Choosing Your Sword
While many different swords of many different types have been used throughout the ages, because not every sword is equal in every circumstance, there are a few notable evolutions of the long blade that have persisted into modern society as well as several that have held their worth throughout combat’s constant evolution over the centuries. This is meant to encompass not simply those weapons that have maintained a mythos or legacy in pop culture and folklore, but weapons with documented success against a wide array of adversaries and engagement types. This does not presume to include every valid option or reason for each choice, nor will I be placing these in any specific order in terms of worthiness or personal preference, although the latter will become obvious soon enough. Rather, this is a list of some of my more preferable options, reasons for those options, and considerations as well as implied and given parameters for your own personal choices, intended for ensuring a proper decision is made when acquiring that which must not fail you in those most vital moments of a confrontation.
The general rule when contemplating the size of a sword, to put the sentiment as I’ve always read it into your mind immediately, is that smaller is better. I would then as hastily remind you that this is hardly the case in my experience, although it is a good rule of thumb for starters. Longer blades have major advantages in many instances, to the point (an inadvertent pun) that some of the ever-popular Italian rapiers became little more than scrawny triangles and trapezoids of absurd length in their heyday among civilians. The commonplace battleware known as the greatsword as well, stretching in some examples beyond the length of the wielder’s entire body, remained in use for centuries after its inception into pre-medieval combat thanks in large part to an affinity for universal application, size notwithstanding. I would further council that two swords are better than one, though not always when wielded at once, while some masters of the European school of fence would even encourage harboring what they call a “full case”: that is, three swords or possibly even more, though I’d be hard-pressed to find an example of more than three. For the purpose of sticking to the context of modern-day survival in the most hostile environments, a well chosen pair – a longer straight and a shorter curved blade ideally – is more than enough, especially given the assumed presence of a LONG knife that can act as a tertiary device to attack, grapple, and defend with.
In terms of shorter swords, since we’ve broached the topic, hangers of various forms like cutlasses, dussacks, and some sabres, court swords, the Chinese dao and fu tao, many infantry swords such as the Greek xiphos and kopis and Roman gladius, most African swords which would have seen regular use in the continent’s harsh wilderness, and even today’s various forms of machetes are just some examples of these shorter types long favored for their versatility in many scenarios and against many weapons. Cutlasses, for example, became a staple among sailors for their usefulness in combat within the small spaces below the deck of a ship (and probably even on the deck with as many people as could amass in a skirmish). The Indian Kukri, on the other hand, was considered a horrifically devastating weapon on the open battlefield, favored by, as you’ve probably guessed, the Nepalese Gurkha and written about by Europeans as a primarily disemboweling stabbing weapon as opposed to the axe-ish hack many now mistake it’s short, stooped over stature to indicate.
Keeping in mind this is personal opinion relative to expected experience and is subject to differences person to person and setting to setting (do you use a buckler, is there little cutting to be done versus stabbing, are you in a group using collaborated weaponry, how tall are you, etc.), in general the more useful of these short swords are the curved hangers with complex enough guards – that part of the hilt that covers your hand and separates the blade from the handle that you grip – to cover the entire fist from on top and at least half of the knuckles from the front. The reason for this is that your shorter blades, in addition to potentially doubling as utility tools in a survival setting, are primarily used for guarding attacks to the upper half of the body and delivering cuts to the same portion of your opponent’s. The hanging guard, both a source for their name and a position you will become very familiar with regardless of the sword you use, is a primary guard for the active defense against these cuts, a feat made safer the more coverage the guard offers. The curved nature of most hangers also lends a natural slicing action to every hit that would otherwise require a manually accomplished push or pull to be effective were the edge straight.
Much like virtually every other weapon in history, the longevity of some sword types is primarily the result of cultural pride or pop-culture fanaticism, and this is more evident I find in the longer one-handed blades of various cultures than with any other size of sword. In addition to said proclivity for hanging on to outdated type variants, the constant evolution of armor, the law, and fencing methods made for some very specific lines of advancement in certain areas of the globe. In a concerted effort to leave these context-exclusive blades behind, and with very little venturing into the territory of swords handled regularly in two hands, this is the most preferred category of the three I will address here for convenient subdivision. The sabres have also been included here rather than in their own section, and before any letters are written and torches are lit, I’d like to clarify that this is due to nothing more than their size. Their distinction from the straight blades will factor in later, and it is a very important distinction to keep in mind when choosing and using the sword.
