Ancient weapon choices: why swords?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by phx1138, May 10, 2019.

  1. phx1138 Bocagiste troll

    Jun 20, 2009
    Charlie Townsend's guest house
    What made ancient cultures choose swords as their main weapon, rather than pole arms, slings, maces/clubs, or something else?

    I understand why archers are a rarer option, given the practise needed to get good at it. (Same might apply to slingers.)

    What puzzles me is why swords, which are by all appearances harder to make, would be preferred to maces.

    Anybody know if there are reasons, & what they are?
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  2. Pangur The Cat Donor

    Dec 28, 2010
    I will a stab at this (OK, bad pun!) Slings as you suggest take skill and practise. maces and clubs bring you closer to the person you are figthing then a sword would and then there is the matter of being able to carry a shield when using a sword
  3. Jared Voldemort Jnr

    Mar 9, 2004
    Kingdom of Australia
    Swords alone weren't actually the primary weapon on the battlefield. They would be used in combination (sword and shield, sword as secondary weapon with pole arms, etc).

    What swords had over maces was versatility. You could use them in a variety of ways (thrust, cut, defence) and more importantly they had a greater range and options of places to strike than a mace. They could hit at shorter and longer ranges, etc.

    The versatility meant that swords were preferred over maces/clubs for general purposes. Maces certainly had their place on the battlefield, such as striking better through armour.
  4. Richard V Well-Known Member

    Jul 5, 2013
    Before the age of plate armor the sword was meant to be used with a large shield. A man skilled with sword and shield has a bit of an advantage fighting a man with a pole arm as the shield will neutralize the pole arm’s reach.

    The sword is also very convenient to carry. It rides in a scabbard hands free. Many weapons are better than swords at specialist tasks, pikes, halberds, hammers, bows, etc. But you can always wear your sword while using a different weapon. It’s with you even off the battlefield. It’s the weapon you have on you that counts not the ones you keep in the armory.

    You can of course carry an axe or club on you, but you wont carry a shield at all times. The sword’s longer reach and quicker handling easily outmatch those weapons when neither side has shields. There was no weapon more effective than the sword that can be easily worn all day... until the handgun was invented.
  5. phx1138 Bocagiste troll

    Jun 20, 2009
    Charlie Townsend's guest house
    I wasn't thinking "get rid of shields", just "why not swap another weapon?"

    I should also say, don't limit to maces. As I think a bit more, there were flails, yo-yos (yes, they were weapons!), bolas, & various other weapons that might be used.

    Not to mention accepting "no shield" as a valid choice.

    And maybe developing a different design of shield, so it could be used with a polearm? Or a different tactical formation?

    All that said, another question: did versatility trump lethality? Did it (does it) trump ease of production? Do maces (frex) have to be "shorter-ranged"?

    How much of this is a cultural artifact, & how much a product of local ability to manufacture swords (or not)?
  6. John7755 يوحنا Lightweight Faqih

    Dec 30, 2014
    Are we discussing maces and their effective use as it pertains to cavalry or simply in general? It would seem that the effective usage of maces in combat were usually on horseback, the speed of the horse allowed the accumulation of force that when making contact with armor caused heavy blunt trauma. This makes sense for cavalry, especially heavy armored ones, yet for infantry it does not or for enemies who are more lightly armored and can avoid the blow more easily than someone covered in armor. Swords and other weapons are at least have typically better ranges and are better when enemies are no longer at a gallop and battle in a position of stagnant combat. If I am correct too, the first usage of maces on horseback that was notable, was their usage among the cataphracts and other heavily armored cavalry of the Arsacid period. If this is so, it should be remembered that prior to this, the primary horseback weapon used were three, bows, javelins and lances/spears (with a shield). What this informs us, is that the initial fear of cavalry was that due to armor restrictions, they would not be able to get close enough to use a mace or sword at a level more efficient than an unmounted foe; hence the lance and its use to keep the enemy at length and yet gain from the speed of a horse and its kinetic power. Bows and javelin, likewise, were good in that they allowed with a level of practice, the ability to have a more mobile and versatile skirmisher. So, the only reason maces made the move to cavalry from infantry (as what seems, in ancient times, a weapon used to acquire slaves) was that due to increased armor of Arsacid-Scythian-Sarmatian cavalry, the horseman could get closer to his enemy without fear and thus accumulate that famed blunt trauma blow to an armored enemy.

