Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2011

Cutting Edge Technology: by K. J. Parker

War is a great generator of ironies. My all-time favourites are the patent infringement lawsuits brought against the US government after World War I by the German arms industry. The US, desperate to upgrade its antiquated rifles and ammo when it entered the war, had copied the Mauser bolt action and the German-designed spitzer bullet to create the P17 rifle. The German patent holders won the suit, and the US had to pay royalties on every rifle issued to and every bullet fired by their armed forces during the war. I’d put that in a book, but nobody would believe it.

A milder irony lies in the fact that, in 1917, George S Patton, pioneer of modern mechanised warfare, designed a sword for the Army. He was only a young lieutenant at the time, but the weapon he came up with was, by all the arcane criteria of swordsmen and swordsmiths, more or less perfect, the best sword ever issued to an army. It was a light, slim thrusting sword for cavalry use, wonderfully balanced, an ergonomic marvel, and if it was ever drawn in anger, I can find no record of it. The peak of perfection is reached only when the instrument itself is entirely obsolete, and the designer was the father of the impersonal hell of modern mechanised war.

Patton didn’t just design a sword, he also wrote a user’s manual, setting out a standardised training program for swordsmanship in the US cavalry. The approved method is refreshingly simple; you hold the sword at arm’s length, point it at the enemy and gallop. That’s it. Patton deliberately declined to teach any defensive parries; the cavalry swordsman is basically just a bullet fired at the enemy by his commanding officer, and there’s no need for a bullet to defend itself.


A sword is a piece of metal, usually flat, usually with a point, an edge, or both. You can cut with it, or you can thrust. If killing is your priority, the thrust is your friend. You’re much more likely to kill with the point than the edge. But if you want to stop the fight as quickly as possible, the edge is probably a better choice. Swords work by inflicting a combination of shock and damage. A stab can damage you fatally but shock you so little that you don’t realise you’ve been hit; you can carry on with the fight, kill the other guy, walk home and only find out you’re dying when you take your coat off and see the blood. By contrast, a severed arm stops most fights, even though it may not kill you, and the pain and shock of a heavy cut will neutralise an opponent even if he’s wearing armour and his skin remains unbroken.

The thrust is generally a safer manoeuvre to undertake. Thrusts are straight lines. Cuts tend to be arcs. Basic geometry dictates that the thrust takes less time, and needs less elbow room. You can poke a lethal hole in someone with comparatively little effort. To have any useful effect, a cut needs strength behind it, calling for big movements of arm and body. In making these movements, as often as not, the swordsman leaves himself open, presenting an inviting target for the thrust.

So the point has it, and the edge is nowhere. Maybe, if the other guy’s fighting in his shirt. If he’s wearing armour, the thrust suddenly loses its appeal. All wearable armour has gaps, weak points, joints, into which the skilled swordsman can poke his point, assuming the other guy is kind enough to hold still. But a sword light enough to be usable won’t punch a killing hole through one-sixteenth inch steel plate, the average thickness of medieval armour. Instead it’ll bend, possibly snap like a carrot. A cutting sword, by the same token, won’t slice easily through plate armour (1). What it will do is transmit enough blunt force to scramble brains and rupture internal organs. The function of the sharp edge is to cut into the armour just enough to stop the blow glancing off and dissipating its force into empty air.


The geometry of swords is a matter of compromise. Thin needle-sharp points penetrate best but are too frail for business purposes; if they hit bone, armour or the other man’s sword, they snap off or bend. Broad, thin cutting edges cut best, but are similarly weak. To cut, you need the most acute angle possible. The edge of a blade is a wedge forced into a gap of its own making; the thinner the edge, the less force required to drive the wedge in to the required depth. A razor blade cuts better than an axe, but you couldn’t chop down a tree with one, because it’d buckle under the force of your blow. Cutting swords tend to be wide, to make the wedge as long as possible. Thrusting swords are the same wedge turned through ninety degrees; they need to be narrow. They also need to be stiff, or else they’ll bend, like a modern fencing foil, rather than penetrate. Cutting swords should be flexible, capable of giving way and springing back under the tremendous force of impact. Stiffness and flexibility are governed by the blade’s cross-section. Nearly all double-edged swords, for example, have a cross-section roughly like a squashed diamond; the flatter the diamond, the greater the degree of flex. You can compromise by making the faces of the diamond concave arcs instead of straight lines. This accentuates the central rib, imparting stiffness, while reducing the angle of the edge, promoting flex. By a happy coincidence, it’s also the angle you get if you grind a sword lengthwise on a wheel rather than planing it down with a flat stone or a file.


