Notwithstanding the simplicity of its appearance, throughout most of history making a sword took considerable effort and skill. And again, notwithstanding the simplicity of its appearance, proficiency in using a sword effectively also took considerable effort, not only to learn the necessary techniques, but to condition and strengthen the swordsman’s wrist and develop his forearm muscles. A sword that seems light when held for only a minute feels quite heavy when gripped for hours during battle, and without the necessary conditioning and muscle memory, a novice swordsman would be quite vulnerable, with fatigue setting in quickly and trembling muscles failing to react in time to make the sword do what it needs to do in order to keep its wielder alive.
Swords evolved from daggers during the Bronze Age, and for most of history, were designed and used mainly for delivering cutting wounds. A notable exception occurred with the Romans whose legions, armed with the gladius which was used primarily for thrusting, won and secured their empire. Over the millennia, and across different cultures, a wide variety of swords appeared and disappeared, ranging from leaf shaped, to curved, to straight; handles designed for one handed vs two handed use; blades short and long; swords that were optimized for horseback vs ones that were deadliest in the hands of wielders on foot.
Various sword designs emerged, dominated battlefields for a period, then changing tactics and technologies led to their replacement by other swords. Following are twelve of history’s deadliest sword designs.
The jian is a double edged Chinese straight sword, typically featuring a guard in the shape of a stingray. Grips are usually made of fluted wood or covered in rayskin, and the handle features a pommel for balance, for trapping or striking an opponent, and to prevent slipping through the user’s hand. Jians have been in use for at least 2600 years, with earliest recorded mentions dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (771 – 476 BC).
By the 6th century BC, Chinese bronze sword production techniques had reached an advanced stage, and laminated bronze jians with copper sulphide and chromium oxide coatings to resist corrosion became common. The effectiveness of such anti corrosive techniques can be seen in the Goujian Sword, roughly 2600 years old, which was recovered from a tomb in 1965. Although the tomb had been soaked in underground water for over 2000 years, the recovered sword had resisted tarnish and still retained its sharp edge.
Jian blades typically feature significant distal taper, or decreased thickness, with the edge being only half as thick as the base of the blade near the handle, combined with subtle profile taper, or decreasing width, from blade base to tip. In usage, jian blades are comprised of three sections: the tip, middle, and root. The tip typically curves smoothly to a point, and is used for thrusting, slashing, or quick cuts. The middle is for deflection, or for drawing and cleaving cuts. The root, closest to the handle, is utilized mainly for defense.
During the 6th to 4th centuries BC, jian blades were about two feet long, with spines made of bronze with low tin content, while bronze with higher tin content was used on the edges. That resulted in a sword with a hard cutting edge, while retaining a flexible spine to absorb shock. By the 4th century BC, steel jians, utilizing high carbon content steel on the cutting edges to make them hard, while using softer steel on the core for flexibility, began to supplant bronze.
Bronze does not allow for long blades, because the metal is not strong enough to withstand stress, so by necessity, bronze swords had to be short and sturdy. Steel does not have such limitations, and its introduction allowed for longer blades. Steel jians, now featuring longer handles for two-handed use, grew to about three and a half feet, with some recovered samples measuring up to 5 feet 3 inches. By the 1st century AD, however, the simpler and easier to use dao sword began to supplant the jian. By the 3rd century AD, the process was completed, and the jian became restricted to the Chinese aristocracy and to ceremonial court usage.