Mad About Science: Swords

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist
Sponsored by the Sandpoint Library

I don’t know about you, but I was captivated by swords from a young age. They are unique symbols of power, righteousness, justice, strength and courage. At the same time, they are tools of tyranny and oppression, and on rare occasion, something people swallow at fairs. While simply a weapon, they carry with them imagery that other weapons just don’t possess. Contrast the imagery between swords and guns.

A scimitar. Courtesy photo.

A scimitar. Courtesy photo.

Imagining a sword, you likely first envision a gallant knight, or perhaps an Arthurian figure holding his blade aloft as he is bathed in divine light. Seeing a guy holding a gun, your human instinct is probably that of cautionary interest. Less interest and more fear if the gun is pointed at you.

Chances are, you can outrun a guy wielding a German zweihander, but you definitely can’t outrun the bullet from an AK-47 pointed at you.

Now I’m not taking a dig at gun owners. There’s a reason that most of us own a gun instead of a sword for hunting or home defense. Swords are obsolete for either, and they serve no purpose in warfare anymore, so why do they still captivate our imaginations?

Obi-Wan Kenobi probably said it best:

“Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.”

We as a species lived alongside swords and other bladed weapons for a lot longer than we’ve lived around guns. We see them now as a tool of mystique, something that, while obsolete, requires a unique level of skill and precision to properly use. They have that whole mythological appeal to them.

How often do you hear about a guy gunning down a dragon? No, he took that beast down with a SWORD!

The mythology affixed to swords transcends the West. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the katana, the Japanese samurai sword, was revered as a status symbol. It wasn’t just a sharp stick you could swing at your problems to make them go away. If you weren’t extremely skilled, someone that spent a lot more time with their weapon could cut you down in a singing blue flash. Skill with a blade in Japan, even today, is revered because it shows tenacity, duty, determination and strength.

Granted, since World War II, the handling of these blades in Japan is highly monitored through licensing and bureaucracy. The weapons are treated similarly to how cars are here, with the added bonus that they are considered cultural artifacts. Great care is taken in crafting these, as it’s a part of Japanese history, not just a cool thing you can buy at a flea market to carve up a tree stump.

Did you know most prolific westerns were inspired by Japanese samurai cinema during the 1950s?

“The Magnificent Seven” was an American adaptation of one of director Akira Kurosawa’s greatest samurai movies: “Seven Samurai.” If you haven’t seen either, we carry both at the library!

Brenden, this isn’t very scientific! You’re giving me a cinema lesson.

I know, I know, let’s get down to what Mad About Science does best: Describing things in a random order!

A sword is pretty basic at first glance: Essentially it’s just a sharp metal stick that you hit things with.

That’s where the concept started sometime around 1600 B.C. Warriors used slings, shields, spears and clubs in combat before the invention of the sword, so after a while someone must have figured out:”Hey, when we’re shield-to-shield, so close to the enemy that I can smell the goat he ate for lunch, my spear is too unwieldy to finish him with. If only the spear were shorter and easy to draw.”.

The first swords were basically just the tip of a spear and a stubby handle, something you could stab a guy with when he got too close.

The oldest sword you can probably think of, if you are not entertained, is the Roman gladius. Sharp, pointy, with a handle and a pommel.

What’s a pommel?

It’s the bulky bit of metal that rests below the handle, or hilt, of the sword. It’s used to counterbalance the weapon and make it easier to control while swinging, while also adding a little oomph to each whack.

Any time anyone mentions a sword, you probably envision Excalibur, the blade of King Arthur, with its magnificent cross-shape being pulled from the stone. (Actually, Caliburn was pulled from the stone, and Excalibur was gifted to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake when he lost Caliburn.)

That bar of metal at the top of the hilt is called a crossguard or quillon, and it was designed to protect a user’s hands from an enemy’s strike during a parry (collision of swords, which, worth noting, is a darn good way to ruin a sword). The legend of King Arthur was believed to have taken place during the 5th century, while crossguards wouldn’t historically appear on European swords until almost 500 years later, during the Crusades. That’s longer than America’s been around by double.

Ever heard the story about why swords have a ridge at the center? Supposedly, this was to break surface tension when cutting or stabbing, allowing a warrior to pull his blade back out of his foe. After some digging, I found this wasn’t really the case. This ridge is called a Fuller, and it’s designed to strengthen the blade in the middle during cutting and keep it from breaking while twisting. It’s named after the tool used when smithing the weapon to create that ridge.

Before I use up all of the Reader’s ink, I thought I’d point out some cool swords throughout history:

The zweihander: a Germanic sword that literally means “Two-hander”. There was a grip above the crossguard so that warriors could use it in close-quarters, swinging it like a kayak paddle.

The kukri: Curved like a boomerang, it was one of the rare swords that, like the machete, was used as a tool as well as a military weapon. From Nepal.

The jian: A Chinese straight sword that is very nimble, light, and has been used for at least 2,500 years with relatively little modification. Its primary use was to cripple opponents or disarm them without killing them. Watch some of the modern practitioners use this online. Seriously, your mind will be blown. (Don’t worry, parents, it’s bloodless sparring.)

The scimitar: An Arabic sword with an unusual curve, designed exclusively for slashing. Most think of those wide swords from Disney’s “Aladdin,” but actual Scimitars were slim to keep the weight down and allow for faster cutting. The wide swords everyone thinks of are more akin to the falchion, which has been mistakenly attributed to Caribbean pirates of the 1700s, who likely used the saber or the cutlass.

Take it from this nerd: If you’ve learned anything today, it’s that swords don’t make for effective cutlery.

Carving a ham with a greatsword might make you go viral, but is that really what you want to be remembered for?

Uhh… yeah!

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