Important note: This article will focus on battlefield weapons, and not those meant to be used by civilians.
People are often surprised to learn that the sword was a secondary weapon on the battlefield in most times and places. Even long before the development of practical firearms.
Throughout history people have held the sword in special regard. From the bronze age on the swords of warriors are frequently detailed in history and myth. There is a special romance about swords, which are often given honorific names, with individual weapons being handed down as valuable treasures for generations of use in battle or display. Much more uncommon is mention of the spear, with few receiving a name. Yet the spear in its various incarnations was for millennia the primary melee weapon in military use.
One of the few times and places where the sword was the primary weapon of a military force was during the Hallstatt period of the Assyrian empire. Of course, even they used spears, of several types.
There are only so many ways to do damage with a weapon. You can pound, or inflict blunt trauma. You can puncture, which means piercing with a narrow part. You can slash, which means making a cutting swipe with a narrow part. You can chop, cutting straight in with a broad edge. And you can slice, which means making a sliding cut with a broad edge. Even today, bullets puncture, shell and grenade fragments chop, bombs pound - as much by dropping a building on someone as from direct concussion - and so on. Those operations - plus burning - are about all a physical weapon can do. Some categories of weapons are better at some operations than others. Swords and spears, for instance, can puncture, slice, chop and slash, with swords - especially those with curved blades - being better at slicing. Neither is good at pounding. (Note that a few very heavy swords for use against plate armor were sometimes pounding weapons, intended to inflict blunt force trauma to the wearer of such protection rather than trying to penetrate it with a thrust or chop.) A war hammer is great at pounding but obviously not so good at slicing.
Note that many weapons have secondary components to provide other ways of inflicting damage. Sword pommels were designed for pounding (this is where the word "pummel" comes from). A chopping or hewing spear might have a spike on the rear end for thrusting, though those may have primarily been intended to use for bracing the spear against a charge. A war hammer or battleaxe might have a spike on the reverse face. And so on. The balance between weapon flexibility and utility - including not being too heavy or awkward to use effectively - is a delicate one, much explored.
People who have studied the variations on the sword through time and place know there are scores, even hundreds, of types. Yet collectors and curators find they can group nearly all of them into about two dozen categories. The number of types of spears dwarfs that. Also, many (though certainly not all) of the differences within these types of swords are matters of style rather than function. Yes, sword designs can also be grouped by intended purpose. This is discussed below. However, restraining factors involving such things as ergonomics and tactics mean that swords tend to be grouped into a few general categories. Some of these, though, are practically ubiquitous.
As an example, over and over again, through history and over wide expanses, you see swords with very similar features. The details will vary according to the specific function. The blade will be a meter or a bit more in length, sharpened on one edge or both, primarily intended for use with one hand but with a hilt long enough for two. The blade shape may be symmetrical, especially when both edges are sharpened, and the taper will vary from very little to extreme, or even be reversed, depending on whether it is primarily a cutting or thrusting weapon. The blade may be straight or slightly curved, the hilt may be wood or ivory or simply leather wrapped around the tang, the guard may be anything from a plain crossbar to an elaborate basket. But the function is the same: chopping or piercing another human, with the target wearing either no protection or having flexible armor. How well a particular sword is supposed to perform each of those attacks is the primary determining factor for the design details it possesses.
Swords separated by half a planet and two millennia, one of bronze and the other of steel, can be quite similar in size and general shape. Spears, though, are more complicated. (Yes, this is a judgement call on my part, but one based on some study and echoed by some - though certainly not all - people with much more knowledge of the subject.)
Spears come in two basic types, with considerable overlap. Those types are the throwing and the thrusting. The former are shorter and lighter (and often come with a throwing aide, such as the atlatl) while the latter are longer and heavier. Yet many throwing spears are sturdy enough to use for thrusting and many thrusting spears can be thrown reasonably well at least over a short distance. Some heavy thrusting spears are even as short as throwing spears. Within those two broad categories there is a huge amount of variation.
There are spears with long shafts and short shafts. Spears with long blades and short blades. Spears designed for thrusting and penetrating, and spears intended for chopping and cutting. Spears designed for the head to come off. Spears for use on foot, and spears for use on horseback, spears for use from chariots. Spears with varying amounts of taper to the point. Spears with straight edges, curved edges, fluted edges. Spears with smooth edges and serrated edges and barbed edges and auxiliary blades (winged spears) or even hooks. And this doesn't include the spear's descendants, such as the pike, glaive, Bec de Corbin (Raven's Beak), lance, javelin, halberd (though that word may actually mean "flat axe" and most versions have been closer to the poleaxe than the spear) and many others.
