Tuesday, March 27, 2007

a good sword.

A sword never jams, never has to be reloaded, is always ready. It's worst shortcoming is that it takes great skill and patient, loving practice to gain that skill; it can't be taught to raw recruits in weeks, nor even months.

--Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road

Before the age of the firearm, warfare was a more intimate affair. Back then, battle meant to close with the enemy and stick him with the sharp end of a stone, bronze, iron or steel blade.

Someone once postulated that the Roman gladius has felled more people than any other weapon in history until the advent of the machine gun. Considering that the military might of Rome spanned a thousand years and most of the known world in antiquity, it's not hard to believe. For hundreds of years, Rome's legions took all comers: Germanic barbarians, Egyptian chariot riders, Celtic and Pictish woad raiders, Carthaginian war elephants, Numidian cavalry, Greek phalanxes, and every other sort of fighting outfit the world had to offer. The Legions did not consist of supermen, but they were the first true professional army in history. They were soldiers, while their opponents were merely warriors.

Roman weaponry reflected the pragmatism of Roman warfare. The main sidearm of the Roman soldier, the gladius, was a wasp-waisted short sword with a triangular tip. To Katana fanboys or Renaissance re-enactors, the gladius looks like a blunt little porker, lacking the length or elegance of the later two-handed swords of European or Asian provenance.

I've handled my share of swords over the years. There are two-handed swords that are terrifically nimble and balanced, especially the better replicas of late European swordsmithing, and Scottish claymores and Japanese katanas can deliver terrific cleaving blows. The gladius, however, is what comes to mind when I think of a true fighting blade. It's not for cutting, but for thrusting from behind a shield. When you pull a gladius back for a thrust, you'll notice that it's just long enough to be pulled back and run through an opponent who is standing nose to nose with you. While the gladius can be utilized for cutting just fine, its main mode of employment was the thrust.

"They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action."

Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militari Book I: The Selection and Training of New Levies, 390 A.D

Lacking the funds for a real Roman blade, I had to settle for a gladius from Museum Replicas. It was made by Windlass in India, not in the Roman Empire. The blade steel is tough and springy carbon steel, not carbonized iron like the real thing. The fittings are hardwood, and the handle is genuine camelbone. The whole sword weighs 1.73 pounds, or 28 ounces, which is five ounces less than my svelte Smith & Wesson K-frame. It's very maneuverable, can be wielded exceptionally well in tight quarters, and will go through a whole bunch of stuff with pretty absurd ease. I have a feeling that a real Roman centurion would have given his left nut for the Windlass version, as the leaf spring steel used in the modern version is infinitely superior to the softer iron blades of the original.

This is precisely the kind of sidearm I'd wear to a night out at Meep's Texas Barbecue, if we lived in a society where the carrying of swords hadn't fallen out of favor. (Off-side "centurion" carry, of course...the right side is already taken up by the Smith & Wesson mentioned in the previous paragraph.)

Ah, weapons. Even if we had a 0% crime rate, and the lions played canasta with the lambs, I'd still have a house full of 'em. Their best feature is their utility, of course, but they're also living, breathing history.

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