Swords, Daggers, and Bayonets Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Edged weapons, such as swords, daggers, and bayonets, are the oldest and most basic instruments of warfare in continuous use since prehistoric times.

Nature and Use

Edged weapons, such as swords, daggers, and bayonets, are the oldest and most basic instruments of warfare in continuous use since prehistoric times. The use of edged weapons, such as the combat knife, is still taught in basic military training, and the sword, though rendered a military anachronism after the introduction of the repeating rifle, retains a place of honor in formal military dress and ceremony. Both Western and Eastern sword-fighting techniques continue to be studied as martial art forms.Swords;modernDaggers;modernBayonetsSwords;modernDaggers;modernBayonets

The dagger is arguably the oldest form of edged weapon, being simply a utilitarian knife adapted for service in combat. In its most basic form the dagger consists of a pointed blade, most often of forged metal, although stone, antler, bone, and hardwood have also been used, usually measuring between 6 and 20 inches in length, set into a handle and sharpened to a cutting edge along one or both sides. From this elemental form evolved, by simple extension of the blade length, the various forms of short sword and, later, the long sword. After the introduction of practical firearms in the late seventeenth century, an adaptation of the dagger resulted in the creation of the bayonet, which allowed an empty or fouled musket to be quickly and easily transformed into a serviceable pike by the simple expedient of ramming the dagger’s round handle into the muzzle.

Among the most familiar forms of dagger is the bowie Bowie knifeKnives;bowieknife, named for the American frontiersman Colonel James Bowie of Alamo fame (1796-1836), but actually designed by Bowie’s brother, Rezin. The bowie knife’s distinctive straight-backed blade is clipped along the top edge into a shallow concave curve at the end, thus imparting a double cutting edge to the point. Equally distinctive is the Sykes-Fairbairn commando Sykes-Fairbairn dagger[Sykes Fairbairn dagger]dagger, widely used by British paratroopers during World War II; its elegant symmetrical blade was inspired by an ancient Egyptian pattern. Also developed during World War II, the Ka-Bar combat Ka-Bar combat knife[Ka Bar combat knife]knife, known also as the Mark Mark knivesII in the U.S. Navy and as the Mark III in the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines, employs a variant of the clipped bowie blade. In hand-to-hand fighting, the Ka-Bar is gripped like a hammer in the right hand, while the splayed left hand is held pressed against the chest to protect the heart.

Distinctive non-Western dagger forms include the Malay Kris (dagger)kris, with a long slender blade, often ground to a wavy edge along its length, that widens to an asymmetrical spur near the handle; the Kukri (dagger)kukri, a general-purpose long dagger in use by the Gurkas of Nepal since the nineteenth century with an obtuse “bent” blade that is sharpened along its inner edge; and the East Indian Katar (dagger) katar, a triangular punching dagger with a handle that is mounted at right angles to the long axis of its blade.

The earliest forms of sword are virtually indistinguishable from long daggers, a case in point being the ancient Roman Gladius (sword)gladius, a standard weapon of the Roman legions, which measured a modest 2 feet in length.


Blades Bladesof great antiquity, such as those from Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures dating from 3000 b.c.e., are often short in length, a characteristic necessitated by the use of bronze, which lacks the material strength to produce long serviceable blades. Following the development and subsequent refining of forged steel processes around 1200 c.e., several European cities emerged as respected centers of sword blade production during the late medieval era. Principal among these were the smiths of Sheffield, Brussels, Paris, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and, most respected of all, those of Toledo.

The Whitesmithswhitesmith, as the sword maker was known, created a blade from a mass of smelted wrought iron, called a “bloom,” by repeatedly heating it and hammering it flat upon an anvil. Through successive repetitions of this procedure, particles of carbon were mixed with the iron, turning it into hardened, carburized steel. Early sword blades were steeled only along their cutting edges, their inner cores composed of the relatively softer and more flexible iron. A technique called pattern Pattern weldingwelding was later devised to combine the advantageous flexibility of the soft iron core with the harder, but also more brittle, edge-taking quality of hardened steel.

In the pattern-welding process, slender rods of iron are twisted together, heated, and hammer-welded into flat bars of harder carburized iron, which are then sharpened to form the cutting edge. The pattern-welded blade reveals a characteristic serpentine effect upon its surface that persists even in the polished blade. Pattern welding was known to Roman sword makers of the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace (c. 27 b.c.e.-180 c.e.), as well as to the later Vikings. The word “damascene,” literally “of Damascus,” is often incorrectly used as a synonym for the pattern-welding technique; more properly the term refers to the mottled surface characteristic of blades from Syria and Persia, common after the tenth century. The metal in these blades was repeatedly heated and folded during the hammer-welding process, creating laminated layers of alternating high and low carbon content metal.