The primary weapon of the Roman Legionnaire through much of the Empire's history was the square pilum. This was an unusual spear with a short wooden shaft, an iron or steel shaft affixed to the end of that, and a short iron or steel head out front. The purpose was to allow the spear to be thrust at the enemy from behind a shield with little risk of the spear being cut, because the only parts the enemy could reach with their own weapons were the head and the metal section of the shaft. If thrown, the thin metal shaft would generally bend on impact, rendering the spear useless to the enemy without work. (Note that very similar types of spears were in use by various barbarian tribes - such as the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians - for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire.) The famed gladius and the lesser-known Roman swords (such as the pugio) were primarily intended for close fighting, or were purely ceremonial.
The Vikings, famed for use of axe and sword, also had two distinct types of spear (all of these weapons having blades of iron). The swords were used primarily for slashing and chopping, in much the same way as their axes. Of the spears, one type had a short head and short shaft, to be used for thrusting and throwing. The other was longer in both parts, and primarily used in cavalry operations. (Yes, the Vikings had cavalry.) They were also used as the Romans had used their long spears, from behind shield walls.
You see this pattern repeated throughout history, even long after the use of firearms began. For medium and medium-close fighting, the spear reigned supreme, with the sword used strictly for close work. Today, the sword is gone from the battlefhield, while the spear has never left, since the bayonette turns a rifle into a short thrusting spear. (Admittedly, this is a simplification.)
For long range fighting, the bow and arrow or heavy crossbow were the choices. There have been recent claims that the tale of English longbowmen pinning French knights to their saddles at 300 meters might be an exaggeration. However, the recreation tests I am familiar with which cast doubt on this used a bow with a somewhat lower draw weight than the heaviest used by the English, which could reach 180 pounds. A rank of longbowmen facing an equal number of modern infantry on open ground at a starting range of over 200 meters would probably win. Few modern armies equip their troops with personal weapons effective at the maximum range of a top-quality longbow, and the arrows used against knights would consider modern soft body armor a minor impediment. (Of course, modern infantry can call in an artillery barrage or an air strike.)
Crossbows were easier to use than longbows and required much less training, especially for consistent accuracy, but those matching the power of the longbow were slower to load. At least, for the first few dozen rounds.
For attacking someone wearing solid metal armor you don't want a razor edge. That would bend or break. You want a chisel edge or a punch point. Against unprotected flesh or soft armor a sharp edge, of course, is usually the best choice. Even against most types of chain a sharp edge is preferred. There are many accounts of a strong swordsman lopping off a head or arm of someone wearing chain armor. But against plate armor you want a sharp point for thrusting between the metal sections, and a relatively blunt edge for battering.
Interestingly, the famed Japanese katana not only has a razor edge, it is designed for a draw cut. It was normally used against people who either wore no armor, or armor made primarily of lightweight materials with some metal reinforcement. These protective garments could be something as simple as a multi-layered silk vest, or complex samurai armor made of multiple laminations of metal plates, silk, bamboo, wood and laquer. However, because of the large, sweeping motions required by the draw-cut stroke of the katana these armors were designed to accommodate such large movements. This meant they had large open areas, though these were usually not exposed except when the wearer was executing a sword strike. (Which came first, the armor or the sword?)
Contrary to some claims, the katana, wakizashi and tanto were not designed as armor piercing weapons. The asymmetrical angle of the tip typical on these blades would be too likely to skim across the surface instead of biting in the way a more symmetrical point would. (Look at the tip of a cold chisel for an example.) They could be used to punch through hard materials, of course, especially if used at an angle which reduced the tendency to skid off. These weapons could also be used for chopping strikes. Neither of those attacks was their primary purpose.
Of course, the Japanese also had spears and arrows, some of them well suited for chopping or punching through armor. China was even more enamored of the spear, and developed many types. A number of eastern martial arts systems emphasize the spear in their weapons forms.
Note that, as with swords, spears designed for a particular function often resemble each other, across empires and through time. For example, one type of Hallstatt spear mentioned above is almost identical to a type of Viking spear from a thousand years later. As Ewart Oakeshott wrote "A spear is a spear whether it is of the middle Bronze Age or the Nineteenth Century; there is little room for variation and the same shapes of spearhead crop up in every age and in every land." It's just that there are so many uses for spears that matching two of them is difficult unless you happen to find some with the same intended function.
