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10 Types of Short Swords and Blades: A Comprehensive Guide

Written by: Abigail Cambal
Published On: July 16, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Almost every culture has its own version of a short sword, which served as a sidearm and backup weapon for the long sword and was more efficient in close-quarters combat. In the 19th century, collectors began to use the term short sword to refer to shorter one-handed swords or the arming swords of the medieval knights.

Let us explore the most popular short swords from different cultures, their history, metallurgy, and unique characteristics.

Different Types of Short Swords

Some short swords were more efficient in thrusting, while others were for cutting. Here are the most popular short swords, from ancient Greece to medieval times and the Renaissance period.

1. Xiphos (Greece)

Hoplite Xiphos - 5th Century B.C.
Hoplite Xiphos – 5th Century B.C. – Credits: Pax Historia Antiquities

The xiphos was a cut and thrust sword that existed before the hoplite era. Most recognized for its double-edged leaf-shaped blade, the xiphos served as a secondary weapon to the Greek hoplites’ spear. Made of bronze or Chalcidian steel, the sword blade featured a central ridge to strengthen its structure.

The xiphos usually had a blade length of around 50 to 60 centimeters, though some examples were as short as 30 centimeters. The hoplites used it for thrusting in close combat, hung in a sheath under the left arm. The Greek term xiphos is just a generic term for a sword, but it became associated with the ancestral sword the Romans used before the gladius.

2. Kopis (Greece)

Greek Kopis sword artefact
Greek Kopis sword artefact – Credits: Met Museum

When the spear broke during fighting, the Greek hoplites utilized the kopis to deliver a blow with the same power as the ax. It featured a single-edged forward-curving blade that could inflict wounds with a downward slash. On the other hand, the back edge added weight to the weapon towards its tip.

A one-handed sword, the kopis had a blade length of around 48 to 65 centimeters. Its downward curve made it an efficient weapon for mounted warfare, often compared to the contemporary Nepalese kukri and the Iberian falcata. Modern scholars sometimes distinguish the kopis from its variant machaira, which resembles a machete with a straight back and swelling near the tip.

3. Gladius (Rome)

Gladius and scabbard mounts - of the 'Pompeii' type (50-100 AD)
Gladius and scabbard mounts of the ‘Pompeii’ type (50-100 AD) – Credits: Royal Armouries

The Roman legions traditionally used a gladius, a short sword with a double-edged blade. During the Punic Wars, the Iberians serving Hannibal used short swords which had an advantage over longer swords, so the Romans adopted the weapon. Its earliest type was the gladius Hispaniensis, inspired by the antenna sword of the Celtiberians, the Celtic people who inhabited the Iberian peninsula.

The earliest gladius had longer blades, but the Pompeii gladius generally had a blade length ranging from 42 to 55 centimeters. It also featured parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip ideal for stabbing. On the battlefield, the leader traditionally led the attack, followed by gladius-wielding soldiers and then by the spearmen. By the 2nd century CE, the Roman cavalry sword spatha replaced the short sword.

4. Falcata (Iberian)

Sword (Falcata) 5th–1st century B.C. Iberian
Falcata, 5th–1st century B.C., Iberian – Credits: Met Museum

During the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Iberian warriors including the Celtic and Lusitani people wielded their short sword falcata. Mainly a chopping weapon, it had a curved blade that was mostly single-edged, though other examples were double-edged for about half its length.

The Iberian falcata usually ranged from 60 to 70 centimeters long, though the Lusitanian falcata was shorter at about 40 to 50 centimeters long. It is unnaturally heavy near the tip, making it capable of delivering a lethal blow.

5. Sax (Viking)

Iron seax, with a straight cutting edge
Iron seax, with a straight cutting edge – Credits: The British Museum

Most weapons in the Viking Age were multipurpose, suited for both combat and hunting. The Viking sax was ideal in tight formation as a warrior could wield it without significant movements. Its broad and heavy blade design suggests that it functioned as a cutting weapon, though the sharply angled tip was ideal for thrusting.

The Viking sax is often referred to as a fighting knife, though it was larger and heavier than most modern knives with a blade length ranging from 30 to 60 centimeters. Some blade shapes also featured gradual tapering to the front while others had a pronounced curve. However, it is unclear if there was a distinction between a short sword and a long knife based on how people used them. 

Most of the time, the long Viking swords featured a crossguard while fighting knives only had a wooden handle without a guard. The Vikings likely used the sax defensively as using it for parrying without a guard would have risked the unprotected hand. The Anglo-Saxons also used the sax, sometimes spelled seax as their fighting knife.

