Knives, Swords, and Daggers Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Almost every human culture and civilization in the world has used knives and daggers.

Nature and Use

Almost every human culture and civilization in the world has used Knivesknives and Daggersdaggers. A knife is one of the most basic tools, used for cutting any number of materials, from food to fibers. Knives were also used as weapons to kill humans. A dagger could be considered a long, double-edged knife, ranging from 15 to 50 centimeters and meant specifically as a weapon. Knives and daggers have two basic parts: first, the blade, a flat surface with one sharp edge or two, usually narrowing to a point; second, the Hiltshilt, covering the tang, which extends back from the blade, and providing a handhold. The hilt itself has two parts: the grip, perhaps with some sort of guard to protect the hand, and a pommel, which is a piece at the end of the grip to back up the hand and provide balance. For protection from the sharp blade, knives were carried in sheaths or scabbards while not in use.DaggersSwordsKnivesDaggersSwordsKnives

Some knives were meant to be thrown. Otherwise knives and daggers were usually wielded either overhanded, with the blade extending down from the fist, or underhanded, with the blade sticking up from the fist. These weapons also had the advantage of concealment when worn underneath clothing. In the warfare of all but the most primitive societies, the knife or dagger was usually the weapon of last resort, after other weapons had been lost.

Most cultures have also developed swords, which could be considered extended daggers, with blades longer than 40 centimeters. Swords could, given their weight and length, more effectively hack, slash, puncture, or cut an enemy. Grooves in blades, or Fullers (blade grooves)fullers, are often believed to have been channels to drain away blood but were usually built into the blade to add flexibility, lightness, and strength. The limited reach of the sword, compared to that of the spear or bow, often meant that it was a secondary weapon. Although rarely decisive in itself during battle, the sword was one of the most widely used weapons for close combat before 1500 c.e.

The history of knives, daggers, and swords has perhaps been more influenced by fashion than by application in warfare. These weapons and their sheaths have often been made with great care and decoration, conveying the status of their owners. The sword, especially, became a work of art, status symbol, magisterial emblem, and cult object. The right of knights or samurai to wear swords indicated their social positions, and men defended that rank in sword Dueling;weaponsduels. In medieval Europe a squire was dubbed to knighthood with a sword blow, known as an Accolade (sword blow)accolade. Large ceremonial swords of state were carried in processions or displayed in court to illustrate a ruler’s power over life and death. Swords or daggers also embodied religious significance, such as sacrificial daggers made of chalcedony used by the Aztecs for human sacrifice. The similarity of a sword’s shape to that of a cross also lent it a Christian symbolism. Legends concerning Arthur’s ExcaliburExcalibur and Roland’s DurandalDurandal celebrated the sword in Europe, and many Japanese believed that certain old swords embody the spirits of Shinto deities.


The earliest humans made the first knives and daggers from Stone Age;knivesstone, such as flint or obsidian. They shaped blades through “pressure flaking,” banging pieces of stone against one another so that chips of stone broken off would leave a blade form behind. By the time of the agricultural cultures of the New Stone Age (Neolithic times), a grip made of wood or bone was then formed and attached with lime or binding to the tang. The peoples of the Americas and the Pacific rarely progressed beyond stone technology, and so did not develop significant swords. The Aztecs;daggersAztecs, however, may have been able to dominate their neighbors in the thirteenth century c.e. with the interesting sword-club, the Maquauhuitl (sword-club)maquahuitl, which set obsidian blades on either side of a wooden shaft. They also used special stone knives to cut out the hearts of human sacrificial victims.

The essential change came with the beginnings of Metallurgymetallurgy. Copper was the first metal to be used for knives, probably beginning around 4000 b.c.e. in the Middle East and East Asia. The invention of Bronze Agebronze, usually copper alloyed with tin, led to a great improvement in the strength and durability of weapons. In “grip-tongue” blades, whether cast in one piece or two, Hiltshilts were attached to the blade or reinforced with rivets. By the second millennium b.c.e. hilt and blade were forged from one piece of metal, with flanges between hilt and blade to protect the user’s hand.

A collection of Bronze Age Celtic swords.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

As blades began to get longer, the resulting weapons became known as swords. Some were curved, based on the sickle, an agricultural implement used for harvesting. Curved blades were better suited to cutting, whereas straight blades were better at hacking and thrusting. The Minoan swordsMinoans and Mycenaeans;swordsMycenaeans of the Eastern Mediterranean from about 1400 to 1200 b.c.e. began to develop not only decorative long swords but also highly useful short swords. The curious Halberds“halberd” of the Early Bronze Age looked like a dagger set at right angles to a shaft, creating a kind of dagger-ax.

