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Elementary Concerns of Weaponcraft
Jack R. Parnell
We might think of a tool as any external object with which a man can either extend his natural limitations, or improve upon his natural effectiveness. In a primitive sense a tool is as a thing that makes him super-human. A weapon, then, is a tool for rendering another man unable to fight. Naturally, over the course of some millennia of war we have devised a number of ways to complicate the matter, and for the purposes of this essay I will set projectile weapons somewhat to the side. Launching something unpleasant toward an adversary, while requiring a certain skill all of its own, has long been considered as lacking the personal weight and direct interplay of close-quarters confrontation. Considerable effort has likewise been put into the art of making a man dangerous with his bare hands, but, the warrior who seeks an edge in combat is often the victor; it was not by stint of boxing that the cave bear came to be extinct.
There is an abundance of close range weapons, and variants of them the world-over, but nearly all can be fit into only a few familiar categories. While the lines between categories can be, at times, indistinct—for reasons that will become clearer—those categories can generally be reckoned as follows: Axes, clubs, swords, spears and polearms. Each of these categories seeks to extend some capacity in which a man is wanting, or to hybridize several in attempt to broaden his utility. However as we will see, chasing utility also means a certain amount of generality, which becomes difficult and restrictive as a result of trying to balance too many conflicting fortés.
To best understand the way these questions have been approached through the ages, we ought to first understand which specific capacities—or problems—in himself man sought to solve with weaponry. Three primary are problems are material, leverage and reach.
For the problem of material, attacking flesh-and-bone with flesh-and-bone makes it difficult to ensure that only the foe receives the injury. Better to utilize an altogether sturdier material, which will more dependably inflict harm on your opponent, or on his equipment, while sparing you and yours.
With the question of material open we can see, as well, that certain manners of striking—which would otherwise be impossible—become feasible. Namely: The cut and the thrust; each of which can more cleanly incapacitate the opponent’s animating anatomy, than could a concussive blow from a fist. While concussion, as well, is improved by sturdier material in the manner of crushing, concussive force is more directly improved through leverage.
In the same way a closed fist swung at the end of an arm concentrates the force of the muscles at the hand, a lever—such as a club—can greatly increase the force delivered by extending the length of the arm, out from the fulcrum of the shoulder. Avoiding a long and unnecessary diversion into the elementary physics at play, it should suffice to summarize leverage as a mechanical means to increase the amount of force a man can deliver onto his target.
Closely related is the more straightforward matter of reach—of being able to reach out and touch a man, without him being able to do the same. Superior reach often proves a decisive advantage alone; ask any boxer who has faced an opponent of much greater stature. Thus far, and in these simple terms, we can begin to imagine the so-called perfect weapon. Forged of a material harder than flesh and bone, made with a profile which can cut, pierce and bludgeon, and of great length so as to maximize leverage and reach.
Weight, and Velocity
As always however, the matter is somewhat more complicated. Firstly, those materials we have which can be made sharp are often brittle—or else do not long hold an edge. It’s likely that our earliest tools of war were either of wood, flint, or some combination of those basic elements. While a wooden club can in-fact be made to cut—as observed in some Polynesian variations—and flint can be given a razor edge, they are outclassed in durability by even the most rudimentary metals: Bronze, iron, and later, steel.
For a weapon-smith, generally speaking, the critical question is that of the balance between hardness and elasticity. A harder blade will hone to a keener edge, and keep it longer, but it will also be more brittle and fragile. A more elastic blade will better manage the recumbent forces of impact with an opponent, but it will not hone as sharply or keep its edge for very long.
Additionally, there is the matter of the weight of the material, due to the physical relationship between weight and velocity. Taking into account that a man can only swing so heavy a weight, and that a greater weight will result in a greater impact, why should a man not swing the heaviest weapon he can manage? The answer comes in the form of calculating the equation that describes impact force. Velocity is a much more significant multiplier of force than weight. Thus, it seems a man is perhaps best served by the weapon he can accelerate the fastest, rather than the heaviest one he can lift.
The question then invariably becomes whether or not a warrior ought wield the lightest weapon. Such a weapon has its own troubles. On the very-light side of the scale, a weapon might begin to deform as a result of air resistance and, by fluttering, become undependable and difficult to swing true. A very light weapon will also necessarily lack certain structural considerations, which make it difficult for the weapon to perform the full breadth of service required of it; the light weapon may break on delivery of a strike, or in attempting to deflect one. The issue of leverage, too, begins to cut the other way as we consider the weapon’s heft.