6. Arming Sword

Knightly Sword early 15th century, probably French
Knightly Sword early 15th century, probably French – Credits: Met Museum

Also known as the knightly sword, the arming sword was the single-handed sword of the medieval knight. It featured a wheel pommel to counterweight the blade and a simple crossguard to protect the user’s hand. Arming swords had a straight double-edged blade and were well-balanced weapons used for cutting. They also served as status symbols as knights wore them even out of armor.

Many erroneously call the arming sword a short sword to distinguish it from the longsword with a longer handle, which allows the use of two hands. However, its blade often had the same length as the typical longsword. An arming sword had a usual blade length of around 70 to 80 centimeters, so referring to it as a short sword is misleading.

7. Wakizashi (Japan)

Wakizashi with a large silver snake coiled around pine bark saya
Wakizashi with a large silver snake coiled around pine bark saya – Credits: The Walters Art Museum

When Japan was in constant war, the samurai carried the shorter sword wakizashi with the longer samurai sword, the katana. The pairing of the short and long swords was called daisho, which was exclusive to the samurai class. When a warrior entered a public building, he traditionally left the katana by the door, so the shorter sword served as a secondary weapon.

The katana and wakizashi are both curved and single-edged. The former has a blade length of over 60 centimeters long, while the latter is about 45 centimeters long. The samurai used the wakizashi in close-quarter fighting and seppuku or self-disembowelment. Those who were not samurai like the farmers, merchants, and craftsmen utilized the short sword as a self-defense weapon.

8. Baselard

Baselard, 15th century, French, possibly Swiss
Baselard, 15th century, French, possibly Swiss – Credits: Art Institute Chicago

The Middle Ages were rough times as citizens were often robbed and attacked. A late medieval short sword, the baselard functioned as a self-defense weapon worn by priests, merchants, and knights in civilian dress. Most recognized for its H-shaped hilt, the baselard had a long blade about the length between a long dagger and a short sword. However, some 13th and 14th-century examples usually had a straight hilt without a hand guard.

9. Katzbalger

German katzbalger replica
German katzbalger replica – Credits: Statens Historiska Museer

A short Renaissance arming sword, the katzbalger was the principal sidearm of the Swiss and German foot soldiers. It had an S-shaped or figure-8-shaped guard and a short, double-edged blade efficient for slashing in close quarters. It also became the signature blade of the German Landsknechts, used by the pikemen, crossbowmen, and archers.

The term katzbalger likely comes from the Middle High German verb balgen, which means to brawl while the term katz is likely a corruption of the word kurz for short. In some interpretations, the origin of the name probably comes from the traditional carrying of a sword without a scabbard and only held by a cat’s skin. The German katz means cat, while balg refers to the fur or skin of an animal.

10. Cutlass

French Naval Cutlass
French Naval Cutlass – Credits: Museum of the American Revolution

The cutlass is a short, broad saber and the favored weapon for hand-to-hand combat at sea. Its name comes from the Latin cultellus, meaning short sword. It usually had a cup-shaped guard and a slightly curved blade over 50 centimeters long.

During the age of fighting sail, cutlass was efficient in close quarters combat and able to cut through heavy ropes and rigging. It served as the official weapon of the U.S. Navy until 1949 and remains relevant on certain occasions carried by some officers in Royal navies.

Arming Sword vs. Longsword

Compared to the medieval longsword, many refer to the arming sword as the short sword. The arming sword might have had a shorter blade than the other, but not necessarily. The distinguishing characteristic of the longsword was its extra-long grip that allows two-handed use—not its long blade.

A single-handed sword, the arming sword was a full-length combat weapon usually with a blade length of 70 to 80 centimeters which is not particularly short. The longsword often had a blade length of around 83 to 101 centimeters, but remain short enough to be drawn from the belt. Both swords were reasonably light and served as a sidearm for medieval knights.

Some collectors associate the longsword with the hand-and-a-half sword, but the latter was more of a hybrid sword. It is sometimes referred to as a bastard sword since it is not a legitimate part of the family, being more than a one-handed yet less than a double-handed sword. Instead of completely grasping with two hands, the swordsman can have a hold on the handle with two or three fingers from the other hand.

General Characteristics of Short Swords

Early swordsmiths crafted the finest short swords based on the available resources and technology of the time, continuing improvements in hammering, forging, and tempering. Here are the general characteristics of the short swords:

Type of Steel

The earliest short swords were bronze-made as the metal hardens when hammered. The Greek xiphos traditionally had bronze or iron blades as the metal can be easily formed into a leaf shape.

In the early Iron Age, Celtic swords were made from relatively soft steel, equivalent to wrought iron today. The Viking sax also required a relatively small amount of iron, yet it could double as a functional tool and combat weapon.

