Cuts and thrusts - on sword performance and the correct use of a blade
A fine sword
Of all weapons used on battlefields in any culture, none was ever as highly valued as the sword. Even though, in a military context, a medieval warrior's life would have depended more on the spear or the use of missiles, it was the sword that became the most mystical weapon, its fascination lingering on to the present day. This is probably due to the fact that it was the first implement in history exclusively designed to kill or mutilate human beings, ever since the first bronze sword was sharpened more than 5000 years ago. All other early weapons, like spears, axes and bows, could just as well be used as tools or hunting weapons. The sword is useless for anything else but fighting and has therefore always been a power symbol. Even more so, as it has at all times required expert craftsmen to produce a fine sword, which made it the most expensive of weapons. In fact, in some cultures, its use was restricted to exclusive warrior elites.
While in Japan there has been an unbroken tradition of both the manufacture of swords, as well as the martial arts required to wield one, Europe lacks any general awareness of the excellence of its medieval swordmakers, let alone its historical martial arts, none of which has to fear comparison with their Eastern counterparts.
In 1999 Dr Stefan Mäder initiated a very interesting project in co-operation with the Archeological State Museum in Stuttgart, Germany: two Alamannic saxes and one sword blade were brought to Japan to be examined by the Japanese master sword polisher Takushi Sasaki using the traditional Katana no Kantei system, a centuries old kind of metallography developed to determine the quality and origin of medieval Japanese swords. Having subtly brought to light the delicate layers of the blades, showing their superb quality, one sax blade was shown to master sword smith Akitsugu Amada, who was most surprised to hear that the weapon had not been buried with a prince, but with a simple Germanic warrior.
Of course this does not come as a big surprise for the sword enthusiast, who usually has at least a vague idea of the expertise required to create e.g. a classic pattern-welded Viking sword. After years of trial and error, only very few modern Western swordmakers can claim to at least come close to the mastery of their ancient forebears, some of whose secrets have probably been lost forever.
But what exactly is a good sword, what qualities should it have, what would it have been capable of?
A Viking Age warrior or medieval man-at-arms would have known exactly what to expect of a sword: a sturdy blade, flexible enough to absorb shock energy, but stiff enough to deliver a good thrust, with hard edges keeping their sharpness, plus a sharp point eventually capable of penetrating lighter variants of mail. He would have had a very clear idea of its length, weight and balance. After all, it would be by far his most expensive weapon, even if not adorned with gold and silver, and some day he might have to trust it with his life. There can be no doubt that many contemporary weapon smiths met their customers' high expectations. However, it would be wrong to assume that all swords were master pieces. There must have been a fair amount of mediocre blades made from insufficient raw material, or else forged and hardened by a less skilled smith. The Icelandic Sagas of the 13th century tell us of one incident where a fighter had to straighten a blade under his foot a couple of times during a skirmish. Maker's marks, like the names Ulfberth and Ingelrii, were inlaid into blades as a proof of quality, and it seems likely that other sword makers even copied these blade-inlays to make their product more attractive. Blades from the Rhineland were especially sought after and imported in large numbers into Scandinavia, where local craftsmen fitted them with hilts meeting their customers' taste. Toledo in Andalusia and, later Passau in Bavaria, produced swords that were superior, which on the other hand means that there must have been blades of lesser quality.
Killer blade or blade killer?
As excellent as a swordmaker's product might be, any of his pieces would only be as efficient as the man who wielded it. It was a hi-tech product which required special training to use and which could easily be damaged if not treated correctly. The Scandinavian Konungs Skuggsja of the 12th century tells us that professional warriors practised horse riding, swimming, running, wrestling, archery, as well as training fighting with spear, sword and shield on a daily basis. The late medieval Fechtbücher show a similar cohesive approach to fighting and, in fact, the Middle High German word "fechten" does not only mean "fencing" (as in modern German) but rather, fighting in general. As a side note: I assume that the words "fechten" and "fighting" have the same ethymological origin.
