Classification of swords

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The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise, and has varied widely over time. Historical terms without a universal consensus of definition (such as "broadsword", "long sword", "short-sword", "bastard sword", "great sword", "full-bladed sword", "side-sword", "dual-bladed sword" and "two-handed sword") were used to label weapons of similar appearance but of different historical periods and fabrication technology, often by describing their size or shape relative to other unrelated weapons, without regard to their intended use and fighting style. In modern times, many of these terms have been given specific, often arbitrary meanings that are unrelated to any of their historical meanings.


Some of these terms originate contemporaneously with the weapons they describe. Others are modern or early modern terms used by antiquarians, curators, and modern-day sword enthusiasts for historical swords.

Terminology was further complicated by terms introduced (e.g. "hand-and-a-half sword", "single-handed sword", "Pappenheimer",[1][2] "Walloon sword", "Sinclair Sabre", "Mortuary sword", "spada da lato", "town sword", etc.) or misinterpreted (e.g. bastard sword, broadsword,[3][4] rapier,[5] estoc, flamberge, etc.) in the 19th century by antiquarians, and in 20th century pop culture (sword and sorcery fiction, role playing games, fighting games, etc.), and by the addition of new terms such as "great sword", "Zweihänder" (instead of Bidenhänder), and "cut-and-thrust sword". Historical European Martial Arts associations have turned the term spada da lato, a term that was coined by Italian curators, into "side-sword". Furthermore, there is a deprecation of the term broadsword by these associations. All these newly introduced or redefined sword terms add to the confusion of the matter.

The most well-known systematic typology of blade types of the European medieval sword is the Oakeshott typology, although this is also a modern classification and not a medieval one. Elizabethans used descriptive terms such as "short", "bastard", and "long" which emphasized the length of the blade, and "two-handed" for any sword that could be wielded by two hands.

Classification by hilt type[edit]


The term two-handed sword, used as a general term, may refer to any large sword designed to be used primarily with two hands:

The term "hand-and-a-half sword" is modern (late 19th century).[6] During the first half of the 20th century, the term "bastard sword" was used regularly to refer to this type of sword, while "long sword" or "long-sword", if used at all, referred to the rapier (in the context of Renaissance or Early Modern fencing).[7]

The term "single-handed sword" (or "one-handed sword") is a retronym coined to disambiguate from "two-handed" or "hand-and-a-half" specimens. "Single-handed sword" is used by Sir Walter Scott.[8] It is also used as a possible gloss of the obscure term tonsword by Nares (1822);[9] "one-handed sword" is somewhat later, recorded from c. 1850.

Apparently, some swords were designed for left-hand use, although left-handed swords have been described as "a rarity".[10]

Great sword[edit]

These include the long swords in both the Middle Ages[11][12][13][dubious ] and Renaissance, like the "outsized specimens" - between 90 cm and 120 cm - such as the Oakeshott type XIIa or Oakeshott type XIIIa. These swords can be wielded with either one hand or with two hands, but their grip may be designed specifically for one hand, two hands, or the “hand-and-half” grip where the off-hand grips the pommel, depending on the preference of the wielder.


The Scottish name Claymore (Gaelic claidheamh mor, lit. "great sword")[14][15] can refer to either the longsword with a distinctive two-handed grip, or the basket-hilted sword[citation needed] developing from a rapier.[citation needed]


The Bidenhänder or two-hander is the "true" two-handed sword. It was a specialist weapon wielded by certain Landsknechte Doppelsöldners. It is highly doubtful that these two-handed swords were used to chop off the point of pikes; however, the two-handed sword was an ideal weapon for protecting the standard bearer or a breach since a Doppelsöldner armed with one could fend off many attackers by using moulinets.[citation needed]


Swordstaff (Svärdstav) is a Scandinavian sword-polearm hybrid, used in medieval times. It is made by placing a blade at the end of a staff, thus giving the same benefits of a sword with the reach of a spear or polearm. This helps the soldier fighting enemies both on foot and mounted.

The length of the weapon makes it easier to fight mounted opponents, while the blade is still handy enough to use in close combat, as opposed to using a spear which is ineffective at close range because only the tip can be used to attack, or a sword which makes hurting mounted enemies significantly harder. The greater length of the weapon would also help when fighting more heavily armed opponents, since an attack can be executed with considerably more force due to the length of the weapon.