Weapons of superior quality bore recognized trademarks, such as that of a running wolf for the arms makers of Solingen (in the Ruhr Valley), which were sometimes fraudulently copied by lesser craftsmen. The legendary Spanish blades of Toledo especially inspired many German and Italian emulations.

Until the mid-1400’s, most swords were straight-bladed, double-edged weapons, widely thought to have been too heavy and poorly balanced to allow for the development of elaborate fencing techniques. However, it has been noted that many of these older swords are surprisingly well balanced and of sufficiently light weight–most averaging around 3 pounds–to allow a well-conditioned hand to wield them with surprising dexterity. During the period from 1450 to 1700 blades gradually became lighter, narrower, and longer, developing into the familiar rapier design associated with the musketeers of Louis Louis XIIILouis XIII (king of France)[Louis 13]XIII (1601-1643). These Rapiersrapiers eventually evolved into the light, fast-dueling Dueling;weaponsswords of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whose basic form still survives in the fencing foil and the Épée (French sword)[Epee]épée: slender pointed swords of, respectively, rectangular and triangular cross-section that feature shorter blades, typically 32 inches or less in length.

The shape of the sword’s blade dictates the type of attack for which it is used. The curved Persian Scimitarsscimitar, introduced to Europe by the Turks during the Crusades and widely emulated in the European cavalry saber, was more suited for a downward hewing attack or a forward cut-and-thrust motion. In contrast, the narrow thrusting blade typical of most sixteenth century dueling swords was thought to provide a distinct tactical advantage, because the linear thrust is a quicker and more direct motion than the curving slash. Moreover, the thrusting blade was regarded as more lethal, because piercing wounds to the torso were more likely to prove fatal than slash wounds to the same area. Blades ground to a wavy flamberge Flamberge edge edge, which increased the length of the actual cutting edge, were thought to inflict more damaging and more painful wounds.

In its most general form the sixteenth century sword was cruciform in shape and consisted of a straight or curved steel blade, designed principally for cutting and sharpened along one or both edges. Along the length o f the blade might be a narrow groove, technically called a fuller but more popularly known as a “blood Blood groovegroove,” intended to reduce the overall weight of the blade and, at the same time, impart to it added strength and flexibility. The sword’s cutting edge extended forward from the Ricasso (blade)ricasso, that portion of the blade just beyond the cross guard. Extremely long swords, such as the Espadon (sword) espadon or the Scottish Claymore broadsword claymore (or claidheamh-mor, literally, “great sword”), often feature a longer ricasso, blunted, or wrapped with a partial leather sheath, to allow the handler’s grip on the blade to be shortened for quicker action. The Hilts hilt, or heft, of the sword typically consisted of a simple bar-shaped cross guard or slender rodlike Quillons (hand guards) quillons bent into a basket-shaped enclosure surrounding and protecting the handle, into which was inserted the blunt spike-shaped end, or tang, of the blade. The metal pommel that capped the end of the tang might be formed into any number of shapes, including multilobed forms, wheels, ovals, or more complex “perfume-stopper” designs, intended to counterbalance the weight and length of the weapon.

Bayonets enabled firearms to be quickly and easily transformed into serviceable pikes and could be attached by (a) plugging into the muzzle, (b) fitting as a sleeve over the muzzle, (c) locking into a slot on the muzzle, or (d) attaching permanently to the muzzle and folding down when not in use.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

It is a historical irony that the golden age of the sword, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was also the period during which gunpowder came into widespread use. As the military popularity of the sword began to wane, the fashion of carrying a sword became increasingly common among male civilians, inspired in no small measure by the rise of dueling among the nobility. Lighter weapons, such as the rapier, became especially popular. The épée, with its slender, three-edged blade pointed only at the tip, and the dueling saber, sharpened along one of its three edges, evolved as various schools of Fencingfencing became formalized, each with its own distinctive, nationalistic flavor.

