The most famous ancient / medieval weapon is the sword.
Actually, spear, bow and arrow were far more ubiquitous and effective.
But swords have managed to acquire status that ranges into the mythical
and therefore you find them everywhere in fantasy stories and fantasy roleplaying games.
There are many different types of swords and almost as many systems of classification, so the whole spectrum can be confusing for beginners. To help you out, here is an overview of sword types with categorization along two lines, which hopefully is neither too detailed nor too general.
These swords are almost all single-edged blades, often concave. Some have a straight back but their edge is broader near the tip, others are completely straight but overall broad and heavy. Cleavers are primarily used to cut, but often have a secondary thrusting function. This kind of swords are mostly used on the battlefield.
Straight swords have, as their name implies, straight blades, almost always double-edged. They can be used for both cutting and thrusting, though the shorter ones tend to favor the thrust and the longer ones the cut. This kind of swords is the most versatile of all. Straight swords are the most common of sword types, especially in the West. The East tends to favor curved swords, though straight ones are used there too.
Fencing blades are long, slender and light. Some are sharp only at the tip, others also at both edges. They have superb reach and speed, but less raw damaging power. Fencing swords are primarily used for thrusting, with limited cutting ability. The focus is on skill, rather than brute strength, as with some older swords. They are ineffective against heavy armor, but popular for fighting duels. Fencing swords often have elaborate cross guards.
The opposite of cleavers, these swords have convex blades. Their cut is not so heavy and less effective against heavy armor, but against opponents that are not well protected they can deliver deep wounds. An advantage of this kind of sword is that it seldom gets stuck in the body or armor of an opponent. Slicers are always single-edged.
These weapons are basically slicers, but are put in a separate category, because their balance is different and they are often used two-handed, even at short lengths. Japanese warriors seldom used shields, relying on armor for protection instead. This kind of swords has become very famous in modern times, though not necessarily superior to other types.
Knives and daggers:
The smallest blades are knives and daggers. Semantically, a knife is a cutting tool that can be used as a weapon and a dagger is a weapon that can also be used as a cutting tool. To prevent confusion, this overview classifies blades up to 0.30 mtr. in length as knives and longer ones, up to 0.50 mtr. as daggers.
Knives and daggers are favorites of assassins because they are so small that they can easily be concealed under clothing. Assassins can often pick their targets because they attack by surprise. When plunged into a vital body area, small blades are just as lethal as the larger ones.
Warriors also carry knives and daggers, but for them it is not the mainstay. Rather, it is an emergency weapon that is used when they lose their spear, axe, sword, mace or something similar, or when they are forced into close combat where there is no room to wield a large weapon. Warriors prefer heavy daggers that do not break easily and can be used to punch through enemy armor.
A short sword has more reach than a dagger. At these lengths, cutting becomes about as effective as thrusting and swords start to diversify in shape.
Short swords were used extensively in ancient times. The Romans used them together with body shields to first knock the opponent off balance and then deliver a horrible stab in the belly. But when smithing techniques advanced enough to produce medium swords of good quality, those gained the upper hand.
Nonetheless short swords remained in use. Because of their short length and low weight they are cheap and have remained a favorite of poorer warriors, or fighters who battled in cramped conditions, like pirates on ships.
The medium sword is the archetypical Medieval sword. Long enough to provide good reach, heavy enough to cut through most armor, yet light enough to be swift. They make excellent duelling weapons, but also saw widespread use on the battlefield. They have been the mainstay of swordfighters throughout the centuries up to the introduction of gunpowder.
Battle swords require a lot of room and strength. In return, they provide a lot of reach and cutting power. They are primarily used on the battlefield. Cavalry tends to favor battle swords over medium swords because they need reach to strike from horseback.
Battle and longer swords are sometimes used in half-swording style, where the wielder uses one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade. With shorter blades, this technique is not very effective, but with longer ones it can gain significant extra leverage.
Historically, what is categorized here as battle swords, long swords and two-handers were all called "long swords", but in this system they make up a narrower category. Most long swords have long hilts that allow them to be used with either one or two hands, earning them the name "hand-and-a-half".
Two-handers, are so long and heavy that they can only be wielded with two hands. They are so large that they are not sheathed in a scabbard, but carried on one's back or shoulder like a polearm.
They size of these weapons inspires awe, but actually they are so slow and heavy that for many fighting styles they are unsuitable. Two-handers were historically used to break up pike formations, a very risky task delegated to desperate volunteers and convicted criminals, because they suffered so many casualties on the job. But in a fantasy setting, in the hands of a warrior with super-human strength, the cutting power of a two-hander may be just what you need to bring down that dinosaur!
The table below lists example historical sword types in the categorization system outlined above.
The categorization is not very exact, as a single name is often historically used to describe a whole range of blades,
and sometimes changes meaning over time too, but it provides a good starting point.
