Paradoxes of Sword Design

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Categories: Ancient, Modern, Not an expert
cross-sections of six swords near the guard
Cross-sections of six swords near the hilt. From Peter Johnson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” at Arctic Fire 2012

In February, I started to think seriously about swords after sketching the swords from Ghalekuti (which I will blog about one day). I am the “armour” sort of historical fencing person not the “swords” sort (thanks Steve Muhlberger) and I don’t have access to many originals in good condition. A group of European and American bladesmiths and engineers have been thinking about how to describe swords and how they want to move. The names I know best are Michael Tinker Pearce, Vincent le Chevalier, and Peter Johnsson; other people would mention Angus Trim and George Turner.

Swords are simple objects, but designing a specific sword requires trading off all kinds of goods against one another. The longer sword is more of a nuisance to wear and slower to draw, the stiffer sword may not be as effective in cutting, the more complex hilt limits how the weapon can be held. These seemingly simple objects hide a lot of engineering that you can slowly train your eye to see and your arm to feel.

This is a topic where not much has been formally published, but two great web resources are “Understanding Blade Properties” by Patrick Kelly and Peter Johnsson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” from Arctic Fire 2012 (warning: YouTube). Peter Johnsson is probably the most charismatic speaker discussing these ideas today and he has his own theory of how the medieval cruciform sword was designed. Because his talk is 80 minutes long and on a scary Google website I want to call out two things which I noticed.

From Peter Johnson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” at Arctic Fire 2012

The first is this picture of the cross-section of six swords he has examined near the tip, five European swords spanning a thousand years and one Japanese. As you can see, they are all very similar. “So you can see that, if anything, the katana has a slightly blunter edge angle, but we shouldn’t draw conclusions like that because there will be a larger variation between swords within each type than between types. So you can’t really say that the katana is sharper than the Viking sword, that is an impossible thing to say. A sword is as sharp as it has to be, and, across cultures, across millennia, that kind of sharpness remains surprisingly similar. What varies is for how long they stay sharp.” (45:00) This is a beautiful example of what anthropologists call convergent evolution.

The second is his discussion, at 48:00 and 1:11:00, of three types of swords with three different types of balance in motion. (Traditional single-handed swords, longswords, and rapiers). I don’t understand this completely (I only own three good swords and two of them are in Canada) but he seems to be saying that the swords designed for point-forward fencing have balance which makes it easy to move the hands through different positions while the point stays almost still, while most single-handed swords are designed for circular motions around the wrist or the middle of the blade). I wish I had the kinesthetic sense (and the expensive replicas) to understand this, because it fits my experience moving my sharp longsword and my Naue type II by Neil Burridge. If you are interested in swords, why don’t you see what you get out of his talk at “Paradoxes of Sword Design” on YouTube.

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