The Anatomy of the Scimitar

AnatomyOfSwordLogoOn our last posting in the Anatomy series, we talked about the Japanese Katana, and the educational benefits of saying the words, ‘differentially tempered.’ Today, we’re going to stay in the East, although slightly more westward. Yes, we’re talking about the Middle East. Considering the current political and social climate of today, I think it rather topical, no?

There is a great deal of strife in Syria at the moment, and an enormous amount of anger toward terrorists who may be hiding there. But that was not always the case. The Middle East, at several points in history, was the center of science and economics. And when it came to swords, very few could match the skill of Syrian blacksmiths. In fact, even today we use the name of Syria’s capital to define a beautifully-tempered blade. Damascus.

As always, I digress. I’m not here to talk about differential tempering or Damascus steel. I’m here to talk about those crazy, curving swords known as scimitars.

Anatomy_SwordFull_ScimitarWhat exactly is a scimitar? I think that’s probably the best place to start. The word scimitar means “crazy curving sword” in some unknown language. Okay, I made that up, but my guess is as good as anyone else’s. The truth is, no one really knows where the term scimitar came from. There are really bad theories about how it might have come from the word Shamshir (which means crazy curving sword in Persian)(scratch that. I was looking at the wrong notes. It means curved claw). But even the people who came up with this theory admit that it’s kind of lame.

The word scimitar, whatever its origin, has come to mean a Middle-eastern sword that is curved and has a single edge. The curve of these swords allowed for fantastic speed when wielded by a master. They were used almost exclusively for slashing, and were especially appreciated by horsemen, who could slash from one side of their horse to the other quickly and without accidentally chopping off bits of their steed’s head.

Many people tend to group all of these swords into one lump, there are probably more variations of these types of swords than there are of their European counterparts. To make things simple, I’m going to talk about the four most common scimitars found throughout history.

Slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. Her name was Nicole and I had a raging crush on her since my freshman year. But we’re not here to talk about my romantic failures. We’re here to talk about the Shamshir, which, like Nicole, was slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. The Shamshir was a Persian sword, first used around 1000 A.D. It’s a gently curving blade that was worn sideways on the belt, similar to the way Japanese Katanas were worn.

Anatomy_Scimitars_SilhoTHE KILIJ
If Shamshirs were like swift, elegant dancers, than the Kilij were squat, powerful soldiers. Kilij blades were shorter and thicker than that of the Shamshirs, and they flared at the bottom third of the blade, near the tip. This flare is called the Yalman, which, in Turkish, means ‘ow, that really, really hurt, dude.’ And if it doesn’t mean that, it should. Because the yalman gives the sword extra weight past the center of balance, allowing for crushing blows. The kilij is oddly curved—kind of like it wasn’t meant to be curved but someone stepped on the blade during a fight and it stayed that way. This scimitar was used by many generations of Turks to unleash misery on their enemies (particularly during the Crusades).

This sword was the happy middle ground between shamshirs and kilijes (kilijs? Kilijises? Kili? No idea). The blade was thicker than a shamshir, but thinner than a kilij, and the curve was also somewhere between the curve of the other two scimitars. Sometimes the talwar had a flaring tip (yalman), like the kilij, and sometimes it did not. These swords were used mostly around India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And while most of the other scimitar classes tended to have a bit of variation in thickness, hilts and length, most talwars tended to be fairly similar. The most easily identifiable part of this sword is the hilt, which features a disc-shaped pommel, short guards and, often, a full knucklebow guard.

Afghanistan has always marched to its own unique rhythm. The Afghanis were happy with the talwar, but they decided to refine it to suit their tastes. The result of their tinkering was a sword that was similar to the original talwar, but had a thicker blade, a greater curve, and a completely different hilt. The guards on the pulwar face forward, to better trap an opponent’s blade, and the pommel is shaped more like a cup, or one of those fancy dip bowls that your mom used to put out with chips during football games and then she would get upset with you if you let the thing fall on the ground when it was empty and you would tell her that she shouldn’t have brought out a fancy metal bowl for a football game and she would say that you should always put out your best for company and you would say, mom, they’re just my friends and… um…. Yeah. So… a cuplike hilt.

There you have it. A quick, easy guide to appreciating scimitars.

Next time on Anatomy, we’ll head back toward the West for a discussion on perhaps the most misunderstood weapons in history—the polearms.

