Though other weapons- spears/pikes, axes, maces and war hammers, etc.- never went completely out of fashion until firearms made other weapons obsolete, the sword was usually the predominate weapon of war. And while some neolithic societies might have experimented with flint-edged wooden weapons, swords as we know them didn’t become widespread until the Bronze Age. My question is what advantages caused the sword to outclass other weapons? If 3500 BCE a band of warriors armed with spears, clubs and axes met an equal band armed with swords, did the swordsmen have an advantage, and if so why? Apparently it wasn’t an instant thing; the Narmer Palette depicts the first Pharaoh wielding a club rather than a sword.
A sword is very versatile, being able to slash, hack, bash, and stab (the deadliest of those options.) It can also parry and be quicker to use after the parry than the other weapons.
However, spears still held an advantage over the sword in the case of a closely-grouped set of people defending their front. Longer range than the sword, and you don’t have to worry about people getting inside your threat distance because your compatriots are defending your sides.
So, if a unit of swordsmen attacked a unit of clubbers and axers, they could also club and hack but could also stab if needed. If they could outflank the spearmen, they could get inside the range of the spearmen’s pointy weapons and attack them.
Assuming the spearmen did not also have swords. If you had to recommend a secondary weapon for almost any weapons build, the sword would usually be the choice. An extremely useful side weapon in the case of a combat devolving into a confused melee because of its versatility.
Speed, the ability to be used in close quarters, and capable of delivering deep immediately incapacitating trauma.
Spears do penetration well, but suck in open melee.
Secondary question, did the introduction of the sword fundamentally change how warfare was conducted, or was it simply a handier weapon for the same old?
Well consider anyone can build an effective club or spear with only using rocks and tree limbs. An effective sword requires alot of metal and advanced metallurgical skills.
I’m confused by OP’s claim. Swords were never the dominant weapon on the battlefield. The spear is cheap and plentiful, easy to construct, easy to train, and easy to replace. The sword was a versatile back-up weapon that was used after the spear was broken or lost.
Swords have always been the mark of the wealthy. They are challenging and expensive to construct and break easily in battle. The sword is like a modern handgun: It is a short-ranged weapon intended for personal defense. If you are on the battlefield and your only weapon is a sword, then you are probably a well-to-do leader who is not expected to fight in the ranks. Your job is to sit on a horse and look pretty and gesticulate while shouting encouragement to your men.
Take feudal Japan for example. Everyone knows the Samurai were swordsmen, right? Not so much. They started off as mounted archers, because anybody with money is going to sit on a horse at the back and shoot arrows rather than stand in the ranks with the peasant spearman. The image that we have of the samurai swordsman evolved after the period of warfare ended. When peace broke out and all those warriors became unemployed, it became a mark of status to carry a sword. It demonstrated that they were of noble rank, had money, and were descended from the warrior class.
Likewise, check out what happened after firearms were introduced. Skip ahead to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. The Sergeants carried polearms and the soldiers used bayonets to turn their muskets into little spears. The only dudes still carrying swords are the officers. Again, their job is to be recognizable and to give directions… Not to fight. Many cavalrymen of this period tried carrying swords exclusively, and they tended to get skewered when fighting rivals armed with spears or lances.
False. Spears have a tremendous advantage in range and thrusting power. I guess that’s why all those Greeks went marching around with their swords and shields and- oh, wait… That’s not what they did at all. As I stated above, a sword is only for fighting after the spear is lost or broken. Further: What the hell is “open melee?” The entire point of using these things is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your buddies so that there is no “open melee” at all.
The history of warfare is one of people trying to avoid that “open melee”. If you and 100 of your closest friends stand shoulder to shoulder with spears, you can massacre any number of brave guys running around waving swords.
This is something Hollywood can never seem to depict correctly. Battles are always guys just running around screaming waving swords and looking for enemy soldiers to fight one-on-one. You’d be a lot better off trying something like:
I can think of only one dominant ancient army that used swords as a main weapon: the Roman army. Granted, that’s a big counter example but even then the Roman soldier would start the battle with a throwing spear before switching to the short gladius.
All the other great armies used either a spear-like weapon (e.g. the Greeks with the hoplite spear and the sarissa under Alexander the Great) but especially the bow. The people from the steppes (e.g. Atilla the Hun, the Mongols) dominated with the horse and compound bow; the British with the longbow at Agincourt.
Swords get a lot of press not only because they were the weapons of royalty but they last much longer and end up in museums. Bows and spears (except for the tip) rot and don’t exhibit quite so much awe behind a glass case.
Side note… YouTube has some fun videos of recreations of pike clashes from the English Civil War. They’re interesting and somewhat educational, except…
In these recreational battles, the combatants aren’t permitted to level their pikes. Too dangerous! Instead, they march into each other with their pikes pointing to the sky, like to thickets of saplings, or else angled upward, over the other guys’ heads.
