Swords Throughout History (A History & Timeline of Swords) - Working the Flame (2024)

The sword is one of the most enduring weapons in world history. Cultures across Asia, Europe and Africa adopted this weapon for self-defense and nation building.

Referred to by many as the “Queen of Weapons,” the sword functioned as a primary weapon for much of history and later became a symbol of political power and influence.

Swords are classified by the shape and edge of their blades. The two main sword shapes are straight and curved. These shapes feature either a single-edged or double-edged blade.

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Swords differ widely across cultures and throughout the centuries and tracing their history is a complex endeavor. This article aims to examine swords from their ancient origins to the present day.

While numerous sword types existed in different countries and time periods, emphasis is placed on sword types of particular historical or cultural significance.

It can also be tricky to tell the history of swords because of overlaps in design and prolonged use within certain countries’ histories. Bearing this in mind, we have organized swords based on their geographic location and the time period in which their popularity reached its peak.

The following is a concise discussion of swords through the ages, from ancient times to the present day.

The Ancient Origins of Swords

The sword is one of the oldest weapons in world history. Developed over 5,000 years ago, the sword went through many iterations before becoming one of the top weapons used in battle.

Before the Sword

While the sword eventually became an essential weapon in many countries, many civilizations thrived without it.

Prior to both rudimentary and advanced sword making, early cultures utilized weapons like spears, clubs, and knives. Certain civilizations never adopted the bronze or iron sword as a primary weapon.

The indigenous peoples on the North American and Australian continents did not develop swords, instead relying on other methods for hunting, war, and self-defense.

The sword did not reach these people groups until the arrival of Europeans in the 1400s and onwards.

South and Central American civilizations did not develop metal swords, but instead crafted a wooden sword called macana.

Early Swords of Egypt & China

The Egyptians are credited with forging some of the first swords. These innovators fashioned their blades from bronze and transitioned to iron in later centuries.

The khopesh was one of the most popular sword types used by Egyptian pharaohs and their militaries. This sword was developed from the battle axe and featured a heavily curved, single-edged blade.

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Sword development also occurred early in China. One of the oldest swords discovered in China is the Sword of Goujian. It dates to the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BC) and is an astonishingly well-preserved example of early Chinese swordsmithing.

The first sword makers experimented with various materials and shapes before settling on two main styles: the dao and the jian.

Dao swords featured a single-edged, curved blade. The jian was a straight, double-edged weapon. While the first swords in China date back to the Spring and Autumn period, sword making became more common in the Warring States period of 501-350 BC.

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During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), sword makers in China experimented with new and improved forging techniques. Sword styles became longer and stronger. The inclusion of chromium dioxide prevented swords from developing rust.

By the time of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) Chinese sword making was perfected. Swordsmiths began grading swords by their quality and charging clients according to sword grades.

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Bronze Swords of Europe, Central Asia, and Africa

The development of bronze metallurgy also reached Spain, Italy, Greece, Britain, and Scandinavia. New forging technologies would be vital in the expansion of the Greek Empire and in conflicts between other European groups.

Swords of the Bronze Age are characterized by their wide and short shape. Because bronze creates weaker swords than iron, this style proved most effective. The shorter shape of Bronze Age swords derived from spearheads and daggers and was therefore a familiar shape for metalworkers to create.

Bronze Age swords of Europe included the Xiphos, which measured 22-23 inches long. These swords were ideal for cutting and thrusting maneuvers.

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Most European swords of the Bronze Age featured double-edged blades. Single-edged and curved swords mostly developed in Asia and Africa and would not reach Europe until the Middle Ages.

Single-edged blades evolved from long knives used by early tribal hunters. As these groups formed into nations, their weapons grew longer until becoming swords.

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Sword makers of Japan, Afghanistan, Persia, Egypt, Malaysia, India, China and other areas created single-edged and curved swords. The sharp edge of these weapons could be placed on the convex or concave side of the curved blade.

Iron Sword Development

The next leap forward in the history of swords and sword making occurred when metalworkers transitioned from using bronze to iron.

Iron swords could withstand far more than their bronze counterparts, and their adoption by civilizations worldwide occurred rather quickly.

Late Celtic Period Swords & the Sword in Transition

One of the most apparent examples of the sword in transition occurred during the Late Celtic Period in Europe. Bronze swords were replaced by wide and slightly longer iron blades that featured iron or bronze handles.

Early Iron Age sword makers still crafted swords a bit shorter than those of the Middle Ages. The wide and sturdy blades of Late Celtic Period swords made them ideal for cutting versus thrusting.

Viking Swords

The most famous early iron swords are Viking swords. While their name suggests that the Vikings developed these blades, the style of sword associated with the Vikings actually originated in areas of Frankish Europe.

The Franks traded their knowledge of sword making with the Vikings, who added their own style to the blades. Viking swords were prized possessions and were therefore highly ornamented.

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Viking sword makers decorated their hilts with patterns, stones, and precious metals like silver and gold. Bone and antler were other natural materials commonly used as ornamentation.