The Anatomy of the Katana

AnatomyOfSwordLogoFor my last post, I talked about the importance of black gums for dogs and my failure to understand why some drivers refuse to move to the right when they are not overtaking. After talking about that stuff, I then wrote a post about the anatomy of rapiers. Today, we move almost as far as you can get from rapiers—geographically, philosophically, and designally. I know it’s not a word. But symmetry is important, dammit. Today, we visit Japan, to talk about Katanas. No, I don’t mean that literally. No one is going to Japan. Well, many people are going to Japan, but we are not included in that. Unless, of course, you’re going to Japan. In which case, please bring me back a katana.

There is a lot of similarity between the knight’s arming sword (discussed in the first of our Anatomy series) and the samurai sword. Both were seen as ideological weapons. Both sword types had deep spiritual value in the culture. Both were used only by the upper members of society that had been given the privilege to use them. And both are used in really, really cool movies.

The katana was typically used by Samurai, who were the only warriors allowed to wear two swords. And while the knightly sword was deeply invested in the knight’s religion, the katana was deeply invested in a samurai’s honor. And when a sword has that much value to an upper class warrior, you can bet the construction of that sword is going to be amazing. And man, were they ever.

A true Japanese katana, made by a master smith, is two parts artwork, two parts killing device, and one part liquid coolness (it’s true. Japanese swordsmiths pioneered techniques for liquefying coolness). The blades of these fine swords were made from differentially tempered carbon steel, which is a really fun and impressive term to drop in conversations, or just to say. Go ahead. Say it. Differentially tempered, high-carbon steel. You actually gain two IQ points every time you say it.

What does differentially tempered mean? I’m glad I asked myself that question. When a sword is differentially tempered, it means that the sharp edge of the sword in heated at a different temperature than the back (or dull) side. Why do they do this? Another fantastic question, Roberto! Why thank you Roberto, you’re too kind. No, Roberto, *you* are too kind. And full of awesome. And you, sir, are made of liquified coolness. Um… where was I? Why? That’s right. Why would you heat the edges at different temperatures. To answer that, let’s talk a little about tempering in general.

When you temper a steel sword, you are putting it through a process of heating and cooling that makes the metal harder. Hardness is important for blade sharpness. The harder a blade is, the better the edge it can hold and the longer it can hold it. But hardness is a double-edged sword. Although katanas are single-edged. And the hardness itself isn’t actually a sword, it’s a part of a… I … there’s… my God, it’s full of stars… I may have just broken the space-time continuum with that analogy.
Anyway, the harder a steel becomes the better the edge it can hold, but the more brittle it gets. Japanese sword makers were well aware of this. So how to get a brilliantly sharp sword that can cut through a dead prisoner—yeah, that’s reportedly how they tested the edge of their katanas, on executed prisoners)—and still get a strong sword that won’t break when struck? Yeah, it took a while for me to get there, I’m sure you’re there already. If you heat the sharp edge at a higher temperature, and the rest of the sword at a lower temperature, you get a super-hard edge, and a strong, more flexible spine.

But how do they heat a curved sword at different temperatures? A round kiln? No, silly, with mud! Alright, technically it’s called *clay*, which is just an uppity word for mud. Sword makers paint the non-edge parts of the blade with a thick mud. When the blade is heated, the parts with the mud on them don’t get as hot. Tada. Differential tempering. Blades that have been treated in this way are left with a beautiful line pattern between the edge and spine. This wavy line is called a hamon, which means ham in Spanish. Why Japanese swordmakers named this line after a pork product from the Spanish language is a mystery to this day. The hamon usually undergoes a regime of polishing to make it look even better.

What else makes katanas such good weapons? Well, steel folding, of course. Swordsmiths fold the steel of Japanese katanas over and over again. Most likely because most sword makers started life as origami artists, and it’s good that they did. Because all this folding does two things—it pushes out the impurities in the steel, and it reduces the carbon content. Japanese blacksmiths weren’t the only ones who folded steel, of course, pattern-welding is a type of steel folding that goes back to the Celts, and possibly earlier. But Japanese swordmakers used the technique to perfection, getting just the right amount of carbon in their blades and creating brilliantly strong blades.

Image converted using ifftoanyAnd now for the illustrated portion of our blog post. I have listed some of the most common parts of a katana below, and spoken briefly about each of them. Have a close look, because these will be on the test.

Kashira – Buttcap. Google does not have a great sense of humor when it comes to any joke that I think of when describing buttcaps. In the interests of good ranking, I will simply say that buttcaps are the cap at the end of a katana hilt. And repeat buttcap again while I snort.

