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Historical Steel: Over the Fence

Fencing noble students, around 1590Just about everyone has seen one form of sword fighting more than any other: fencing. From masked Olympians whose win or loss is recorded by an electronic sensor to swashbuckling movie actors who clang prop swords together but only land hits when the plot demand it, both are a far cry from the battlefield weapons of the last 3,500 years.

Since most roleplaying games feature swords from throughout history, how exactly did mainstream conceptions get to where they are? Take a deep breath, say to yourself “there’s no such thing as a perfect sword design,” and let us go back in time a bit.

From Trial by Combat to Olympic Medals

The notion of a gentleman’s duel and of swords designed for civilian self-defense are each distinctly notable influences. Judicial duels — essentially government-sanctioned trial-by-combat or the “wager of battle” in English sources — had been a prominent and surprisingly regulated part of Germanic and English common law throughout the Middle Ages, but it gradually petered out by the 1500s. Gentlemen’s duels, while socially accepted, were usually illegal in Europe; however, authorities enforced such legislation with questionable vigor. Over a 10-year stretch of the reign of Henry IV at the start of the 17th century, at least 6,000 nobles were killed in duels, so dueling was officially banned in France in 1626.

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Real Steel: The Kiridashi Assassin Bug

Kiridashi assasin bug - right side

The kiridashi is an interesting study. Its original function, probably going back several centuries, was to mark wood. Japanese carpenters still use them today instead of marking pencils. In the form used for their original purpose, the kiridashi is long, slender, and simple. Although there is a sharp edge, the emphasis is on the point, because the knife is held and used like a pencil.

For a knife geek, the original form is interesting enough to warrant some attention, but the kiridashi has undergone enough modern modification and development to be interesting to almost anyone who uses knives.

What It Was

A traditional kiridashi has two fairly unique features that make it very good at its intended purpose. The edge is oriented more towards the front than most knives, and it has what is called a chisel grind. This simply means that there is a bevel on only one side of the blade. As we have discussed before, everything in bladesmithing is a trade-off; to get a particular advantage, the smith usually has to accept a weakness. Chisel grinds gain the advantage of being extremely sharp because the edge can be made extraordinarily thin. This sharpness can be enhanced further by using a hollow grind, which makes the edge even thinner. As an example, straight razors typically have a hollow chisel grind. For the kiridashi, the payback for that incredible sharpness is doubled; the thin blade is fragile, which is expected, but the knife is also “handed,” meaning that it is intended to be used by either a right or left handed person depending on which side the bevel is located.

Popular knife culture has seized on this knife, and it has become something more…

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Historical Steel: Straight to the Point

Francois Guizot (1787-1874), The AccoladeWhile the column Real Steel offers insights into the forging of weapons, Alex Putnams’s Historical Steel column details their origins and use throughout history.


As mentioned in my previous article, the sword carries a lot of cultural oomph behind it. Bows and spears were originally used for hunting. Swords, however, as a class of weapon were not similarly modified into weapons of war—they were weapons of war from the beginning. They are symbolic of war, power, legitimacy, prestige, and honor for very good reasons, and their mystique transfers well to the realm of roleplaying games.

Allow me to break that mystique and expand on the pathological pun in the title by getting to the point: there’s no such thing as a “perfect” sword design. Even more than axes or polearms, swords were highly specialized weapons created by artisans using the most advanced metallurgy of their times… for specific fighting styles against different targets. The gladius was designed as a stabbing weapon for use with a shield in ranks, although it could be used for slashing or hacking with difficulty. A katana can be used for thrusts although it works best at cutting. The Abyssinian shotel is neither intended for thrusts nor slashing but, instead, for hooking around an enemy’s shield. An estoc is an anti-armor weapon to thrust through mail or to find gaps in heavy plate armor, while the scimitar and rapier were made for fighting lightly armored or unarmored opponents…

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Real Steel: The Estoc

Estoc, typical one handed configurationThroughout history, as armor evolved so did the weapons intended to defeat it. Plate armor was an incredible force on the battlefield, although it was expensive and relatively rare. It was to the medieval battlefield what the tank was to the WWI front lines: when first introduced it was nearly impossible to stop.

Contrary to popular belief, a knight with custom plate armor could move around fairly freely. The armorer tailored the armor to the knight, and a well-made suit of steel plate wasn’t nearly as heavy as most people think, only about 40–50 lb.

So how does one defeat plate armor? Blunt force is the simplest answer, so a big hammer or flanged mace will do the job. The problem is it will take a few accurate, hard hits—or many more random hits—to affect the man in the plate, who is actively and effectively trying to kill the hammer wielder. If that hammer wielder is wearing leather at best, underfed and relatively weak, his odds of success are very slim indeed.

Pause for an Educational Tangent

In the battle of Agincourt, the English longbowmen (peasants) entered melee with the French men-at-arms and knights (nobles) who had become mired in mud. The bowmen massacred the swamped knights using their lead hammers, which were both a backup weapon and a tool for driving stakes…

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Real Steel: The Tetsubo

TetsuboThe tetsubo is a fairly obscure but interesting weapon that almost no one had heard of until very recently. Its place in history is a bit sketchy, and it’s difficult to find reliable information on the tetsubo, also called the kanabo, but its place in Japanese mythology is solid. While I know a bit of Japanese terminology as it relates to bladesmithing, I have no real grasp on the language, so unfortunately I’ve had to rely on others and the internet to help get to the truth on this weapon.

Fortunately in this case, the language issue is simple and easily found. “Kana” (also spelled “kane”) means metal, and “tetsu” means iron; “bo” means staff or stick. So the tetsubo is an iron staff and the kanabo is a metal staff. Almost all metal staffs were made from iron, so they are really the same thing.

Why then are we seeing brass-studded wooden versions of weapons that were historically made from iron? I’m not certain, but I’ll take an educated guess: there are more wood workers around than bladesmiths and blacksmiths. It’s a simple adaptation that allows cheap and easy production for the uninformed masses. I’m a fan of doing things right. Cheap and easy, not so much, and I’d prefer to inform the masses…

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