Because Viking swords proved so valuable to warriors, swords were commonly passed down through the generations or given as gifts to relatives and neighbors.

Medieval Swords: The Golden Age of Sword Making

While sword making existed for centuries prior to the Middle Ages, the most recognizable swords in world history originate in this time period.

With more comprehensive knowledge of iron forging, sword makers in Europe, the Middle East, and Eastern Asia created swords characteristic of their unique cultures.

The Middle Ages were a time of greater sword diversity, with new styles developing as armor and warfare evolved.

Swords of Medieval Europe

By the 9th century, the stocky blades of the Vikings were replaced by narrower blades and longer hilts. This shape became the most common sword style during the 11th to 14th centuries and was called an arming sword.

Arming swords were standard in armies across Europe and worn by soldiers on foot and on horseback. The arming sword featured a straight double-edged blade with a tapered point.

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The evolution of plate armor in the 13th to 17th centuries created a need for larger and longer swords. Short and dull swords could not effectively pierce plate armor or stab the joins of the plates.

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The bigger swords of this time period became known as longswords. These weapons were truly massive with blades measuring 40-48 inches long. The two handed grip of a longsword could measure as much as 10 to 15 inches.

Another popular sword style on the British Isles was the claymore. The medieval claymore was a longsword used by Scottish clans during battles for independence.

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Swords of Medieval Asia

Japan is important to the world history of swords because it has produced some of the most high-quality weapons using advanced techniques.

While swords like the tsurugi, wakizashi, odachi, and nodachi developed in Japan, none are as famous or important to the history of the country as the katana.

Wielded by the samurai class of warriors during the Japanese Middle Ages, the katana featured a long and slightly curved blade. The katana would be used in battles between samurai clans from the medieval period to the 19th century.

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One of the most recognizable medieval weapons developed in central Asia in the 9th century. The scimitar was a curved blade with a single edge that proved deadly when used for cutting and thrusting. The light weight of the scimitar helped soldiers on horseback perform slashing maneuvers from the wrist or elbow.

The Middle Eastern scimitar developed into many new iterations as the blade style was exported to surrounding areas. Examples of scimitar variations include the Persian shamshir, Indian talwar, Turkish kilij, Moroccan nimcha, and Afghan pulwar.

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The scimitar would be introduced to Europeans through Ukraine and Russia.

Indian sword makers also developed and improved upon sword shapes during the medieval period. First developed in Central Asia around 1300, the talwar sword was exported to India and quickly adopted as one of the country’s top weapons.

The talwar was a type of scimitar or saber and featured a single, curved edge.

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Versatile and moderate in size, the talwar was perfect for both foot and mounted soldiers. The sword’s small hilt made for a secure grip.

Sword makers forged talwar blades from wootz steel, which provided extra strength due to its high carbon content.

The Early Modern Sword

The swords of the Middle Ages would continue to be used by many countries until the modern era. Some are still in use around the world today.

Europe in particular continued to develop new sword styles to meet the demands of ever-evolving military technology.

The Renaissance Rapier

The rapier of the European Renaissance featured an extremely narrow and pointed blade and a highly decorated hilt. Hilt shapes and styles differed but all provided hand protection from the thrusting maneuvers that now dominated close combat and fencing.

The rapier may have developed as early as the 14th century, but became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Italy, Spain, Germany, and England were centers of both rapier manufacturing and use.

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Modern Swords

By the 17th century, military professionals began seeing swords as secondary to firearms and other inventions. Sword development began to stagnate in Europe. Sword makers in other areas of the world, however, continued to experiment with new styles of blades and hilts.

Swords of Northern & Central Africa

Northern and Central African nations developed beautiful and function swords and smaller blades during the 18th and 19th centuries. These weapons were literal tools for self-protection and nation building, but also served as symbols of power for leaders.

Ikakalaka blades featured improvised designs and exquisite ornamentation. Tribal leaders carried these blades to remind others of their might.

The Bushang elite of Kuba also developed functional blades. This group prided themselves on their sword making and metalsmithing abilities and created the ikul. This short sword had a leaf-shaped blade that was unique to the region.

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19th century swords of the Congo, Ethiopia, and other areas also reflected religious influences on traditional culture. Blade shapes and styles began to symbolize Christianity and Islam as people groups across Northern and Central Africa adopted these faith systems.

19th Century Sabers

While military professionals in Europe and America considered the sword to be a secondary weapon or even a decorative part of their uniforms, the sword did continue to evolve.

The saber replaced the rapier of the Renaissance and the longsword of the Middle Ages as the main side arm of European soldiers. This style also came to America and was used during the Civil War and other conflicts.

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The saber is thought to have developed in the 10th century in Hungary. Its design may have been influenced by the falchion and scimitar.

By the 19th century, the saber gained immense popularity with heavy cavalry and was used during the Napoleonic Wars.

Swords Today

Today, swords are no longer used by Western militaries as a primary or secondary weapon. For cultures in other parts of the world, swords and daggers continue to be important symbols of military and political strength.