Examples of these longer one-handed swords include the basket-hilted Scottish claymore carried by warrior Scots up into the late 19th century and whose use became a major influence on many Georgian sabre methods as well as my own martial art, the notable Italian schiavona (another personal favorite) considered to be an evolution of the swords carried by the well-reputed Slavonic mercenaries of Eastern Europe, the garish Germanic mortuary sword with its drooping basket and lengthy blade, and the various Italian, Spanish, French, and other predecessors of the now standardized Olympic sport swords. The Japanese tachi and katana also would fit in this descriptor despite having room for two hands, a decision we will address slightly later, as would the longer Middle-Eastern blades such as the talwar, tulwar, shamshir, and kilij, and, to the dispute of many typology enthusiasts I’m sure, the one and two-handed swiss sabres as well as longer falchions and most of the military sabres found throughout Europe whose influence weighs heavily on my personal martial art – British, French, Russian, and Polish to name the major sources.
My preference for a curved blade remains when it comes to these longer weapons, aside from my own admitted familiarity bias, purely due to two main factors – the aforementioned natural cutting action of the curved blade vs the straight blade and the tendency of many curved weapons to have a point of balance further out towards the end of the blade, which is more conducive to the frequent beats and slashes of one’s natural approach in the heat of battle and indeed the method developed in this book. Where I stray from that proclivity is in the afore-praised schiavonas and basketed claymores, both of which came in curved variations and were used much more as a curved blade would have been handled, especially in the case of the Scots, but which were primarily straight-bladed weapons and therefore should be approached, if only at first, with a straight-bladed variant. Beyond that, later is better is the rule to remember before ignoring this time: many sword builds improve and many sword hilts become safer the later in their evolution you go. This is especially worth considering in the scenario of impromptu unarmored combat where the complement of a shield or heavy armor is likely not a practical option. So, again as with short swords, I’d venture that the more complex the guard the better, with consideration for potential two-handed and off-handed use in mind and respect for the increasing usability of the standard crossguard (that piece of metal that lies perpendicular to the sword at the base of the blade) as blade and handle length increases and blade curve decreases.
Much like my sword-swinging British forefather George Silver, I have to state amid much disagreement that the rapier, that thin and sometimes unsharpened straight sword designed for thrusting and little more, is the least useful of these and is to be avoided by all with the sole exception of those who already have a proficiency with that weapon type when the decision to pick up a real sword must be undertaken. In nearly the same stroke that condemned the Italians and English fans of their rapiers, he also wrote that the two-handed sword trumped all, from lone epée to sword and buckler, in its use against other weapons and swords in particular, falling short only against staves, pikes, and other even longer weapons such as the halberd or forest bill due to their inherent benefits of reach, power, and defensive coverage. That said, when most people read “two-handed sword” they invariably conjure images of the monstrosities movies and folklore have made their namesake and the lengthy ceremonial swords stretching far above their carriers’ heads to the ground but never once used. In fact, Silver’s idea of a two handed sword, and indeed the idea of a two-handed sword art historically, is simply his ideal one-handed sword with room for two full hands on the hilt.
Area to area and people to people, as with all swords and weapons in general, the designs shifted and stuck for multiple reasons, not all of which were sufficient. The German Landsknechts made use of some of the largest variants of this classic cross-guarded two-hand design, quite literally called “bïdenhander” or “both-hander” and depicted often as rivaling their pikes in length and complete with a signature curled-up crossguard. The late medieval claymores of the Scots weren’t quite as long or wide, and these are the ones people usually think of when the word claymore comes up, with their sometimes slanted “Y” crossguards and long, thin blades, and their English neighbors long used even shorter blades with a wider base and longer taper. The greatswords of the Iberian peninsula were on par with the Landsknechts, with large rings on the crossguard and secondary guards jutting like barbs from the blade. It should be noted here that no pikes, scythes, naginatas, or any bladed polearm or swordstaff is being included in this group as they operate more closely in concept to a staff or spear than a sword.