A given weight held in the hand will be easier to lift, than it would be if the exact same weight was fixed to the end of a rod. This unwieldiness increases with length, and so is directly opposed to reach. Due to the momentum of a strike, the greater the weight (or effective weight, as we just outlined), the more difficulty there is in changing the direction of a weapon after a blow—to better interpose it between you and the movements of your enemy. These problems are made more manageable by crafting the weapon to be wielded with both hands, which allows you to turn the weapon about a point along its length by pushing with one hand while pulling with the other.
It should be clear by this point that any weapon which maximizes one element of use will compromise another. Further, we can see that with a given task, a hybrid will not be able to compete with something more directed to that specific purpose. Let’s revisit the martial archetypes outlined at the beginning and see how they relate to one specialization, or another.
An axe is a haft or handle—usually wood—mounted with a curved, cutting blade at one end and gripped at the other. The axe, as a tool, is designed to maximize leverage and cutting potential at the cost of a reduced ability to thrust, to recover, and to defend. Because the axe is not always designed for war; it’s most commonly a wood-cutting tool—it’s not necessarily designed with recovery following a strike, in-mind. However a war axe is often formulated to be used with one hand, which allows for the use of a shield, and which, in-turn can make up some defensibility. Slow recovery after a swing or parry makes it difficult to block, and blocking with the haft of an axe will inevitably damage the weapon, as metal hafts are prohibitively massive.
Rather than prioritizing a cut, the club, hammer, or mace focuses on leveraging the blunt weight of metal into a concussive blow. To clarify the difference: A cut is achieved by separating a material through splitting its components. A blade does this by means of a wedge; its angled sides and narrow edge apply compression and shearing forces to either overcome the tensile strength of a material, or to fracture a brittle material along its imperfections. Severance is accomplished by concentrating all the force of the blow to the smallest possible area in order to drive the target apart at the blade.
This is all well-and-good until one wonders after the reason for the exaggerated width and breadth of the blade of an axe. In order to explain these qualities, we must consider the forces which are incumbent back onto the blade itself. The width and angle of the wedge is determined by the hardiness of the material it’s intended to cut; more resistance requires a wider and sturdier wedge. The most narrow blades (in section) are best suited to only the softest materials. A flensing knife, for example, is thin in breadth and in section because it is meant to flex and bend; cutting meat around the bone. By contrast, a battle axe—with its wide wedge and deep breadth—is designed to cut through flesh, bone, and some lighter armors.
A concussive blow is about delivering force through the target by impact, rather than driving itself through the target. In this way, a hammer blow can shatter bones without having to break the skin or penetrate chain mail. The hammer can likewise cause a concussive brain injury without penetrating a plate helm. Therefore many clubs and hammers are formed without the concern of needing to concentrate force, with any real degree of precision. However, their heft means clubs face even more exaggerated problems of recovery, than do axes. As a result most variants are designed for use with one hand, though again, there are notable exceptions to this rule.
It’s worth noting that the profile of either the hammer or the axe—a mass at the end of a lever—can allow for a greater utility-of-reach, in the form of hooking an opponents limbs, armaments, or defenses. Thereby, both are able to extend the range at which a man might grapple his opponent, or deliver a blow. Hammers and axes intended for use as weapons are often mounted with a spike, which delivers force in much the same way as a thrust—in terms of manifested damage—but by stint of needing to be swung, it will lack some virtues of the idealized thrust.
The defining implement of the thrust is the spear, or lance, and is composed of a piercing point at the end of a long haft. A spear maximizes reach and delivers deep puncturing wounds, and while the point can be made very nimble and mobile, it can become unwieldy once an opponent is inside its reach. This vulnerability renders the spear primarily offensive, keeping opponents at bay by threat of attack, at the expense of the ability to parry or block blows—though it can be done in dire straits.
A piercing blow is similar to a cutting one, in that its aim to deliver the force of a blow as narrowly as possible. The difference being, that where the ideal cut is delivered along a line to split material, a thrust is delivered at a single point, and aims to penetrate a material as deeply as possible. Through concentrating the force into a smaller area, the spear puts a maximum of pressure on a minimum of resisting material in order to cause rupture. A narrow implement, such as needle, boasts a minute point but it is fragile. A point needs to be as narrow as possible to maximize concentration of force, but must also be strong enough not to bend or shatter under the force of the blow itself. Some spears have wider leaf blades that can cut as well as pierce, just as many axes will taper the top edge of their blade to a thrusting point, but both are limited in terms of the feasible depth-of-penetration. It’s quite difficult to run an axe all the way through an arm, or lop off a limb with a spear.
