One common question that master swordsmiths get is, “How do I make a short sword?” This will usually get an eyeroll from the swordsmith because making short swords is not as easy as a truly good smith makes it look. Master swordsmiths will usually not even try to teach people how to make a sword unless those people already have some experience as blacksmiths.
The first thing that should be considered is what a sword is for. Swords of any type would not exist at all if the people using them did not want to inflict a considerable amount of damage on another person. These days, people mostly want swords because they’re into cosplay or reenacting famous battles or just playing around with friends. I tend to assume that you are a civilized person who doesn’t go around beheading people or getting into duels to the death on a regular basis. Even when you’re “just playing,” though, a sword can do some serious damage by accident. When you search for a sword, you should look for one that can hold up to the rigors of what you want to use it for and maybe find an expert swordfighting teacher to teach you how to use it safely.
Short swords were mostly used when the people using them were going absolutely eyeball to eyeball with one another. Many short swords, such as some used by the Spartans, were ideal for the crush of large battles but not so good on horseback or in a duel with an enemy with a longer sword. Even when you are just creating a piece to display on your wall or use as part of a reenactment, you want it to look like it could do some serious damage if you can get close enough to an enemy.
When choosing the type of sword you want, you’re not just considering the time period. Short swords could look very different depending on where they came from. During the Japanese Samurai era, a wakizashi was the short sword with a curved blade that the samurai would keep with him at all times. Even in situations where a samurai might need to leave all other weapons behind, it would have been the height of rudeness to expect him to leave behind the wakizashi.
Some Greek swords were believed to have been based on the earliest known sword designs. The Xiphos has a nearly identical style to the Celtic La Tene sword. Both types have a double-edged, single design. The Xiphos was generally about 50-60 centimeters in length, though the Spartans were known to use a version that was as short as 30 centimeters during the Greco-Persian wars. They were generally widest at 2/3 their length.
Making these swords was often hazardous work for blacksmiths of these ancient civilizations. Some experts say that the deformities of the gods of blacksmiths in several mythologies, such as Hephaestus in the Greek pantheon and the legendary Norse bronzeworker Weyland the Smith, were indicative of the symptoms of exposure to arsenic, a toxic substance that was often used to harden the metals used in swords in regions where tin was not readily available.
Even now, making swords is not without hazards. Experienced swordsmiths will normally make use of safety gear that protects them from the toxic fumes that used to be a serious occupational hazard for smiths. Swordsmiths still use intense heat to soften the metals enough that they can be shaped into swords. They don’t work cheap – in many cases, they own and operate their own workshops and may charge more than $100 an hour for their services just to earn enough to make it worth their while. That is one major factor in the high price of quality swords and sword replicas.
Making swords is a highly specialized process that should only be attempted by experienced blacksmiths. For this reason, master swordsmiths will usually refuse to teach sword making unless the prospective student already has experience with smithing and will often also refuse to take you seriously if what you “know” about swordsmithing comes from movies. However, they may be happy to make you a sword replica to display on your wall or use for reenactments.
This is just a bit off-topic, but I thought I’d give you a life update. We recently had a tree fall on our house and had to move in with the in-laws for a few days. Finding good roofing in Pearland was a bit of a challenge, but we finally got it all straightened out, and now we’re back home, and I can get back to work forging the dagger I was working on. Wish me luck!