A few weeks ago, at Otakon, I stopped at a sword vendor’s stall. Such dealers sell replicas of signature swords from films, anime and games. In addition to the many katana, you can probably buy Excalibur, The Sword of Gryffindor or one of Conan the Barbarian’s blades. For some reason the dealer was talking about George Wallace getting shot, but couldn’t remember the shooter. “Bremer?” I volunteered. One of my high school buddies was there that day. “No,” he said, “I think it was Hinckley.” I didn’t argue, but a woman whispered to him, and he said, “Wait, you’re right. Hinckley shot Reagan.”
TCM was showing Japanese films last week, including the Musashi trilogy. I looked up Musashi Miyamoto, who goes by several names. From reading Shogun, I knew that only samurai were to carry the daisho, a pairing of long and short swords. But there was so much else to know. Musashi fought a famous duel with a wooden bokken against Sasaki Kojirō who was wielding a very long sword, called a nodachi. I was soon bewildered by the variety of swords.
I ran across a very good rundown of sword form following function called There Is No Best Sword. One of the gems is that what is often called a broadsword in medieval epic films is no such thing. I looked into that a bit. Broadswords date from the 16th century, longswords, denoting a two-handed grip, date from the 14th century and even the crossguarded knightly or arming sword didn’t appear until the 10th century. Knights in the Arthurian era probably used variants of the spatha, the Roman short sword, or possibly the fancier ring sword.
I have heard people argue over which is the better sword, the rapier or a Viking type, for instance. This is foolish. What they are actually talking about are fighting styles, not swords. Any sword should be discussed only in the context of what it was designed to do.
This is not a chicken or egg question. Sword designs came first, and practical styles evolved around them. The first sword design was dependent on the skill of the maker, and the material from which it was made — copper, then bronze. Then sword and technique in Europe entered into a constantly whirling and evolving dance that didn’t end until the development of the repeating firearm. Swords and technique in many parts of the world evolved very slowly; in some places they never arrived; and in some places they took directions that were strange to say the least.
After living through fifty years of the greatest rate of technological advancement in history, I should not be surprised that there was constant innovation in weaponry.