Swords became more lethal after smiths had mastered the use of iron, beginning around 900 b.c.e. Instead of being cast from liquid metal, iron weapons were beaten out of ingots heated in forges. Because the hardness of ancient iron varied considerably, a key development toward improving the swords was pattern Pattern weldingwelding, which was the combining or plaiting together of different strips of iron into formations or patterns. This technique blended the weaker and stronger parts of the iron into a more uniformly strong and flexible blade. Although ancient smiths might not have understood the scientific basis of making Steelsteel, iron hardened with carbon, many swordmakers developed techniques that guaranteed its use in the sword.

With the Iron Iron Age swordsAge, the sword became a standard, if not always decisive, weapon. In the Greeks’ Phalanx;Greekphalanx method of combat, the opposing formations of spear and shield were most important, but swords were used in close combat, often as a desperate measure. The hoplite sword, intended mainly for slashing, had a wide bulge about one-third of the way down from the point, narrowing to a waist until widening at the hilt again. Some Greeks also used a Kopis (sword)kopis, a heavy, single-edged, downward-curved sword.

The Roman legions made their short “Spanish” sword, the Gladius hispaniensis (Spanish sword)gladius hispaniensis, a more essential part of their fighting system. After weakening the enemy with thrown spears, they closed and smashed their large shields against their opponents. Then, while the enemy usually used an overhand sword blow, caught by the Roman shield, the Roman legionary would thrust his short, stabbing sword underneath into the stomach, where its long point could penetrate most linked armor. The Romans also carried fine daggers, but they seem not to have been used in battle. By the time of the early empire, the infantry preferred the short, hacking,“Pompeian”Pompeian swordsword. Beginning in the second century c.e. , with the rise of cavalry, a more suitable, longer (80-centimeter), slashing sword, the Spatha (sword) spatha, began to dominate in the Roman armies. This sword was the ancestor of medieval European swords.

The Roman Empire was brought down by Germanic peoples using longLong swordsswords. Through the early Middle Ages, the sword became the basic weapon of a warrior. Battle would often begin with a charge, on foot or on horseback, using spears or lances. Once those weapons were spent, however, the warriors would hack at their armored foes with swords. Axes and maces were also popular, as well as the Seax (sword)seax, a heavy, single-edged, broad-bladed chopping sword which had evolved by 900 into the Scramasax (sword) scramasax, a short chopping blade. With the rise of knighthood by the eleventh century, warfare with lances and swords allowed Europeans to push back their opponents in the Crusades. After Armor;and swords[swords] armorers developed better armor to help knights survive in battle, swordsmiths devised blades that would break through metal. The Falchion (sword) falchion, a broad-bladed, cleaverlike sword addressed that need. Thirteenth century knights also began to use heavier and longer one-and-one-half-handed (“bastard”) or two-handed swords. By 1500 infantry, especially the Swiss and German Landsknechte (Swiss-German infantry) Landsknechte, had developed huge swords, up to 175 centimeters long.

Another solution to European plate armor was to emphasize the swords’ thrusting ability. The blade became thicker and more rigid, so the user could pierce weaker joints in the armor. In order to improve grips on such swords, protective rings began to be added to the cross-guard. Guards became more elaborate, including a curved bar stretching from cross-guard back to pommel, while the blade became narrower and sharper at the point. Thus the modern rapier appeared, which began to dominate after 1500.

Daggers were worn by European warriors throughout the Middle Ages. Daggers played only a minor role in combat, with one exception: Should a knight through exhaustion or wound be found on the ground, his enemy might dispatch him with a “misericord” dagger thrust through a chink in the armor. The popular late-medieval Baselard daggerbaselard and rondel Rondel dagger daggers with their long, narrow blades were used for this purpose. The former had a curved cross-guard and pommel, whereas the latter had a disk-shaped guard and pommel. The rondel dagger also evolved into the Scottish Dirk (Scottish dagger) dirk.

Sub-Saharan Africa;daggersAfrica;swordsAfrica was not using bronze weapons by the Bronze Age and began to use iron by the third century b.c.e. By the fourth century c.e., the use of iron tools and weapons had spread throughout the continent. A shortage of iron, however, meant that sub-Saharan peoples had to import many weapons from European and Islamic civilizations. In some cultures, the Kuba Kuba kingdom (Congo)kingdom of the Congo, for instance, daggers and swords with unusual blade shapes acquired great cultural importance. Africans also developed a unique throwing knife, the Hunga-munga (African throwing knife)hunga-munga, with several blades branching out at angles from a main shaft.

