Fantasy posts, Historical posts
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Eight alternatives to swords

A great swordsman is a wonderful asset to any historical or fantasy novel, but it would be a pretty ordinary literary world, if the only weapon we ever came across in such literature was that versatile and elegant weapon.  Variety is a virtue in itself when it comes to writing, and just as the Roman’s discovered in their gladiatorial contests, sometimes matching opponents with contrasting weapons and skills often made for the best shows.  Take for example the unarmoured Retiarius armed with net and trident, matched against the heavily armoured Murmillo with sword and shield.  I have no tridents in this list, but I have a few options to arm your literary characters with.

The Mace. In the Dark ages, only the richest of warriors could afford chain mail, and therefore it was relatively rare.  However as we approached the 11th Century this form of armour became more common and therefore protagonists often found that more damage was inflicted by heavier concussion weapons rather than penetrative or edged weapons such as swords.  The mace could break an opponent’s bones, provided it was wielded with enough strength, whether they were armoured in mail or not.  Blades were later added to the mace, to make the impact that much more effective, and also being useful at breaking links in chain mail.

The Morning Star. From blades on the side of a mace, it was then only a small step to turn those blades to spikes.  A sharpened spike could force its way through the links in mail and inflict a cruel wound to their opponent.  The gruesome site of such weapons, also must have held a physiological advantage that shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Flail.  The morning star was then developed further into the flail, with a spiked ball attached to a shaft by a link of chain.  Not a weapon of finesse, but still effective in a crowded melee.  The German King John of Bohemia, who was blind, apparently favoured this weapon because he could swing away in battle to either side without worrying about seeing his opponent.

viking hand axe



The Hand Axe. A simple weapon at first site, a well-honed blade that can be used to chop and hack at an opponent, however also surprising versatile. The one shown is of Viking design and could be used with shield in a tight shield wall, and therefore a common weapon of choice.  However, the hand-axe if well balanced and thrown by someone of considerable skill, could also be an effective projectile weapon.

The Battle Axe. You can’t beat a battle axe for pure ferocity.  Wielded two handed, it is capable of breaking the opponents shield to splinters, or caving in the strongest of armour.  Not a very effective weapon to parry or block with, so the wielder will rely on pure aggression to carry him through his enemies.  Best exemplified by the Viking Berserkers, who would work themselves up into a battle frenzy that they felt would make them impervious to harm and as such be able to smite anyone standing in their path.  The battle axe can come either single headed or double headed, so that the wielder can strike enemies on their backswing.

The Pole-Arm. Pole-Arms evolved in many different cultures and societies and held the advantage of a long reach, as well as being able to be used like a quarterstaff, before delivering a lethal blow from one of the many heads they can be equipped with.  In Europe the weapon first came about through the use of the Bill-hook (a farming tool) that proved to be a very effective weapon on the battle-field.  From that was developed the Halberd, and then many other forms of lethal blades and axes attached to their ends.

The Pike.  If length of reach is what you are after, none has more than the pike.  Useless as an individual weapon, it becomes incredibly effective in a large unit of men, being able to effectively pin other units.  It was also invulnerable from cavalry attack, although it fared less well against archers and was vulnerable over broken ground if the unit lost cohesion.

The Warhammer.  The mace and morning star were very effective weapons against chain mail, but as we approached the medieval period knights were more often armoured in full plate mail that could protect the defender from all but the most accurate and strongly delivered blows from a traditional concussion weapon.  What was needed was a weapon that could punch through the solid plate armour.  They came up with the Warhammer that was a weighted hammer with a spike on the end.  The spike would be delivered with such force that it would punch through the strongest armour into the skull, bones, or body of the unfortunate knight underneath.


  1. A formidable array of weaponry, Tom. The axe was the favoured weapon with the Norsemen, although the Dane Axe was also chosen by Harold’s huscarls – both at Stamford Bridge and Caldbec Hill – but useless in the shieldwall. You couldn’t get a good swing. The shorter handled axe could be used to pull down the opposition’s shields so someone else could thrust with a spear.
    The pole-axe did a lot of damage in the later Middle Ages, as Edward’s opponents learned at Towton.
    Keep up the good work,
    Alan R L


  2. Bonnie stanard says

    What metal or metals were used to make blades for these weapons and for chain mail?


    • Until the time of Aelfred ‘the Great’ Frankish swords and axes had been imported, although elsewhere – as in Scandinavia – weapons were fashioned from ‘bog iron’ tempered with various chemical elements. By the time of Aethelred ‘Unraed’ steel weapons were made in places as far afield as York and Winchester within England and exported as far east as Kiev and Constantinople by Norse traders. The blades were made from at least three lengths of iron rod and heated, beaten, re-heated, each time the metal becoming stronger as the bars were twisted and forged together before being worked to a double edged blade with a ‘trough’ along the centre length, in other words ‘pattern-welded’; against the light you would see a distinct ‘woven’ appearance. The ‘trough’ allowed blood to flow and was to make it easier to pull the sword from a wounded or dead man..


  3. Superior Swords says

    Great post. It is very informative information. I am searching this information from few days and I found this information on your blog. Your blog is very informative. Thanks for sharing this information.

    sword knife


    • It’s been a while, Thomas. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of you these past months.
      Anyway, in response to “Alternative words to sword”, how about “Fafnir’s grey, pattern-welded whisper”? or “Sheathed death-deliverer”? No doubt there are several references in “Beowulf” (haven’t looked at my copies for a time, I’ve got a few).
      Alan L


      • Hi Alan,
        Yes, sorry, it has been difficult to spend much time on the blog lately, because I have been caught up finishing the sequel to Roman Mask. The first draft is done, but my father has suggested a few revisions. Should make the novel better in the long run, but has meant a lot more work. As soon as the book is finally finished, I’ll be able to dedicate more time to the blog.
        Love the idea of a sword named whisper by the way. I hope your writing is going well?


      • Hello again Thomas, haven’t done anything on the book front since FENMAN was published in April. Take a look when you’ve got time at the profile page on HubPages (web address below). Added a few Hub Pages this year, up to 360. I’ll add another six before I call it a day there, one for each day in a leap year and one to spare the other three. Might start book eight next January after I look up some details on Holmgard and Koenungagard (Novgorod and Kiev),
        Regards, Alan


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