I hosted the other day a guest post by my author friend, Charles E. Yallowitz, but today I’m sharing his excellent series of posts he has written on fantasy (Medieval) arsenal. Charles has recently shared posts on the types of swords, shields, and projectile weapons used in fantasy (and inspired by real-life Medieval and ancient weapons). I hope he continues this series, as it’s a great resource for all of us fantasy writers (by the way, if you haven’t checked out his blog yet, you should do so for his great tips on writing rounded characters, his fun fantasy short stories and a lot more).
So, let’s start with that staple of fantasy…
Here is what I’ve been able to find out about swords:
- the European longsword, popular in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
- the Scottish late medieval claymore (not to be confused with the basket-hilted claymore of the 18th century).
- the Great sword, related to the Medieval long swords. These swords were too heavy to be wielded one-handed and possessed a large grip to accommodate both hands.
- the Bidenhänder. The Bidenhänder or two-hander is the “true” two-handed sword. It was a specialist weapon wielded by certain Landsknechte Doppelsöldners. It is highly doubtful that these two-handed swords were used to chop off the point of pikes; however, the two-handed sword was an ideal weapon for protecting the standard bearer or a breach since a Doppelsöldner armed with one could fend off many attackers by using moulinets.citation needed]
- the Swordstaff (Svärdstav). This is a Scandinavian sword-polearm hybrid, used in medieval times. It is made by placing a blade at the end of a staff, thus giving the same benefits of a sword with the reach of a spear or polearm. This helps the soldier fighting enemies both on foot and mounted. The length of the weapon makes it easier to fight mounted opponents, while the blade is still handy enough to use in close combat, as opposed to using a spear which is ineffective at close range because only the tip can be used to attack, or a sword which makes hurting mounted enemies significantly harder. The greater length of the weapon would also help when fighting more heavily armed opponents, since an attack can be executed with considerably more force due to the length of the weapon.
Double-edge and straight swords
These are double-edged, usually straight bladed swords.
The bastard sword is midway in length between a short sword and a long sword. The term refers to a medieval single-handed sword optimized for thrusting.
Long knife and short sword
Knives such as the Seax and other blades of similar length – between 1 and 2 feet ( ˜ 30 cm and 60 cm) – are sometimes construed as “swords”. This is especially the case for weapons from antiquity, made before the development of high-quality steel that is necessary for longer swords.
Iron Age swords
- Seax, a tool and weapon, common in Northern Europe.
- Gladius, an early ancient Roman blade
- Xiphos, a double-edged, single-hand blade used by the ancient Greeks;
- Baselard, a late medieval heavy dagger;
- Cinquedea, a civilian long dagger;
- Dirk, the Scottish long dagger;
- Hanger or wood-knife, a long knife or short sword that hangs from the belt and was popular as both a hunting tool and weapon of war.
The small sword or court sword is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting which evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance. The height of the small sword’s popularity was between the mid-17th and late 18th century. Small swords were also used as status symbols and fashion accessories; for most of the 18th century anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis.
Unlike the xiphos, which is a thrusting weapon, the kopis was a hacking weapon in the form of a thick, curved single edged iron sword. In Athenian art, Spartan hoplites were often depicted using a kopis instead of the xiphos, as the kopis was seen as a quintessential “villain” weapon in Greek eyes.
Falchion and cutlass
The falchion proper is a wide straight-bladed but curved edged hanger or long knife. It is a broad-bladed curved hanger or long knife. In later usage, the cutlass referred to the short naval boarding sabre.
The sabre is a single-edged curved bladed cavalry sword.
Asian/Middle Eastern Swords
Jian is a double-edged straight sword used during the last 2,500 years in China. The first Chinese sources that mention the jian date to the 7th century BCE during the Spring and Autumn period; one of the earliest specimens being the Sword of Goujian. Historical one-handed versions have blades varying from 45 to 80 centimeters (18 to 31 inches) in length. The weight of an average sword of 70-centimetre (28-inch) blade-length would be in a range of approximately 700 to 900 grams (1.5 to 2 pounds). There are also larger two-handed versions used for training by many styles of Chinese martial arts.
Dao are single-edged Chinese swords, primarily used for slashing and chopping. The most common form is also known as the Chinese sabre, although those with wider blades are sometimes referred to as Chinese broadswords. In China, the dao is considered one of the four traditional weapons, along with the gun (stick or staff), qiang (spear), and the jian (sword). It is considered “The General of All Weapons”.