So just what are those functions? You have your choice of piercing - which can be performed by thrown or thrust spears - chopping - performed by long-bladed hewing spears in a function later assumed by halberds, pikes and the like - and slashing and slicing, with that last being rare. Some historical spears are nearly four meters long. Many have shafts of ash, which is frequently mentioned in old accounts. So we know that many spears were made of ash because it was thought to be a good wood for the purpose, and having so many surviving spears made from that wood is not just because ash lasts a long time in bogs. :-)
I think a large part of the reason swords are venerated and spears tossed away (often literally, being thrown at the enemy) is that while a spear uses a relatively small amount of precious bronze, iron or steel attached to a simple (usually wooden) shaft, a sword involves both far more metal and far more skilled labor. An army would have multiple spears per soldier, but less - often far less - than one sword each.
The axe has also long been a popular melee weapon. In fact, a stone axe may have been the first weapon of war. The thrown hand axe was being used to fell game long before modern humans existed. An axe and sword of the same weight balance very differently, with the axe focusing the weight in the head. For a chopping cut the axe is far superior to the sword, while being somewhat inferior in the slash. It is also far handier than the spear, though the latter certainly has the advantage in reach.
The primary intent of the military axe is chopping (through metal or leather armor or just through thick tissues and bone) though some did have a hammer or spike on the back, and a few even a spike sticking out of the far end of the shaft, past the head. I don't think anyone ever used an axe for a slicing cut.
Early axes used in war are scarcely distinguishable from those used in more mundane labors. However, as time progressed and the art of war developed, specialized battle axes were created. As mentioned above, these often had more than a simple, single blade on the head. Some were meant to be used with one hand (the other usually carrying a shield); some with two, and some either way. There were even throwing axes. (Watch a modern lumberjack competition, sometime, where they throw axes. The double-bitted type were almost certainly not used in war, but the long-handled single-bitted were. Imagine having one of those planted in your chest from a dozen or more paces across the battlefield. Maybe those dwarves were on to something.)
The English were great ones for using the two-handed battleaxe. The Bayeux Tapestry and other sources - including found examples - tell us that some had hafts over a meter and a half long and blades with edges over half a meter long.
The Franks employed the "Francisca," a short, light throwing axe. There has been much scholarly discussion over whether the people were named for the axe or vice-versa. The weapon is also known as the "Frakki." The Longobards were named after a particular type of long-handled axe they used in battle, as well.
The Vikings seemed to have really liked the axe. They became very popular among the Norsemen during the Viking period, and are mentioned with more respect in the sagas from then. Part of the reason could be the development of a new type of war axe which was far more effective than previous ones. These have edges over 30cm long, and are true battleaxes; there's no chance of confusing them with woodworking tools. Here are weapons besides swords for which individual names are common. Examples are Fiend of the Shield, Battle-Witch and Wound's Wolf. (In the same way the Vikings gave their axes names with "witch" or "fiend" in them, the names they gave spears often had "serpent" as a part. One particularly romantic name for spears was "the flying dragon of the fight.")
Continental knights seem to have disdained the axe until the Twelfth Century as something not suitable for a gentleman. Then it began to gain popularity. Stephen - good knight but poor king - used one to great effect at the battle of Lincoln in 1141. Eventually, though, it, and then his sword, broke, and he was taken captive. (Notice that his sword was a secondary weapon.)
During this period, while the great axes continued to be popular a new type of lighter axe also took hold. It had a head with a long edge, but lighter design. The back of this often had a hammer head.
One of the more unusual types of axe comes from ancient Egypt. The epsilon-style axe has a section of a curve attached to a silver shaft, so that it resembled the later Greek letter.
War hammers were, indeed, hammers designed for use in war. However, the flat surface was often the secondary implement, with the long spike coming off the back seeing the most use.
Maces - close relatives of the hammer - are among the least complicated of melee weapons, at least from the viewpoint of variations in type. There is a Bronze Age mace in the Blackmore Collection in the Museum at Salisbury which is identical in form to several Thirteenth Century examples.
What makes a mace different from a spiked club is the amount of metal at the end, which shifts the weight of the weapon further from the hand. This metal is crafted in a roughly spherical form, either a ball with spikes or a series of curved or angled flanges brazed to a collar on the shaft.
More than a mere bashing weapon, the mace is designed to pierce armor as well as dent it.
As mentioned above, there are only so many ways to use a physical weapon to harm someone. Likewise, there are only so many ways to get through the physical protection being used to prevent such harm.
In modern warfare one of the most effective types of weapon used against armored vehicles is the APDS, or Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot. This consists of a hardened and very dense sub-caliber projectile in a light weight sleeve, the latter falling away once the projectile has cleared the bore. The actual projectile looks very much like an arrowhead or spear head designed for piercing plate armor. Which simply shows that no matter how far our technology advances, the laws of physics remain the same.
One thing you can be sure of, if a certain form or shape was used for a type of weapon for thousands of years - possibly invented independently several times - it is probably a good shape for the job.
This document is Copyright 2009 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to repost it must have permission from the author, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org