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Swords and Daggers

Updated on December 18, 2016

Swords and daggers are edged weapons designed to be held in the hand and used by one man.

The blade is almost always longer than the hilt. Generally the sword is longer than the dagger, but some shorter swords and longer daggers are almost equal in length. Only whim or tradition categorizes them. Both originated as offensive weapons, and this has always been their principal function. However, swords and daggers also serve as symbols of rank or importance, ceremonial objects, gifts of honor, and rewards for valor.

The dagger, which is more ancient than the sword, dates from the Stone Age, when daggers were fashioned from flint, quartz, obsidian, or other stone. A longer-bladed weapon made from these hard and brittle stones would have broken in use. However, there may have been some swordlike weapons made of wood, with pieces of stone set in to form a cutting edge. The Spanish conquerors of Mexico found such weapons in use by the Aztecs.

With the coming of the Bronze Age, which began in the Near East in about 6500 B.C., a greater variety of blade shapes and sizes became possible. By 2500 B.C. fine daggers or short swords were being made throughout the Near East and much of Europe. Swords were distinguished from daggers, and different designs were developed for specific purposes. For example, swords began to be classified as cutting weapons or as thrusting weapons. Almost any sword served either purpose in an emergency, but they were designed to perform only one function well.

Bronze Age Rapiers

The earliest bronze swords seem to have been developed simultaneously in such widely separated areas as Crete and Great Britain. They were primarily thrusting weapons and had long, slender blades with raised metal bands down the center of each side to make them rigid. Students today call these swords Bronze Age rapiers: because they resemble the finely designed thrusting swords of the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, the attachment of the handle to the blade was weak, and if the sword was used for cutting, the joint broke. Before the end of the Bronze Age better methods of attaching the hilt were designed. In some swords the blade narrowed into a shank called the tang. Rounded grips were attached to both sides of the tang for the hand to grasp. In other swords the hilt and blade were cast in one piece.

There were straight swords with leaf-shaped blades and short, sickle-shaped swords. Another type of short sword, called the kopis, was popular in Greece. The kopis had a double-curved blade, often widened slightly toward the point, that was very efficient for cutting.


At the same time that the quality of the blade was improving, hilts also became better. The earliest of the iron swords had no real guard to protect the hand. The hilt swelled out somewhat and offered some protection but was not efficient as a defense.

Gradually, larger structures were placed between the grips and the blade. Finally, during the 6th century A.D., the quillon, or cross guard, and pommel appeared. The quillon became the standard handguard for most European swords for almost 1,000 years.

The pommel, a knob large enough to act as a counterbalance for the blade, was at the other end of the grip. The pommel not only made the sword better to handle, but also afforded a surer grip.

At the beginning of the 16th century important changes in sword design began to appear. Although there were some alterations in blade shape, the greatest changes were in design of the hilt. For centuries, warriors had been holding their swords with the index finger wrapped around the cross guard. This grasp left the finger in a very vulnerable position, because it was protected only by an armored gauntlet. It was a natural step to add a protection for this finger, usually in the form of a little loop or semicircle. Such extra guards had appeared as early as the 14th century, but after 1500 they became increasingly popular. As the practice of wearing armor began to die out, the use of more effective handguards became imperative.

Other loops and rings joined the index finger protection, which was called a pas-d'ane. More important, a bar was added to sweep from the cross guard toward the pommel as a protection for the knuckles. All of these features had appeared by 1550, and the second half of the 16th century witnessed even more complex hilts. These were called swept hilts or basket hilts, depending on the form of their guards. In about 1600 it became popular in some sections of Europe to replace many of these different bars and rings with a solid cup guard. Still later the cup guard was reduced to a pair of smaller metal shells. With the appearance of the shell guard all the major types of guards used in sword manufacture had been invented.

The Rapier

The principal change in blade design during the 16th century was the development of the rapier, a fine thrusting sword. After the Roman era almost all European swords had been designed primarily as cutting weapons. There had been a few thrusting swords with stiff, slender blades, but these were uncommon.

However, toward the end of the 16th century the long slender thrusting blade became almost as common as the cutting blade, and in the next century it was dominant among the straight swords. Near the end of the 17th century the rapier became smaller and evolved into the smallsword, or court sword, which became the standard civilian sword of the 18th century.

Curved Swords

From Roman times straight swords have been almost universal among European blades.

There had been curved cutting swords ever since the kopis and sickle swords of antiquity, but they were relatively insignificant. In the 14th and 15th centuries the falchion, a short curved sword that widened toward the point, was popular. Curved sabers were also developed. In the 17th century short, slightly curved swords called hunting swords, hangers, or cutlasses appeared. Outside Europe the curved scimitar of the Near East and the tulwar of India also became popular before 1600. However, contrary to popular belief, they did not appear early enough to have been used during the Crusades.