Classification by blade type[edit]

Double-edge and straight swords[edit]

These are double-edged, usually straight bladed swords.

Longsword and bastard sword[edit]

These days, the term longsword most frequently refers to a late Medieval and Renaissance weapon designed for use with two hands. The German langes Schwert ("long sword") in 15th-century manuals did not necessarily denote a type of weapon, but the technique of fencing with both hands at the hilt.[citation needed]

The French épée bâtarde as well as the English bastard sword originates in the 15th or 16th century,[citation needed] originally as having the general sense of "irregular sword or sword of uncertain origin". Qui n'était ni Française, ni Espagnole, ni proprement Lansquenette, mais plus longue que ces fortes épées ("[a sword] which was neither French, nor Spanish, nor properly Landsknecht [German], but longer than any of these sturdy swords.")[16] Espée bastarde could also historically refer to a single-handed sword with a fairly long blade compared to other short swords.[17]

Joseph Swetnam states that the bastard sword is a sword that is midway in length between a short sword and a long sword,[18] and Randall Cotgrave's definition seems to imply this as well. The French épée de passot, was also known as épée bâtarde[citation needed] (i.e., bastard sword) and also coustille à croix[19] (literally a cross-hilted blade), referred to a medieval single-handed sword optimized for thrusting[20] The épée de passot was the sidearm of the franc-archers (French / Breton bowmen of the 15th and 16th centuries).[21] The term passot comes from the fact that these swords passed (passaient) the length of a "normal" short-sword.[21] The German term for a bastard sword was Reitschwert (literally a riding sword),[22][23] " the early Renaissance the term bastard-sword was also sometimes used to refer to single-hand arming-swords with compound-hilts. A form of German arming sword with a bastard-style compound hilt was called a 'Reitschwert' ('cavalry sword') or a 'Degen' ('knight's sword')."[24]

The "Masters of Defence" competition organised by Henry VIII in July 1540 listed[25] two hande sworde, bastard sworde and longe sworde as separate items (as it should in Joseph Swetnam's context).[26][27][28]

Antiquarian usage in the 19th century established the use of "bastard sword" as referring unambiguously to these large swords.[29] However, George Silver and Joseph Swetnam refer to them merely as two hande sworde. The term "hand-and-a-half sword" is modern (late 19th century).[6] During the first half of the 20th century, the term "bastard sword" was used regularly to refer to this type of sword.[7]

The Elizabethan long sword (c.f. George Silver[30] and Joseph Swetnam) is a single-handed "cut-and-thrust" sword with a 4-foot-long (1.2 m) blade[18] similar to the long rapier. "Let thy (long) Rapier or (long) Sword be foure foote at the least, and thy dagger two foote." Historical (15th to 16th century) terms for this type of sword included the Italian spada longa (lunga), and French longue épée.

The term longsword has also been used to refer to different kinds of sword depending on historical context:


The basket-hilted sword was a

It must be noted that the term broadsword was never used historically to describe the one-handed arming sword.[citation needed] The arming sword was wrongly labelled a broadsword by antiquarians as the medieval swords were similar in blade width to the military swords of the day (that were also sometimes labeled as broadswords) and broader than the dueling swords and ceremonial dress swords.[citation needed]

Long knife[edit]

Knives such as the seax and other blades of similar length - between 1 and 2 feet ( ˜ 30 cm and 60 cm) - are sometimes construed as “swords”. This is especially the case for weapons from antiquity, made before the development of high quality steel that is necessary for longer swords.

Over-sized two-handers used as parade swords or ceremonial weapons often exceeded the length and weight of practical weapons of war.

Edgeless and thrusting swords[edit]

The edgeless swords category comprises weapons which are related to or labeled as “swords” but do not emphasise "hacking or slashing techniques" or have any "cutting edges" whatsoever. The majority of these elongated weapons were designed for agility, precision and rapid thrusting blows to exploit gaps in the enemy's shield wall and armor, or pierce iron or steel armour.


The Spartiatēs were always armed with a xiphos as a secondary weapon. Among most Greek warriors, this weapon had an iron blade of about 60 centimetres. The Spartan version was typically only 30-45 centimetres. The Spartan's shorter weapon proved deadly in the crush caused by colliding phalanx formations – it was capable of being thrust through gaps in the enemy's shield wall and armor, where there was no room for longer weapons. The groin and throat were among the favorite targets. In one account, an Athenian asked a Spartan why his sword was so short and after a short pause he replied, "It's long enough to reach your heart."


