5 Types of Medieval Swords and Their Modern Usage

Posted by sharpimport on 11/10/2020
types-of-medieval-swords

Swords may be difficult to classify accurately, but here is a compact list of 5 most notable swords throughout history and what are these swords up to today.

Is it a sword or is it a long dagger?' This question is as old as 'did the egg or the chicken come first?' and perhaps as complicated to answer. The sheer number of swords of various designs, lengths and blade types makes the process of classifying swords excruciatingly mind bending. Before we get into this problem, let's look at the construction of a typical sword.

Anatomy of a Sword

Let's dissect the various parts within a sword that come together to make this dignified weapon that is synonymous with chivalry and artful design at the same time.

Medieval Swords

Blade: 

This part of the sword extends from guard to the tip and was designed to be as sharp as possible. The sword blades were used for slashing and thrusting with a single strike.

Hilt: 

This is the part of the sword not including the blade. A hilt consists of pommel, grip and a guard.

Pommel: 

This is the enlarged portion at the bottom of the blade and is usually where most ornamentation occurs. You can recognize many famous swords throughout history by their distinctive insignia covered pommels. Pommels are also used to balance out the weight of the blade to help with balancing of the sword.

Grip: 

This is the handle of the sword where a holder grabs to when carrying it.  Most grips are designed to have as much traction as possible. Most modern swords however use the grip to further beautify and ornate the sword with signature designs.

Guard: 

This is the top most part of the hilt that protects the hand from sliding onto the blade. Many famous swords across centuries had very prominent guards which served more than just a protective purpose and ventured into a more ostentatious territory.

Filigree: 

This Is not a part of each sword but many swords are recognized by the engravings on their blade and hilt. These may be for decorative purposes but most are there by design. A Robin Hood sword for example features leaf engraving because he lived in the forest and designed his sword to reflect that.


How to Classify Swords?

This conundrum begs the question, 'how does one classify swords?'. Well, one way is to divide different sword types according to the purpose it most potently serves. 

This way, we would have decorative swords-which serve as ornamented novelty items for sword collectors, we would have cosplay swords-made from foam or wood and mostly unsharpened used for theatrical, costume, prop or LARP purposes, and we would have short swords-commonly confused with long daggers to be used for everyday utility like cutting wood, chopping foliage etc. The list goes on.

One classification of swords is based on the blade length. The terms longsword, shortsword, broadsword, two handed sword are causally thrown around to typify various swords together regardless of their purpose or shape. 

This is not a very clever or informative way to separate various sword classes and ends up confusing a sword collector. But, it does provide a clarity to group together similar looking swords that have more or less the same purpose.

Another classification of swords would be based on the blade shape of the sword. This is a much narrower and technical way to group various swords together across history, bearing in mind that swords have a very long and convoluted history. 


There will be various kinds of swords in this category because the swords came into origin somewhere around the bronze age and have morphed into many shapes since then. So we have compressed more than 4000 years of sword history to present you 5 famous medieval and Roman swords based on their blade design and length that you can find since blades came into existence.

1. Gladius 

Don't confuse these swords with the gladiator sword, which shares a common origin but is more of a variant to this sword. This is because different classes of ancient Roman society carried different swords. 

A Gladius was the main weapon of Roman foot soldiers, and were carried by these men from the 3rd century BCE until the end of 3rd century CE- when the mighty Roman Empire started collapsing. 

This type of sword has a pointed, double-edged blade, which is around 80cm long. As far as sword lengths go, this is a shortsword.

The blade isn't too heavy either, weighing somewhere between 700 to 1000 grams. This makes it relatively easy to carry and wield with a single hand. Roman foot soldiers had to travel miles while fighting enemies and this sword made for an easy-to-carry deathly weapon for them.

This sword helped Romans win many wars and conquer lands far and away. In this process, the gladius saw many modifications and variants we recognize till today. Most European swords that followed it, from Greece to Nordic regions, take their inspiration from gladius, the original Roman sword.

The blade design of the gladius sword rendered it perfects as thrashing sword. Thrusting swords aren't ideal for cutting and so the Roman infantry would use this sword to inflict deadly attacks on the stomachs that led to inevitable death after long hours of pain.

In the present day, most sword collectors prefer a Spatha-a longer and efficient variant of the gladius that replaced it at the end of 3rd century.


2. European Longsword

Roman swords had a huge influence in making for this variety of swords that were prevalent in Europe from the Middle ages (1200 CE) till the end of the Renaissance era (1700 CE). This period represents the pinnacle of medieval England and the longswords were used in many battles that have glorified the English expansion.

Coming to the blade design of these swords, a typical medieval longsword couldn't be held and wielded single handedly. It was a double edged sword ideal for attacking from either side of the blade with ruthless grandiosity.

