The Realities of Edged Weapons Combat: Separating Myth from Reality
Edged weapons, be it spears, knives or swords have always been the primary weapon used in close quarters combat between individuals. Of course this is a given, in the times before the invention of explosive discharge weapons (firearms). This was a time where the primary projectile weapons were the bow and arrow, sling, and Javelin. On a larger scale the Romans used a large catapult called the Onager (wild ass) and the Ballista, a large mechanical crossbow capable of firing various projectiles and, there were the Greek versions of the same weapons, the Oxybeles and the Lithobolos. However, in the end, conflicts between armies always came down to the skills of the individual foot soldier. Foot soldiers from any of the classical historical periods were typically armed with a spear(s), helmet, some degree of armor, a sword, knife and shield.
It is easy to surmise that as the distance decreased between the opposing lines these weapons were deployed when they were most effective. Now in respect to spears, they were used for two purposes. Once purpose was throwing and the other purpose was for stabbing and maintaining a defensive posture much like the spines of the porcupine.
Greek warfare was generally designed around the idea that two opposing lines would eventually advance toward each other in formation until the distance was close enough to engage in close quarters battle. Hence the invention of the Phalanx, which was made possible by the introduction of the large Hoplon Shield, allowing the Greeks to create a formation where they would close ranks, overlapping their shields and fight by thrusting their spears over the tops of this wall of armor.
This Phalanx formation has led to the idea that the Greek Spear which ranged in size from 10 to 15 feet was only used for thrusting. This may have indeed been true for most of the uses in the front lines of the phalanx, but the Greeks, and I include the Spartans, generally under this term, also employed Javelin throwers who would hurl their Javelins (Shorter versions of the typical Spear) from behind the front lines along with archers and slingers who would add to the pressure of the continually advancing front. Once the lines of either side had been broken and the spears became unwieldy in extreme close quarters, swords were drawn and used to stab and slash from behind the shields. There were two main types of Greek swords used in the classical period, the Hopolite sword a slash and thrust weapon and the Kopis (Greek) or Falcata (Latin) a sword whose design is more suited for chopping or slashing, much like the Nepalese Kukri (Gurkha Knife). The Spartans generally used a shortened version of the Hopolite Sword which as a result became primarily a thrusting weapon. It must be understood that almost all individual combat reflected the overall aim of Greek tactics which was to fight from behind the shield. It was considered more honorable to lose all of your weapons in battle than to lose your shield. Spartan Warriors were instructed to either return with your shield or upon your shield.
It would seem that the use of the sword in Greek Warfare was considered secondary to the use of the spear and only employed if ranks were broken or the spear was broken or lost. The Greek sword appears to have been used as both a thrusting and a hacking type weapon judging from the design which creates a weight forward, balance toward the tip feature, in both the Hopolite Sword and the Kopis which creates the momentum needed for an efficient hacking weapon. The Spartan Sword is the notable exception since it is too short (and light) to be used for hacking. It was primarily a thrusting weapon.
With the addition of several centuries of evolution we can look at the weapons and tactics of the Roman Army. Method of battle had not generally changed (two armies closing to close quarters) but some of the individual characteristics had changed. One thing must be understood about the Romans, They were the ultimate pragmatists. In terms of military technology, strategies or tactics, if they saw something they liked or improved their ability, they took it. They showed no cultural bias and it did not matter if it was a sword style from Spain or a helmet style from Gaul. The Roman army generally equipped the legionnaires with the following weaponry, the Pilum (Roman Spear), the Gladius (Roman Sword) and a Pugio (Roman Knife).
The order of battle in a Roman formation clearly depended on who was the attacker, the Romans, the enemy, or both. The technology of the Roman Spear gives us insight into the practicality of the Roman War Machine. The Pilum was a spear that was clearly designed for dual use, both as the Greeks had used their spear (to form a bristling stabbing offense/defense from behind a wall of shields) and as a throwing weapon. Physical evidence of Roman battles and written accounts tell us of how the Romans would advance in the Phalanx like formation of the Greeks and that they would lock shields and plant their Pilum into the ground if they were faced with a head long assault or Calvary charge. The long metal shaft of the Pilum served two purposes and it was a perfect example of Roman Practicality. Because the Pilums head was attached to a long, 2-3 foot metal shaft, it clearly shows that the spear was used as a thrusting weapon from behind the shield. The length of the metal shaft prevented the Spear (Pilum) from being hacked away as it was thrust forward over the top of the shield. At the same time the pilum had a small four sided triangular tip which allowed for deep penetration when thrown and therefore could not be easily extracted, much like an arrowhead. In addition, the long metal shaft behind the spear head was soft, not hardened steel. This meant that when the pilum struck something, say a shield, then the momentum or weight carried behind the spear head would cause the shaft to bend. Weights were even added to the Pilum shaft to further increase this bending property. This meant that a pilum would strike a shield, penetrate and bend, thereby rendering the shield useless and the pilum useless as a weapon that could have been thrown back at the Roman lines.