Among the principal developments of this period was the introduction of the Main gauche (dagger)main gauche, a specialized form of long dagger wielded in the left hand, designed as a shorter twin of its full-length companion sword. The main gauche allowed a swordsman to bring his free hand into play to menace or parry the thrusts of an attacker. A popular variant from around 1600 was the sword Sword breakers breaker, with comblike notches along one edge that enabled a defender to ensnare and, with sufficiently developed strength of the wrist, even break his opponent’s blade. A rarer form of sword breaker featured blades designed to spring open from either side of the dagger’s blade at the touch of a button, although oddities such as this were probably more formidable in appearance than useful in actual combat.

The cavalry saber used decisively as late as the Mexican War (1846-1848) in the Battle of Palo Alto.

(Library of Congress)

The seventeenth century dueling Dueling;weaponssword was a stiff, straight-edged weapon whose development owes much to the simplified and widely adopted French school of fencing. Its narrow blade was designed primarily for thrusting attacks, but it was also quite capable of delivering cuts to the arms or face. Imported Spanish, Italian, or German blades, fitted with a fashionable “swept” Hiltshilt after delivery, were especially popular. The ricasso of the blade was often imprinted with spurious trademarks and signatures, often misspelled, of famous bladesmiths. Guards became increasingly complex, often featuring elaborately curved quillons or tines intended to ensnare an enemy’s blade or rings to guard a finger hooked over the cross guard for better control.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the military sword had entered into its period of decline. The cutlass-like infantry short sword used by Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which evolved from the huntsman’s sword, was more useful as a bivouac tool than as a weapon. The Swords;cavalry usecavalry saber, however, retained a vestige of its authority and was used decisively as late as the Mexican-American War Mexican War (1846-1848)(1846-1848) in actions at Palo Alto and Resaca de las Palmas (1846) and Contreras-Churubusco (1847), as well as in numerous campaigns of the so-called American Indian wars of the nineteenth century. In fact, cavalry troopers regularly practiced with sabers as part of their customary tactical evolutions well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

In Japan;swordsJapan the development of an elaborate and sophisticated Dueling;Japandueling cult fueled the evolution of the single-edged samurai sword, more properly known as the Katana (Japanese sword)katana (sword) or Daito (Japanese sword) daito (long sword). Intended to be wielded with two hands, the katana was worn tucked into the waist sash along with a companion sword, identical to it but shorter in length, called the Wakizashi (Japanese sword) wakizashi. A short dagger, called the Tanto (Japanese dagger) tanto, was generally worn by women and tradesmen for their personal protection. Practice in the art of Japanese fencing was facilitated by the use of a more forgiving bamboo “sword,” called a Shinai (Japanese sword) shinai, or Bokken (Japanese sword) a wooden bokken.

SamuraiSamurai;swordsmithingswordsmithing techniques, which reached a peak of sophistication during the late sixteenth century, constitute a variation of the hammer-welding process. A bar of hardened steel is sandwiched between softer iron, heated, hammered, and folded successively dozens of times to produce a fine cutting edge with a temper that is regulated by sheathing the blade in a fine clay slip. Heat treating of the exposed edge produces a visible pattern along the temper line that is categorized according to its resemblance to certain naturalistic forms. Military officers’ swords bearing serial numbers on the blade, mass-produced during World War II, are of considerably less value than are authentic handmade blades. Blades prized too highly for use in battle were often kept in an unadorned white wood storage scabbard, called a Shira saya (Japanese scabbard)shira saya, resembling a simple pinewood cane.Swords;modernDaggers;modernBayonets

Books and Articles
  • Burton, Richard Francis. The Book of the Sword. 1884. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1987.
  • Childs, John. Warfare in the Seventeenth Century. London: Cassell, 2001.
  • 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.
  • Evangelista, Nick, and William M. Gaugler. The Encyclopedia of the Sword. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
  • Jörgensen, Christer, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World, A.D. 1500-A.D. 1763: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006.
  • Talhoffer, Hans. Medieval Combat. Translated by Mark Rector. London: Greenhill, 2000.
  • Thompson, Leroy. Combat Knives. London: Greenhill, 2004.
  • Thompson, Logan. Daggers and Bayonets: A History. Staplehurst, England: Spellmount, 1999.
  • Warner, Gordon, and Donn F. Draeger. Japanese Swordsmanship. New York: Weatherhill, 1993.
  • Yumoto, John M. The Samurai Sword. 1958. Reprint. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1991.
Films and Other Media
  • Modern Marvels: Axes, Swords, and Knives. Documentary. History Channel, 2002.
  • Reclaiming the Blade. Documentary. Galatia Films, 2008.

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