The “Whys” of Sword Design
The sword holds a special place in the popular consciousness, and it’s a curiously global phenomenon. Whether you’re talking about the katana of Japan, the scimitars of the Middle East, or the rapier of Renaissance France and Italy, people, simply put, love swords. And it naturally follows that designing swords is often a part of worldbuilding, especially in speculative fiction.
However there’s a consistent problem with sword design, whether in movies, video games, or other forms of media: Most of the time, swords in fiction are designed by artists who…probably never even held a sword in real life, much less have any understanding of the art and science behind the design of a good sword.
So hopefully, people find this a useful resource to design better swords:
Swords are, pretty invariably, made of metal. Obviously energy blades are quite popular in science fiction, and while Mesoamerican obsidian-edged clubs are often called swords, they are ultimately simply clubs with extra spiky bits tacked on. So, SciFi laser swords aside, there’s a pretty good expectation that sword blades will be made of metal. Most commonly historical swords were made of copper, then bronze, iron, and finally steel.
Forging a sword is a delicate balancing act. The blade needs to be hard enough to hold an edge, yet not so hard as to be brittle so it snaps or shatters under impact stress. On the other hand it also can’t be soft enough to bend out of shape, but must remain flexible enough to absorb the shock of it hitting something and return to shape. If the sword is designed for cutting it needs a very thin edge, yet there’s not only limits to how sharp the edge can be made, but a very hard edge will also be damaged very quickly and easily through use, necessitating it be resharpened again. And to hold an edge it needs to be hard, which just makes it brittle and easy to chip or break…
This is why material is very important.
Copper is, naturally, a very soft metal. Although some of the earliest of what we would recognize as swords were made of copper, they were generally very short. Copper swords are easily bent and deformed, and since a bent sword is useless most copper swords were made from alloys of some sort to strengthen them. The first major breakthrough in the development of the sword was the discovery of bronze; copper alloyed with tin. However, bronze swords were still quite soft and prone to bending, so they remained relatively short, though some Celtic swords approached the length of (and were the forerunners to) the later spatha.
When iron first came into use, bronze swords were in many ways still superior; pure iron can be very soft and easily bent, perhaps even moreso than bronze. So even after smiths began working iron, bronze was still often the preferred material for swords despite its expense. Iron, however, was easier to find and work with, so it was inevitable that iron would eventually displace bronze.
However while pure iron is too soft, it can be worked with carbon to create steel. And steel is a fantastic material for a sword. With the correct percentage of carbon, a proper quench, and a good temper, steel meets every need for a sword: Hard yet flexible, strong but not brittle. The problem is, such quality steel was very rare, expensive, and difficult to produce until you begin getting into the 12th or 13th century or so as metallurgy improved.
Smiths, however, had a solution: Layering multiple bars of iron of different carbon contents, laminating them together, then folding and twisting them to create a flexible but strong core. A high-quality steel edge was then welded on the outside. This technique, called pattern welding, was used extensively across multiple cultures. Despite most famously being used by Japanese smiths, it was also widely-used in Europe, especially among Germanic/Scandinavian smiths, who were skilled enough to create elaborate, repeating patterns like stars, swirls, or the famed “Serpent in the Sword.” Regardless of the visual properties, this allowed a smith to spare the high-quality steel for the parts that absolutely needed it (edge) while using lower-quality iron and steel to achieve the remaining properties the sword requires to not shatter, snap, or bend.
By the later Middle Ages, European smiths were beginning to forge high-carbon steel that was more homogeneous in composition, while Wootz steel was developing in the East. Regardless of the source or method of forging, the key to a steel sword is the crystaline structure created when the sword is heated and then quenched, locking the iron and carbon atoms together. It’s a very strong matrix that is fantastically durable, yet flexible when given the proper temper (essentially, the sword is worked at a very high temperature, then rapidly cooled by quenching in a liquid medium, most commonly oil. This makes the blade very hard. The sword is then slowly reheated at a lower temperature to restore its ability to flex). There’s a reason why steel is still the preferred material for high-quality, functional sword blades.
So what about other materials?
