The evolution of swords through European history

In the course of European history, the sword has undergone many changes. While the swords of the Lazio period were still relatively uniform and simple, over the centuries, diverse and complex sword forms developed. The following article gives you a brief overview of the most important stages of development of European swords.

Swords of the La Tène Period

Replik eines keltischen Schwertes aus der Latènezeit

Already during the Hallstatt (pre-Roman Iron age) period (approx. 800-450 BC) the processing of iron had spread rapidly across Europe. As a result, the number of iron swords also increased rapidly. Despite differences in production methods and materials, the iron swords of the Hallstatt period still resembled their bronze predecessors in their design. This changed at the beginning of the La Tène period (450-100 BC).

Swords of the La Tène period usually had a thin, double-edged and straight iron blade. The length was usually between 80 and 100 cm. They were also usually fitted with a curved cross guard (see replica in the picture). This was soldered between the handle and the blade and was primarily intended to prevent the users hand sliding onto the blade

Over time, these swords developed into almost pure slashing weapons, but there were multiple regional differences. In their most common form, they resembled a Spatha, the precursor of which they are considered. Also the La Tène period, the first swords appeared, which had stamps imprinted upon them. These could be manufacturer’s brands, but this has not been definitively proven.

Note on terminology: Often the terms La Tène Period sword and Celtic sword are synonymous with each other, although this does not always have to be true. The La Tène Period is a period of time and the Celts are a cultural group. A sword can come from the La Tène Period without ever having being near a Celt. Furthermore, a Celtic sword may have existed before the La Tène Period, because the Celt culture lasted from about 800 to 275 BC.

Swords of Classical Antiquity

It is believed that La Tène swords were spread through hired Celtic horsemen in the Roman army. The Romans developed the sword further and the Roman Spatha was born. It had a length between 75 and 110 cm and had a blade 4 to 6 cm wide. Initially used primarily by mounted auxiliary troops, it also found its way into the infantry’s arsenal in the 2nd century at the latest.

The Romans used the 50-58 cm long Gladius since the 3rd century BC. This short sword had already developed within the Roman army two centuries before the introduction of the Spatha from a sword type of the Iberian Celtiberians. For centuries, the standard sword of Roman infantry had been the Gladius but this was eventually largely supplanted by the Spatha in the 3rd century.

Unlike the Roman swords, the Gallic swords had no tip. They therefore mainly served as a slashing weapon. Through the Thracians and the Dacians related to them, curved swords also entered the Roman culture from the eastern Black Sea region. The Falx was a Roman curved sword whose length could vary considerably from 50 to 130 cm. In contrast, long swords were unusual among the Germans. By the end of antiquity, only the short sword was in use among the peoples of Europe.

Migration Period

During the migration period, the Spatha was still widespread. Numerous peoples adopted the sword. The Germans in particular developed the Spatha further in the following period, which made it more long and heavy over time. It was seen as a weapon of the noble and wealthy.

In comparison, the sax, a short, single-edged slash knife, was also manufactured for simple domestic use. Over time, the Germans straightened the blade of the sax and made it bigger and heavier. From this development, the Scramasax was eventually created, which resembled a single-edged short sword.

Also during the course of the migration period, so-called “worm-colored blades” also appeared within Europe. These were swords made of Damascus steel, which probably reached Europe through the Moorish workshops on the northeast coast of Africa.

Early Middle Ages / Viking Swords

Between the 6th and 7th centuries, sword production experienced a noticeable upswing across large parts of Europe. The quality of the steel improved significantly. From this time period there came about some high-quality work within the field which was cast from pre-formed sand filled molds. In addition, in the 8th century Syrian artisans and bladesmiths settled in Spain and Sicily, which led to the spread of unusually high-quality blades.

In their general appearance, many early medieval swords were long and wide, and their tips were mostly rounded. The former Roman slash and stab weapons had now been developed largely into pure slash weapons. Cross guards were in a straight shape and were primarily not designed to protect the user’s hand, but to also injure the opponent during battle. The pommel usually had a round or flattened shape.

During the Viking period (from the 8th century) the Viking sword developed from the Spatha. It was characterized, among other things, by a more pronounced cross guard. It thus represented an intermediate step towards the development of the well-known longsword of the Middle Ages. Many of these blades were also decorated with letters inlaid in iron.

Swords in the High Middle Ages

Templerschwert aus dem Hochmittelalter mit Scheibenknauf und den typischen Tatzenkreuzen

From the 10th century onwards, the knight’s sword or longsword gradually developed from the Viking sword. Both the blades and the cross guards became longer. The average length of the blades now grew 90-130 cm. In addition, the swords were again provided with a tip for piercing. Due to their straight shape and their long cross guards, the longswords of the High Middle Ages often resembled a Christian cross.

Towards the end of the 12th century, the European longswords typically had a wide blade, which was visibly pointed, a wide, straight cross guard and a tapered handle, which ended in a round or flattened pommel. From this design during the transition to the late middle Ages, the one-and-a-half-handers (bastard sword) and later two-handed bastard swords were developed.

Late Middle Ages Swords

The development towards ever longer swords continued into the High Middle Ages. The average sword of this time had a 110 to 120 cm long blade. While one-and-a-half-handed swords were still a rarity in the 13th century, they eventually developed into the characteristic knight’s sword of the 14th century.

As the quality and strength of armour continued to grow, the blades became more and more powerful. The fuller became rarer and the blades were now increasingly tapered from the cross guard to avoid too much weight. In this way, the impact force during the stroke could be improved.

In the 14th century, Italy and France also increasingly had particularly pointed piercing swords intended for maximum penetration. Their tips had an enormous hardness and were able to easily punch through mail shirts.

Renaissance / Early Modern Times

Der spätmittelalterliche Katzbalger kam vor allem bei Landsknechten zum Einsatz.

The refinement of fencing and field warfare led to a gradual change in the use of the sword. Simple cross guards had been replaced by more complex handles and hand guards. In the 16th century, the armour piercing swords developed further and were used against heavy armored knights.

Also, swords were no longer reserved only for use by knights and noblemen. Especially in mercenary armies, more and more swords were used over time. From the one-and-a-half-hand developed powerful two-handed swords with a length of 1.5 m or more. From 1500 even models with a length of up to 2 m appeared. These were mainly used by field infantry. As the typical infantry sword of the 16th century, the short Katzbalger, with its S-shaped cross guard, also gained fame.