With the definition of sword as a weapon with a long blade set into a hilt, then obviously clubs, spears, and axes predated swords because the latter would have been much easier to make. Although early swords were made of wood, bone, and stone, it was metal that really made swords possible.
The earliest metal swords were short swords. These were single-handed, double-edged swords, very wide at the hilt and were good for slicing and thrusting. The Greek swords (phasganon and xiphos) tended to have leaf blades (slightly wider before the tip) while the Roman swords tended to have straight blades. The most famous short sword was the gladius: standard issue for the Roman Empire. This was probably the longest lasting version of the sword. The Roman Empire spread, the shorter gladius (which favored cutting) spawned a longer version called the spatha (which favored thrusting).
The continental Asian "barbarians" were renowned for their sabers and scimitars: the single-handed, single-edged swords with curved blades that were good for slicing and thrusting, esp. while on horse-back. Interestingly enough the Asians were also known for their recurved weapons, like kopis, falcatas, and kukris, as well as other blade curvatures such as kriss (flamberge).
日本刀 = Nihon to = Japanese swords
Japan spent centuries in isolation perfecting variations of their single-edged blades. Before 0987, Japanese swords (chokuto or jokoto) were largely straight with variations. But as time progressed, the signature Japanese single-edge sword developed with the center of the curve gradually shifting from koshizori (nearer the hilt) to sakizori (nearer the tip) over time --a shift that facilitated a draw in one action instead of two. The pinnacle of Japanese swords are the koto = old swords, made between 0987 and 1597. Later swords are the shinto = new swords. There was a brief revival in between 1761 and 1876 with swords called shinshinto = new new swords, that were between the koto and shinto in quality.
Modern swords manufactured approximating traditional methods are called shinsakuto and there are a few hundred Japanese swordsmiths licensed to make shinken = real swords. Nihonto are Japanese style swords manufactured in Japan.
Japanese blades were measured in shaku (10 sun or 100 bu or 11.93 inches or 30.30 cm). The nagasa (blade length) is the straight line between the tip (kissaki) and where false edge shoulder of the blade (munemachi). There were several categories of length:
- Odachi = Great sword. Aka nodachi = field sword. Over 3 shaku.
- Daito. Longswords. Over 2 shaku.
- Shoto. Aka wakizashi; kodachi; koshigatana = waist sword; chisakatana. Short swords. 1-2 shaku. Chisakatana are not usually paired and are longer shoto.
- Tanto. Knives. Less than 1 shaku.
Only the samurai were allowed to have daisho = big small, the 2 sword set; everyone else was limited to shoto.
There are two most common styles of daito:
- Tachi. Aka uchigatana. Common before 1500, these were worn jindachi-zukuri style: Edge down, suspended by hangers on the saya (scabbard). Commonly 75 cm = 30 inches.
- Katana. Common after 1500, these were worn buke-zukuri style: Edge up in the obi (belt). Commonly 65 cm = 26 inches.
The European "barbarians" were renowned for their Scandinavian or Viking swords: the single-handed, double-edged swords with straight blades that were good for hacking and thrusting, but were very similar to the spatha. Later lighter versions of this sword design were called riding swords. Many single-handed swords with straight across quillons were also called cruciform swords not only to describe the cross-shape but also to reinforce the dominance of Christianity.
The Middle Ages saw the rise of several famous kinds swords. The fantastic two-handed swords (aka great swords) were rare. The long sword (aka hand-and-a-half sword (Spada da Una Mano e Mezza in Italian) or bastard sword) arose in the 1200s. The long swords were double-edged blades that gradually changed from straight swords to more tapered blades that could be used to pierce the evolving armor (chain to plate). Long swords were war swords, working swords: thick and sturdy. They were made so not only because they dealt with blows and bones, arms and armor, but also because war swords were expensive, difficult to make, and thus expected to survive more than one battle.
With such an image, swords also acquired another purpose: they became symbols. The noblemen, the warrior class started wearing swords when unarmored, when in civilian dress. The powerful merchants then started wearing swords too as symbols of power and for the sake of fashion. Duels, which had once been a means to settle disputes between nobles, started spreading to civilians. The art of defense (hence "fencing") became ubiquitous. The sport of fencing was being formed. Thus the sword evolved from use in battle to use duels and sport.