Well, there are certainly materials that can do much the same job as steel in many applications, whether it be aircraft parts, or construction, industrial equipment, or the automotive industry. The problem is they lack all of the necessary requirements for a good sword blade.
Titanium, for example, has a higher tensile strength and is lighter than steel. However it’s also relatively soft, so does not retain a good cutting edge as well as steel can. It’s also weaker against the sort of compression and torsional forces that a sword blade encounters.
Aluminum is also a strong, lightweight material, but is too soft to make an effective bladed weapon or tool. It simply can’t hold an edge. Also, aluminum is very difficult to work with without access to modern technology. It wasn’t until the 19th century that anyone figured out how to actually separate aluminum metal from the ores it’s contained in, at which time it was more valuable than gold.
Silver and gold are both very popular metals in fantasy fiction. However in their pure forms both metals are extremely soft. They are also both very heavy compared to steel. You could plate the sword with silver or gild the blade, but both would eventually wear off (especially gilding). It would also add additional weight.
Stainless steel is much too brittle. There’s a very good reason you don’t use stainless swords for actual fighting, as they will likely shatter.
Gemstones seem to be a popular substitute for metal in some fantasy settings. However while gemstones are certainly hard and could even be shaped to form a very clean edge, that hardness comes at a price: A complete lack of flexibility, creating a very hard and brittle object that would shatter under stress (like striking another sword). Diamonds can certainly cut almost anything, but you could also smash one with a hammer.
Gemstones would also be heavy. And well, you’d need a really big stone to suit the purpose; once a gem is cut there’s no putting it back together like you could potentially do with iron or steel, much less combine multiple gems together into one.
Much like gemstones, we also see glass turn up in a variety of settings. There’s actually a real-world precedent for this; the obsidian-edged clubs of Mesoamerica I mentioned above. However, it should be noted that the obsidian chips don’t comprise the entire blade; instead, the bulk of the weapon is often made of wood, or in some cases metal. This allows the obsidian to be removed and replaced as the pieces break. Which will happened because, you know, glass.
So, when choosing a material for your swords, remember: Hard but not brittle, strong but flexible. Exotic materials or precious metals should be used with caution. Or at the very least, their qualities should be considered. Silver is a poor material to make a functional blade from in its entirety, or to use as plating. But what about folding or twisting it into the bars of iron of a pattern-welded sword? And if you’re creating unobtanium the same considerations should apply: If you want your fictional material to be good for a sword, your metal should be given many of the same properties as carbon steel. Mithril, for example, is harder than steel, but it’s also flexible and strong.
It’s a common thing in fantasy to see “light” metals treated as inherently better than “normal” steel. Mithril is lighter than steel, and everyone wants their unobtanium to be the same. And this is certainly true…to a point.
A sword that is too heavy is simply not going to be practical to wield. At best, it’s excessively tiring. At worst, it may not be possible to use the weapon at all. And the reality is, this isn’t something that exceptional strength can overcome. Even Ah-nold struggled to use a steel version of the Atlantean Sword in Conan the Barbarian because it was so heavy. And this is a guy who could literally punch out a real car window.
In reality, only the very largest swords — and we’re talking the big German and Swiss zweihanders — reached 5-7 pounds. Some even more extreme types could reach up to 10, but those were almost invariably ceremonial or processional swords never used for combat.
The average weight of a longsword was about 3 pounds. A rapier was actually about the same weight (more on that in a moment). The arming sword — the classic knightly sword — might weigh as little as 2 – 2.5 pounds.
However, you should not conclude that means that making your swords even lighter is better.
Swords need weight and mass behind them. You could have the sharpest edge in the world, but if there’s no actual mass behind the cut, it’s not going to do much.
Let’s go back to the rapier. As I mentioned above, rapiers were actually quite heavy swords, and could often weigh more than the longsword. Now, longswords are not small weapons; Their blades ranged from around 36 – 42 inches, with hilts about 10 – 12. Contrary to popular culture, these are swords designed to be wielded in two hands. A rare few might reach 4lbs weight, but the most common upper end is about 3.5. A rapier, by contrast, had a rather short handle, but a very long blade (36″ or even longer weren’t uncommon).
