“Foozle McKillicutty dove, spun on his knee, and thrust both blades upward. They found the space beneath the hapless guard’s shield, and sheared through his steel breastplate as though it were a particularly bloody hedge. Foozle leapt, kicked off with both feet, and…”
He probably didn’t.
Welcome, readers, to today’s 101. Today, we’ll discuss weapons in (historical) fantasy.
First off: my qualifications in this field are, of course, lacking. Most writers are in the same boat. For better or worse (hint: better) most of us will never shatter somebody’s skull with a mace or tickle them with a cat o’ nine tails. However, I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn a lot from an on-and-off love affair with martial arts; I’ve done a wee bit of fencing in my time, and I’ve been a neophyte practitioner of kali/escrima, the filipino art of hitting people about the head and neck with sticks.
Because this is a topic that few of us have any direct experience with, and one that many of us seem to feel no need to research, a number of misconceptions have crept, over the years, into fantasy writing. Today we’ll tackle a few of them and run down the historical arsenal.
Tools of the Trade
Say hello to armour. This is the single most important development in the history of weapon-making, and the quality and type of weaponry available in a given story will be influenced first and foremost by what sort of protection is available to deal with them. The number one thing that fantasy writers routinely fail to take into account is that armour works. Yes, you can shear through leather with relative ease, but chain is tough, and those big ol’ renaissance suits of angled plate are basically impenetrable. There’s a reason why so many European warriors eventually carried the estoc, which is basically a sharpened railway spike – it could punch through the chain protecting the joints of a plate suit, and it could work its way into the seams between plates.
The next misconception is that armour is incredibly heavy. I’m sure you’ve all heard the old canard that a medieval knight, once fallen from horse, had to be lifted back into the saddle with a crane. If you’ve ever fought, even in a playground scuffle, it should be immediately clear how little sense this makes. In order to fight, you need to be able to move. This was as true then as it is now. Sure, wearing a suit of steel is no picnic, but the weight was distributed in such a way as to make it bearable, and a trained man could even turn cartwheels in full plate in the gymnastics competition after each grand tournament (nb: medieval gymnastics competitions may be fictional, but knights were indeed able to run, climb, vault onto horseback and do a number of other things in full plate).
Next, the shield. This is not just a thing that hangs from your arm to block blows. It is also a weapon. Have you ever been hit in the face with a plank of steel-rimmed wood? No? I haven’t either. But I bet it hurts. Shields were not typically made of metal – this would be much too heavy. Instead, they were typically wood (still heavy), or hide stretched over a wooden frame. Metal was sometimes used as a reinforcement for the shield’s rim, or in other parts. Shields were also quite effective, which should be clear from the fact that practically every civilization made use of them. They come in all shapes and sizes, from bucklers that could be strapped to a wrist to, essentially, doors planted in the earth for archers to hide behind. Getting past a shield is no joke, and many weapons were designed for this very purpose; in the absence of those, one could always try to beat the shield with enough force to shatter the arm holding it, to outflank it, or to batter or pull it aside with one’s own shield. Shields (in the form of riot gear) are still in use today. They work.
The spear, pike, javelin or lance. It’s a pointy stick, or else a normal stick with a pointy thing affixed to the end, and man’s best friend over millennia of killery. It’s functional, it’s inexpensive and easy to make, it doubles as an excellent hunting weapon, and if it’s small enough it can also be effectively thrown. Alas, spears are the proletariat’s weapon, and as such they lack a certain amount of fantasy-cool cachet, despite that they vie with the club for most common historical weapon ever. Spears include: the Roman pilum, an awkwardly weighted javelin whose purpose was not to kill but to get stuck in a shield and drag it down with its weight; the standard-issue short spear, used with a shield in the off-hand and uniquely suited to lines of fighters on a battlefield because it requires no horizontal swinging room; tall-as-a-man spears that were frequently used without a shield, as a sort of combination quarterstaff/pokey bit (see: wuxia); and the Alexandrian sarissa, a spear so long and unwieldy that it absolutely required two strong hands and was only used in concert with a whole phalanx armed the same way.
Spears (and staves) are more versatile weapons than one might think. A common refrain is that the wielder is meat as soon as you make it past the spearhead; while there’s a wee bit of truth to this being an uncomfortable range, keep in mind that a spearman can shift his hands closer to the spearhead for in-close work, and that he may very well still have a shield, a sidearm, or a thousand similarly armed buddies beside him. Also, don’t neglect spear butts or the haft. A good swing with a quarterstaff can shatter your choice of bone into your favourite number of fragments. The same is true of its pointier cousin.
The club or mace. It hits things and causes blunt trauma. Clubs have been around since Thag brained Ug with a rock, in as many forms as there were cavemen to brain. They’re every bit as common as spears, and even less glamorous. Thing is, maces are actually incredibly useful, because they’re practically armour-agnostic. A sword can’t readily cut through a steel plate, but a mace can dent it and crunch the bones beneath or make movement (or breathing) difficult. For this to happen, it needs to be swung pretty damn hard, which is why maces were common horse-back weapons and not necessarily common line-o’-guys weapons.
The association of the mace with priesthoods and clerical orders in a lot of fantasy is often thought of as a D&Dism, but there’s actually a historical basis to this. See, Catholic priests weren’t supposed to spill blood, but *wink, nudge* that totally doesn’t happen if you use a club. (It totally does).
