A sword is generally classified as a hand-held metal weapon with a sharp point and possibly two sharp edges. It was designed for efficient, close, hand-to-hand combat. Nevertheless, the specific designs of swords vary greatly to accommodate the combatant's size, attributes, and style of movement. There are very light swords such as the epee and very heavy swords such as the broadsword.

Anatomy of a Sword

Swords have only a few basic parts. The hilt is the handle. Its subsidiary parts include the grip where the sword is held and the pommel which keeps the sword from sliding out of the hand when it is swung in an arc. The crossguard, which comes in various forms, protects the hand from an opposing weapon sliding down the blade and injuring the user. The blade constitutes the "pointy end" of the weapon, and can be broken down to finer parts which may or may not occur on any particular sword. The fuller is a vertical strip of metal that lends strength to the blade. The forte is the strong part of the blade, where it is thickest. The foible is the weaker part of the blade, usually near the point.

Historically, swords originated about 3300 B.C. in the neolithic age and were made of copper. They were the logical extension of the dagger (a short bladed weapon on a par with a knife). As metalurgy developed they were made of bronze. Because of their sharp edges, length, and ease of use, they proved an effective weapon on the battlefield. Swords were also relatively easy to carry because they could be placed in a sheathe or scabbard to ride on the hip or back. Yet they required a considerable amount of metal, which made them expensive in ancient as well as Medieval times when compared with the spear or pike, which might only required a metal tip. This made the sword a weapon wielded mainly by the wealthy and thus made the weapon a status symbol.

The sword came into its own with the advent of iron. Higher strength made weapons forged from this metal superior to weapons made of copper and bronze alloys. Iron could also be found in higher quantities at lower cost, so more weapons could be made. Nations using iron swords had an advantage over their opponents. The rise of the Hittites as well as the Ancient Egyptians was partially due to the adoption of iron swords.

Cross and Sword Representing Christ Militant

As the working of iron advanced so did the quality and length of swords. While the Roman short sword called the gladius was popular for legionaries and civilized armies in general, by Medieval times, the turning of iron into steel made much longer and more elegant weapons possible. Production of such high quality weapons was advanced in China and India and very likely influenced advances in Europe. The crossguard became popular in the 11th Century. It made the longsword, when held with the blade down, appear especially similar to the Christian cross. The sword became a symbol of "Christ Militant" during the Crusades. Even today it is a common image to see a knight on his knees praying before his sword.

The use of hardened steel allowed for a wide variety of swords for many uses. Large heavy two-handed swords commonly known by their German name, zweihanders, were popular among mercenaries. Some swords were designed specifically for cutting between plates of armor (the estoc). Lighter swords were made for social occasions and dueling. Familiar forms such as the cutlass and the scimitar found prominence in naval warfare and the Mediterranean Sea.

The advent of gunpowder in the 1300s began to make armor obsolete so that lighter swords became more effective on the battlefield. The saber became a popular weapon for cavalry because of its long reach and ease of use with one hand. Sabers continued in common use by horsemen until the American Civil War (1861-1865) Yet as firearms improved, the use of swords diminished. The sword, though occasionally used even up to the 1900s, was seldom effective against muskets, pistols, and rifles that could shoot long distances and could be loaded with increasing rapidity.

Today swords are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. They retain a great deal of symbolism from the time when their ownership was a status symbol. They are worn in the military on special occasions and are a common design on badges and symbols.

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Interesting Fact:

In George R. R. Martin's book, A Game of Thrones, the "Iron Throne" being fought over is made of swords.

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