So, what, exactly, gives? Rapiers look light, don’t they? Yes, they have a long blade, but it was very thin and narrow, while a longsword has a much broader blade.
One reason for this is the hilt. Rapiers often had very elaborate hilts with rings, loops, bars, and other components. This adds quite a bit of weight.
And it’s also a great way to illustrate the point I’m making about mass:
A rapier is primarily a thrusting sword. Though the blade can cut, you’re not going to be lopping off heads or even hands. You might open up a vein or artery, but most of the time, cuts with the rapier are harassing cuts designed to distract your opponent. And this is because of the distribution of mass. The rapier puts a considerable amount of weight in the hilt. This pulls the center of balance back to right around the guard, if not within the handle itself. The longsword, by contrast, has a broader blade, which pulls the center of balance out past the guard (the exact distance can vary on the type, but 3-6″ from the guard is common). By centering the weight further out onto the blade, this puts more mass behind the cut, thus longswords are substantially better cutting swords. No matter how sharp a rapier is, as a general rule it’s not going to cut as well as a longsword.
So, even if you have an edge so fine it can cut at the molecular level (and believe me, I know people love giving their swords this ability) it still needs sufficient mass behind it to actually do it. Your unobtanium can certainly shave a few ounces off the blade, but I would be wary of going too light. Your sword needs mass to work if you want to cut (thrusting swords are a little different, since you’re putting your body behind the thrust) or have authority in the bind.
Unless your setting uses lightsabers. But that brings us to another important thing about weight:
The sword’s weight, and particularly how that mass is distributed, is important to how the sword handles. Just as a sword that’s too heavy can be unwieldy, the same is true of a sword that’s too light. If your sword is intended for slashing and cutting, you need mass behind the blade not just so it can actually cut effectively, but also so those cuts flow. It’s the mass of the blade that pulls it through the cut. Your body may be directing it and giving it power when you swing, but the sword’s mass is intrinsic to how it actually follows that arc.
Once again, the rapier; All the mass in the handle makes it great for twitching the point around, but there’s nothing to really pull the sword through a cut. A longsword, however, is easy to make one cut flow through to the next. This is extremely important because that’s also what lets you control it.
Get yourself a flashlight and stand in a dark room. Turn it on, and then pretend you’re Darth Maul. Count how many times you shine the light on yourself as you’re spinning your flashlight around.
Get the point?
The mass of a sword blade provides important feedback to the wielder as to what the sword’s position is and how it’s moving. Make the blade too light, and you risk losing that feedback, which makes the sword harder to use (consider, for example, the ultra-light foam swords used by some LARP groups. There’s a lot of real swordsmanship technique that simply doesn’t work because the swords are too light to behave properly).
So resist the urge to make your phlebotinum substantially lighter than steel. Especially if you’re wanting classic hack-and-slash swordsmanship. Maybe you can use magic to handwave how a sword with the mass of a feather can slice through armor and the guy inside it like butter, but you still need a certain amount of mass for the sword to simply be controllable. And it needs to be distributed properly for the type of fighting your characters will be doing.
Blade shape is extremely important to how a sword handles and performs. And it’s probably one of those things that is gotten wrong the most.
The single most common mistake when designing a sword is the “Paddle Sword.” We’ve all seen them. Pretty much every RPG ever made uses them. They’re in Action/Adventures like Zelda. They even show up in films (the Atlantean Sword is a great example). They are, literally, everywhere.
They are also, literally, useless.
Here’s the thing about the Paddle Sword: An absurdly broad blade has a lot of surface area, and that causes two particular problems:
First, when you have a broad, flat surface, it tends to catch the air. This creates drag. Furthermore, it wants to turn the broad surface INTO the wind. This is how sails work. A big, super-broad, flat blade is going to be very difficult to keep proper edge alignment because the sword is going to want to turn the flat into the direction of the swing. So instead of striking with the edge, you smack them with the broad side of the paddle. Needless to say, this defeats the purpose of having a sword.
Second, that extremely broad blade means more material that has to pass through the target when you cut. So once again, this causes excess drag (this time through cloth, flesh, and bone) which reduces the cutting ability of the sword.