    Maces are also not created equally... Some maces and blunt weapons were used along with other weapons such as nooses, clubs, bolas and whips to subdue enemies lacking armor and to capture loot in the form of slaves/prisoners. Imagine the better usage of maces in this instance, as weapons that cause blunt damage that may not kill foes if used with intent, whereas bladed weapons could cause wounds that would be unhealed and cause rapid death if unattended or unlucky. One should remind themselves of the example of the warriors of Mesoamerica, who other than bows, bolas and obsidian blades, possessed only blunt weapons and these in their blunt weapons primarily for the capture of prisoners. These blunt weapons would have been less than satisfactory in combat with most 'old-world' armies post 900 BCE. Other peoples can be seen even today using only blunt weapons in varied ritualized warfare, such as in Papua New Guinea or in Indonesia and the jungles of Southeast Asia, where such blunt weapons are cheaper and used by footmen. This usage, one can observe and reason, is certainly generally inferior to sword usage.

    Flails as was mentioned once within this thread, as is known, when used on horseback, carry the risk when facing able bodied enemies, the ability to miss and arcing around, causing potential damage to the user. Further, when not fighting lightly armored mobs or fleeing enemies, the concept of these erratic weapons, is always weaker than more orderly formations using simple and versatile weapons like spears or swords with shields. The flail, does not also seem effective at all when used by more than sections of a cavalry, the momentum gained from swinging such a weapon whilst on foot, I would imagine, is minimal and dangerous to your compatriots near you. If you are seeking a weapon that is not slashing-puncture related, yet with range, the noose is definitely a better weapon than the flail on both horse or foot for subduing heavily armored horseman or for a variety of roles. If trained in the skill, a rider for instance, with a bow/javelin and noose, could throw a noose and grasp hold of an enemy rider and pull the rider from his horse and carry him and for many warriors, dismounting meant death or capture. Nooses can also be used to disarm enemies and unnerve enemies who fear being dismounted or if infantry, being dragged a distance.

    Ultimately, a mace using horseman would have his most difficult time with enemies who are lighter and use bows, nooses and swords. It is unlikely that said warrior with mace wearing heavy armor will connect with said horseman and his heavy armor becomes a nuisance, as it drains his/his horse's energy and is required to retreat or worse, is pull from his horse by a noose and once ensnared, they can take simply drag him a distance and on his rise, even a sword would could cause injury or wounds that kill. It should be remembered, that many times in the past, heavy armored horseman bearing maces were totally outdone by light cavalry bearing bows, javelins, maces and nooses. At the battle of Anzen-Danzimon, light cavalry bearing bows was able to hault the march of the entire Kurdo-Byzantine army, including the heavily armored cavalry present. On the island of Crete, Muslim pirates armored with light armor, bows, javelin and such, bested maces-heavy armored cataphracts (form Byzantium) simply by avoiding close combat and skirmishing and forcing the enemy to retreat due to exhaustion.

    To be clear, the only time that maces were used at its most effective sense that we mentioned, as blunt trauma damage to armored enemy, was when paired to a heavily armored warrior who through their armor, could afford to get near an enemy to deliver that blow. If a lightly armored fighter uses a mace in opposition to a sword, they come to find weakness, in that the sword is usually with greater ranges and more versatile, with its myriad of ways to cause wounds and harder to avoid or block.

    @phx1138 How would a yo-yo be used as a weapon? Perhaps, some sort of chain or rope with a certain ball attached, that could be rolled around each other and manipulated like some sort of blunt whip?
  7. A Most Sovereign Lady Princess of the Kingdom of Maryland

    Jan 27, 2014
    Baltimore, MD, USA
    Swords are a sidearm, the primary weapon for thousands of years was a type of spear.
  8. arctic warrior Scandinavian die-hard

    Jan 10, 2006
    Depends upon culture and availability I presume; we have loads of bronze age swords but also axe and spears. Stone weapons would be the choice of the poor fighter. So a stratified society.
    Iron age warriors wielding spears and lances would outnumber swordsmen; by then an officers/nobilitys choice of arm.
    Then the advent of "industrialized" society like the Roman Empire would be able to equip their army generally with swords.
  9. Zen9 Well-Known Member

    Nov 18, 2018
    The sword is just a longer knife, and the knife is a ubiquitous tool.

    Most people used a spear and a knife, which goes back to hunting.

    The spear is among the simplest and oldest of weapons, alongside the club and axe.

    Even the Assagai is just a short spear.

    Swords being mostly metal, are expensive objects.
    Spears can be made with fire hardened points.....not metal, not even stone which takes more skill.
    More skill gives you stone knapped flint.
  10. Artaxerxes A terrible pain in my diodes

    Mar 13, 2013
    Augusta, Britannia Superior
    You hide behind a big shield, the sword stabs from behind it, you repeat until the enemy is dead.

    Nice and simple.

    Spears are good as well, the Greek pike was great until it became detached from its combined arms approach an increasingly unwieldy in size.
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  11. VictorLaszlo Well-Known Member

    Jan 26, 2011
    A seax and later on the (lange/große) Messer was a long knife, i.e. a single edged weapon, a sword (spatha) is always double edged and was only used by knights (and legally reserved for them), simple men at arms had to contend themselves with single edged weapons or battle axes / maces / war hammers. Thus the sword has in fact never been the primary weapon on medieval battlefields, it was only the primary weapon and status symbol of the elite.
  12. Analytical Engine Monarchist Collectivist Federalist

    Mar 12, 2007
    UK, EU (for the moment), Earth
    Um, they didn't (at least not everywhere).