An ever-growing international community is exploring the martial arts of our ancestors: serious re-enactment groups experiment with field tactics. Single combat is being reconstructed by historical martial arts enthusiasts relying on a quite substantial body of medieval manuscripts. In all combat simulations, as well as in sparring, appropriate protective gear is usually worn in combination with a suitable weapon simulator, which could be, for instance, blunt steel replicas, modified shinais (traditional Japanese shock-absorbing sword simulators) or padded sticks. That is very responsible and, even for basic training, a wooden waster is often the best choice. Unfortunately, it is the nature of weapon simulators that they can only represent certain aspects of a true sword. For this reason, the modern student-swordfighter often suffers from a somewhat underdeveloped blade awareness. But more knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of a sword will help to improve the level of modern swordsmanship.
It should be undisputed by now that, if you want to most quickly destroy a sword, you can simply follow Hollywood instructions: never keep it in a scabbard, instead ram it point first into the ground, after wildly hacking edge against edge at enemy swords, chopping concrete pillars or cutting standard limousines into punk version cabriolets. Don't forget to touch the blade with your fingers as often as possible!
Anyone who can call a good wood chopping axe his own, carefully avoids ever hitting the ground. Stones destroy edges. Why would you do that with a sword? Two discarded kitchen knives of equal hardness, hacked into each other, reveal what edge-on-edge parries would do to any sword (not recommended by the author! Never do this without safety arrangements, utmost care and precautions and face protection). Depending on the force of the blow, the blades bite into each other up to a centimeter and might even snap. Of course, edge-on-edge action did happen in historical fighting, but the expert swordsman would have been trained to be effective without deliberately destroying his weapon.
Corrosion is another blade-killer and, even though modern eyes may think a little patina attractive, any rust stains, by pitting the blade, dramatically enlarge the surface on a microscopic level, thereby exposing even more steel to corrosion. This does not destroy a sword as quickly as a forceful edge parry but, just as any craftsman treats his professional tools with great care, so would an ancient sword fighter.
The cutting edge of a good blow
Now, knowing what a sword could not live up to, what damage could it actually inflict on an enemy? To acquire a feeling for an actual sword, as well as some awareness of the lethal threat that an opponent armed with a sharp sword might have posed, test-cutting is a good option. To find out more, I have done some test-cutting experiments with sharp swords, custom made for this purpose. I should mention that one sword was not sharpened correctly and accidently one edge is slightly too soft and the other too hard, as I found out later. For the experiments that have been done so far, this was rather lucky, because the various levels of stress put on the edges, and their effects, could be compared. I invited various re-enactors and historical martial artists to try out cutting skills on very unauthentic targets, which consisted of plastic bottles filled with water and hung from a rope. It showed very quickly that, even though the swords were razor sharp, simply hitting the target very forcefully did not necessarily have the desired effect. At times the bottle would just swing away on impact, with a few drops of water leaking from the tiniest of cuts. The perfect sword blow requires both edges to travel on exactly the same level. On impact, the sword has to be pulled towards the swordsman, allowing the edge to slice through the target. To transfer maximum energy into the target, it is best to hit with the so-called swinging point. This is the part of the blade that does not move if you slap a sword on the flat of the blade. Usually this is about a quarter of the length of the blade below the point. However, we can expect that a lethal cut to an opponent's throat can be inflicted with the very last centimeters. So when you swiftly cut a hanging plastic bottle, in the way described, you hardly feel any resistance. The severed part just drops down and the water falls out, rather than splashing all over the place. You need a lot less power than one would think and it is preferable to transfer body energy with hip and shoulder movement, rather than simply using your arm muscles. This becomes especially important when you think of a fighting situation: you might have missed your opponent, or maybe your blow was parried, so the end position of one cut has to be the starting point of the next attack, without exposing any targets to your opponent. (Medieval sword masters called these positions wards, huten or custodiae.) The key word here is control. When you hit hard, just using your arm muscles, you are bound to overreach and, thereby, open up attack lines for your opponent. Even if you survive this, you may get tired quickly and lose control. Eventually your cut may stop in your comrade's lower leg, which would probably not make you very popular in your shield wall. Learning to transfer body power into a sword blow is superior in any respect. It is more forceful, though it requires less energy.
