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Anatomy of a Sword: European Sword Terminology

Introduction

The sword has been considered a noble weapon throughout history, a symbol as much as a tool. This article serves as an introduction to the terminology for the various parts and types of swords, with a focus on European styles.

The Blade

The blade is the principal component of a sword, the part that performs a sword’s primary function. A sword in its most minimal state is just a blade, and every other aspect of sword design is meant to amplify the blade’s effectiveness.

Tang

The tang is invisible on a completed sword. It is the length of metal that extends down into the hilt. There are several kinds of tangs:

Full Tang
A tang that extends down the entire length of the hilt and connects to the pommel
Rat-Tail Tang
A narrow rod much thinner than the rest of the blade
Welded Tang
A separate pice of metal welded to the base of the blade

Forte

The forte is the length of the blade from just above the tang to the blade’s midpoint. It is the part of the blade that can most easily resist force, so it is often used for defensive actions. The forte may also be called the strong.

The very base of the forte is called the ricasso. This part of the blade is usually un-sharpened, and is sometimes wider or narrower than the rest of the blade. A wide ricasso is called a schilt.

Although there are exceptions, as a general rule, a sword’s point of balance (PoB) is found in the forte. The closer the PoB is to the hilt, the more nimble the sword, but the weaker it is in the cut.

Foible

The foible is the length of the blade from its midpoint to the tip. This part of the blade is poor at resisting force, but it moves the fastest and is the closest to the opponent, so it is well suited for making attacks. The foible may also be called the weak or the quick.

The very tip of the foible is called the point, and is used primarily for thrusts.

The blade’s center of percussion (CoP) usually lies along the foible, about one-quarter to one-third of the way from the point. This is the part of the blade that doesn’t vibrate when the sword is struck, and therefore can deliver the most powerful cuts.

Edge

The edges of the blade are the parts responsible for performing cuts and slices. Edges are distinguished as follows:

True Edge
When holding your sword naturally in front of you, this edge aligns with your knuckles and faces your opponent; also called the long edge or straight edge
False Edge
When holding your sword naturally in front of you, this edge faces you; also called the short edge or crooked edge

A blade may be categorized as single- or double-edged. The false edge of a single-edged blade is sometimes called the spine, and is un-sharpened, or only sharpened near the point.

Flat

The flat of the blade is the surface connecting the edges. It can be used for defense to preserve the sharpness of the edges, or for non-lethal attacks.

Some blades have a fuller, a groove that runs the length of the flat. Fullers reduce the weight of the blade and save on material without compromising strength. Fullers are often called “blood grooves”, but this is incorrect. In fact, fullers are entirely about improving handling and reducing cost, and have nothing to do with blood.

Blade Profiles

As three-dimensional objects, blades have three distinguishing profiles:

Profile Taper
The outline of the blade when viewed from the flat; the typical silhouette people think of when they picture a sword
Distal Taper
The outline of the blade when viewed from the edge
Cross Section
The outline of the blade when viewed from the point

Profile and distal tapers adjust the weight and balance of the sword, and also affect their use. In general, blades with pronounced tapers are balanced closer to the hilt and are better-suited for thrusting, while subtle tapers push the PoB farther out and lend themselves to cutting.

Cross sections deal primarily with the bevel of the edges. Some common cross sections are listed below:

Diamond
Hollow-Ground
Hexagonal
Thickened Diamond
Lenticular

The Hilt

The hilt can be generally defined as anything attached to the blade, and specifically the part of the sword that accommodates the wielder. Hilts typically consist of a grip, guard, and pommel.

Grip

The grip encases the tang, and is the part you hold. Although grips are rounded for comfort, they are rarely perfectly cylindrical. Instead, they are elliptical, or even rectangular, which allows the hand to feel and maintain the alignment of the blade. Grips are often made of wood wrapped in leather, cord, or wire. They may be contoured along their length, featuring swells, tapers, or risers which improve comfort and traction. Some grips, especially on single-edged swords, are curved. A grip curved in the direction of the true edge helps to keep the point directed at the opponent and lends extra power to true-edge cuts, at the cost of making false-edge cuts more difficult.

Pommel

The pommel is a weight on the end of the hilt that serves several purposes:

  • It balances the weight of the blade
  • It prevents the hand from slipping off the end of the grip
  • It delivers blunt-force strikes in close quarters

Guard

The guard protects the hands and forearms. Guards can vary dramatically based on the time period and the sword’s intended use.

Crossguard

The simplest guard for European swords is the crossguard (or, more simply, the cross). A Crossguard is a metal bar that sits between the grip and the blade, parallel to the direction of the edges. The center of the crossguard is called the quillon block, and the extensions themselves are called quillons.

A crossguard prevents enemy blades from sliding down your own and cutting your hands. When held correctly, it can also block strikes to your forearms or other body parts.

Some quillons are curved, either along the length of the blade or perpendicular to it. These curves aid in catching and trapping enemy weapons.

Quillons may also serve an offensive role, delivering blunt-force strikes in close quarters.

Swords with a crossguard are often called cruciform due to their resemblance to a crucifix.

Complex Hilt

When extra forms of protection are added to the crossguard, a sword can be said to have a complex hilt. Complex hilts are far more common on one-handed swords, but two-handed complex hilts do exist.

The added protection provided by complex hilts allows a sword to be held in a forward position without risking injuries to the hands. This is one of the reasons why earlier combat styles feature guard postures with the hands held close to the body and out of range of enemy strikes. As complex hilts were developed, guard postures moved forward to maximize the user’s threat range.

Below are some features that may appear in a complex hilt:

Knucklebow
A bar that extends from the true-edge quillon and curves down toward the pommel to protect the fingers
Side Ring
A metal ring extending from the center of the crossguard, perpendicular to the flat of the blade
Finger Ring
A metal ring on top of the crossguard, parallel to the edge of the blade, for protecting the index finger when it wraps around the quillon; also called an arm of the hilt
Shell
A circular or elliptical shape above the crossguard; when enlarged to a hemispherical dome, it becomes a cup
Basket
An arrangement of rings, bars, and plates that encase the grip to protect the hands

Sword Classification

Throughout history, swords of any type were usually called, simply, swords. Most of the classifications below are modern inventions.

Arming Sword
A one-handed, straight, two-edged sword with a simple crossguard
Falchion
A one-handed, straight, single-edged sword with a simple crossguard
Longsword
A two-handed, straight, double-edged sword with a simple crossguard; may be used in one hand; variants with slightly shorter grips may be called hand-and-a-half or bastard swords
Greatsword
A massive, two-handed, straight, double-edged sword with either a simple or mildly complex hilt; cannot be used in one hand; may also be called a two-handed sword, zweihander, or montante
Sidesword
A transition sword between the arming sword and the rapier, possibly featuring a complex hilt
Rapier
A long, one-handed sword with a complex hilt; optimized for thrusting, although cuts are still possible
Smallsword
A short, narrow, one-handed sword with a complex hilt; optimized for thrusting
Broadsword
A one-handed, straight, double-edged sword with a basket hilt; named for the blade’s width compared to a smallsword
Saber
A one-handed, curved, single-edged sword with a complex hilt; optimized for cutting, although thrusts are still possible