In addition, a very large flat “paddle” blade is going to substantially increase the weight of the sword. And as we mentioned above, a sword that’s too heavy is going to be unusable.
Sure, you can use unobtanium to reduce the weight of these massive blocks of metal until they weigh no more than a sword of proper dimensions. However no amount of weight reduction is going to fix the first two problems. In fact in the case of the sword wanting to turn as it catches the air, a lighter sword will likely make it worse (see again: LARP swords).
Another common mistake is swords that are too thick at the edge. Consider, for example, the axe:
Axes can be both tools and weapons, and while your common wood axe could certainly be used as a weapon in a pinch, there’s actually a significant difference between the edge of that wood axe, and one that’s designed specifically for combat. A wood axe has a thicker edge with a broader wedge shape. Rather than cutting flesh, they’re designed to split wood. Axes designed for combat tend to have a very thin edge much more like a sword’s.
This also comes up in sword design.
Consider, for example the Type XIII and XVII swords under Oakeshott’s typology.
The Type XIII has a lenticular (flattened oval) cross section. This provides a very thin cutting edge, making them well-suited to slashing and shearing blows.
The Type XVII, by contrast is a hexagonal cross section. This is a thicker blade with a broader, wedge-shaped edge. These swords are designed primarily for thrusting, or to crack or smash armor. They don’t cut very well.
The thicker the sword is, the thicker the edge. And the thicker the edge, the poorer it’s going to cut. So if your sword is over an inch thick where it starts the edge bevel, you’re going to encounter way more resistance than a good cutting sword wants as it tries to cut through all that material
Another factor in sword handling is the profile. This is the shape of the blade as it runs from the guard to the tip, and different types of swords will have different functions or handling characteristics based on this shape.
For example, let’s look at our Type XIII and XVII swords again:
The Type XIII has very little taper in its profile. The edges are parallel or nearly parallel. This pulls the center of mass out from the guard, making it more “blade heavy.” It also increases the amount of mass at the center of percussion. This is the “sweet spot” of the blade that’s the ideal point of contact when you swing the sword, and the part you want to try to hit your opponent with. The result, is that the Type XIII is capable of delivering devastating shearing blows because it puts a substantial amount of its mass directly into the blow. The sword won’t be as quick to maneuver and change directions with, but lends itself quite well to flowing, circular cuts because of its mass pulling it throw the blow. These swords also have a broad rounded or spatulate tip, which means they’re not very well-suited for thrusts. However that’s ok, because you’re probably dealing with unarmored or lightly-armored opponents, and relying on your raw cutting power
The Type XVII, by contrast, has a strong taper from guard to tip This facilitates a more maneuverable sword by pulling the center of mass back towards the handle. They also have a much more acute point, which makes them very good for thrusting. The Type XVII is going to be used in a much more agile fight as you try to maneuver the tip into a weak point in your opponent’s armor. You’re not going to try to end the fight with an overpowering shearing blow that cleaves your opponent from nave to chops, but poke him somewhere sensitive where the armor isn’t.
A final important, and often overlooked, factor in blade geometry is distal taper. While profile determines the amount of taper of the blade’s width, distal taper determines the blade’s thickness. Nearly all swords have some amount of distal taper, meaning the blade is thicker at the hilt and thinner at the tip. This is incredibly important, because a substantial amount of control over the center of mass and how light or heavy the blade is comes from the distal taper. The average Paddle Sword is basically one large uniform brick with a cutting edge welded on, and very little, if any, distal taper. This is just another factor that would make Paddle Swords so unwieldy.
Blade geometry is something that should never be ignored. Regardless of whatever nonsensoleum you make it from, geometry will affect the sword’s handling.
No sword is complete without the bits your character actually hold on to. This is not just a fancy bit of tacked-on-stuff you can throw on as an afterthought, but an integral and critical component of the sword. Probably more than any other component, the hilt will tell the most about the culture or time period the sword originates from. Sword blades might not change much over time, but the hilt may be changed many times over the life of the weapon as fashions change.
