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Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The Story of the Sword" (As Well as a Few Knives and Daggers)

I have transcribed the following article from Munsey's Magazine, January 1901. Despite a number of small factual errors, it is of considerable interest, wonderfully illustrated, and offers occasional examples of the dry Victorian wit.


AFTER three thousand years of honor and glory, the sword is about to join the battle ax and the javelin in obscurity. It has always been a weapon for use and for show. It has always been a badge of rank. Within a little time it will be forbidden in the field. Already an order has been issued by Lord Roberts, commander in chief of the British forces in South Africa, instructing line officers in the field to wear the same uniform as the private, and to carry only revolvers as side arms. In the Philippines, too, our army officers have come to look upon the sword as useless baggage when there is any fighting to be done, or on a long march. It is of no earthly use as a weapon, for hand to hand conflicts are a thing of the past; and it is a positive evil, because it enables sharpshooters to pick out the officers and bring them down.

It is not likely, as yet, that the sword will be laid aside on state occasions. There is too much romance surrounding it. Mankind has been accustomed to look upon it as emblematic ever since war began. But as a useful weapon, the sword is a candidate for the museum.

It is impossible to separate the sword from the knife. Probably the first knife was a weapon, and its utilitarian possibilities were developed afterwards. Roughly speaking, the swords or knives of the world can be divided into two classes—the hackers and the stickers. The earliest weapons were of the former variety. In fact, it wasn't until the sixteenth century that the gentle art of killing a man without unnecessary bloodshed became popular. Before that time, it was good for to chop him to pieces, if you could.

Whenever hard-digging scientists have succeeded in finding the remains of the prehistoric man, his knife of some flinty stone has not been far away. Those early men must have had a deal of time on their hands, because the fashioning of knife blades out of hard stone is a difficult process. But this was accomplished at express speed, compared with the first method of attaching a handle. Having made the blade, our ancestors fitted it into an incision he made in the limb of a tree, and then sat down to enjoy life until the weapon was ready for use, unless some other inconsiderate gentleman killed him in the mean time.
This isn’t a book, and it would take too long to trace the knife from the early man’s weapon with the natural wood handle to the gorgeous presentation affair, like that given to Admiral Dewey. Many years before the Christian era, the Norsemen, Romans, and Greeks began fashioning knives and swords of metal. The Romans made them of copper, which they tempered by a process whose secret has been lost, while the Greeks preferred hardened bronze. The Norsemen had the better of it, for they used iron, and wondrous weapons were made for those powerful warriors.

The Greeks, however, were the ones to set the fashion in sword modeling, as in everything else, and the Romans were quick to change their thick and awkward blade for the longer and more shapely weapon of their more cultured neighbors. In the early days the Roman smiths made their swords thick and short, in order to strengthen them, as it was not until later that they learned how to temper. Their weapons were always marked, even among the other nations of their day, by their peculiar shape. The sword of the Greeks was a long, narrow blade with a square guard and a short, thick wooden grip. Sometimes, in the case of an aristocrat, the grip was inlaid with plates of gold, and the blades were often elegantly etched or engraved.

It was not until the return of the first Crusaders that the influence of the eastern models began to make itself felt on the forging of swords in Europe. This was early in the twelfth century. Up to that time the weapons in use in France and England were improvements on the old Roman and Greek models, with a few variations, such as the broad sword, battle ax, and mace. When the orientals took up the art of making swords and knives is not quite clear, but it is certain that they far outstripped their western neighbors in the design and quality of their weapons. Their principal specialties were the dagger and the scimitar, the latter of which is a sort of slicing weapon, and has served as a model for all the sabers that have since been made. The old crescent shaped scimitar is a good weapon of its kind even today. The Crusaders had some marvelous illustrations of what the infidels could do with these wonderfully tempered instruments. There is a story, and it is accepted as perfectly authentic, of skirmishers from the crusading army being attacked in a rocky defile. So vigorous was the assault that they were compelled to retreat to the main body, leaving their dead behind them. When they returned to the spot where the fight had taken place they saw their companions apparently lying just as they had fallen. each victim had had his head cut off, and it had been replaced in a natural position. So clean and skilful was the cut that at first only a thin red line showed where the scimitar had passed.

