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What Makes a Good Sword

Quality of a sword is determined by its utility in battle. This utility is dependant on several basic characteristics (properties) of the sword, whose relative importance depends on the situation: the type of combat, environment and so on.

John Clemens, an experienced swordsman, made a list of essential properties of a sword:

  • cutting ability
  • thrusting ability
  • guarding capacity
  • speed
  • technical versatility
  • durability.

Cutting ability is blade’s capacity to deliver powerful edge blows with the aim of cutting the opponent. Cutting ability depends on blade geometry, both in terms of cross-section and profile, as well as the material properties of the edge. Ideal blade profile is one with a broad blade, very gradual distal taper, and very gradual or even nonexistent profile taper – in fact, some of the best cutting swords have blade which becomes broader as it nears the tip. Many or all of these properties can be seen in good cutting blades such as the falchion, saber, katana, kopis and similar, but also in some straight cut-and-thrust swords such as xiphos and gladius. Hardness (stifness) of the blade also helps in cutting, as the blade does not flex as much.

Thrusting ability is blade’s capacity to make penetrating stabs with its point. A thrust is more difficult to defend against, easier to deliver fatal wound with, and quicker and farther reaching than a cut, against armoured and unarmoured opponents alike. Straight sword or a straight weapon in general has a thrust which hits more quickly and deceptively than a curved or semi-curved one. Thrust is also more powerful, since pressure is being applied directly behind the point, and straight sword is also better at defeating armour. As with cutting, stiff blade is better in thrusting.

Guarding capacity is weapon’s ability to be moved to ward, parry and block the strikes of other weapons it has to face in combat. Design affects the physical mechanics of how the object can be wielded defensively, while resillience and toughness of the blade affect how good it is at actually defending.

Speed is weapon’s ability to quickly perform offensive or defensive actions. The main factor in speed is weapon’s balance, followed by overall weight. Sword whose point of balance is closer to the hilt will be quicker, though blows will be weaker.

Versatility is the ability of the sword to be utilized in distinct offensive and defensive actions. This includes the lines of the attack, but also the ability to deal with various types of defences (such as different types of armours).

Durability refers to the ability of the sword to deliver and receive blows without breaking or becoming bent. Longsword for example is more prone to catastrophic failure, but spring steel allows it to recover from bending. Katana will bend rather than break, but it will bend permanently. Likewise, anything with rat-tail tang – a tang with an additional length of a rod welded on to match the hilt – is bad.


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