You may at first think that cutting a plastic bottle is a lot easier than cutting through a limb or a foam-spitting berserk's neck. Well, it is not. A light weight target, swinging freely from a rope, can transfer shock energy into movement. It can swing away from the blade. A 90 kilo berserk does not, and his body has to absorb the full energy of the cut - given that you aimed well enough and had the right timing. An unarmoured body is no match for a slicing sword cut. Of course, all test-cutting implies various flaws: concerning the target, you have to consider, for example, the slackness of dead animal tissue, or the size of bones, or the difficulty of simulating the correct physical body resistance. The sword hardness and edge geometry also have to be considered.
However, the fact that it requires no great effort to sever a deer's head or a pig's leg when you use correct technique, speaks for itself. In fact, the depth of some of the cuts into a raw pig's thigh was pretty gory! We tried various cuts and combinations of cuts. I would like to add here that a Zwerchhau (a special medieval sword blow, delivered with the back edge horizontally over your head, thumb resting on the flat), can only be executed efficiently if you turn your upper body and hip as you strike the target, thereby both accelerating the blade and slightly drawing it back, enabling the edge to cut. Without that little move, the thick pig's skin was not harmed at all! So: a sharp sword only cuts deeply if used correctly. There are some modern incidents with swords that back this up. The latest I know of took place in Southern Germany in 2004, when a mentally-deranged young man attacked a local arms dealer in his shop with a sharp replica Samurai sword. I also once read about an incident which happened during WW II in the Pacific, where a Japanese soldier ambushed a GI with a sword, but did not manage to kill him. In both these cases, the victims repeatedly warded off the first attacks with their bare arms. The arms were badly wounded but not cut off. It seems that the attackers had used their swords like clubs not like blades, hacking at their victims, rather than cutting.
You have a point
As devastating as the effect of a sword cut on an unarmoured target may be, it was the thrust that we found to be the most terrible. To those who are familiar with Medieval fighting treatises, like the large body of German Fechtbücher, this does not come as a big surprise. In fact, even the oldest Fechtbuch MS I.33, for sword and buckler, dating to around 1300, says explicitly: enter with a thrust without mercy! I.33's prefered target for a thrust is the face. In all single combat, be it armed or unarmed, face hits are always most effective, not only for their lethal quality, but also for their psychological impact. Even a light face punch wil break an attacker's impetus, at least for a moment. Body hits - thrusts in particular - do not necessarily have the same effect.
When delivering a sword thrust, a swordsman should use his body power and transfer it into the attack. However, even when using arm muscles alone, it was remarkable how easily a Viking sword blade could penetrate and pierce each of our aforementioned test targets. We tried Oberstiche (downward thrusts) and Unterstiche (upward thrusts) and, especially in case of the deer carcass, which was hung from a rope, there was hardly any resistance felt. The blade entered virtually as far as you would stretch your arm. In fact, it proved more difficult to just penetrate some 20 to 30 cm, and then recover the weapon in a controlled manner, than pushing it all the way through the rib cage. Again, controlled thrusting is much more easily achieved using hip power, both for the thrust and for the drawing-out of the blade. This works a lot better than doing it all with your sword arm alone.
Like Viking Age originals, my test swords have wide and slighty rounded but sharpened points. Wider Points and blades cause wider wounds. This would lead to a more dramatic blood loss and, ultimately, tire out the opponent, even if the cut was not an instantly lethal one. It was not before the appearance of more sophisticated armour in the 13th century that some swords tapered to acute points. In fact, when discussing the devastating effects of thrusts, we came up with the thesis that swordsmen wanted their sword points as rounded as possible, and only as pointy as necessary. Cultures whose warriors did not have to deal with capable armour, like, for instance the Arabs of the Muslim conquest period, often used perfectly round points. The same counts for the Katzbalger, the standard side arm of the famous Landsknechte almost a millennium later. Again, only wide-flowing garments needed to be pierced in a tavern fight, no armour was expected! A sharp but round point is perfectly capable of delivering a lethal thrust to an unarmoured opponent. But, in contrast to an acute point, the risk of entering too deeply and overreaching is minimized. So, the chance to recover your weapon immediately and give your full attention to the five friends of the guy you have just sent to the ground, is a lot better.
What to expect if these five guys are armoured will be covered in a future article.