Outside Europe, Japanese swordsmiths crafted the wakizashi from the tamahagane steel, smelted from a traditional furnace. Unlike other swords that required a shield, the samurai sword was capable of defense and attack due to its hard cutting edge and flexible, softer core.

Today, sword replicas often feature high carbon steel blades or damascus steel, boasting the elaborate damask pattern. However, those with stainless steel blades are only designed for decorative use and not ideal for parrying. 

Blade Appearance

Sword blades came in a variety of shapes including straight and curved. Straight ones were best for thrusting while curved blades functioned as slashing weapons. Earlier swords often featured raised central ridges to strengthen the structure, but later swords were usually lightened using grooves or fullers.

Size and Length

The functional qualities of bronze or iron as a material likely limited the length of earlier swords. Most short swords have a blade length between 30 to 60 centimeters except for the arming sword with a usual blade length of around 70 to 80 centimeters.

Some knives are also large enough to be considered short swords, especially the Viking sax. The overall length of short swords may also vary as some functioned as a one-handed sword, particularly the arming sword while others allowed using both hands.

Sword Mounting

Short swords were efficient sidearms for close quarters combat, so soldiers often carried them in scabbards, slung on the hip. The simple cruciform hilted sword is often associated with weapons of the Middle Ages, though the baselard often had an H-shaped hilt.

On the other hand, the samurai sword had rounded guards called tsuba which served as a functional and decorative piece. Most European short swords featured a pommel which counterbalanced the blade. However, the Japanese wakizashi had no pommel, just like all samurai swords.

Facts About the Short Swords

Throughout history, short swords served as secondary weapons and symbols of rank and prestige. Here are the things you need to know about short swords. 

A short sword often functioned as a weapon of last defense.

Every Greek hoplite’s primary weapon was the long thrusting spear or dory. However, it became useless when the enemy got closer as one could not reach back far enough to throw the weapon. So, the warrior resorted to the short sword, the xiphos, or the kopis, which are capable of thrusting or cutting.

Most warriors used short swords and fighting knives in close-quarters combat.

Roman legionaries fighting in close formation utilized the short sword gladius—not a long sword as that would require more space to wield effectively and would risk striking their comrades. The Viking sax or fighting knife was also ideal for the same purpose, especially within the shield wall. However, little is known about the Viking combat, so it remains obscure if the sax served as the weapon in the front ranks.

The Roman centurion wore his short sword differently from the rest of the soldiers.

The Roman soldiers traditionally carried their gladius on their right hip to prevent endangering their fellow soldiers on their immediate left. A Roman centurion, the commander of centuria consisting of a unit of 100 men, wore his gladius on his left hip, distinguishing him from ordinary soldiers.

The Spartans also favored the short sword.

The Spartans also favored the leaf-shaped xiphos, though their swords were generally shorter than the blades used by other Greeks. Their sword was technically known as encheiridion, meaning little hand weapon. When a warrior complained that his sword was too short, he was often told to fight closer to the enemy.

The Viking sax was less efficient in open combat.

The Viking sax lacks a crossguard, so parrying with the knife risks a blow into the warrior’s hand. Its short reach also puts the user at a disadvantage against longer weapons. Still, the Vikings used it to cut or thrust at close range. Around the 8th and 11th centuries, Viking smiths discovered how to forge longer swords from a single billet of iron, so they were manufactured in far greater numbers.

Shields accompanied early short swords on battlefields.

Most short swords with double-edged blades cannot withstand metal-on-metal impact, so warriors often used a shield to ward off the enemy’s sword. The hoplites had large round shields which were significant to their victory or defeat. In medieval times, many shields in combat even featured spikes.

The arming swords of the late Middle Ages were well-balanced.

Medieval knights were well trained and highly skilled, but types of swords that were too heavy were difficult to control once they were swung. Some were efficient for thrusting into weak points in an opponent’s armor while others were relatively heavy to penetrate armor. Most arming swords of the time typically weighed less than three pounds.

Short Swords in Modern Times

Short swords have a rich history and many martial arts utilize the short sword techniques used in medieval times. The Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA focuses on historical fencing, including the combat skills on several short swords and other weapons of varying periods of European history. 

Short swords also inspired several fantasy swords in animation and films. It is also not uncommon to see them in re-enactments, cosplay, live-action role-play, or LARP. They remind us of the legacy of the Greek hoplites who relied on their xiphos and kopis and the Roman legionaries who won their battles with the gladius. Some LARPers also play the role of medieval knights wielding the arming sword while others dress up as samurai with their wakizashi.

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