Ito – This is the silk wrapping that covers the same of the hilt. The combination of silk and rayskin gives both grip and comfort. I have shoes made from silk and rayskin for just this reason.

Same – I’m not going to make the same old joke about the same. I’m just going to say it is the material that covers the hilt of a katana. Traditionally, this is made from ray skin, because of the rough texture. Because of this ray skin, Many modern martial artists have changed their strike cry to, “Remember the Croc Hunter!”

Menuki – a decorative charm wrapped into the ito. These serve a few purposes. They cover the wooden peg (called a mekugi) that secures the tang to the hilt of the sword. They also provide the swordsman with additional grip and allow for more creative expression.

Tsuba– A huge brass instrument played in Japanese bands. Also, the guard of a sword. This guard keeps enemy blades from riding the steel highway down to your knuckles. Tsuba are typically either rounded or square.

Habaki– A metal collar that keeps the katan firmly in it sheath (sheaths are called saya).

Shinogi– a ridgeline in the blade. Not to be confused with the hamon. Or Shinobi, which was a late-80s video game that I was two quarters short of finishing at the mall arcade.

Mune – the back edge of the blade.

Hamon Line – remember that differential tempering stuff I was talking about? The hamon is the line differentiating the higher-temperature temper and the lower-temperature temper. Every traditional katana has a different hamon line. In fact, swordmakers could be identified by the unique hamon line they created in their swords.

Ji – While we’re talking about differential tempering, I should mention that the softer, back section of the katana is called the Ji.

Ha – While we’re talking about differential tempering, I should mention that the harder, front section of the katana is called the ha.

Kissaki – The tip of the katana, always slightly rounded.

There are many other parts to a katana. In fact, pretty much every inch of a katana has a name. The groove (hi) the grain of the metal (hada), the tang (nagako), even the hamon line, where it curves up into the tip, has a name (boshi). The anatomy of Japanese swords is a breathtakingly deep subject, and this post is only the first step on your journey, Grasshopper.

Did I miss something? Did I get something wrong? Feel free to challenge me—but bring your sword, tough guy. Because… well… because we can look at it and talk about it and swing it around and stuff.

See you next time, when we talk about the anatomy of the gladius!

The Anatomy of the Arming Sword

AnatomyOfSwordLogoAlright, sword lovers, a quick quiz. Answer each of the questions below in ten seconds or less:

1. what’s a chappe?
2. Where is the ricasso?
3. What’s the foible?
4. What is the technical name for the channel that runs along the center of a blade?
5. What’s an ecusson?

If you don’t know more than one of these (or if you said blood groove for the fourth question) then you are in the right place. The sad truth is, for many of us, our knowledge of the swords we love is reduced to the age-old adage, “stick them with the pointy end.” Fortunately for most of us, Strongblade is here to steer you onto the path of righteousness and swordsousness. In this new series of posts on the anatomy of swords, we will cover a number of different styles, with fancy 3D images and even fancier language. Stick with us, and you’ll bring a napalm of knowledge to those online-forum flame-wars. You’ll enthrall the wenches at the ren-faires with your clinical knowledge of killing tools. Yes, my friends, you will finally understand the Riddle of Steel. (And when you do, please explain it to me).

Without further Anneau, let us lunge right into our first specimen: The medieval arming sword.

The arming sword, sometimes called the knightly sword, is without a doubt what everyone thinks of when they hear the word sword. Those of you reading this saying, “No, I thought of a katana,” or “You’re wrong, I was thinking of a scimitar,” are lying. Deep down inside, you know that I’m right. Western culture instilled the arming sword into your psyche long before you had even heard of a katana or scimitar. We will get to those other two swords in time, but there is no better choice to begin this series than with the symbol of chivalry and honor, the knightly sword.

The arming sword is a fairly simple design. It owes its existence to even simpler weapons like the roman gladius and roman spatha (both of which were fantastic swords in their own right). Arming swords are meant to be fairly light and sharp on both edges. They are mostly used for slashing although they can be used by thrusting if you’re feeling particularly stabby. These types of swords were classified by the all-time master of sword history, Ewart Oakeshott (God rest his soul).