The term "rapier" appeared in the English lexicon via the French épée rapière which either compared the weapon to a rasp or file; it may be a corruption of "rasping sword"[34] which referred to the sound the blade makes[35] when it comes into contact with another blade. Note that there is no historical Italian equivalent to the English word "rapier".[5]

Panzerstecher and koncerz[edit]

The Panzerstecher is a German and East European weapon with a long, edgeless blade of square or triangular cross-section for penetrating armour.[36][37][38] Early models were either two-handers or “hand-and-half” hilted,[39] while later 16th and 17th century models (also known as koncerz) were one-handed and used by cavalry.[40]

Tuck and verdun[edit]

The "tuck" (French estoc, Italian stocco)[citation needed] is an edgeless blade of square or triangular cross-section used for thrusting.[citation needed] In French, estoc also means thrust or point; and estoc et taille means cut and thrust.[citation needed]

The tuck may also get its name from the verb "to tuck" which means "to shorten".[citation needed]


The small sword or smallsword (also court sword, fr: épée de cour or dress sword)[citation needed] is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting[citation needed] which evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance.[citation needed] The height of the small sword's popularity was between the mid-17th and late 18th century.[citation needed] It is thought to have appeared in France and spread quickly across the rest of Europe.[citation needed] The small sword was the immediate predecessor of the Épée de Combat from which the Épée developed[41] and its method of use—as typified in the works of such authors as Sieur de Liancour, Domenico Angelo, Monsieur J. Olivier, and Monsieur L'Abbat—developed into the techniques of the French classical school of fencing.[citation needed] Small swords were also used as status symbols and fashion accessories; for most of the 18th century anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis.[citation needed]

Single-edge and curved swords[edit]

These are single-edged, usually thick or curved bladed swords, typically designed for hacking, slashing, tripping or broad sweeping techniques.

Hook Sword[edit]

The hook sword, twin hooks, fu tao or shuang gou (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: 鈎 or 鉤; pinyin: Gou) also known as hu tou gou (tiger head hook) is a Chinese weapon traditionally associated with northern styles of Chinese martial arts and Wushu weapons routines, but now often practiced by southern styles as well.


Unlike the xiphos, which is a thrusting weapon, the kopis was a hacking weapon in the form of a thick, curved single edged iron sword. In Athenian art, Spartan hoplites were often depicted using a kopis instead of the xiphos, as the kopis was seen as a quintessential "villain" weapon in Greek eyes.[42]


Main article: katana

Historically katana (?) were one of the traditionally made Japanese swords (日本刀 nihontō?)[43][44] that were used by the samurai of feudal Japan.[45] Modern versions of the katana are sometimes made using non-traditional materials and methods. The katana is characterized by its distinctive appearance: a curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands.


The hanger (Obs. whinyard, whinger, cuttoe), wood-knife or hunting sword is a long knife or short sword that hangs from the belt and was popular as both a hunting tool and weapon of war.[46][47]

Falchion and cutlass[edit]

The falchion (French braquemart,[48] Spanish bracamarte) proper is a wide straight-bladed but curved edged hanger or long knife.[49] The term falchion may also refer to the early cutlass.

The cutlass or curtal-axe also known as a falchion (French badelaire, braquemart,[50] coutelas,[51] malchus Italian coltellaccio, storta, German messer,[52] dussack, malchus) is a broad-bladed curved hanger or long knife. In later usage, the cutlass referred to the short naval boarding sabre.[citation needed]


The sabre (US saber) or shable (French sabre, Spanish sable, Italian sciabola, German sabel or säbel, Russian sablya, Hungarian szablya, Polish szabla) is a single-edged curved bladed cavalry sword.[53]


The scimitar (French cimeterre, Italian scimitarra) is a type of saber that came to refer in general to any sabre used by the Turks or Ottomans (kilij), Persians (shamshir) and more specifically the Stradioti[54] (Albanian and Greek mercenaries who fought in the French-Italian Wars and were employed throughout Western Europe).[55][56] The scimitar proper was the Stradioti saber,[57][58] and the term was introduced into France by Philippe de Commines (1447 – 18 October 1511) as cimeterre,[59] Italy (especially the Venetian Republic who hired the stradioti as mercenaries) as scimitarra, and England as cimeter or scimitar via the French and Italian terms.

See also[edit]


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