Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Sword Blade - What's the Point? by Scott Higginbotham

by Scott Higginbotham

     If a sword’s blade was nothing more than an edged piece of steel with a sharp point, then medieval blacksmiths would not have been the true craftsmen that they were.  Certainly, some smiths were better than others and while the molecular structure, physics, and metallurgical properties were not fully understood, pieces from the Middle Ages have survived the test of time.  The blade is the most memorable portion of sword, some referring to it as the “business end”.

A blade with only one cutting edge is commonly called a backsword.  The falchion had been used by European soldiers in medieval battles, but was usually not the weapon of choice, although there are paintings of melee’s depicting its use.  The scimitar was another such blade of this type that was encountered by sweating, mail-clad Crusaders.  And, it should be noted that an encounter with a sword made from Damascus steel could have disastrous results – perhaps something to delve into at a later time.

Double Edge
However, the typical medieval sword was double-edged.  Two edges allowed a knight to make an effective strike on a front swing and possibly counter that sand-filled practice dummy or wooden pell with a back swing.  Conversely, having two edges were better than one – turn the grip 180 degrees if one side experienced a greater degree of use than the other.
Double Edges
Below the tip of the sword, there is what is called the “center of percussion”, which is the spot where a strike would achieve the most devastating results - it is this spot where there is the least amount of vibration radiating back along the blade.  William Marshal would have been intimately familiar with this spot after long hours in the training yard, though calculating and designing its precise location would have been impossible in the 13th century.

The Tip
Oaths and taunts were common and oftentimes comical in the Middle Ages.  Let's imagine that “Midden-mouthed pox-ridden hedgepig”, rings out in the practice yard.  You’re a green knight, who has just won his spurs, but your ears burn and your face reddens as the squires stifle a laugh.  No problem.  Teach that weasel-faced gongfarming skainsmate a lesson.  Twirl the sword in a deadly arc for a few turns, align your mail-clad left arm perpendicular to your target, and then thrust the sharpened tip of the blade in that dummy’s midsection.  Twist, work it back and forth to plunge deeper, wriggle it to cut both ways, and then put your boot on the offending face to pull it free.
It is clear that the sharpened tip and double-edged blade can work in concert to silence an already mute practice target and Sir Knight can now properly swagger off with a slight groove to his step.
Speaking of swagger and groove, do swords contain their descriptors?  Indeed!  But not the kind that make young ladies swoon or perhaps roll their eyes when it comes to certain knights and their inflated egos.

Looking at the various styles above one can see that all of the blades are double-edged, but there are distinct differences that make each blade unique.  The unsharpened block of steel next to the crossguard is called a ricasso, which allows the user to “choke up” on the sword for better leverage or thrust, either on a downswing or upswing.  The ricasso aided the swordsman when targeting a specific point when a finger was extended over the crossguard, allowing the user to guide the thrust.  Also, gripping the ricasso makes it easier to pull it free from the offending practice dummy’s sand-filled midsection.

The Ridge
Single Spine
Some swords have a ridge, or spine, running down the length of the blade.  Longer swords of this style tend to be “whippy” in nature; it should be noted that the typical medieval replica sword blades are a very thin oval or diamond shape.  However, the sword seen adjacent is relatively short enough that "whippiness" is not a concern.  I can only imagine the years of trial and error that medieval craftsmen drew upon to perfect the blade; without a computer-aided view of the steel’s cross section and supporting calculations of tensile stress and ductility, it is a wonder indeed to see some surviving pieces.
The Groove
Single Fuller
The remedy for a long blade with a lot of flex is to put a groove on it.  Not knightly swagger in front of adoring eyes, but a groove running the length of blade – called a fuller.  A fuller actually strengthens the blade even though a physical portion of the steel is absent.  It’s counterintuitive, but a fuller creates two ridges, or spines, along the length, versus one.  These spines operate in tandem to stiffen the steel, but still allow it a slight bit of flexibility.  Some even have two fullers as shown below and the difference in stiffness is noticeable when compared with its counterpart above.

Double Fuller
     Another effect of the fuller is that it reduces the weight of the sword, owing to less steel.  Fatigue is as much an enemy as some wild-eyed beserker bearing down on Sir Knight sweating inside his great helm.  Battles are rarely fought in ideal situations, and stamina over the long term was important.  Because of the reduced weight, a longer and even wider blade could be hammered and shaped underneath the eye of a craftsman - a blade that gives the user a better chance of a longer life.

For more detailed information on harmonics and the physics of a sword – where to strike and finding the perfect point to place your hand on the sword grip, follow this fascinating link.  This short piece briefly touches on blade construction; however, there are certainly tidbits that could give our characters and stories interesting sidebars as they put their newly crafted sword on a test run.  A young lordling would not have had a modern grasp of the physics of sword construction, but after hours of use he would certainly know if it was meant for his hand.

Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransoma 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 great post, Scott. I wish you'd written it a couple of years ago - it would have saved me many hours of research. And I get to see the swords as well.

  2. Awesome resource, Scott. I spent days researching swords and swordsmithing, and here you are with it all boiled into a fine, literate post! I will notify you if I need any other medieval weapons researched, lol!


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