skill/lower energy deployment of that impulse to ride down the foe.
In the end the kukri knife of Nepal, the machete of the Philippines, the katana of Japan and the smatchet of the U.S. all evolved from something else into a means of chopping off hands and heads in close contact.
More complex and simple swords would evolve, with the practical slash forever in contention with the lethal contention.
The last full scale military sword fights were around and on The Great Wall of China, in WWII, as entire sword-armed divisions of Chinese soldiers with heavy cleaving broadswords hacked it out with Japanese soldiers and officers armed with bayoneted rifles and katanas.
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