Let’s look closely at the parts of an arming sword:

Anatomy_SwordFull_Labeled_6001. The Blade: Arming sword blades were typically around 30 inches in length, with a tapered point. Both edges were sharpened, and almost all had some sort of central ridge called a fuller (not a blood groove, folks). Most blades in the middle ages were made from carbon-steel, and tempered in a process of heating and quenching. Sometimes urine was involved. Seriously. All blades (except ones given to knights that no one liked) were made with a full tang.
2. The Fuller: Alhough the term “blood-groove” or “blood-gutter” is often used to describe this channel, those terms are misconceptions. There’s no actual historical evidence to suggest that fullers allowed blood to drain from an opponent so that a vacuum would not trap the sword in said opponent’s body. Fullers, rather, had a dual purpose (I think duel purpose would be acceptable here, too). These carved channels created a sort of “spine” to the blade, giving additional strength, while at the same time making the weapon lighter.
3. Forte: The strongest part of a sword, usually the first third or quarter of the blade (closest to the hilt).
4. Foible: A series of stories created by a man named Aesop. Also, the weakest part of the blade, usually the last third or quarter of the blade (farthest from the hilt).
5. Edge: Both edges of an arming sword would have been sharpened. And knights would have done all they could to avoid parrying with the edge of their swords, as nicks and cracks could form.
6. Chappe: A mediocre movie made by the director of District 9. Wait. I think I’m mixed up. This was actually a small flap of leather jutting from the hilt, down over part of the blade. The purpose of this leather piece (which evolved into a metal piece in later swords) has been disputed, but the general consensus is that it formed a seal, keeping rain out of the sheath. The chappe is not to be confused with the chape, which is a metal fitting at the bottom of a sheath. Or with chap, which is British for dude. Or with chapped, which, in urban neighborhoods, means getting caught by police. Or chaps, which are crotchless, leather cowboy pants. I’m going to stop now.
7. Hilt: I sometimes see confusion about what constitutes the hilt of a sword. And I sometimes see dead people. And dead people confused about hilts. So, for all of you (alive or dead), here you go: The hilt is the entire arrangement of guards, grip and pommel. All of these together are called a hilt. Hopefully Bruce Willis will leave me alone now.
8. Cross-guards: No, these are not old chaps that help children to not get hit by cars. They are metal rods that jut out from either end of the hilt to keep your hand from being bisected by your opponent’s blade. The type of cross-guards a sword had was a big part of Ewart Oakeshott’s sword classification system. And, apparently, cross-guards are relevant in Jedi/Sith Lightsabers.
9. Grip: When a knight in a book touches his hilt, he is either putting his hand over the entire array of guards, grip and pommel, or it is a euphemism for arranging his tackle. What writers usually mean is that the knight is touching the grip of his sword, which is typically a wooden shaft set around the tang, and often wrapped in either leather or wire.
10. Pommel: This is a metal fixture at the very end of the hilt (farthest away from the tip of the blade). This fixture is usually either bolted or peened (the tang and pommel are joined permanently by hammering) onto the tang of the sword. Pommels serve several purposes. First, they makes it harder for the blade to slip out of a knight’s hand. Second, they serve as a counterweight to the blade, shifting the center of balance of the sword down, closer toward the wielder’s hand (which makes the sword easier to swing quickly). Third, they can be used to pound your opponent. And fourth, they are awesome at crushing walnuts.
Anatomy_SwordHilt_Labeled_50011. Tang: A delicious powdered drink that somehow is linked to astronauts. Also, the tapering part of the sword blade that extends from the shoulders of the blade. This slightly tapered piece of steel becomes the grip of the sword, and the pommel is affixed to the very end of it. Many modern sword tangs are made by welding a “rat-tail,” between the hips of a sword. The rat-tail is a ground down piece of metal, not much more than a cylindrical stick about the diameter of a thick screw. These types of tangs are, in scientific Oakshott terminology, referred to as, “uncool.” Tangs wielded onto sword blades are fragile and can be dangerous. Some “rat-tail” or “stick” tangs are not wielded onto the blade, but are simply ground down, narrow continuations of the blade. These tangs, though still only as thick as a large screw, are not quite as fragile as wielded tangs, although they are still not as strong as full-tangs (which are far less tapered).

So, there we go, the knightly sword broken down into all of its glorious pieces. Yes, I hear the grumbling. I didn’t answer all of my quiz questions from the start of this post. That is true, young grasshoppers. There are a couple terms I didn’t cover today. You’ll just have to read my next blog posting, where I talk about Rapiers and cut-and-thrust swords to satisfy your curiosity.
Or you can just Google it.
Your choice.