The various forms of daggers and poniards have been more or less popular with peoples the world over, but the eastern races, particularly the Malays evolved peculiarly devilish weapons. The worst of these is the creese [kris]. It is a wavy sort of an affair, and it makes a frightful wound, whether used as a slasher or a sticker. [Why would a serpentine blade make a more dangerous wound? It seems to be designed for psychological rather than physiological effect.] Sometimes it has the usual straight hilt, and sometimes a handle which is at right angles with the blade, designed for use on the saw principle.

It may as well be remarked at this point that the popular conception of the manner of handling a dagger or poniard or knife is all wrong. This is due to pictures drawn by artists who knew nothing about it, and to actors equally ignorant. So far as I can recall, I never saw an actor handle a dagger or knife properly. They have always grasped it so that the hilt rested against the little finger. It would be just as sensible to hold a dagger that way as it would a table knife, so far as doing anything with it is concerned. All dagger and knife fighters grasp the weapon so that the hilt is next to the thumb or forefinger.

The Malays have always had a reputation for bloodthirstiness and deadly execution with their creepy knives. It goes back for about four centuries. Now and then they were worsted. There is a yarn told of Artenio, a pirate of the southern seas, who was a credit to his profession. About the year 1633, Artenio's vessel was overhauled by a Malay craft in eastern waters. The latter was crowded with men, twice as many as Artenio's crew. Furthermore, the Malays had a reputation that made the pirates' evil prestige look like downy innocence. There was nothing to do but fight. Artenio bad an inspiration. He armed his men with capstan bars and anything in the shape of a club he could find, and these proved more effective weapons than cutlasses, for the clubs broke the dreaded creeses, and the Malays were beaten off.

The greatest event in the history of sword making occurred in the sixteenth century, when a humble peasant on the outskirts of Toledo, in Spain, designed the long, slender rapier, which, after its adoption by the Duke of Granada, attained world wide fame. All sorts of superior qualities have been ascribed to the Toledo blades, but the truth of the matter is that, aside from their lightness and convenience, they had nothing to recommend them over the swords which had been manufactured in England, France, and Germany for fifty years. The quality of the metal of which they were made was just the same as that used in other nations, and, if anything, the Spaniards were a little behind the English and French in the art of tempering metals. There is no doubt however, that, after its adoption by the court of Spain, the Toledo model had a tremendous influence upon the weapons in use by the gallants of other nations. Its fame spread like wild fire throughout the other civilized countries, and knights journeyed from far and wide to Seville for lessons in the art of fencing under the new code.

The rapier was not only light and easily handled, but permitted a clean thrust through the body, a thing impossible with the thick, broad swords previously in use. From the date of its adoption in Europe, the real era of skill in fence began. Before that time, the victory in sword combat depended more upon the strength of the antagonists than their skill. [It is a Victorian-era misconception that there was little technique to medieval swordsmanship.] The broad sword, battle ax, and javelin left little room for delicacy of touch, and only such a giant among men as Richard Coeur de Lion could hope to achieve high reputation as a swordsman. The rapier did away with all this, and case after case is on record where men of comparatively small stature have held vastly superior numbers at bay by sheer skill at the game of fence and foil.

The original Toledo blade was about one inch wide at the hilt, running down a length of about three and a quarter feet to a needle-like point. As soon as the French caught the advantages of this model, it was improved upon, until by the middle of the seventeenth century, when chivalry was at its height, the sword of the dandy was little larger than the fencing foil of today. It was from this peculiarity in the character of their weapons that the French were dubbed "toad stickers" by the English.

Despite the frailty of their swords, the chevaliers of the great Louis were able to accomplish wonders in a fight. Just about this time, the use of the dagger as an accessory to the guard in a sword duel became popular, and a short hanger was added to the equipment of a gentleman at arms. These hangers were much the same as the old Roman swords in form, except that they terminated in a sharp point. They were shorter than the weapon of the Romans, but like them in all other essential points.

The dagger, or hanger, was not entirely new. The Crusaders carried a short knife called a coup de grâce [probably means a misericorde; the coup de grâce was the blow, not the weapon], a truly Christian weapon, which was used to despatch an enemy when he was down. Having fought with punctilious observance of the laws of chivalry, and having placed an enemy hors de combat, the Crusader could fling himself on his knees before the fallen one, cut his throat, and offer up prayers of thanksgiving without changing position.