Roman swords were used after the Pilum had served its purpose and the tide of battle had switched to individual extreme close quarter tactics – man-to-man. The Roman sword (Gladius) was found in several variations throughout Roman history and in various regions of the Empire. Although there were attempts to standardize the Roman sword it appears that all variations, Mainz type, Fulham type, Pompeian type were at times all used concurrently throughout the empire. Like the earlier Greek Sword designs, the Roman Gladius appears to have also served the dual purpose as both a thrust and cut weapon. The Roman Pugio (personal Dagger) design was clearly a thrusting or stabbing weapon. Its long narrow point flairing into a waisted style shape was clearly designed for that purpose. Some of the Roman Swords had this same waisted shape, most prominent in the Mainz type Gladius named from the Latin word for the Gladiolus leaf which the sword resembles. The Pompeian type sword however features parallel edges finishing in an abrupt symmetrically clipped point that would have been much more difficult to thrust through armor than the Mainz type Sword. The Pompeian type sword did become the more or less standard Roman Sword after the mid first century A.D. and was used by a majority of the Empire’s soldiers for several hundred years.
It appears that the Romans just like the Greeks used both the cut and the thrust as a means of employing their edged weapons in battle. It is interesting to note that the enemies of Rome developed many ingenious methods of defeating Roman Armor and tactics. One of the most notable is the fearsome Dacian Falx a long two handled sword with a long gracefully curved blade with the cutting edge on the inside of the curve. This weapon was used to come down and over the top of the Roman shield, striking the Roman Soldier in the head. In addition there are a large number of German swords having an almost rounded end with little or no point. These would clearly seem to point to their use as a slashing weapon rather than a thrusting weapon.
Moving forward several hundred years to Medieval Europe brings us to another period where the sword and its use, reached what is probably its zenith as the primary weapon of combat between warring armies. The primary mode of battle between 700 AD and 1000 AD was still fought by soldiers on foot. Remaining examples of medieval swords from this time once again show characteristics of both a thrusting and a slashing weapon. Some swords are clearly thrusting weapons and some with more rounded tips are clearly intended to be used primarily as a slashing, chopping weapon. The use of the sword as a main battle weapon began to be supplanted as the technologies and tactics of warfare began to change on an ever quickening pace. Upon the adaptation of firearms as a fighting weapon employed en masse, the sword was relegated to more of a symbolic sidearm than a primary weapon. This is not to say that as a weapon, the sword was no longer effective or used in battle. To the contrary, the sword has been used many times, in countless battles, as a weapon of great effectiveness when other means had been exhausted.
If we take a side step to look at the wonderful and effective swords and scimitars of the Muslim cultures you will see that many of their swords and daggers have a pronounced curve in the blade design. The curving blade produces a tremendous improvement in the slashing efficiency of the sword. In the arc produced by the swing of the arm during a strike, the cutting edge is continually being introduced into the striking area as the sword continues through the swing. Although this type of sword had the full capability of a stabbing weapon, it was clearly favored as a slashing weapon.
Looking further East to Japan we have additional evidence of an edged weapon that was fully capable of being used as both a thrusting and a stabbing weapon. There is an innumerable wealth of evidence of specific slashing and cleaving techniques to both the upper and lower body, as well as countless stabbing techniques.
Having described the physical characteristics of these various weapons, we can be reasonably sure of the way in which they were intended to be used. However, knowing how they were intended to be used is not the same as knowing how they were actually used. Medieval and classical warriors were not scribes and poets. Most of what we know about the early forms of combat is at best an educated guess and we really do not know for sure how men fought with swords and knives in man-to-man life and death combat. Much of what is surmised today is the result of trying to extrapolate actual warfare combat from the highly ritualized and stylized dueling and fencing of the late renaissance. There is a tremendous wealth of documentation and manuals from that time that do a great deal to explain and preserve this fighting style and all of its variations. As effective and deadly as this fencing style of edged weapons combat was, and is, it does not reflect the brutal combat style of warriors locked in battle, man against man where one false move would be the last mistake you would ever make upon this earth.
