4 Sword Myths For Writers

4 Sword Myths For Writers

Swords are fun!

No, really — they are. I’ve gotten to play with a variety of them, from several different time periods, as a regular stage combat performer with New England-area renaissance faires, and they’re all a blast — even if (or perhaps especially because) it’s all fake.

Along the way I’ve learned a great deal about real-life swordplay from people far more educated about such matters than I, and I’ve put that knowledge to good use in my fantasy work, crafting swordfights that are exciting and dynamic but still well-grounded in reality. On the down side, it’s become a lot harder for me to enjoy swordfights in fiction because I’ve become too aware of how under-informed the general public is about how swords function in practical use.

So I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned over the years, and I’m going to start with this major caveat: do not take anything I say here as gospel. I’ve researched and continue to research period martial arts and weapons work, but there is always going to be new information out there — or different takes on existing data. You see, historians are an argumentative lot, and those who specifically study ancient arms are no different. You want to see sparks fly? Gather together a group of sword experts and ask them whether it’s best to parry an attack with the flat of the blade or the edge, and then stand back and enjoy the show.

The point is, someone somewhere is going to have a differing opinion about the information I’m presenting, and they’re not necessarily going to be wrong — but they’re not necessarily going to be completely right, either. Use this feature as a starting point for your own research and decide for yourself what works best for your storytelling purposes.

MYTH #1: Swords are heavy

Here’s something you can try at home. Grab a gallon jug of milk or water and swing it around vigorously for five minutes. Exhausting, isn’t it?

That’s why a typical medieval longsword weighs only about three pounds on average. The people using them are going to be swinging them for a long time, and a heavy sword is going to wear the user out more quickly—especially if they have the added burden of armor weighing them down. That isn’t to say there weren’t heavy swords, but A) even big pieces of steel (so-called “great swords”) such as the Scottish claymore or the German zweihander weren’t as heavy as you might expect, and B) these swords had very specific purposes and required different techniques. They were not everyday all-purpose weapons.

Related note: a common sword feature often called a “blood groove” has nothing to do with providing a victim’s blood with a handy channel to run down, thus accelerating his untimely demise (yes, that is a common misconception) or making the sword easier to withdraw from a human body. The proper name for this feature is the “fuller,” and its purpose is to lighten the weapon without compromising its strength.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

When you give your character a sword, there are a lot of factors to consider, but there is one key question you need to ask: what sword best suits the character and what he needs the weapon for? A rapier or court sword isn’t necessarily going to make sense in the hands of a large, strong, slow character, just like a claymore wouldn’t make sense in the hands of a small, fast character. You wouldn’t arm a character with a short sword if you’re going to pit him against cavalry, and you wouldn’t want a character hefting a zweihander if he’s expecting to be fighting in a confined space.

Other factors such as the time period, geographic region, etc., will also factor in, but I’m a big believer in starting with the character and building from there.

Regardless of the character and the context, do your research on the weapon you have in mind so you can portray its use correctly.

MYTH #2: Swords are sharp

I’m sure if you think about it, you can name at least one movie or TV show or book in which a warrior neatly slices through an armored limb with his mighty sword.

Yeah, no.

A sword was once described to me as a sharp hammer. It has an edge, and under the right conditions it can indeed cleave through a person, but it is not a magical Ginsu that could slice neatly through one layer of plate steel armor, the chainmail beneath that, the gambeson (a thick padded jacket) beneath that, the flesh and muscle and bone of a human limb, and then through another layer of gambeson and armor.

(Unless, of course, it is a magical weapon, but that is a different matter.)

Could the edge penetrate armor by cutting? Yes, but that is not a universal result of taking a sword to armor. Sometimes the damage would be blunt force trauma. It depends on the weapon, the user, the armor he’s facing, and the circumstances of the fight.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

Swords are surprisingly complex tools. You do yourself as a writer a disservice by not learning as much as you can about them so you can portray their use convincingly and correctly while still wringing maximum dramatic effect from them.

This can lead to some fun changes in how you construct fight scenes. Readers love a dramatic death blow that takes a villain’s head off, but if the villain in question is wearing a helmet that partially covers the throat and/or a gorget (a piece of neck armor), that final sword blow might not be so final after all — or it will break the bad guy’s neck rather than cut through it, which I’d argue makes the death stroke that much more brutal.

Again, you’ll have to do some research, particularly when you introduce armor to the mix. Chainmail (or, for you purists, maile) armor is designed to prevent cutting damage so a sword’s edge isn’t going to penetrate — but that same armor isn’t going to be worth a damn against a stabbing attack or the blunt force trauma that comes from a blow of any kind. Know your weapons, know your armor, and know how they all interact with each other.