The hook sword is another Chinese weapon traditionally associated with northern styles of Chinese martial arts and Wushu weapons routines, but now often practiced by southern styles as well.
Historically, katana were one of the traditionally made Japanese swords that were used by the samurai of feudal Japan. The katana is characterized by its distinctive appearance: a curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands.
The scimitar is a type of saber that came to refer in general to any sabre used by the Turks or Ottomans.
Using Swords In Your Writing
And here are some great tips by Charles on using swords in your writing:
- It isn’t always the pointy end that goes into the other man. While there are plenty of swords for stabbing, it isn’t the only way to hurt someone. Anything with a sharp edge can be used for slashing. Certain hilts like the basket hilt can deliver a blunt shot to the face for stunning and breaking bones. This also means that not every injury is a simple puncture wound and a character dying of a slash across the belly will be treated differently than a stabbed one.
- Not every swordsman starts off a fight with the bellowing charge, especially if they see range fighters. I don’t know why some people think holding a sword turns a character into an idiot. Since the weapon requires that you find and possibly create an opening, a frontal assault isn’t very useful. In a big battle, it’s because everyone is charging, but one-on-one can start off slow as the two combatants size each other up. If the enemy has a bow, then a smart swordsman takes cover and tries to sneak around or get the archer to run out of arrows.
- The type of sword that a character uses can determine the rest of their equipment and tactics. If you wield a two-handed weapon then you won’t have a shield. If your weapon is a rapier that depends on flexibility and speed then platemail might not be the best choice. You also can’t have a speed fighter using a weapon that is bigger than they are unless you establish that as a thing for the world. I mean, Final Fantasy does it all the time, so I assume it’s part of the universe.
- If you pick a unique sword shape then know what the use of it was or give some reasoning for it. Hook swords are a perfect example. Dagger-like pommels, crescent-shaped guards for blocking and slashing, and hooked ends to put the two blades together or trip an enemy. It’s a complicated weapon that needs a lot of training, so a novice shouldn’t be using one very well unless there is a really good reason given. I’m talking reincarnation of the inventor or they can imitate a fighting style by watching it and his father used them. By the way, the Flamberge’s design is to sound vibrations along a parried blade and slow contact. For so long, I thought it was done just to look like a flame.
- Not every sword is created equal in terms of durability and quality. Consider this when arming a hero with a non-magical weapon. Weapon breakage typically only happens for the plot, but you can have it happen to enemies and supporting cast. This can also show that the warrior is more than the weapon because you really need to think on your feet if you only have a foot of broken blade left.
- If you do use non-European blades in a fantasy world that is very European then explain the difference in style. Perhaps there’s another country that is more Asian, which is why katanas are around. Somebody could have recently created the blade after a lifetime of design. At the very least, explain why that weapon was designed. For example, Kira Grasdon uses a kusari-gama, which is a Japanese weapon. Yet, she comes from a Middle Eastern desert people. I explained the weapon’s existence there by pointing out that it helps in defeating giant scorpions. They can strike out of pincer range and get the chain around the stinger to have some control over its movements. Now, this isn’t a necessity, but people do get twitchy when you mix up cultures in a fictional world where those cultures and countries never existed in the first place.
- Don’t forget the scabbard. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but most swordsmen don’t walk around with a naked blade. The scabbard protects against the elements and prevents the character from looking like he’s about to stab someone. If the weapon is sheathed then it won’t hurt anyone by accident and there’s less chance of a fight breaking out over a misunderstanding.
- Buckler– These are small shields that are about 18 inches in diameter. This doesn’t help much against projectiles, so it’s more useful in close combat. Even then, it won’t protect much against large weapons, so one could see it more as an offensive weapon that you can punch with. Supposedly, the Buckler is partially responsible for the term ‘Swashbuckler’ because it was used to give some defense while depending more on offense.
- Targe– Also called a Target, this is a concave shield that is round and is what you probably think of first. They tend to be iron or wood or a combination, but they are big enough to protect the main body and head. Not at the same time though. Not really sure why it’s a rectangle up there since all the pictures I found were circular. Anyway, this is what would be one of the three standard shield types and shapes.
- Roundel– Also called a Rondache, the second type is a bigger circle made of boards of light wood and rope. Then it was covered with leather or metal plates.