Lengths are for overall length, including blade and grip, measured in meters. Weight denotes the entire practical range for the given length, from the lightest fencing blade to the heaviest cleaver, measured in kilograms.
|length||weight||Cleavers||Straight swords||Fencing swords||Slicers||Japanese|
|knife and dagger||< 0.50||¼ - 1||acinaces (Persian), baselard, dirk (Scottish), main gauche, misericorde, poniard, pugio (Roman), rondel dagger, stiletto, tanto (Japanese)||sica (Balkans)|
|short sword||0.50 - 0.70||¾ - 1½||bolo (Philipine), falcata, falchion, kopis (Greek), kukri (Nepalese), makhaira (Greek), machete||gladius (Roman), saex, xiphos (Greek)||cutlass, khopesh (Sumerian)||wakizashi (Japanese)|
|medium sword||0.70 - 0.95||1 - 2||backsword, khanda (Indian)||arming-sword, flyssa (Berber), jian (Chinese), kaskara (Sudanese), katzbalger (German), spatha (Roman), takouba (Tuareg), viking sword||small sword||dao (Chinese), karabela (Polish), kilij (Turkish), nimcha (Berber), pulwar (Afghan), sabre, scimitar, shamshir (Persian), shotel (Abyssinian), talwar (Indian), yatagan (Turkish)||katana (Japanese)|
|battle sword||0.95 - 1.20||1 - 2||estoc||espada ropera (Spanish), side sword||odachi (Japanese)|
|long sword||1.20 - 1.50||1¼ - 2||bastard sword, shuangshou jian (Chinese)||rapier|
|two-hander||1.35 - 1.80||2 - 3½||claymore (Scottish), spadone (Italian), zweihänder (German)|
Remarks and special types:
- The khopesh is a single-edged sword that has an extreme sickle-like curve at the end of the blade. It is a slashing weapon, but it shape helps in disarming manoeuvers. The khopesh was used in the bronze age, but fell out of use when iron weapons were introduced.
- The estoc or tuck is a very specialized type of sword. It has a straight blade without sharp edges. Often it does not even have a flat cross-section, but is shaped like a needle. It is is a pure thrusting weapon, designed to punch through plate armor, which in the late medieval period was becoming so good that normal swords decreased in effectiveness. The estoc, a kind of hybrid between sword and spear, was one of the answers.
- The flyssa is somewhat similar to the estoc. This sword too is designed to stab through armor, but as its target is mail rather than plate, it is less sturdy. Unlike the hyper-specialized estoc, it has retained a secondary sharp cutting edge.
The bastard sword is named so because it is wielded either one-handed or two-handed; both styles are possible.
As it is neither exculsively one-handed, nor solely two-handed, but something in between, it is called a "bastard".
This type is also called "hand-and-a-half" sword, but "bastard" has a more poetic quality to it.
The bastard sword has a rigid hilt that tapers towards the end, making it suitable for piercing armor, like the estoc. But unlike that type, it has retained it sharp edges and can be used to parry and slash.
"Broadswords" are not any specific category, neither in this system, nor historically. The term broadsword usually denotes a heavier military blade, used on the battlefield and discerns it from lighter civilian duelling blades. Alternatively, broadswords span all kinds of Medieval swords, as opposed to more slender Renaissance and younger blades. This system does not use the name "broadsword" at all.
"Long swords" historically denotes swords with a long blade and a long hilt, often the ones that can be wielded with two hands. Complementary, "short swords" have short blades and hilts and are wielded with one hand. As noted above, in this system both terms are used for narrower length categories.
Other terms like "war-swords" or "great-swords" are also not used in this system, because they are too broad and vague.
Use in roleplaying games
Many people will ask: Of all sword types, which is the best?
The answer is that that depends on many factors, like strength, skill, fighting style, room to manoeuver, armor of the opponent(s) and how well your purse is filled.
In short, there is no single best sword.
In my experience, for roleplaying games, a simple system can be built again along two lines:
The first is "melee".
A weapon with a high melee score is good for breaking through the defense of the enemy
and equally good for defense, either through parrying or just keeping them at bay.
Melee depends on two factors that tend to conflict with each other: reach and swiftness.
A medium sword is better than a short one because it has more reach as is only marginally slower. But at longer lengths swords-cuts become so slow that the melee score goes down again, though a two-hander still outranks a dagger. Cleavers are generally somewhat heavier and slower than other sword types and thus have a lower melee score. Fencing swords are the best because the retain speed even at long lengths, by virtue of their lightning thrusts.
The second factor is "damage".
A weapon with a high damage score can deal a lot of damage to an opponent when his defense is broken.
More importantly, it can defy enemy armor more successfully and inflict substantial wounds despite the protection.
Longer and heavier weapons have better damage score than shorter and lighter ones. Here cleavers have the advantage and fencing swords are penalized. The best damagers are bastard swords and two-handers, designed to deal with heavy armor.
These two basic sword combat scores can be enriched by introducing factors like hand-use, armor penetration and the number of opponents. Swords that are wielded with one hand can be combined with a secondary sidearm in the other hand, or a shield, to provide extra attack and/or defense. Slicing swords are good against lightly armored opponents but weaker against heavy armor, while weapons like bastards swords and estocs can punch through the weaker areas of plate armor. Thrusting weapons and shields are useful in duels, but when one is surrounded by many enemies sweeping cuts can be very effective, especially with medium or longer swords.