The last particular virtue of the thrust is its directness. To swing with power from the shoulder, or even from the wrist, a blow with a swinging weapon requires some wind-up. It must approach the target along the curve of its trajectory. A pragmatic thrust, heeding Pythagoras, arrives in a straight line—and so is generally faster than a swing, all other considerations being equal. Additionally, with clever placement of a piercing weapon, one might allow his opponent’s momentum to carry out all needful movement and thereby impale himself.
All of the variants of weapons discussed so far can be adapted to deliver force differently, according to need, or to better account for its disadvantages. In so-doing however, one weapon-type begins to step somewhat into the wheelhouse of another weapon type—all according to the specific problems posed by the opponent. Realistically, there will be some questions as to availability, preference, and prior experience involved as well. Because each of these tools is particularly specialized they are often shorn up by other equipment. As axes, clubs, and spears perform best offensively, they are frequently used in tandem with a shield, or with the added defensive benefits of armor. Or best of all, with the friendly fellow next to you. Of course situations often change, and circumstances which called for a spear or which shattered one, lead to the want for more versatile weapons.
The sword, then is the answer. And while often wielded as the primary implement of fighting, under many circumstances it was also the preeminent sidearm—not necessarily because it was of secondary capability. Rather, it can meet and overcome a wider variety challenges which a more specialized weapon might not. Additionally, a sword is a much more successfully defensive weapon in guarding, and in parrying than is any other type—and so it follows that the sword traditionally fills the role of an item of resort. The sword is able to cut, thrust and guard, as well as achieve a better reach-to-weight ratio than an axe or club. However, the sword itself becomes a microcosm of the concerns we’ve already discussed, balancing specialization in reach, thrust, cut, and guard with its own profiles and configurations to maximize each.
A sword, unlike its predecessors, demands metalwork. Some cutting clubs absent metal, like a maquahuitl or leiomano, may approximate a sword in some respects, but not so closely as to be called one. The sword, then, can be characterized as a narrow length of metal sharpened on at least one side, and fashioned with a grip or hilt at one end for the hand. The size and shape of a sword varies widely depending the problems it’s meant to solve, though all but the most specialized can do a bit of everything well-enough. As an aside, many of the principles that govern the shape of a sword can also be applied in miniature to the shape of a knife.
All swords feature enhanced maneuverability, by placing the balance of the weapon closer to the hand. This is important for recovery after a swing, allowing for quick changes of the direction of attack. Weapons with more momentum at their tip require more effort, and more time to redirect. Or else, such a weapon swings in more predictable patterns in effort to maintain that momentum.
A sword, especially a lighter one, can move more dynamically—akin the tip of a spear. However, as a much greater percentage of its length is the “business end,” it’s more difficult to compromise the effectiveness of a sword by closing. This feature works in-tandem with a sword’s recoverability to make defensive options, like quick parries, deflections, or blocks, more reasonable. Nearly all swords feature some tricks to manage their weight, both to maintain their recoverability and as a result of the velocity problem. The most common, is the manner in which the edge is ground. In section, the sharper, more brittle steel is located at the tip of the wide angle, but squares off with thicker, elastic steel along the spine (or center) of the blade. This, in lieu of the more brittle material carrying the full weight of the entire wedge. Another common trick of the trade is some manner of fuller; sometimes erroneously called a ‘blood groove.’ In reality the fuller serves to remove excess material and weight from an area where the blade doesn’t require it. This often actually improves the structural performance of the blade by introducing opposed arches in the blade’s profile, which any architect can attest is a particularly desirable shape for handling excessive forces.
As for manners by which swords make themselves unique, we may first consider the benefits of a curving blade. The curved profile is most commonly seen in swords optimized to cut and slice, and its benefit is twofold. First, consider the weight distribution of our first cutting implement, the axe. The cutting edge is out ahead of the wrist, and the weight moves in the direction it’s meant to be swung. An axe balanced straight up on its haft will fall blade-first. Imagine how awkward the axe would feel in the hand, swung backward. This is because when held rightly, its momentum is naturally added to the swing; whereas if held backward, one has to fight the weight trying to fall backward for the entire swing.