The axe. This is a combination of club and blade, and like the spear, it’s a weapon that will be widely available because it moonlights as a tool. Axes range from hand-held hatchets to bigger things, but what they have in common is that they cause really, really, really grievous wounds because they’re focusing the full force of a swing onto a smallish, wedge-shaped metal surface. These things cut down trees. They *can* pierce even strong armour, provided that the energy isn’t too dispersed across surface area (i.e. the fantasy battle-axe with an axe-head as big as the haft = dumb). Another interesting quirk is that an axe-head can often be used as a sort of hook to wrap around a shield’s edge and pull it out of alignment (but, of course, this can leave the axe-man rather open). The biggest problem with the axe is that the all-toward-the-front weight profile makes it a bit cumbersome, like the mace. And, like the mace, it requires a bit of room to maneuver. The biggest benefit is that your doughty peasants have been using these to cut down trees or split firewood for most of their lives, so the put-axe-in-man retraining process isn’t too onerous.
The sword. Ah, ol’ reliable. Here’s the rub, though: swords are frequently sidearms. They’re the pistol to your SWAT shotgun. Swords, in all their million varieties, can stab and cut… but they’re not as good at getting through armour as they’re frequently made out to be. A well made sword with the proper cutting angle can cut through impressive things, but the level of skill and craftsmanship required to that end is a bit wasted when you can just grab a club and hit real hard for similar or better results. Swords are excellent and versatile weapons if armour is light (for instance, in areas that are very hot, in Japan, and in historical periods before the proliferation of man-in-a-can), they’re perfect for cutting down routed peasants, and they’re great dueling weapons. But on a battlefield, against armoured men, they tend to play second fiddle. Again, think of a sword as a pistol. Sure, you may want one for personal protection if you’re a bravo striding a Venetian street, but you may want something a bit uglier if you happen to get drafted into Il Doce’s army.
But swords are iconic, they’re a status symbol, and they ooze class and expensive training. They’re the weapons of the nobility. They’re the Lamborghini on a city street; maybe there are more practical ways to get from point A to Stab Man, but it’s not always about that.
A bow is another of the hunter-turned-soldier offerings, and archers played a vital role in almost every pitched battle under the pre-firearm sun. Killing people when they’re still good and far away has always been a good idea. Arrows can pierce surprising things if they land flush (but if they don’t, they can also skitter off armour when it really seems like they ought to get through it), particularly if the bow has a big draw. And if it does have a big draw, you’ll need a strong-ass warrior to pull it.
There are two main things that fantasy writers get wrong when it comes to bows. Firstly, they’re not carried ready to go unless an archer is expecting to need to use the thing. Stringing a bow exerts enormous pressure on the wood (if it didn’t, you wouldn’t get any power from the weapon springing back into shape when the bowstring is released), and the wear and tear this creates is something to be avoided. Secondly, bows require a huge amount of training to use. Taking wind and the ballistic arc into account is not something any old farmboy can do, unless he’s been hunting with bows for all his life. The reason firearms replaced longbows is not that they were more effective – for quite a long time, they weren’t. Firearms replaced bows because they were dramatically easier to use, and thus easier to teach.
Finally, there’s anything at hand. People are pretty fragile, when it comes down to it, and weapons have been made from all sorts of things. The Japanese/Okinawan martial art of kobudo, for instance, is all about using farming implements to fight. The nunchaku popularized by Bruce Lee, Michaelangelo J. Turtle and Napoleon Dynamite started as a wheat thresher. Pitchforks, likewise, are farming tools that happen to also be pretty dangerous. The advantage to weapons like this is plausible deniability. “Why no, officer, this is wheat blood!” a hapless farmer might say.
Countless other weapons haven’t been mentioned, of course. Whips, halberds, jitte, etc. There’s not enough time to be exhaustive about that sort of thing. But the above are the workhorses of fantasy.
“Foozle’s blades of unalloyed murderanium gleamed in the sunlight.”
A final note on weapons: they’re made of things, and this has an impact. Bronze is an alloy. Please to not be mining bronze. It’s made of copper and tin (when you can get it) or arsenic (when you can’t and don’t mind some of your smiths keeling over now and then). It keeps an edge pretty well, but it’s heavy and brittle. A bronze two-handed sword would raise some eyebrows – the metal isn’t strong enough to withstand the stress of impact if it’s that long.
Iron runs into a similar issue, but it’s actually an element and can be mined.
Steel is also an alloy – iron and carbon, and initially made usually by mistake, until people figured out why exactly some of the swords they forged were so much better than others. Steel is light, flexible, and it keeps an edge well; it’s what allowed swords to get longer.
It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to invent new and wacky fantasy metals or woods or whatever else to get around historical limitations. An enchanted sword, or one made of elfglass or dwarf cartilage, may indeed be able to rip through full steel plate with ease. But such a sword would generally have to be rare and expensive; if weapons that obviate armour are too widely available, armour will disappear. That, in fact, is exactly what happened as gunpowder became more and more common. Why carry the extra weight on your shoulders, and deal with all the cleaning and straps and so forth, if it won’t protect you any better than a shirt?
Today’s was supposed to be a Magic: 201 post, following up on the last, but as I toyed with drafts I realized I had no way to say what I wanted to without spoiling a few of Pale Queen’s Courtyard plot elements. Perhaps I’ll return to that in a year or two. Next time, we’ll discuss what fighting actually looks like, talk about what it feels like to parry a blade, the difference between dueling and battle, and why, World of Warcraft aside, very few civilizations fought with a weapon in either hand.