(Napoleonic and American Civil War re-enactments have a similar problem with bayonets.)
That said, re-enactments are a very good way to learn a lot about the weapons and tactics of bygone eras.
And, not quite on the subject but not quite off it, here’s an interesting little YouTube offering: Korean Riot Police Use Ancient Roman Tactics.
At that, were they slashing with the gladius? Engaging in a little parry-and-riposte? Cinematically windmilling the blade around for a bit of the old mulinello?
Or were they each just using it like a short spear, thrusting the point forward with one hand while keeping a shield wall going with the other?
I’ve seen arguments that our knowledge of how the Romans employed their spears may be incomplete or wrong. There’s a note that they used 2 spears, but all art depictions only show one, for example. There’s a note that they threw them, and that they had great armor piercing capability, but there’s also descriptions of Romans fighting hand-to-hand with spears.
It’s also possible that they threw the spears and fought with swords, but that since most of the army was composed of non-Romans, using their native gear, that the reliance on sword may be attributed to the Romans serving as a special unit within the army, with special tactics. But that the primary weapon of the army was still the spear.
Any battle quickly devolves into a more fluid situation as casualties are inflicted and formation cohesion tends to break down. Once that happens, shorter faster weapons dominate. Using a spear against sword/board once things get nose to nose rarely turns out well for the spearman.
Despite what Vegetius would like readers to believe, there’s extremely strong evidence that they liked to chop people’s limbs off. They’d certainly thrust when it was called for, but contemporary sources, as well as the blades themselves, show that Roman swords from all eras were designed to kill with the edge as well as the point. It’s also clear that swords were a very common weapon in the post-Imperial era in both the (former) Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Empire.
Note that they were used to chop, not slash as many longer cavalry swords were designed to do.
IIRC, the Aztecs used wooden swords embedded with obsidian flakes.
That is a club with sharp pointy bits in it.
The Italian and Gallic tribes around Rome also fought with swords (though longer than the gladius), the Romans merely nicked the style and figured out a way to make it work in a cohesive, disciplined way. Traditionally, Romans had fought with spears, and before the Marian reforms the Triarii (that is to say, the old, rich guys who had the means to buy lots of equipment and often didn’t have to fight) still fought in a sort of phalanx. The Hastati (young guys, first line of battle) could also have fought with spears, since their name refers to a type of shortspear (the hasta).
Note that the Germanic tribes seemed to do pretty well with their swords at times. See : Teutoberg forest ;).
Another Ancient culture that prominently used swords were the Thracians. They came up with a cross between a big ass sword and a sickle that could sort of edge around or above a shield. The Romans didn’t like that one bit. There’s debate however on whether the *rhompaia *was more like a two-handed sword or a bladed polearm (like a halberd or naginata) - the sources are ambiguous.
Eh, axe heads also keep. And axes are awesome, much like alliteration.
That being said, there’s another reason swords were prestige items : it’s a rather large bit of metal with a rather narrow use, at a time when *any *metal was precious and arduous to come by. So the sword broadcast to anyone that whoever had one was a rich bloke and made his living fighting. Which is why aristocrats took to wearing them even in peacetime.
Obsidian is really sharp. More than metal, even - these days surgeons use it for scalpels, and by all accounts those perform better than steel ones. Macahuitls were very much edged, cutting weapons rather than blunt instruments.
Speed? Greatswords are heavy, not particularly fast. Short swords might be fast. Rapiers are very fast in a skilled hand. Sabers are pretty fast in a strong arm working from horseback.
Not all “swords” are the same.
Not every battle.
There is one where the line of swordsmen with shields stood firm in a line, disciplined, repeatedly moving shields and swords in unision, and won. The shields protected them from the enemy’s attack. Having attacked, the enemy were exposing their weak undersarms and sides, and the swords got a number of them… Then they are tripping over their fallen comrades, and have difficulty defending as well…
But its not always going to work, the officers in an army facing a line of short (or medium) swordsmen with shields may realise there’s a better way.
eg Highland charge - Wikipedia . The idea being that the soldier who runs into a shield knocks the person who holds the shield over… Then the shield holders are still being charged at and there’s enemy behind them, the line is broken, but the highlanders are ready for the resulting melee … They have short shorts ready, and one handed short sword fighting shields ready…
I doubt that a sudden display of sexy clothing ever won a battle.
No. The swordmen are fucked. Combined arms wins.
Sword were often status weapons, the real killing in army-on-army clashes got done with spears and axes. Or arrows. Exceptions being when both sides were just sword-and-shield armies like rodeleros in the early 1500s. But that’s exceedingly rare.
I’m not counting zweihanders and the like in this, those are effectively a kind of sword-shaped polearm really.