Islamic swords, whether Arab, Turk, Persian, or Indian, were often typified by the Scimitarsscimitar, a curved, single-edged blade meant for slashing, which developed in the eighth or ninth century c.e. Scimitars predominated by 1400 c.e. but never entirely replaced straight blades. Until the fifteenth century the city of Damascus, SyriaDamascus not only made famous swords but also served as a trading center for weapons made elsewhere. Persia;watered steelPersian weapons were famous for “watered” Steel;wateredsteel, in which the combination of higher and lower carbon content created a wavy pattern in the blade visible after an acid wash. Islamic dagger shapes varied widely according to region, although the Jambiya (Islamic dagger)jambiya, or curved ceremonial dagger, is most famous. Persian and Indian versions have a double curve. Interesting daggers from India included the Gurkha’s Kukri (dagger) kukri, with a downward-curved, single-edged, leaf-shaped blade, and the Katar (dagger) katar, or punch dagger. The unusual Malayan Kris (dagger) kris had a blade that could be wavy and widened from the point to a thick wedge at the Hilts hilt, which itself was set at an angle down from the blade. Throughout Southeast Asia, machetes, or Parang (sword) parangs, were used as jungle knives for both clearing vegetation and fighting.

Etruscan warriors in uniform, armed with short swords and carrying shields for protection.

(Library of Congress)

InChina;swordsChina, straight bronze swords of various lengths dominated until the establishment of the Chinese Empire in the third century b.c.e. Iron weapons were then introduced, which led to long (90-centimeter) straight swords. Cavalry, charioteers, and infantry all used swords, although an important side weapon was also the dagger-ax. The scimitar-like cavalry sword, probably introduced by Turkish peoples of Central Asia, became more popular after the eighth century c.e.

The high point of sword-making skill lay in Japan;swordsJapan. Japanese swords were made with a highly sophisticated folding of metals: millions of times for the cutting edge, mere thousands for the spine. With polished blades and decorative hilt fittings, Japanese blades were unsurpassed in both beauty and lethality. The earliest swords in Japan, around 700 c.e., were based on straight Chinese blades. During the Heian Heian periodperiod (794-1185 c.e.) the blades of the long Tachi (sword)tachi used by Samurai;swords samurai horse warriors began to be curved. These types of swords were perfected in Japan during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Although the primary weapon of the samurai was originally the bow, failed attempts by the Mongols to invade Japan in 1274 and 1283 c.e. led to a new emphasis on the sword in combat. In the fourteenth century the Soshu sword making Soshu tradition of sword making was founded, creating the curved sword that became the Katana (Japanese sword) katana. By the fifteenth century, the samurai warrior class had the sole right to carry swords, normally both the long sword, the katana, and the short sword, the Wakizashi (Japanese sword) wakizashi. The Japanese also had equally fine knives, ranging from the dagger, or Tanto (Japanese dagger) tanto, carried with the swords, to smaller blades that fit into the scabbards of other

weapons. Knives had various uses: as a replacement for chopsticks, for throwing at an enemy, for committing ritual suicide, or for giving the coup de grâce to an opponent.DaggersSwordsKnives

Books and Articles
  • Bradford, Alfred S. With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World. Illustrated by Pamela M. Bradford. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
  • Coe, Michael D., et al. Swords and Hilt Weapons. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.
  • Diagram Group. The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the Twenty-first Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
  • Fischer, Werner, and Manfred A. Zirngibl. African Weapons: Knives, Daggers, Swords, Axes, Throwing Knives. Passau: Prinz-Verlag, 1978.
  • Levine, Bernard R., and Gerald Weland. Complete Handbook of Knives, Swords, and Daggers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.
  • Molloy, Barry. “Martial Arts and Materiality: A Combat Archaeology Perspective on Aegean Swords of the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Centuries B.C.” World Archaeology 40, no. 1 (March, 2008): 116.
  • Nicolle, David. A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • Oakeshott, R. Ewart. The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armor from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1996.
  • _______. Records of the Medieval Sword. 1991. Reprint. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1998.
  • O’Connell, Robert L. Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Free Press, 2002.
  • Thompson, Logan. Daggers and Bayonets: A History. Staplehurst, England: Spellmount, 1999.
  • Wagner, Eduard. Swords and Daggers: An Illustrated Handbook. Translated by Jean Layton. New York: Hamlyn, 1975. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2004
  • Warner, Gordon, and Donn F. Draeger. Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice. 2d ed. New York: Weatherhill, 1990.
Films and Other Media
  • Arms in Action: Swords. Documentary. History Channel, 1999.
  • Modern Marvels: Axes, Swords, and Knives. History Channel, 2008.
  • Samurai Sword. Documentary. Panther Productions, 1995.
  • Secrets of the Samurai Sword. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2008.

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