HOWEVER, there is evidence that exists, and that now allows us without question, to understand the tactics and the brutal realities of this devastating yet highly sophisticated ancient method of combat. We now have the forensic evidence of soldiers actually killed in battles from these aforementioned historical periods.
Although scarce, there are revelations from several Roman battle fields as well as battle sites for several classical period battles in greater Europe and Scandinavian sites.
The evidence from the largest documented site is from a series of battles between Danish Soldiers and the Swedish peasants in 1361 called the Battle of Visby on Gotland off the coast of Sweden. Over 1200 bodies were buried in pits after the battle. Forensic excavations were made and a detailed record of the injuries received by the combatants was recorded. A majority of the remains (over a thousand) showed major limb wounds. At least half of the corpses reveal that they died as a result of receiving a killing blow to the head. Overall, 70 percent of all 1200 of the combatants had evidence of wounds to the lower leg and 12 percent showed wounds to the thighs. However, the real telling evidence shows that 70 percent of those who died of head wounds had received serious and disabling blows to one or both legs. Now looking at just those who were killed by blows to the head it was discovered that 75 percent of blows to the left leg were to the outside of the left shin. 70 percent of the wounds to the right leg were blows to the inside of the right shin bone. This evidence indicates a right handed strike from the side – a slash – against a man standing with his left leg forward. Now, although these wounds were serious enough in many cases to cause death – some legs were cut completely through, the actual killing blow was delivered to the head. Now since in the heat of battle there would be no need to strike a fallen soldier in the legs after his head was cleaved or parts of his cranium sliced off, it is logical to assume that the leg wounds were received first and then upon going down from the wound, the killing blow was then delivered. It appears that it was the tactic to disable the opponent first which then allowed you to deliver a killing strike. This makes perfect sense since a disabling blow to the legs would drop an opponent immediately rendering him more or less defenseless due to the nature of such a tremendous trauma. It is completely evident that it was more important to incapacitate the opponent first rather than taking the added risk involved in trying to go straight for a killing blow such as a stab or blow to the head. Evidence of this is further supported by some historical writing and from that, we know that a favorite target of the Viking warrior was the knee or the shin. There are also numerous skeletal remains from various battle sites in Europe where smaller numbers and sometimes individual remains support these conclusions.
(Please note that I give credit for this section on the Battle of Visby to my friend John Clements as the source for my information on this battle site. John is the author of several outstanding historical reference books on the realities of historically accurate armed combat. You may find more on this at: http://www.thearma.org/)
Now having looked at the hard facts of forensic evidence can we re-examine some of the conclusions I had mentioned earlier regarding the designs and functions of some of the weapons discussed? For example, it would seem to me that the dreaded Dacian Falx with its long handle and curved blade could just as easily reach under a Roman shield to hook the legs of the unfortunate legionnaire thereby accomplishing the same goal – disable then kill.
The principles and tactics of shield and sword warfare remained almost unchanged for almost 2000 years. There are only so many ways to attack or defend from behind a shield with a sword, and these ancient warriors, knew them all. Their lives depended upon it.
It is now clearly evident that a lot of killing, if not the majority, was done with slashing and chopping blows rather than stabbing. This is not to say that a slashing wound is more deadly than a stabbing wound, no one can argue that. Once again forensic evidence clearly shows that a stabbing wound is much more likely to cause death than a slashing attack. However, evidence shows that getting any killing blow in against an armed or a fully defensive opponent is difficult to accomplish as a singular event. Therefore it has been shown historically that the killing blow needed a precursor in order to be delivered effectively, and with the least risk to the attacker. It would seem evident that the main battle tactic was to disable or incapacitate the opponent first, then kill him.
It is very easy to say for instance, that penetrating stab wounds are most likely to cause death (which is true) however, it is not correct to further the statement by saying; therefore that is the type of strike and the tactic that was used exclusively in edged weapon combat. It is never the case where you can safely say that, “This is the way it was”, or, “it always happened like this”. We all know absolutes are never absolute. The closest thing to an absolute that I can draw from my study of historical individual combat with edged weapons is that every time one man lived, another man had to die.
The Emerson Combat System is built largely upon these same principles of man-to-man combat and they have been true for thousands of years. The times may have changed but we have not and neither have the principles. The weapons of hand-to-hand, extreme close quarters combat, are still roughly the same. A club, a stick, a knife are the same now as they were then. A fight is a fight and your goal is to live to fight another day. This is the only absolute that I teach my students, and it’s the only one that matters.