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Unsheathing Antique Swords
by Bob Brooke


Swords have been in existence from as far back as 3,700 BCE, when copper mining began in ancient Egypt and Anatola (what’s now Turkey) to the present day. However, soldiers only used them in battle until the end of the 19th century. Today, they’re mostly used as presentation accessories.

Most people know little about antique swords or their history. Swords have evolved over many centuries, with parts added and improvements made in handling, sharpness, and length.

There are two main parts of a sword: the blade and the hilt. Everyone knows what and where the blade is on a sword. Blades have basic parts like the point (at the end), edge, and fuller. A fuller is an indentation or groove that runs partial or the entire length of the blade. The fuller allows the blood to run out of the body of the enemy once the blade is inserted into the enemy’s body. A sword may have a single or a double fuller depending on its type.

The Blade
Made with a single or double-edge and used to cut, thrust or both, the blade has several parts. The edge, the sharpened portion of blade used for slashing; the tip, the sharp end that usually tapers to a point; and the back, the part opposite the edge. There’s also the sides of the blade, known as the flat, and the fuller, the groove running along a sword’s length to decrease weight without reducing strength. In battle, the fuller allows the victim’s blood to pour out of the wound, making it more deadly.

The Hilt
Besides a blade, swords also have a hilt, the area of the sword where the user’s hand rests and grips the sword. Parts of the hilt include the pommel, located at the end of the sword, cross guard which protects the hand, and grip, where the user’s hand grips the sword beneath the cross guard. All of these parts were usually made of leather, wood, or wire.

The hilt also has several parts. The tang, the hidden portion of the blade covered by the hilt, which varies in thickness and width, and usually runs through to the pommel. The pommel, the end of the sword located at the hilt, which acts as a counterweight and prevents a sword from sliding out of the user’s hand. And the guard, a metal piece preventing an opponent from cutting off your hand, while also helping with point control and blade movement.

Types of Swords
Some common swords are the straight backsword, a military sword with a rigid blade and basket hilt, or broadsword, a military sword with a double edged blade and basket hilt. There’s also the curved saber, a long, curved single edged blade used by cavalry soldiers.

There are nine swords on which most collectors focus. The Falchion was a heavy, short, single-edged blade used from the 13th to 15th Century, mainly by European knights. The Longsword was a two-edged blade, measuring up to 50 inches, produced by German and Swiss blacksmiths for thrusting, cutting and close contact battles during the 15th and 16th Century.

The Greatsword was a large, two-handed sword with up to a 72-inch blade used for close contact fighting in the 16th and 17th Century. It had up to a 21-inch handle and weighed up to 10 pounds. From the 17th to the 19th Century, soldiers wielded a double-edged military sword called a Broadsword, measuring up to 45 inches, which they used for slicing and cutting off limbs.

From the 16th to the 17th Century, military officers used a lightweight, double-edged blade with a thick cross section, called a Rapier, to fence, thrust, and duel. It is also known as the Rapier after modifications made to the hilt in the 17th Century. From the 19th Century, it became known as a Gentleman's or walking sword, used to signify military rank or an officer’s class.

Navel officers and sailors used a standard sword, called a Cutlass, made in various styles, in naval conflicts.

Made for battle in the 19th to the early 20th Century, the Calvary Saber had a curved blade was used prominently in the Napoleonic Wars, U.S. Civil War, World War I and World War II.

People often use the words "sword" and "saber" interchangeably, but the blades differed in both design and purpose. Swords tend to be straight, and often have sharpened edges on two sides while Sabers had curved blades with convex, or outside, edges were meant for slashing.

And lastly, Artillery Swords, issued to sergeants and musicians of infantry regiments was a shorter sword, with a straight, double-edged, 25-inch blade and brass-mounted leather scabbard.

Blacksmiths constructed the best swords from hardened steel. One such type of steel, known as Damascus steel, created a blade forged from laminated layers of metal that were stacked, folded when heated, or both. Sometimes these blades had 100 layers, plus an extra-hard layer of a wootz in the center so that the part of the sword that was sharpened to a lethal edge was also tough enough to withstand repeated blows. A common characteristic of Damascus steel was the mottling on its surface, the evidence of all those layers that appeared as leopard spots, wood grain, or moiré patterns when the blade was polished.

Beyond the blades, swords also had guards and metal coverings, sometimes called baskets, that protect a hand gripping a sword's hilt or handle. At the end of the hilt is the pommel, which is usually wider than the hilt to keep the sword from slipping out of a user's hand—pommels can also be used as a weapon when fighting at close range.

Over the years, sword makers added other design features to signify military rank, social class and the sword or fighter’s country of origin.

Users wore a sword belt to carry their swords. To protect themselves from being cut from the blades, swords had a protective sheath, called a scabbard, made from leather, steel, brass, or wood. A piece of decorative woven material, called a tassle, wrapped around the user’s hand, prevented them from dropping the sword.

Sometimes a sword comes with distinguishing hallmarks, a signature or maker's mark which can help to identify where it was manufactured and by whom.

The historical significance of a sword can cause its value to increase, especially if it was previously owned by a historical figure or was used in significant battle. All types of swords often command high values on the open market, some upwards of $50,000 or more. Even some reproductions attract buyers with deep pockets.

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