The earliest swords were double-edged. It’s easier to forge them that way. When you beat out an edge, you spread the metal, like spreading butter. The side you hammer on spreads, the other side doesn’t; therefore, the blade tends to curve, giving you the distinctive profile of the sabre and the scimitar. Trouble is, if you beat the edge out enough to make it thin enough to cut, you get rather more curve than you want, so you have to keep stopping and straightening. This process is hellishly awkward, as the blade tends to buckle and distort. You flatten it out and you think you’re home and dry, but as soon as you heat the thing up and quench it, during the heat-treatment stage that gives the blade its flexibility, the distortions you’ve so carefully beaten out of the steel somehow come back, and you end up with something looking like a two-dimensional corkscrew designed by M C Escher. In comparison, a two-edged sword is a piece of cake. You hammer on both sides, spreading the steel evenly. The blade stays straight of its own accord, giving you nice, wide cutting edges and a stiff central rib.

Forging steel is all about spreading. A billet of red-hot steel is like a tube of toothpaste (with the cap on, of course); you can squidge it into the shape you want. If you pinch the edges, you raise the middle. If you squash one end thin, you fatten the other end, as toothpaste is forced backwards. A desirable quality in swords is distal taper; wide and thick at the handle end, tapering gently and regularly, narrow and thin at the point. Distal taper should come naturally as you work your red-hot flat-rectangular bar into a double-edged blade. You start at the point end and hammer your rectangular bar on the edge. This makes it narrower, but also thicker, as material from the edge is forced into the middle. So you flip the bar over onto its side and pound on the flat side, squidging your steel toothpaste up the tube. Then turn it back on the edge, to narrow it some more; then on its back, to thin it. As you work up the blade from point to hilt, you decrease the rate at which you draw it out, to get your taper. When you’re done, you should have a nice icicle shape, with a rectangular cross-section. Then you beat out the edges to turn the rectangle into a diamond. Compared to making a single-edged sword, it’s a walk in the park; and the customer gets the added bonus of a spare cutting edge, so that when he’s blunted his sword bashing it on some guy’s helmet, all he has to do is flip it round in his hand and he’s back in the cutting business again.


The ancient Greeks were passable architects, not bad at sculpture, literature, philosophy and mathematics; they were fantastic metalworkers. They made a kind of double-edged sword that distal-tapers the wrong way—narrow at the handle end, widening up as far as the centre of percussion (if you lash out instinctively with a sword, the place on the edge that contacts the target is the centre of percussion) and then narrowing sharply to give a usable point for stabbing with. That’s good design. A curved edge cuts better than a straight one, which is why swordsmiths went to all the extra trouble of making sabres and scimitars. The Greek leaf-shaped blade has the advantages of the straight two-edged sword, but has curved edges, which cut better. Even more impressive was their other major sword type, the kopis or machaera. It’s a single-edge curved sword, but the sharp edge is on the inside of the curve; your basic hook, or sickle. This is sheer misery to make but works exceptionally well, since the concave curve tends to pull the cutting edge into the target, giving you a slicing action. The machaera is, in fact, the only pattern of sword still used by the military for killing people. Alexander the Great took the machaera to India, where the local smiths copied it. Nearly two and a half thousand years later, the Gurkha mercenaries employed by the British army still carry and use the kukhri, which is basically Alexander’s sidearm of choice, but these days they’re made in Nepal out of recycled Mercedes lorry springs.