Early Steel Swords

In about 1500 B.C. the technique of hardening iron into a low-grade steel was developed by smiths living in the mountains of Armenia. They repeatedly heated the iron in a charcoal fire and then hammered it. In this way the iron picked up from the charcoal a sufficient amount of carbon to become steel. In a few years the knowledge of making steel spread to other areas and the new metal began to be used for swords.

The Romans improved the quality of steel used for making swords and also introduced two new types of sword. One was the famous gladius, or short stabbing sword of the infantry, and the other was the spatha, a longer cutting sword used by the cavalry. The Franks and Gauls of northern and western Europe also used a sword very similar to the spatha. Their weapon was the forerunner of a long line of Viking swords and of the knightly swords of the Middle Ages.

Originally the swords of the spatha family were made of relatively soft iron or low-grade steel. They bent easily and often had to be straightened in the midst of a battle. However, the smiths of the early Middle Ages learned the secret of pattern welding.

They combined strips of steel for hardness with strips of iron for toughness. They twisted and folded these strips together and finally welded them to form a blade with a tough iron core and a hard steel edge.

These were much better weapons than the earlier spathae, and it is from this era that most of the myths of such magic swords as King Arthur's Excalibur and Siegfried's Nothung developed.


In the 19th century another type of sword rose to dominance. This was the saber, a single-edged sword designed primarily for cutting. It was either straight or curved and had a rudimentary point. Usually the back of the blade was sharpened a few inches down from the point to permit a backstroke.

Short sabers designed for naval use were usually called cutlasses. Sabers had been in use since at least the 8th century A.D. Charlemagne may have owned one.

However, they remained rare until the 17th century.


When the sword became popular, the dagger declined in importance and became an auxiliary weapon. At the same time, however, it underwent improvements in design that made it both an efficient weapon and an all-purpose tool. Generally these improvements paralleled those of the sword, such as the use of steel and the development of a cross guard to protect the hand. The dagger appeared in a large number of specialized shapes and sizes, some of which were of great importance.


One of the first specialized daggers in northern Europe was the scramasax, or hand sax, used by the Vikings, Saxons, Franks, and others. It was especially popular from about 700 A.D. until after 1000. It was a big single-edged knife without a guard.

Some types were almost of sword length. These knives could be used for fighting, for fashioning wood implements, for digging in the ground, and for eating. They were all-purpose knives, and perhaps the closest modern comparisons to them would be the bowie of the American West and the astroknives carried by American astronauts.

Basilards and Cinquedeas

Soon after the development of the scramasax came another dagger that was widely used throughout Europe. This was the basilard, which was characterized by a pommel that was shaped almost exactly like the cross guard. The hilt somewhat resembled the letter H lying on its side. Some basilards were single-edged and some were double-edged.

The blade length ranged from 6 inches to the length of a small sword. This very practical weapon remained widely popular until about the 15th century, when a proliferation of dagger designs began to appear. The kidney dagger, named for the bulbous shape of the lower hilt, was worn by both knights and civilians in northern Europe. The cinquedea, with a very wide blade, was popular in Italy and southern France. The name "cinquedea" comes from the Italian word meaning "five," and supposedly the blade of this dagger was 5 fingers wide at the hilt. Actually the width varied, and the length ranged from 6 to 20 inches. Randel daggers had disc-shaped guards and pommels and a wide variety of blades.

Stilettos and Left Hand Daggers

After 1500, daggers became even more varied. However, two. types were especially important, the stiletto and the left-hand dagger. The stiletto, which first appeared in southern Europe, was only a stabbing weapon and had no cutting edge. Usually the blade was very slender, but it was three-sided or four-sided for rigidity and strength.

Some stilettos were strong enough and sharp enough to pierce even a suit of mail, and some were small enough so that a woman could conceal one somewhere on her person.

Left-hand daggers were the companion of the rapiers that also appeared toward the end of the 16th century. At that time a style of fencing developed in which the rapier was held in the right hand and a dagger in the left. The dagger was used primarily for parrying the opponent's sword while the fencer attacked with his own rapier. For this reason the guard of the dagger was especially strong. In northern Europe it usually had a wide cross guard whose ends were often curled or bent so they could trap a sword blade and hold it at least for a moment. Often there was a small extra ring to protect the knuckles.


At about the time when the left-hand dagger was going out of use, another famous dagger came into being. This was the Scottish dirk.

An all-purpose knife, it became a national symbol. Most students believe it evolved from the kidney dagger, but it also somewhat resembled the scramasax in design and purpose. Scots wore the dirk hanging from the front of their belts, and they used it for fighting, general utility, and eating.


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