Bladesmithing continues to be a popular hobby and traditional career path. TV programs likeForged in Fire have introduced everyday people to the joy and hard work of creating hand crafted blades.

Anyone interested in metalworking can find tutorials online for beginning bladesmithing. In this way, swords continue to be produced and shared.

Reproduction sword and historical sword collecting is another popular hobby for history buffs and weapons enthusiasts.

Some of the top museums in the world also have vast collections of historical swords. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Royal Armory are just two examples of institutions with large arms and armor collections.

Finally, some swords continue to be used for ceremonial purposes. For example, the claymore described previously is worn by soldiers in ceremonial processions in Scotland today.

Swords Throughout History (A History & Timeline of Swords) - Working the Flame (2024)


How did swords change over time? ›

Late Middle Ages. From around 1300 to 1500, in concert with improved armour, innovative sword designs evolved more and more rapidly. The main transition was the lengthening of the grip, allowing two-handed use, and a longer blade.

How old is the oldest sword ever recovered? ›

They date back to the Early Bronze Age (c. 33rd to 31st centuries). In the 1980s, Marcella Frangipane's team at Rome University discovered a cache of nine swords and daggers dating all the way back to 3300 BCE. Frangipane declared the swords of Arslantepe the world's oldest and first swords ever discovered.

What does a sword symbolize in medieval times? ›

In the early middle ages, the sword was a status symbol in the hands of a warrior elite. As Sue Brunning has shown us in her excellent book The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe, swords at this time were potent symbols of power, and could have a direct connection with the warrior who wielded them.

What does a sword symbolize? ›

The sword symbolizes power, protection, authority, strength, and courage; metaphysically, it represents discrimination and the penetrating power of the intellect. The sword is phallic, with the sheath being yonic. It is a symbol of knighthood and chivalry.

How did they sharpen swords in ancient times? ›

The grindstone was a much larger instrument, capable of sharpening a blade much more quickly and effectively than a whetstone because of the speed at which one could use it. It was used more in the initial crafting of a blade, but the whetstone was used for regular upkeep.

When did swords stop being used? ›

The use of the sword as an effective military weapon has been abandoned since the First World War, but its decline had begun at a very much earlier period.

Who found the 900 year old sword? ›

Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring. On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.

Was a 3000 year old sword found in a grave? ›

In 2023, archaeologists in Germany unearthed a Bronze Age grave containing a 3,000-year-old sword that's so extraordinarily well-preserved that it "almost still shines," says Bavaria's State Office for Monument Protection in a statement, according to Google Translate.

What is the biblical symbol of sword? ›

The sword is also used to depict the judgment of God, both in the Old Testament (e.g., “He will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,” Jer. 25:31) and the New Testament (“Coming out of [Jesus'] mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations,” Rev. 19:15).

What sword did knights use? ›

Longsword: The longsword was the most iconic sword used by knights. It was a two-handed sword with a straight, double-edged blade that was both heavy and versatile. The longsword was used for both thrusting and cutting, making it a deadly weapon in the hands of a skilled knight.

What did medieval swords actually look like? ›

The blade was made from high-quality steel and was typically straight and double-edged. The hilt was designed to be comfortable to hold and included a cross guard, pommel, and grip. The pommel was often shaped like a round ball or flattened disc and provided balance to the sword.

What did Jesus say about a sword? ›

So, Jesus tells them to go buy a sword, and lo and behold, two of them (probably Peter and Simon the Zealot) had swords already. “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Jesus ends the discussion with a curious phrase: “It is enough.” Which raises the question: enough for what?

What does a flaming sword symbolize? ›

In Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism, the flaming sword represents specifically wisdom-piercing-ignosis, and is depicted in the *right* hand of any Buddha in a T'hangka painting, whereas the *left* side of the same Buddha shows the BEing, instead of DOing, e.g. being the meanings of a particular dharma, as symbolized by a ...

What does a snake around a sword mean? ›

A snake wrapped around a sword combines the symbolism of both the snake and the sword, which can represent life, fertility and wisdom together with strength, protection, courage and fearlessness. When combined, the meaning can be to protect life, wordly struggles or a courageous stance.

Why did swords fall out of use? ›

The final blow came with the invention of pistols. In the 18th Century, these new weapons eventually replaced swords as the preferred method of duelling – while you had to learn how to wield a sword, anyone could simply pull a trigger.

Why did swords become curved? ›

Nomadic horsem*n learned from experience that a curved edge is better for cutting strikes because the arc of the blade matches that of the sweep of the rider's arm as they slash the target while galloping.

How were swords made back then? ›

Early swords were made of copper, which bends easily. Bronze swords were stronger; by varying the amount of tin in the alloy, a smith could make various parts of the sword harder or tougher to suit the demands of combat service. The Roman gladius was an early example of swords forged from blooms of steel.

Why were old swords curved? ›

The curved sabers could slash opponents and slide off as the horsem*n rode by. Another advantage was that curved blades were more compact than straight ones, so horsem*n were also able to slash from side to side without worrying about trimming the ears off their horses.

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