Greek craftsmen made weapons to order for middle-class citizen soldiers who paid for their own equipment. The Romans were into mass production for huge professional armies. They copied a Spanish design; a short, broad double-edged blade, easy to make, wide enough to have thin edges that cut superbly, the edges running parallel for most of the sword’s length before tapering sharply to form a wickedly efficient point. The gladius Hispaniensis is an outstanding design, and Roman infantry tactics were founded on it for centuries. It cuts brutally but its primary purpose was stabbing. It’s very short—big deal, said the Romans; when we fight, we like to get close to the enemy—because if it was any longer it’d be too heavy to use. Swords need to be light. Two pounds is the optimum. Some two-handed medieval longswords weighed over three pounds, but they had long handles to give extra leverage, and they were so well balanced that they felt much lighter in use. Any form of swordfighting is exhausting work, and if you get tired and slow, you don’t stand a chance.


When Julius Caesar fought the Gauls in the first century AD, he noticed how, in the heat of hand to hand combat, the Gallic warriors often had to stop and straighten their swords under their feet. Their swords were soft iron, not steel. The extraordinary virtue of heat-treated carbon steel is that it has a memory; bend it, and instead of staying bent as iron does, it springs back.

These days, we know exactly how steel works. It has to do with the carbon content of the metal, which enables steel to change its crystalline structure when heated red hot and immediately quenched in water or oil. This makes the steel extremely hard, but also brittle—if you drop it on the floor, it might just shatter like glass. To make a flexible blade (which is basically just a spring with sharp edges) you need to reheat the hardened blade to a specific temperature and quench it again. Luckily for smiths, before the invention of thermometers, the steel itself tells you exactly when to quench it. It changes colour, running through the rainbow from pale straw yellow to purple to deep, then light blue. You quench swords at the dark blue point, to make them as springy and tough as possible while still able to hold a sharp edge. Or you can dip them in oil and stick them in the fire until all the oil burns off, or you can simply dunk them in molten lead, whose melting point just happens to be the same temperature as the blue stage; these processes are easier and more reliable, but far less aesthetically satisfying.


To make steel, though, you need the right sort of iron—not the pure stuff, but iron alloyed with a small quantity of carbon. There were places where you could dig naturally-occurring steel-bearing ore straight out of the ground. The most famous deposits known in antiquity were in India—King Porus gave Alexander the Great thirty pounds of it—and came to be known as wootz. For the vast majority of smiths who couldn’t get hold of the imported material, making steel was a mysterious hit-and-miss affair. You were more likely to get steel if you recycled old iron—horseshoes, wheel tires—than if you used fresh ore, but it was a combination of luck and serendipitously-acquired skill, which wasn’t freely shared. What actually happened, of course, was that carbon from the charcoal universally used to fuel the smith’s fire until the Industrial Revolution migrated into the iron, but they didn’t know that. As a result, decent hardening steel was rare and precious, and only an idiot would dream of making a whole sword out of it.

Instead, bladesmiths all across the world developed the technique now known as pattern-welding. Horribly time-consuming and requiring exceptional skill, pattern-welding was used for hundreds of years, until some point in the ninth century AD, simply because there was no other way of making a half-decent sword. Pattern-welding is based on the happy fact that when two pieces of steel or iron are brought to a temperature just shy of melting—you have to get it just right or the steel is ruined; it’s blinding-white hot, so you judge the exact moment by the soft hissing noise it makes—you can fuse them together by gently hammering. You can weld short bits together to make a useful length; you can also weld hardening steel to soft iron, which means you can make the body of the sword out of cheap, pliable stuff and save the rare, brittle-hard steel just for the cutting edges. Dark Age smiths twisted hundreds of iron twigs together and welded them into billets, then welded the billets into a core, then added the steel edges. The pattern part of the description refers to the swirls, waves, spirals and parallel lines that show up when you etch the finished blade with acid; an unintended by-product, but stunningly beautiful. A pattern-welded sword would have taken weeks to make, and only a deeply skilled man could do it—one mistake, one chunk of slag embedded in the fabric, one seam not heated up enough and failing to fuse—would ruin the whole thing, turning it into gorgeously-figured scrap. The end result was a conflict between two diametrically opposed materials, one soft and ductile, the other hard and brittle. A pattern-welded sword is a supreme triumph of skill, beauty and ingenuity, and it just about gets the job done. A blade beaten out of a SAE 5160 truck leaf spring will outperform it every time.