It is hard to go wrong when choosing among the longer two-handed swords, and their variations will largely depend on comfort and need (are you able to reach your opponent, can you endure the weight or momentum of the weapon, where are you fighting and who with?). To simplify our categorization for the purpose of use in this martial context, the focus will be on a straight blade at least several inches longer than the wielder’s arm, double-edged, and having a handle with adequate room for both hands as well as a sufficient crossguard. To use a blade any shorter than this is to deny oneself the full benefits of using both hands, and to apply a curve to a blade of such a length as the previous observation obliges not only beats the proverbial dead horse of “it cuts” but can hinder one’s ability to effectively use the length, leverage, and angles offered an effective fencer at such range. A basket or knuckle-bow seems an equal or even greater hindrance when considering the amount of grip work that goes into the effective maneuvering of such a large melee weapon at advanced levels.
When functioning as a unit, the decision of what to equip involves many factors – expected terrain, group tactics and duties, the number and ability of members, the availability of resources – and those factors should not be ignored for the general recommendations found here. It has been long known that sword and shield has a distinct group advantage, as do certain multi-weapon setups such as sword and targe with spearmen or pikes with a single greatsword, and all these on the open ground whether large or small, outdoor or indoor. However, to be more fitting of the times and considerate of their environments I would mention more recently the machete and shotgun troops of the Philippines, or point back to the merciless soldiers of the Jacobite rebellion with their long basket-hilted claymores, short spears, and twin pistols, or even further back still to the guerilla warrior natives of America written about during European colonization, armed with little more than a shortbow and club.
Along with whatever personal projectile weapons are available, hopefully at least a longer and shorter range pair be they pistol and rifle or blowgun and recurve bow, a wide and long dagger or hatchet for both self defense and use on wood, dirt, etc. along with a smaller knife for more dextrous and utilitarian purposes should be a given. Then, supply either a basketed/guarded one-handed long sabre, such as the Scottish claymore or various military sabres, or a two-handed longsword with a crossguard useable in one hand coupled with a light defense instrument such as a buckler, guarded dagger, or even a bazuban or parrying glove (this can also be a feature of either the longer dagger or shortsword previously mentioned). The Swiss sabre is a particularly interesting example of a favorable two-handed longsword – the substantially basketed hilt, room for two hands, and longer than average blade size for a weapon so readily held with one hand as well as a surprisingly close to the hand balance point gives this blade a particular desirability in a small to medium, multi-function group setting. When combined with armored protection for the offhand and a dagger or short sword, the setup becomes a very versatile and unencumbered option for all scenarios.
Note: Author’s Choice
I have, through a combination of research, trial and error, and grandfathered familiarity, settled on my own trio of swords for a potential arsenal. I train actively in their respective arts, cross over their techniques whenever possible, and seek as funding allows the highest quality antiques available for my inventory. While not intended as a basis for nor example of the perfect assembly and actually rather guilty of breaking several guidelines, hopefully it can give some idea of why it is adequate for me as well as provide an example of how others can begin going about making these choices for themselves. The primary weapon I admire, chosen for familiarity and practicality and to be carried at all times and used in all manner of instances, is a heavily curved and basketed variant of the Polish cavalry sabre (and Middle Eastern sabre) known as the karabela. The second, longer, straighter, and still intended for a single hand, is a curved English broadsword hybrid with a schiavona hilt, chosen due to its adequate basket, versatility in use, and longer reach among one-handed weapons. The third choice, for both its physical and martial benefits, is a shortened and tapered zweihander with a wide base and simple, single crossguard. Not all are worn together at all times, but all are necessary in my experience to cover the range of possibilities faced in the spectrum of close quarters confrontation. In addition, a long and short knife, one approx. two feet in length and basketed, and the other approximately half that size and curved, would remain with me at all times.