It all starts with the tang. No, it’s not a powdered drink mix. The blade doesn’t end where it meets the guard. In fact, it runs the entire length of the sword, from the tip all the way to the pommel. The part over which you construct your hilt is called the tang. There are a variety of types, but it’s important to know that if you want your sword to remain in one piece, the tang needs to be sturdy and robust. Any (Western) sword that is actually intended for fighting has what is called a “full tang.” This means the tang runs the full length of the hilt, is as wide (or is a substantial percentage of the width) as the blade itself, and is all one piece. There’s no welding of additional material involved. Display swords will have partial tangs, welded tangs, or “rat tail” tangs, which is another reason you never want to fight with your cheap Kit Rae wallhanger.
So when you’re designing the hilt, you need to account for the tang, and the fact the blade must run the full length. Your guard, grip, and pommel must all be large enough to accommodate it.
The shape of the guard can vary quite significantly depending on the time period and culture from which the sword originates, however it universally serves the same purposes of protecting the hand from a strike, and keeping your own hand from slipping down onto the blade. There’s a common tendency to use extremely large, thick guards when designing swords for fantasy, however this presents several problems:
First, that’s extra weight you’re tacking on, and as noted in previous sections, this can significantly impair the usability of the sword. The second, is that it can physically interfere with how the sword moves in the hand. The Master Sword of Legend of Zelda is a good example of this. The qullions (the ends of the cross) are very large, and partly come back onto the hand. That big extraneous disk at the base also doesn’t help matters much.
Another concern is that people love to design swords with spiky hilts because they “look” cool. Having spent the better part of 15 years studying swordsmanship I can say with authority: Whether or not you hit yourself with your own guard while drilling or in a fight is a matter of when, not if. Now put a bunch of jagged, blade-like spikes like you see on the works of Kit Rae and…well…I’m sure you can see how that won’t end well. That’s not to say that the guard can’t be used for artistic purposes, as was the case on many real life swords. Just remember that you don’t want anything that can interfere with actually using the sword, and to be especially wary of projections and spiky bits that may be as or more dangerous to the wielder as they are to the opponent.
Another point of concern is the grip. As with the guard (and blade, for that matter) the grip of a sword can vary widely depending on the time and place of origin of the sword. However, with exceptions sword grips are as a rule ovoid, not cylindrical. Sword grips are generally flattened along the same axis as the flat of the blade, and this design is important. If you have a perfectly cylindrical grip, you have no easy way of feeling how the sword is aligned when you strike. But flattening it into an oval or rectangular shape, you can feel from the shape of the grip whether the edge is properly aligned. Tapered or contoured grips are also more common than not for ergonomics. You also want the grip to be the right size to actually be able to hold in comfortably; if the grip is too large you may not be able to even get a good hold of it, and if it’s too small your hand will bunch up and the sword won’t be able to move naturally. As with the guard, beware of spikes and other projections. Remember, you’re holding the grip. It needs to be secure, comfortable, and facilitate the use of the sword.
The final important part is the pommel, which serves three purposes: The first is to help serve as a counterweight for the blade, the second is that it keeps the hand from slipping off the bottom of the sword, and last to hold the whole thing together. In traditional Western sword construction, the tang passes through the pommel and out the other side. The end is then heated and hammered over to secure the pommel to the sword, a process called “peening.” There is evidence that the threaded pommel existed historically; in which case, the end of the tang and inside of the pommel was threaded, with the pommel then screwed down. In more modern sword construction you begin to see the tang passed through the pommel, then secured with a nut or screw through the top of the pommel.
Regardless, remember that the pommel design needs to accommodate this purpose. The sword will fall apart without the pommel there to hold it together. It also needs to be large enough to help provide a counterweight. In two-handed swords the pommel is often designed in such a fashion as to act as a leverage point for the trailing hand.
As with the guard, it’s a matter of when you bump yourself with your own pommel, not if. So beware of spikes or projections.
A Wizard Did It
Now I know what some of you are saying. “It’s fantasy. It’s a world with fireballs and dragons and wizards. Why can you believe in those but not swords five feet wide and twenty feet long with handles like toothpicks being wielded by waifish supermodels with bolt-on DDD boobs dressed in what would generously be called a G-string?”
Because of what I call the “Jedi Defense.”