Which leads us neatly to an assessment of the traditional Japanese sword, the katana. Most of the rest of the world got better, cheaper steel which allowed them to start making all-steel swords, but the Japanese didn’t, and so stuck with pattern-welding. They used tamahagane, steel smelted out of volcanic black sand, welded to a soft, multiple-folded iron core. The katana is single-edged; so, in order to make it strong enough not to bend or break, it has to be thicker in the body than practically any other sword type. To control and handle such a chunky, heavy object, the Japanese opted for a relatively short blade and a long, two-handed grip. The curved blade is ergonomically suited for cutting, particularly the draw-cut (where you pull the blade across the enemy’s flesh to slice rather than chopping at it); it’s got a point, but one that’s primarily designed to assist with cutting with the tip rather than thrusting. All in all, the katana is a clunker, an Edsel, fossilised, self-circumscribing, only capable of being used in a limited number of ways, and not much of a stabber; beautifully-made, because only the nobility were allowed to own them; rather like the traditional English game-shooting shotgun, still handmade by craftsmen in a fashion that’s hardly changed since the 18th century, a joy to look at and handle; but a mass-produced Remington slide-action kills birds just as dead, handles just as well, has three times the firepower and costs 1,000 times less.

The myth of the semi-magical Japanese sword arose after WW2, when GIs brought captured katanas back from the Pacific, and their sons started playing with them. This led to the Western discovery of the Japanese tradition of swordsmanship, which was unique in one vital respect; it was still alive. By 1945, sword-fighting was dead in the West. There was no living tradition; if you wanted to know how to use anything more practical than a bit of wire in a dish-shaped handle, you had to learn it from a book, which you’d have to go to a museum to read. The Japanese tradition, by contrast, was unbroken back to the 14th century. By the same token, the Japanese had been fighting with basically the same sword design for 600 years; hardly surprising, therefore, that they were about as good at it as it’s possible to get. The katana isn’t a particularly good design, and kenjitsu isn’t the supreme martial art; but by the second half of the 20th century it was the only game in town. The only swords apart from katanas that an American would-be swordsman was likely to encounter were 19th century military sabres, designed primarily for use on horseback, for chopping at the heads and arms of footsoldiers; good enough for that, not much use for anything else, heavy and forward-balanced, extremely unsuited for anything resembling scientific fencing. No wonder, therefore, that to the post-war generation, the katana was a magical object possessing practically supernatural qualities.


These days, there are scores, hundreds even, of swordsmiths working in the USA who will supply you, for the price of a decent desktop computer, with the best swords ever made. They’re better than anything produced in antiquity because they’re made of modern steel. Demand, based on the revival of interest in the Western martial arts, has been sufficient to justify outsourcing medieval replica sword manufacture to China. So, for around two hundred dollars, you can have an American-designed replica of a medieval sword, made in China out of 5160 steel, that’s better in every meaningful respect than the finest blade ever commissioned by the Kings of France. You’ll never use it, of course. You might slice into a water-filled plastic bottle. You might even dismember a 50 gallon oil drum, and post the ensuing carnage on YouTube. But the masterpiece you hold in your hand is obsolete at the moment of perfection. All you can really do with it is look at yourself holding it in a mirror, in the same way as a zoo lion stalks in his cage, glorying in his absolute possession of seven paces.


