by Matthew X. Gomez
Swords in fiction are overrated. There. I said it. They show up everywhere, being the weapon of choice for heroes and villains. Even pieces set in futuristic societies can’t escape the ubiquitous nature of the weapon.
Here’s the thing, swords were never that common. For one, they use an extraordinary amount of costly material to make. A spear with a wooden shaft, a hammer or axe with a wooden haft . Iron, and more importantly, steel, was never cheap. It requires quite a bit of specialized skill to forge a sword that will stand up to combat. It’s a time consuming process, and not something the village blacksmith is just going to be able to bang out with a bit of pig iron. To be sure, some armies were equipped with swords. The Roman Legions for example, but they are an anomaly as they were the product of a well-organized military state. The auxiliaries that fought alongside the legions? Not nearly so well equipped.
Swords require a lot of training. It was a weapon of the warrior class, a group of individuals who were trained almost exclusively in warfare from a very young age, and not the sort of thing a commoner would ever have reason to learn.
So if not the sword, what then?
One substitute to explore would be the halberd. Look at that beast! It’s got a nice hook on the back for tripping foes or pulling them down from horseback, it has an axe head perfect for splitting even plate, and it has a spear on top for when you are keeping people at bay. It’s versatile, it lets you keep your distance, and enemies are going to be hesitant to go after the person with the axe on a stick.
You then have your mace and war hammer.
These are armor crackers of the first order, designed to transfer as much force as possible through the swing. They don’t even have to penetrate the armor all the way to ruin someone’s day, as the force from the blow will be transferred through the armor to whatever poor unfortunate is in front of you. If your opponent is wearing mail, all those nice flexible links will be embedded in their flesh, while if they are wearing plate, you are going to knock it out of shape, disorient them, and possibly immobilize them when their armor can’t move anymore. Looking for a mythological character with a hammer? Look no further than Thor’s Mjolnir.
I know at least one person who would be deeply upset if I didn’t include the axe on the list. No mere woodcutter’s tool, the axe has a long and storied history. Norse warriors were fond of the cutting power of the axe, but Medieval fighters as well were aware of the usefulness of the weapon. Many varieties exist, from humble one-handed affairs that could be thrown at enemies before closing to larger two-handed monsters designed to split a foe from skull to groin. Armor again was less effective against these types of weapons as the blows were more designed to convey forces than they were to cut. They were also ideal for making short work of shields, stripping opponents of any hope for defense.
Then there is the humble spear. It isn’t as intimidating as the halberd, not quite as effective against plate as a war hammer or mace, but it still has a number of advantages. For one, they are (relatively) cheap to produce. For another, they are fairly simple to use. Sharp end goes in the bad guy, makes sure the opponent doesn’t get too close to you, and if you have a bunch of friends that all have spears as well it can seriously put a damper on someone’s day. Opponent on horseback? The spear, especially a nice long one, is a great equalizer. This is why the Greeks were able to dominate on the field of battle for as long as they were. Spears make their way into mythology as well. Odin and Cuchulain are two legendary figures who reached for the spear over a sword.
So, next time you are looking around for a weapon to give your hero or villain, why not reach for something other than a sword for a change?
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