The Jedi Defense is based on the defense of Nick Gilliard’s fight choreography in the Star Wars Prequels, as a means to excuse swordsmanship that would only get the swordsman killed in anything other than a tightly scripted and carefully rehearsed action scene. This is best exemplified by the fighting style of Darth Maul in Episode I.
Not only does Darth Maul use a weapon that would be more dangerous to its own wielder than to its opponents, (and loses any possible advantage of having a staff-type weapon) but his fight against Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is a laundry list of bad habits that would only get him killed in a real fight; Maul constantly turns his back to one or both of his opponents and allows them to bracket him. His movements are big, relying on acrobatic spins, flips, and twirls that look flashy, but are simply wasted motion that accomplish nothing.
This is a chronic problem with lightsaber duels throughout the Prequel Trilogy (see also, Obi-Wan and Anakin swinging their lightsabers around one another for a good several seconds yet never once making blade contact). And it’s defended by fans as “Well, Darth Maul is a Sith and has the Force and that lets him do these things.” However it ignores the logical fallacy of that argument: Darth Maul’s opponents also have the Force. So what if they don’t do those things?
Let’s put on our thinking caps and ask, what sounds to you like a more effective and efficient use of the Force in a swordfight? Allowing you to use incredibly impractical and pointless showmanship in a life-or-death fight, or using it to make sound, fundamental swordsmanship even more sound?
The reality is, a Force-wielding swordsman in a kill-or-be-killed duel would no more spin, twirl, flip, and pirouette than a swordsman who has a Midchlorian count of 0. A swordsman already wants to make his movements as fast, small, direct, and precise as possible. You don’t see a lot of big, sweeping cuts in a real fight; the cuts are only as long as they absolutely need to be. Small movements are fast, and you want to be fast to make sure your sword is in between you and your opponent’s. You don’t want to waste motion, and you don’t want to slow your attacks and counters down with time-consuming and elaborate movements. You certainly don’t want to take your eyes off your opponent. So a Force-wielder would just make this even more so: Faster, smaller, tighter and even more precise. Honestly, the most realistic duel in the franchise is the Vader/Obi-Wan duel from the original movie. There is a lot of small movements working off the bind, winding for the line, and using footwork to control lines and angles
Force or not, if Darth Maul tried to fight another Force-wielder in a real fight the way he fights in Episode I, but that Force-wielder fights the way one actually would, he would die very quickly because his Force-enhanced spins and twirls would be slower than a more direct, efficient technique.
The same principle applies to sword design.
Magic or not, there’s not really much point using magic to make a horrible sword design work as effectively as a non-magical but well-designed sword, when you could take a good sword design and use magic to make that sword even better than your “fancy” sword because it’s already built on a solid working foundation.
A recent example I came across was a sword that appears in Baldur’s Gate 3 which, instead of a fuller, has a hole right through the middle of the blade, running about half the blade length. This is very, very bad for a sword, as there’s no “core” to the blade to hold the thing together. The argument, of course, was “But it’s magic!”
But why? Why even bother making a magical sword that will be as functional as a proper sword despite such a glaring design flaw, when you could make the sword even better simply by starting with a solid and proper core.
Remember, whatever your setting, the people in that setting have to live and work there. They’re going to want things to work as best and most effectively as possible, and that’s the key to how magic would be applied when making a sword: Not to make a horribly impractical sword workable, but to make a sword that’s already properly designed better. It’s using magic during the forging process to make the steel harder but without the associated brittleness. Or a magically-honed edge that’s sharper than what a conventional grinding stone could accomplish (bonus if it, too, is magically hardened; remember, a very thin, sharp edge doesn’t stay that way through use). Or an enchantment that protects the blade from rust. Or unobtanium that has the same advantageous properties of steel but more so.
This sort of thinking isn’t mutually-exclusive or incompatible with high-magic settings. Think like a craftsman: Using magic to make an impractical sword practical would be a waste of the maker’s time, when an already-practical sword design enhanced with magic will be significantly better in the long run.
It truly pays to understand how swords are constructed and why they are made the way they are. While there’s certainly some variation depending on where and when a sword is made, the concepts are all fundamentally the same.