No offence intended to the bottle-choppers. It’s entirely thanks to them that we have any insight at all into European swords and swordsmanship in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 19th and 20th centuries, before the Society for Creative Anachronism kick-started the re-enactment hobby and made it possible for grown men to earn a living making faithful reproductions of old swords, all manner of weird myths had grown up about the medieval European sword. It weighed ten pounds. It was basically a heavy iron bar for bashing with. There was no skill involved. It’s not hard to figure out where these misconceptions came from. The number of surviving medieval swords is quite small, and they tend to be in museums, where you’re not allowed to take them out of the case and play with them, to see how they handle.

Fortunately, there was one man, an eccentric English book-illustrator and sword collector, who was prepared to do just that. Starting in the 1940s, Ewart Oakeshott devoted his life to the medieval sword. Many of the finest extant specimens passed through his hands at one time or another, and, since he wasn’t afraid to pick them up and waggle them in the air, he made the remarkable discovery that they weren’t absurdly heavy and unwieldy; in fact, they handled really rather well. Oakeshott went on to classify sword types from the Viking Age to the Renaissance, and his research was taken up, not by the scholars and curators, but by the stick-jocks and tatami-mat-slicers of the living history movement. Once authentic replicas were available, re-enactors went to the library and discovered the small but meaningful number of medieval fencing manuals, whose existence had been more or less forgotten about since the last brief flurry of interest at the end of the 19th century. The manuals are oblique, elliptical and deliberately obscure—they were study aids for students of the fight schools rather than teach-yourself books—but we do at least have a keyhole through which we can peer at medieval swordsmanship, and form the inescapable conclusion that it was a true martial art of exceptional subtlety and sophistication. With some idea of the fighting techniques, we can go back to the swords and begin to understand them properly.


There are twenty-two well-defined different types in Oakeshott’s classification. Take the Type Fourteen, a popular 14th century pattern. It’s the perfect cutter. The blade is relatively short, wide at the hilt, narrowing to an acute point. Running down the middle for most of its length is a fuller, a broad groove designed to reduce weight by removing superfluous metal without compromising strength; also, in the process of hammering the groove into the blade, you spread metal sideways, widening the blade, thinning the cutting edge to give you a pointier, more efficient wedge. The Type Fourteen was an effective cutter of flesh, but when the armourers upped the stakes by introducing plate armour in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Fourteen was outmatched. It wasn’t stiff enough to deliver powerful thrusts into the joints and weak points of armour. Also, fighters started armouring their legs, which had always been a favourite target (2). A new pattern was needed; still a dual purpose weapon, but favouring the thrust, the way the Fourteen had favoured the cut. The Type Fifteen was roughly the same shape—broad at the hilt end, tapering to a needle point—but instead of the fuller, it had a strong central rib, formed by the forging out of the cutting edges. It was stiffer for the thrust, while still capable of efficient cutting. Superbly balanced (all medieval swords achieve balance by means of a thick, heavy pommel, usually wheel-shaped; the optimum centre of balance is around two to three inches in front of the crossguard) and weighing in at somewhere between two and three pounds, it feels light and quick in the hand. It’s the ideal weapon for sword-and-shield fighting.

The shield, however, was on the way out. Plate armour for the nobility and long-handled cutting weapons for the rank and file that needed both hands to use them made it obsolete in the 15th century, and the Fifteen became the Eighteen (to be precise, the 18a); roughly the same blade, but longer and with an extended hilt, making it possible to use the sword single or double handed. The 15th century longsword is a landmark in sword design, perfection within its own terms of reference, and around it there grew up a school of swordsmanship of which we get tantalising glimpses from the fencing manuals of Ringeck and Talhoffer. By the time these books were written, longswordsmanship was already into the early stages of decadence and decline, the silver rather than the golden age. Suffice it to say, Hollywood has never put on screen a fight sequence as beautiful or viscerally thrilling as the half-guesswork reconstructions of longsword fighting staged by modern re-enactors. Look for them on YouTube and save yourself a fortune in movie tickets.