In the late 1400s longer and more slender versions of the cruciform sword were starting to appear in Southern Europe called the side sword (Spada da Lato in Italian). These swords were made for two reasons: 1. Armor improved so thrusting was favored over cutting. 2. Such a sword was more convenient for civilians. Marxbruder of Frankfurt was founded in 1480 as one of the earliest fencing guilds. The known masters of the side sword include Achille Marozzo and Angelo Viggiani.
The 1500s saw the further development of the rapier (Spada da Lato a Striscia or striscia in Italian). One possible origin of the word "rapier" is from "espada ropera", Spanish for "robe sword" or "dress sword". Pre-rapiers and rapiers started providing more hand protection because civilians, duelists, and sportsmen were generally unarmored. Finger rings were added, then more elaborate quillons, side bars, sweeping bars, cup hilts, and eventually saber guards in later centuries. In 1570 Frenchman Henri Saint-Didier named fencing's major movements and most of those names have survived into modern times. Italian masters such as Camillo Agrippa, Giacomo di Grassi, Salvatore Fabris, and Capo Ferro developed pragmatic systems, introducing innovations such as basic guards, the cone of defense, linear fencing, parrying, and the lunge.
Of course cutting swords did not disappear. The Scottish in particular have two distinctive contributions. The claymore was a two-handed, double-edged sword with distinctively downward sloping cross guards that was used from the 1300s to the 1700s. The 1500s saw the development of the Scottish basket-hilt sword: a single-handed, double-edged sword that enclosed the hand in a metal basket hilt that often has leather or cloth as well. The basket-hilt protected the hand, counter balanced the blade, and was decorative as well. The Scottish basket-hilt sword is also sometimes called a "Claymore" and was popularly used through to the 1700s.
The 1600s saw the peak of the rapier, culminating in the longest and safest rapiers yet: the Spanish cup-hilt rapiers. Spanish masters such as Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez and Girard Thibault d'Anvers developed complicated, geometric, and mystical system. Guns were becoming the main weapon of war. Sword were being reduced as devices for tradition and sport. The rapier started getting lighter and shorter.
In the 1700s dueling and sport fencing was undergoing refinements. Single stick fencing (fencing with wooden sticks) was practiced. The rapier had evolved into the lighter and shorter small sword and its practice sword: the foil. The foil had a flattened ("foiled") tip, hence the name. The safety tip resembled a flower bud, thus in France the practice small sword became known as le fleuret. Rules were developed that limited the target areas. The wire-mesh mask was developed. These French small sword schools (salles) formed the basis of modern fencing theory.
By 1800s, in order to reduce the number of fatalities in duels, the small sword lost its cutting edge all together and became the dueling sword (Spanish epee de terrain) and its practice sword: the épée (epee). By the late 1800s practicing for swung swords such as backswords, sabers, and cutlasses went from using heavy sticks or heavy metal swords to a safer saber systems such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager.
The late 1800s is considered by some to be the period of "Classical Fencing", a transitional period between the preceding "historical fencing" and the following "modern competitive sport fencing".
In 1896 the first modern Olympic games added foil and saber fencing events for men. In 1900 the games added epee. In 1904, the games featured single stick! In 1924 the games added women's foil. 1936, 1956, and 1988 the games electrified epee, foil, and saber respectively. In 1989 the game featured women's epee. In 1996 the games added women's epee. Women's saber is scheduled to be added to the games in 2004. Olympic Style Fencing (OSF) is one of the few sports that has been contested in all of the Olympic games.
The introduction of shinai (bamboo practice swords) and bogu (kendo armor) has been attributed to 長沼四郎左衛門国郷 = Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato (1688/1767). However modern kendo took hold in Japan in the late 1800s.
There is a current movement to explore swordsmanship as it was before it became sports oriented. This is the basis of historical swordplay. There are multiple reasons for studying historical swordplay:
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