- Heater– This is the other common fantasy shield style with a pointed bottom and a straight top. It actually developed from the Kite Shield, which you can tell by comparing them. The Heater was made from leather over wood and, like the Targe, became used more often in jousting than combat. One thing to note is that this shield doesn’t protect the legs. Also, it’s the shape you tend to see with Heraldic Shields.
- Kite– Just a quick note that this one was made for mounted cavalry. The narrow bottom protected the right leg and the rounded top protected the shoulder and torso. These were eventually phased out by large shields with flat tops and the more manageable Heater.
- Pavise– These are shields that cover the whole body and are placed on the ground to protect archers. There were smaller versions for close combat and for soldiers to wear on their backs as defense. Many times you’ll see these called Tower Shields, but they aren’t exactly the same. Tower Shields might be the inspiration since they were one of two shields used in Greece.
- Scutum– These were adopted by the Romans and slowly evolved into a large rectangle that would be used in a phalanx. These are the ones you would see get held up as a shield wall. One thing that I read is that they would have a circular shield as an auxiliary called a Clipeus. The Scutum depended on maintaining a formation, so a break of ranks meant that this large shield lost its full usefulness. Eventually, it stopped getting used and was replaced by oval and round shields.
- Celtic– These were usually oval, but could be hexagon or round. They usually had a hollow Shield Boss, which is a round piece attached to the middle front of the shield. Celts had battle shields that were designed to be light and strong, but they could break and were seen as expendable. Some clans also had wooden shields that were used in ceremonies instead of combat.
- Javelins– Lightweight spears that a person throws. Not the most advanced range weapon, but it can get the job done. They don’t even need metal tips because you can whittle a point on a stick and get a little distance.
- Sling– Another simple weapon that I’m can be a simple leather sling or the more modern slingshot. The bullets can be stones or metal slugs that a specially made for the weapon.
- Longbow– This is the most commonly used bow in fiction. It is about as tall as the archer and made from a single piece of wood, which is why they can also be called a Simple or Self Bow. This design has been found all over the world and has even been found with bodies that date back to 3,300 B.C. The Longbow can be seen as the basis for many of the others on the list.
- Recurve– This is named for the limbs that curve away from the archer when unstrung. This allows the bow to store more energy and deliver it more efficiently. You have a shorter weapon because of the increase in energy. The Recurve has become the more commonly used bow these days for competitions. A version of this, which is used in the Olympics, is the Takedown Recurve. It can be taken apart and put back together.
- Flatbow– This bow has wide limbs and, unlike Longbows, narrows as it gets toward the solid handle. The design difference helps to put less stress on the material, so there’s more variety on what can be used. It is more difficult to make, which is the biggest disadvantage.
- Composite– This bow is made from horn, wood, and sinew put together instead of a single piece like Longbows. Using a wooden core, the horn is on the inside to compress and the sinew is on the outside to stretch. This stores more energy and allows for a stronger shot. Composites aren’t used as often in fantasy because they are very complicated to make and require more materials. Most times you find a Composite would be with a noble or somebody who could afford it.
- Compound– You don’t really see these in fantasy because they first showed up in the 1960’s. These are bows that work of a complicated leverage system of pulleys and cams. Composites used to be called Compounds, but that’s no longer the case. Now, you can put one of these in if you’ve established the basics that would have lead to the invention. Have to love the gnomes.
- Crossbow– The invention that comes between bows and guns. This is a horizontal bow that launches a bolt with the pull of a trigger. Its force is stronger than a longbow because of the mechanical addition. The loading mechanism differs with there being pull levers, push levers, and rack & pinion. Larger ones have a stirrup that you step on to help with loading, which is something that gets forgotten or a smaller crossbow is used. Now there are compound and recurve versions as well as a repeating crossbow from China that has a top-mounted magazine.
- Mongol Bow– This is an example of a short bow. These simple piece weapons are easier to use on horseback because of the smaller size. A larger weapon would be ungainly and make it difficult to switch to an enemy on your other side.
- Various Throwing Weapons– These include chakra, shuriken, kunai, bolas, boomerangs, darts, and other small, hand thrown weapons together. They can range from simple designs to complicated. Yet, you can easily make your own for a fictional world because the necessities are that they fit in the hand and can be thrown for a decent distance to cause damage. Not always lethal, but you can add poison to the mix if need be.