Talhoffer’s longswordsmen don’t cut very much; and when they do, they tend to come to a bad end. The cut was out of favour, particularly since most of Talhoffer’s book deals not with battlefield armoured combat but fights between unarmoured civilians. Economic and social changes in the late Middle Ages meant that the sword was no longer exclusively the battlefield weapon of the aristocratic knight. With the rise of an affluent urban middle-class, eager to ape their sword-wearing betters and addicted to picking fights in the street, the sword acquired a new, non-military function. The enthusiastic students who flocked to the German and Italian fighting schools in the 15th century weren’t training for war.

The fight schools are a significant development. Trainee knights didn’t need them; they learnt swordsmanship from the castle master-at-arms, practically as soon as they were weaned. The schools were there to teach merchants’ sons how to survive street brawls, a genre of combat for which the military swords of the High Middle Ages weren’t really suited. For one thing, they either needed a shield (3) or else were awkwardly long to wear with everyday costume. Although some form of cutting continued to be taught and practised, the thrust began to dominate, logically enough. Edges shrank, blades thinned and lengthened. Marozzo, who wrote at the turn of the 16th century, teaches an awkward, clumsy proto-rapier called the spada di lato. By the middle of the century, the true rapier had arrived from Spain. Three to four feet long, with only a vestigial cutting edge, the rapier is comparatively slow, best used with a defensive weapon in the left hand (a dagger, a cloak, something to parry with) but it’s much better than anything that had gone before for its intended purpose, the formal duel and the street-corner rumble. By the turn of the 17th century, Ridolfo Capo Ferro had refined rapier fencing to a precise science. It’s not fencing as a modern Olympic athlete would understand it. For one thing, the rapier fencer isn’t restricted to moving in a straight line. He can sidestep, performing devastating moves like the volte (a twisting side-shuffle that leaves your lunging enemy impaling himself on your sword). He isn’t restricted to the ritual exchange of lunge, parry, riposte; defence and counterattack are combined in the same move, making a rapier duel short and extremely lethal. The rapier was soon obsolete itself, replaced by the shorter, lighter, more convenient smallsword, the ancestor of the modern foil. The most efficient non-projectile tool ever designed for killing an unarmoured man, the smallsword made no pretence at a cutting edge. It was a sharp, stiff, triangular-section wire, so quick in the hand that there was no longer time for the rapierman’s sidesteps and simultaneous defence and counterattack. Once again, the sword had arrived at total perfection, only to find once it got there that it was obsolete, replaced by the flintlock pistol for duelling and self-defence.


Poor old sword. Few artefacts have commanded so much care, skill and resources, and at each stage of its development it’s been superfluous or obsolete. If swords had never been invented, history would barely have noticed (4). Other weapons were just as good or better for business purposes; armour always won in the end; apart from a brief spell in the hands of the Roman legions, it’s always been a rich man’s accessory, a status symbol, an overrated icon. Mostly, it survived because it looked cute, and people felt safer if they had one when things got bad.

For a ninety-percent pacifist like me, it’s the weapon of choice. Its purpose is and always has been unambiguous, but compared with the instruments that actually did the business—the spear, arrow, cannon, machine-gun, tank, bomber, nuclear bomb—the sword may be allowed to have a relatively clean conscience. On the battlefield, it was generally the last line of defence rather than the weapon that started the fight. The duellists who died on the points of rapiers and smallswords were at least willing participants in their own undoing. If you want an abiding image of the sword in the West, think of the Polish cavalrymen in World War II who charged the German tanks with their sabres. A professional soldier’s summary of another stupid cavalry charge sums up the sword for me; magnifique (if you like that sort of thing) mais ce n’est pas la guerre—which I’d venture to suggest, is about the nicest thing you can say about any weapon.




(1) Actually, it’s a moot point whether swords in the hands of ancient swordsmen could cut mail and cleave helmets. Modern researchers say no, but back in the 13th century they were pretty sure they could, to judge from contemporary literature and art. For example, the Maciejowski Bible, an illuminated manuscript painted for the French crusader king Louis IX, has many scenes showing swords cutting armour in graphic, almost photographic detail. The context is worth considering:

1. The Maciejowski Bible was commissioned by an experienced and horribly enthusiastic fighter, who wouldn’t have been amused by gross inaccuracies

2. The painter records arms, armour, clothes and footwear with great care and precision. The illustrations are meant to be totally realistic.