MYTH #3: Katanas are awesome

First, let’s all acknowledge that the plural of katana is “katana” — if you’re speaking Japanese or a Japanese speaker is saying the word in English, but for us Muricans, “katanas” is acceptable as the plural form.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Katanas are probably the most iconic sword type in pop culture, and they’ve become almost mythic in nature. Unfortunately, how they’re portrayed in pop culture is almost pure myth, and it’s largely Hollywood’s fault.

Even their creation is less impressive than you’ve been led to believe. You might have heard katanas were folded hundreds of times in the smithing process, but that’s not true. They were only folded a dozen times or so, and that was a purely practical technique to strengthen the blade by hammering out the excess carbon in the cheap pig-iron (called tamahagane) available to smiths. It wasn’t about creating an edge that could slice through anything; it was about making swords that wouldn’t break on their first use.

Katanas were also not the samurai’s weapon of first choice. Rather, it would come out after better options such as the longbow and spear had failed or were impractical for the circumstances.

How they’re used in pop culture bears little resemblance to real-world techniques. They were designed for fast cutting, and if you watch an actual master swordsman in action, they flick the sword similarly to how you’d flick a fishing rod.

Blocking and parrying with a katana? Not so fast. Take a hit on the edge and you ding it up badly, making it less effective for its intended purpose. Take a hit on the flat and you risk snapping the blade, which is thinner compared to medieval longswords, which could take a solid hit on the flat.

(Cue historian argument in three, two…)

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

The katana as audiences know it is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, a writer could portray its use as we’re all accustomed to and few people — mostly pedantic sorts like me — would question it.

But if you want a challenge, research how katanas were actually used in battle and throw your reader a curve ball — but don’t be surprised if the masses then chastise you for “not knowing how a katana works.” Sometimes, reality isn’t your best option.

MYTH #4: Swords make a cool “SHRING!” sound whenever drawn.

No. They don’t.

Scabbards are typically made of leather or wood. Neither of these materials make a metallic “SHRING!” sound when a steel sword is dragged along them.

Just saying.

And why can’t someone have a steel scabbard, you ask? Well, they could, but why would they want one? It’s heavier, and the repeated act of drawing and sheathing a sword would dull the edge quickly. More likely, a warrior would have a leather or wooden scabbard with decorative caps of brass or bronze — or, yes, iron or steel — but they wouldn’t make contact with the blade in the interest of preserving the edge.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

Here’s the thing: fiction, especially visual media, throws in a lot of dramatic flourishes that enhance the mood of a moment but, if you stop to think about them, make no sense whatsoever, and the metallic ringing sound of a sword being drawn is one of them. It’s the period equivalent of cocking a firearm for dramatic effect (even though doing so actually achieves something in the case of a firearm, i.e., chambering a round).

As with the katana, audiences have been trained to accept, even expect these moments, so chances of getting called out are minimal, but audiences are also getting savvier every day. Tropes that used to slide on by unnoticed are becoming distractions.

Knowing where, when, and how to add some sizzle to your steak, even if that sizzle is complete nonsense, is part of the craft of effective storytelling. If a sizzle moment adds value to the narrative, add it, but if it risks distracting readers and taking them out of the story, reconsider it.

BONUS NON-SWORD MYTH, MAYBE: Flails were common medieval weapons

The flail — a solid, sometimes spiked iron or steel ball at the end of a chain, usually attached to a handle — might not be a real weapon.

This theory, that the flail was either a ceremonial instrument historians mistook for a weapon or was completely made up and had no real-world basis whatsoever, popped up within the last few years, causing no small amount of controversy among historians.

I’m inclined to side with flail deniers mostly because I’ve used flails in shows and they are wildly impractical weapons.

Here’s another home experiment. Remember that gallon jug from the first myth? Once it’s empty (very important), tie it to a two-foot length of rope or twine to create a crude flail. Now, find a target — a tree, your fridge, a willing volunteer — and hit it with your flail. You’ll notice that even with something as light as an empty plastic jug, you get some satisfying impact. It’s easy to imagine how much damage you could do if that jug was a steel ball.

Now step back from the target and swing your flail. Notice what happens when you miss.

That’s right: it comes right back at you — and there’s no way to stop it.

If you’ve got an argument brewing about how the flail could be made a viable weapon, I’ll direct you to this great article by Paul Sturtevant (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/curious-case-weapon-didnt-exist/), but I’ll reiterate as a past flail user: they suck as weapons.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

A friend of mine once observed that in genre fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), audiences are happy to accept big ideas like dragons and magic without questioning them but will get hung up on details based in what we consider universal reality. If you tell your readers the main character is a fireball-throwing sorcerer, they’ll buy that, but if you tell the audience your character once survived two weeks in a dungeon without any food or water, they’ll call you on it.

Impractical weapons are a trope of modern fantasy, and as a rule readers will go along with it if you lay the groundwork properly, but it’s in your best interests to understand what your weapons’ practical applications and limitations are, and maybe use those in the story to add realism to the fight scenes.

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