As the name suggests, these swords were recognized by their ominously long length going up to a meter and weighing around 1.5 kilograms. How could this big heavy sword make such a widely used war weapon?

It is precisely the heaviness and length that gave these swords their inherent gruesomeness. European warriors in the 1600s would fight with these swords because it gave them a wide reach. They could cut across flesh swinging these giant swords either from the left or right.

Perhaps that is why longswords have penetrated our collective consciences centuries layer and cemented themselves in our minds as the most daring, formidable and awe inspiring blades ever held by men.

This is why most longswords today are used as collection pieces by sword connoisseurs around the world. Who doesn't know of a Claymore-a Scottish variant of the longsword, popularized by William Wallace in his battles for Scottish independence?

Claymore swords are one of the most heavily produced swords for cosplay or LARP purposes well. Usually they are produced by high density foam material keeping the insignias of the era intact. 

It lost its war status in about the second half of the 16th century persisting mainly as a weapon for sportive competition — possibly also being used in knightly duels.

3. Katana 

We head east now and probably the most well known of all Eastern swords, is the Katana. Katana symbolizes royalty, bravery and nobility of Japanese Samurai warriors. These swords were in their prime as battle weapons during the 12th and 17th centuries. Suffice to say, the popularity of these swords haven't faded away till the present day.

The blade of a Katana features a distinctive curve point leading up from a single edge blade that is around 100 cm long. Samurai warriors were known for their swiftness, which they owe to the Katana with its 1.3 kilogram weighing making them easy to strike single handedly.


Today, wooden Katanas are used by scores of people to  bring out their inner power and honor while holding them. Samurai and ninja themed costume parties and LARP events also heavily feature katanas designed for prop purposes.

Present day obsession with katana swords isn't unwarranted. Experts believe that these swords are the deadliest cutting blades in the history of military weaponry. These swords may have been replaced by modern firearms but Katana makes a perfect novelty item in any sword collection of the modern age.

4. Rapier 

Enough talk of the lethal war weapons the above three swords are touted to be. Here we have a gentler version in the world of swords (or as gentle as a sword can be)-called the Rapier.

The place of origin of these types of swords is contested but it may have come from Spain with its many variants propping up across the decades in many European countries, particularly France.

A Rapier is referred to any sword with a straight not curved blade that is super thin. In any other classification, a rapier blade would fall under the category of cutting blades.

The blade was lightweight, weighing around 1kg with 104 cm length. Obviously, these swords were made to be wielded single handedly for thrusting, slashing and cutting with either a single or double edged blade.

However, these swords soon found a reputation as a light everyday carry sort of sword used for self defense or dueling. Think of these swords as the present day equivalent of a pocket knife.

Many variations emerged from the rapier blade design that we mostly classify as small swords today. Small swords are widely used today in sports such as fencing.

Rapier swords because of their inherent fragility quickly gave way to stronger backswords. But because of their popularity as the gentlemen's sword or a court sword, we see these medieval swords depicted in period movies and dramas. One can say that these swords have found a new use in present day as movie swords.


5. Cutlass  

When we think of swords, we see them as combat weapons that died hundreds of years ago. We think swords are only used by fantasy characters, sword collectors or nerds who do cosplay using their favorite swords.

But a Cutlass shatters this line of thinking. True, it is not actually used in combat today, but was as recently as 1949. This makes these swords the most modern out of all the swords we have discussed so far.

A typical cutlass has a short, broad blade up to 80cm long and weighs around 1.2kilogramms. Most of the people today know of a Sabre which is a variant of this historical sword.

Sabre and other renditions of the cutlass are classified as backswords that were heavily used in European armies, especially navy for light, close range combat.

The blade design of these swords makes it ideal for slashing and cutting through bulky blocks of wood. These swords have inherent strength and can hack through anything with little effort because of their short length.

Most modern Cutlasses are used in cosplays involving pirates because of the popularity of these swords in cramped areas such as the dock of the ship. You can't miss a cutlass if you have seen Pirates of the Caribbean.

Apart from movie sets, these swords are often found in the collection of most military museums as they were a significant part of naval war history of Europe.

Final Thoughts

Medieval Swords have left an indelible mark on the history of warfare. They were effective and reliable weapons that did more than just kill. Many swords were like a third arm for soldiers and life companions that personified nobility and valiancy and sense of fearlessness.

Most of these swords continue to charm us whether we see them on the big screens, orankme series or in a collector's personal museum. Such is the aura of swords that they have become an integral part of costume parties and cosplays. And so, swords will remain the powerful symbol of liberation and human spirit for ages to come.

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