    If anything, the spear (and various other pole arms) was the main weapon amongst ancient cultures.

    Swords were typically prestige weapons until they could be made in bulk. Even then, pole arms were still used very.
  13. RodentRevolution Chewer of Wires

    Jan 14, 2015

    The primary weapon throughout much of human tool use was the spear. Archers were rarer because by themselves archers were rarely decisive. So when your clan, tribe, city or larger state wants to resolve a major battle some archers (mounted or afoot) are useful to have to harass and erode the enemies cohesion and resolve to fight but spearmen (mounted or afoot) are the ones likely to be decisive.

    A sword is not usually seen as the main battlefield weapon, what it was however was the side arm par excellence. Most swords and there are huge variety historically have a wide array of offensive options and can also be highly effective as parrying weapons. This made them, unlike the spear and other polearms, something a person might carry around in circumstance where the need to defend themselves might be a possibility but was not the primary consideration.

    The use of the sword as a primary weapon seems to have occurred only when certain specific niches opened up. The Roman legions famously made use of their swords the gladius becoming famous but they also made considerable use of pila and until the late Republic the triarii retained the spear. Meanwhile their cavalry mostly used spears and/or javelins except for horse archers who obviously relied on their bows. Later the Romans seem to have returned to the spear as the primary melee weapon.

    For early gunpowder era cavalry the primary weapon was not the sword but the pistol which in Europe at least seems to have replaced first the war hammer/mace option (as seen with demi-lancers) and then the lance (as seen with reiter). Only once armour was fallen into abeyance (though never entirely out of use) did the sword assume the role of the primary hand weapon of most cavalrymen and it might be argued their true primary weapon was in fact their horse.

    For naval actions the sword was to be popular in the gunpowder era with boarding cutlasses remaining an approved arm aboard naval warships until in the 20th century. However where possible naval parties preferred long firearms. Again the sword can be seen to be useful where space is limited and you might need a hand to hang on to something else.

    As to maces, as explained above they, together with war hammers, are specialised anti-armour weapons, yes you can bash an unarmoured man but a sword cuts or stabs him doing so much more damage. Throughout much of history most opponents were not completely covered in armour and where they were you see in later cultures swords were developed like the European longsword that in emergency could be held by the blade and the hilt used like a substitute mace or war hammer.

    Where people who needed a cheap sidearm, longer than a knife but cheaper than a sword they most often seem to have gone for the axe. You can still hammer at an armoured man but a blow will chop an unarmoured one so it has that advantage.
  14. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

    Apr 13, 2007
    Syracuse, Haudenosaunee, Vinland
    As for sword vs mace, in battle you have to strike many times, preferably with accuracy. A mace or hammer, by definition, is a mass weapon - it does damage primarily by bludgeoning. Thus they need a certain amount of mass to be effective. A sword is meant to use sharp point and edge to cut and stab. It can be as light as your metallurgy will allow.
    Thus a soldier with a sword can strike more blows than one with a mace.

    Cavalry, as pointed out above, have the extra momentum of the horse to make a mace more effective. Also, a horseman doesn't get tangled up in long drawn out slugging matches.
  15. Zen9 Well-Known Member

    Nov 18, 2018
    The arguments between sword and lance continued almost to the end of Cavalry.
  16. bernardz Kicked Donor

    Jun 10, 2018
    One point I should add is that a sword requires much training and practice so only viable as a weapon for professionals, as a spear requires much less training and practice so it is suitable for the masses.
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  17. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    A spear is also a better weapon, as long as you can avoid close combat.
  18. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

    Apr 3, 2013
    Perfidious Albion
    I'm not sure about that. Maybe being a really good swordsman would require lots of training, but the same would probably hold true of being a really good spearman, and with both weapons being good enough to fight in a shield-wall would probably require much less.
  19. FriendlyGhost Haunting history for 45+ yrs

    Apparently the origin of the yo-yo as a weapon is an urban myth - see here:
  20. phx1138 Bocagiste troll

    Jun 20, 2009
    Charlie Townsend's guest house
    That's the best reason I've seen. (Which isn't saying a lot. :openedeyewink: )

    Spears were popular, I know, but have the disadvantages of being thrown back & only really being useful once (if designed to prevent re-use). Limited to a stabbing weapon, it seems they're less versatile than bladed weapons & less "impactful" (for lack of the right word:oops: ) than maces.

    Polearms (including the bo & jo) aren't, strictly, limited in their inability to cut, with a blade or ax head, so...

    I do like the axe as a substitute, everything from tomahawk up to poleaxe.:cool:
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