3. The battle scenes are generic images of warfare rather than particular exploits of superhuman heroes. The armour-cutters are just plain folks, not legendary heroes of whom exceptional feats are to be expected.

A redoubtable modern experimental archaeologist, one Mike Loades, recently set out to disprove the Maciejowski Bible once and for all. He acquired a very fine reproduction sword and had a very fine reproduction helmet made, looking just like the ones in the Bible, and proceeded to bash on the helmet with the sword for all he was worth. He managed to dent it, but that was all.

Proof positive; except that—

1. The very fine helmet, like the very fine sword, was made of modern steel. Mr Loades didn’t go into details, but the industry standard for modern repro helmets is something like 2mm cold rolled steel sheet. Medieval armour was made of iron, not steel, and the sheets were hammered by eye with sledgehammers, not rolled in a computer-controlled mill. King Louis would’ve traded you the Loire valley and half of Touraine for a helmet, or a sword, as good as the ones Mr Loades used for his test.

2. Most of the armour-chopping in the Maciejowski Bible is done by men on horseback. Add the momentum of a moving horse to the strength of the human arm, and you vastly increase the force of the blow; rather like the difference between getting punched by a pedestrian and hit by a moving car

3. Mr Loades is one of the most skilled swordsmen currently alive, but he’s a 21st century weakling. They were stronger back then. They could shoot bows that we can’t draw. They could till an acre a day with an ox-drawn plough—we know they could, because that’s the original definition of an acre, but you try it and see how far you get. They could fight all day in heavy armour, which exhausts us in a matter of minutes. Medieval noblemen trained intensively with weapons from childhood. The fact that we can’t do it is no proof that it can’t be done.


(2) Our best evidence about how men died in battle in the Middle Ages comes from the mass graves discovered on the site of the Battle of Wisby, fought in Sweden in 1361. The remains of over a thousand bodies were unearthed there between 1905 and 1928. The dead were almost exclusively local Swedish infantry conscripts rather than knights; they wore mail coifs rather than helmets and little or no leg armour. Considerable numbers of them show cutting wounds to the legs and head, which suggests a fairly basic feint-high-cut-low or feint-low-cut-high style of battlefield swordsmanship, a hypothesis supported by descriptions of fighting in the roughly contemporary Icelandic sagas and elsewhere. Of the skeletons where cause of death could be established, cuts outnumbered piercing wounds by almost 5 to 1. In several cases, both legs had been severed by one blow, though of course we can’t establish whether the weapon used was a sword or an axe.


(3) The shield survived into the rapier era, in the form of the buckler, a steel disc about the size of a dinner plate. The buckler was a handy piece of equipment. You could punch with it as well as defend, and it was just about small enough to hang from your belt as you swaggered about town, though the incessant clanking would have driven you crazy. It fell into disuse when contemporary fashionistas decreed that wearing the buckler (swash-buckling) was just so last year.


(4) Robert Drews, a leading authority on the Bronze Age in Europe, accounts for the extraordinary catastrophe that left most of the great walled cities of the Aegean in ashes near the end of the Bronze Age to the introduction of a new type of sword, the Naue Type II or Griffzungenschwert, wielded by a loose confederation of Sicilian and Sardinian pirates. Drews’ hypothesis is significantly more convincing than the alternative explanations previously offered by scholars, and it’s undeniable that the Naue II was a massive success, appearing simultaneously all over Europe and the Near East and replacing previous types. However, his theory tends towards the Hells Angels school of historical speculation - a bunch of mindless hooligans blow into town, trash the joint and vanish without a trace, as though they’d never been—which I’ve always had problems with. Furthermore, the Naue II is better than most bronze swords but it’s still a bronze sword; smack something hard with it and it bends like a banana. Professor Drews could do worse than invest in one of Neil Burridge’s outstandingly authentic replicas of the Naue II and try it for himself.

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