The Sword in Warfare

The use of the sword as an effective military weapon has been abandoned since the First World War, but its decline had begun at a very much earlier period. T.H. McGuffie describes how, during the Franco-German struggle of 1870-1871, among some forty thousand cavalry engaged, only six men are believed to have received a mortal sabre-wound.

When men struggle with one another another, whether in warfare, for exercise or in competition, it is nearly always by means of artificial aids or under closely defined conventional rules. Among the simplest and most early of manufactured weapons are the club and the spear, both characterized by the downright crash and the sharp thrust. The spear has an added advantage: it can be cast at a target, and a well-shaped javelin will, if accurately thrown, prove a deadly weapon at considerable distances, either in hunting or in war.

The club, though it also developed along lines leading to the mace, was soon improved by many early peoples into the sword. Before the general use of metal, it was found that to bind sharp flints, as among the Aztecs, or sharks’ teeth, as in South Sea Islands, on to a wooden rod made possible a more effective result than the mere crushing blow of a cudgel.

Even if the head of a club were reinforced with stone, the strength and speed needed to direct it for a killing stroke threw the assailant off balance and, if the attempt failed, laid him helplessly open to counter-attack. With a sword, however primitive, a more delicately controlled stroke could be made, to cut or slash, to graze or wound. Moreover, a feint could be offered and the opponent kept in terror. Bronze and iron gave qualities of balance and precision that led almost at once to a weapon that has not improved materially in a period of some three thousand years.

In essence, a sword requires a hand-grip and a blade. The grip may be guarded, to protect the hand, and weighted with a knob or pommel for balance. The blade can be primarily either for cutting or for thrusting. Since the two qualities are not mutually exclusive, and because the common tendency among mankind is to try to combine in one article as many possible uses as ingenuity can contrive, most swords are designed both for slash and jab.

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