The time of the rapier and the dagger was a truly romantic age—from this distance. The knife was the arbiter of all disputes. As La Hire, a celebrated courtier and swordsman of Louis XIV's time, put it: "The sword of a gallant punctures the breast of a good man and a rogue alike, and represents justice and mercy, or tyranny and oppression, according to the temper of one who controls it." It is told of La Hire that once, while in a restaurant with a companion, he was annoyed by sneering remarks made by a group of men who belonged to a rival political faction. La Hire walked quietly over to them, and beckoned one aside.

"Monsieur," he said, "I have not the honor of an acquaintanceship with your friends. Will you be good enough to introduce me?"

Thus did he pave the way to challenging each of them to fight him in turn. The party sought the courtyard. La Hire killed two, and seriously wounded four others.

The survivors then apologized.

In fighting with daggers and rapiers, the popular method of dueling at this period, it was customary for the swordsmen to bind their left arms in their cloaks, holding the dagger in the left hand. The short weapon was depended upon principally as a guard, the rapier being reserved until the moment arrived for a direct attack. Then it was sent forward like a flash, usually in a straight thrust for the throat. If a wound of this kind was inflicted, it was usually regarded as fatal, as little or nothing was known of antiseptic treatment in those days. There has been little advance in the making of swords or knives for two hundred years, which shows as plainly as anything could that these weapons have passed the period of pronounced usefulness. America's only contribution to fighting blades — that is, the only one of any real note—is design which bears the name Bowie. He is always spoken of as Colonel Jim Bowie, of Texas. As a matter of fact, Bowie was born in Georgia, about 1790, but the greater part of his life was passed in Texas [wrong, wrong, and wrong]. He gained his reputation in a duel which resulted in a general melee, and in which he killed Major Morris [sic] Wright with a knife that had been fashioned out of a file or rasp at Bowie's direction. Afterwards, a cutler improved upon the general design, but the name clung to it.

Those were the days when the derringer was the popular weapon in America. That could fire only as many shots as it had barrels—usually two. As a rule, the bullets were of large caliber, and it was effective only at short range, so combatants were likely to be pretty close to each other when the shooting was over. If both escaped serious injury, there was fine opportunity for knife play. Some men gained remarkable skill in fighting with bowie knives. A certain science in fence was developed; but as a rule it was the man who could strike first. [This is true.]

The bowie was carried in all manner of places. One of the most effective plans was to put it behind the shoulder, which enabled a man to draw it without exciting suspicion, for there is no more innocent motion than that of putting one's hand to one's face. [Actually, the self-defense trainer Southnarc has noted that putting one's hand to one's face--a so-called "grooming gesture"--is one of the most common pre-attack signals.]

Wondrous stories of bowie knife fights are related, for the weapon gained great popularity. The Indians adopted it, and used it as a scalping knife. There is an account of an all day fight between a cowboy and an Indian, who shot at each other until their ammunition was exhausted, and their ponies were almost ready to drop. Then the white man closed in on the red one. Each had a bowie, and they kept up the fight until the Indian was slashed to ribbons. The cowboy was so badly injured that he died a few days later.

The term "bowie" came to mean almost any kind of a knife carried in a sheath. The real bowie is from nine to ten inches long, with one edge. The back is straight for about three fourths of its length, and then it curves towards the edge in a slightly concave sweep, the edge finishing towards the point in a convex sweep. The guard is very small, and the tongue [tang] is the full breadth of the grip or barrel, which is formed by two rounded pieces of wood and bone. It was equally good as a weapon, a table knife, a substitute for a small ax, and for pretty nearly anything that a knife can be used for. But finally the improvement in firearms made the bowie of little value as a weapon, and the big jackknife was found to be more convenient. Nowadays the cowboy's "messer," as he calls his knife, is principally for cutting "chuck.'"

But the knife plays a part in many modern crimes. So far as this country is concerned, the poorer Italians almost monopolize it as a weapon. The police say that every Italian carries a knife of some sort. They range from a made over file to a butcher knife; from a beautifully adorned stiletto of the finest workmanship to a cutlass. Of course the police exaggerate; but it is true that a certain class of Italians is always armed with dangerous knives, which they seldom use except on enemies of their own race.
Due to the format, I couldn't include all the illustrations, but they can be viewed at the source.

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