The second benefit offered by the curve is the way it assists the concentration force, for a cutting blow. A curved edge will meet its target at a steeper angle than will a straight one, applying less edge to the target with the same force—and so the same total force is applied to a smaller total area. This action can be assisted, if the center of a sword’s balance rests nearer the tip. Next, because it meets at an angle, a curved sword which is as wide as a straight one, will behave as though it’s wider because the line is being drawn diagonally across the blade, rather than straight across. This serves to both keep the swing true and ensure a deeper gash.
There is also a particular matter, which is quite near to the hearts of many swordsmen; a physical phenomenon called the “center of percussion.” To again dodge an extensive foray into the physics of pendulums, the center of percussion on a sword is the point at which it delivers all the energy of blow, wasting none in vibration, and thereby maximizing itself as a lever. Generally, the center of percussion is larger in heavier, curved swords—making it easier to strike “the perfect blow.” It is worth noting that the advantages of a curved blade generally apply whether the point curves toward, or away from the edge.
As we have learned, these advantages cannot be without cost; the price in this instance is the thrust. Most curved swords still taper to a point which can pierce, but because of the curve, the thrust must be impelled with considerably more force, as the side-on nature of the curve is now working against it. A piercing thrust will need to widen to the depth of the curve of the sword if it can actually be delivered with that much force. While not impossible from horseback, such a scenario is untenable on foot. The alternative is delivering the thrust along the angle of the curve, rather than in a straight line, which is effective, but lacks the directness and speed of a straight line—and sacrifices the reach of an arm out-thrust in favor of one bent at the elbow, to make the curve.
A thrusting sword, then, will want to be thin and straight, to maximize its piercing action. Highly specialized thrusting swords might reduce their cutting edges to near uselessness in favor of providing more conical support for the point, as with a misericord or estoc, both of which condense the necessary structural material in three dimensions behind the point. This type of sword is naturally nimble and plenty-sturdy in the parry, but is more limited in form of attack. Other swords, like some forms of rapier and jian can be formulated to prioritize the thrust, but still maintain a profile in-section and breadth of edge, which is viable in the slash. It’s worth noting here that it’s difficult to sharpen both sides of a curved sword. They are often better served by a wedge profile that allows a thick back, and so most examples of dual edged swords are straight.
I will not mire myself in the question as to whether or not one form of attack is somehow superior to another. Most patterns of sword share this attitude, and make some compromises in the ideal cut or thrust, in order to manage both well-enough for the variety of situations in which they will be used. Some straight, dual edged swords will be weightier in construction, wider at the base to create a larger center of percussion, and sport a deeper breadth to help the slash. The smith balances these considerations by introducing a steeply narrowing form, to a needle-fine thrusting point. Other single edged swords will curve only slightly, taking some advantage therefrom, while still maintaining a relatively straight thrust angle. Some advantages of shape can be made up in technique, as I have described for a curving thrust, or, by making a circular cut to create a cutting angle with a straight sword. It is better, however, to leave one’s mind free to consider other aspects of confrontation. One who is experienced enough to bear all this in mind could then, at a glance, evaluate the talents of a sword by its look and feel in the hand.
I will at last mention the polearm typology, which offers any variant of weapon so far discussed, maximized for reach, by affixing it to the end of a shaft. Thus, it a can offer the same virtues and vices—but with the added advantage of range at the cost of unwieldy recovery, and therefore is vulnerable to opponents who can close inside of its reach. It can usefully hybridize many formations in a manner different than a sword, but with much lower utility in guard. It could be said that the polearm is hybridized for more direct offense, whereas swords are hybridized defensively, but when wielded in-formation it often proves difficult to overcome their overlapping offensive arcs. In this way, a man can be his mate’s defense with his offense, a case which is true of any weapon, but which is exaggerated in the polearm.
Thus, a man finds himself in an armory with the eternal question of what to take with him to war. As a rule, it is harder to cut armor than pierce it, but easier in the fray to deliver devastating slashes than thrusts to soft targets. He may know what ground he will hold, or if he will fight from the back of a horse, and choose a weapon which will help him apply force from above or direct it from his mount. If a man expects to be confronted with heavy shields or horses, he might select a weapon able to deliver much greater leverage that he can swing with both hands—be it sword, axe or hammer—especially if he can depend on armor to protect him. He may expect to fight in formation and have allies to assail an enemy inside his reach, and thereby choose a spear or polearm.
The idea of a “perfect weapon” fades from the mind as one comes to understand all the variation of arms, not as flights of fancy or stylization, but as solutions to particular problems. The finest warriors, then, will either select the best tool for the task, or understand the ways in which shortcomings will need to be made up with technique, terrain, or manner of engagement.