Saturday, February 9, 2013

Swords - Parts and Pieces of a Masterpiece by Scott Higginbotham

Swords populate the world of English history and the books we love.  Whether your favorite character(s) went on Crusade, haunted the tourney circuit, lived through the Anarchy, or strolled the courts of intrigue under the shadow of a Tudor, a sword was an everyday staple.  Some were ornate and ceremonial and rarely saw the heat of battle, while others were the difference between life and death or glory and shame.

This weapon was much more than simply a sword-shaped piece of steel.  There were many parts and pieces that made a sword both a formidable weapon and work of art.  Balance, weight, its edge, the grooves along the blade, the handle (grip), the scabbard, the crossguard, and the pommel all played a small, but vital part in a sword's construction and long-term use.  When these disparate chunks of leather and steel were crafted together as a whole a masterpiece was the result; they could even become an extension of your character.

The Pommel
Pommel varieties - Scott Higginbotham
Lion Rampant - Scott Higginbotham
Designs were varied and range from functional to beautiful.  Rampant lions, sunbursts, crosses, or jewels would be etched or embedded into round, octagonal, ring, swallowtail, or fishtail pommels.  Additionally, coats of arms, Latin inscriptions, or filigree patterns could adorn that hunk of steel and, for some, price was not a constraint nor were the artistic touches.

Length & Balance - Scott Higginbotham
When it comes to function, the pommel of a sword acted as a counterweight to rest of the sword, resulting in a balanced whole.  A long blade provoked the need for something that could equalize and distribute the weight.  A knight or some other stripe of gallant, while the epitome of fitness, could still become weary swinging a sword  at a practice dummy on some fine and mist-shrouded English morning. 

Sunburst Swallowtail - Scott Higginbotham
Pommels could knock an opponent senseless when in close quarters.  A fight or skirmish in a tight room or a winding stone staircase left little room for maneuverability.  When thrusts, jabs, swings, and parries fail and an attacker's odorous breath becomes overwhelming the flares and mass of a swallowtail could quickly end a fight with a downward thrust to the head or the back of the neck.  

Additionally, the pommel served as a means of securing the full tang of the blade; the tang being the thin, unsharpened part of the blade that passes through the grip seen through the ring below. The round retainer at the end could be screwed or otherwise made fast to the tang.  Swords of lower quality had the tang ending in the grip, while those of a higher caliber passed entirely through.  This method of construction could help prevent defeat and embarrassing situations - imagine a penniless knight fighting for honor, prestige, and a lady's favor at a tourney, only to have his cheap and blunted blade sail through early morning sunshine (reflecting the day's warmth and brightness, of course) and knock his love-interest squarely on the forehead with the flat of the blade.

Visible Tang - Scott Higginbotham

Much more could be said about swordmaking and crafting, however, it is these tidbits on this small portion of the sword that add color to the history we love, read, and write about.  A more vivid description in our novels can add symbolism, intrigue, depth, or breathe fresh life into your protagonist. The statement- The red garnet cross embedded in the pommel of Bertram's sword caught the sun's rays, reflecting its dazzling brilliance and reminding him of his vow, points to a variety of avenues an author could explore.  A great beginning or ending?  Or a game-changing segue? Perhaps the key to a mystery?  Ah, the possibilities!

More to come on sword construction!  Swords, armor, Tudor, Renaissance, and many high quality historical clothing articles can be found at 

Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.



  1. This is a subject that has always fascinated me. Terry Pratchett's Captain Carrot, a nice young man who is obviously the heir to the long gone throne of Ankh-Morpork, has a sword that doesn't have a name or jewels in the pommel and doesn't go "ting,". It's just bloody good at cutting, at doing the job it was made for. I liked that when I read it.

  2. I like Medieval swords too- and I'm a girl!That said, I think the movies and TV shows which show skinny slips of girls swinging large swords about are silly- you needed training to use those things. Have you heard of 'pattern welded' swords, they seem to have been something from the Anglo Saxon/Viking era and there is a replica of one in the British Museum that is supposed to have been based on the one from the Sutton Hoo horde I believe.

    Thanks for the post- I managed to get both the Kindle books free in special offer in December!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post! I have heard of pattern welded swords and I believe that Damascus steel is essentially the same in terms of process and distinctive pattern. Very expensive steel, but strong.
      Thanks for grabbing my books last December!

    2. I don't know about Damauscus steel unfortunately- though that is not to say the Saxons did not know about that part of the world- they had Garnets which may have come from India and apparently used Byzantine coins for their gold.
      All I remember was reading about the process once- something about twisting one piece of metal around another- and a bad movie which showed someone doing something like that. Is that how 'Damascus steel' was made- if so we seem to have been using the process in England in the so called 'dark ages'

  3. Always a subject I don't mind learning more about, thanks!

  4. A nice "nuts'n'bolts" article.

    Replicas, while perhaps not to the standard of yesteryear, can be had at surprisingly reasonable prices.

    1. Thanks for links, Colin! That's good news for those on your side of the pond. Where I live in the states (Georgia) there is a business called Museum Replicas very close by. Their annual open house is where you can get great bargains that don't fall apart. Check out

  5. Scott, thanks for this post. I am fascinated by this subject. I am interested to know how swords changed from say the 11th century (Norman knights) to the early 19th century. And, did the sea captains of the early 19th century who were plying the Atlantic, but not officers in a country's navy, carry swords? Since pirates were still operating in the Caribbean then and I always think of pirates with swords, I had to ask.


    1. Regan,
      Thanks for the comment! I haven't studied how swords have changed over the years in depth, but as armor progressed so did the type of weapons used. The longbow was a game changing weapon that could decimate a cavalry charge (The Battle of Crecy) and I read where at Agincourt that many of the French knights felled but not killed by arrows had head wounds from a halberd's sharp point being thrust into the eye slits on the helm. Shudder...

    2. The longbow was significant in social terms because it was a relatively inexpensive weapon that enabled a mere commoner to kill a member of the aristocracy wearing expensive armour riding on an expensive horse.
      PS. I notice your American replica swords are a bit pricier than ours. I understand the ones I linked to are made in the Czech Republic and from what I have seen of them, they're pretty decent albeit intended as decorations rather than for re-enactment.

  6. Colin
    Some are pricey, but I have never paid full price for any of them. I would be broke otherwise! I usually visit the showroom for their annual open house where they open the warehouse and sell their discontinued items. The people come out in droves and it is quite a day for bargains.

  7. Thanks for posting this! Such details are extremely helpful for authors like myself who want to bring history to life.

    It's not new information to any of us that firearms dramatically changed the battlefield, eventually making swords obsolete. However, while researching my own historical novel I became aware of some interesting facts about the interim period when muskets, pikes and swords were still in use at the same time.

    Before firearms, knights wore heavy armor; and the types of swords they used reflected the kind of combat that was necessary between such heavily-armored men. When muskets appeared, heavy armor became obsolete, and the longsword gave way to the rapier.

    I'm grotesquely oversimplifying the history, of course -- but damn it, Jim, I'm an author, not a historian!

    Reading the German Fechtbuch (Fencing Books) of the 16th and 17th centuries, it appears that there was vigorous debate between two guilds of swordsmen: The MarxBruder (the Marx Brothers, later the Brotherhood of St. Mark) preferred the longsword, while the FreiFechter (Free Fencers) preferred the rapier.

    If you're interested, look up "The Rappier of Paulus Hector Mair", for instance, published in 1540.

    A.G. Wallace

  8. The news has got well around by now about Richard III having been found underneath a car park (that's "parking lot" in American English). I remember reading or hearing that a cut or thrust to the back of the head or neck might have finished him off.


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