Used without permission.
Connor MacLeod:Duncan, what you give up to your adversary in the feet is everything.
— “Highlander: Endgame” (2000)
The daisho, the two swords of the old samurai, are emblematic in many ways of the art Yamashita follows. They are a melding of esthetics and functionality, highly refined products of master artisans whose ultimate purpose is savage beyond description. I’ve seen their use firsthand, and wondered how such danger can be contained—or justified. Once I had asked my teacher this question. His eyes narrowed and the answer was brief. “Discipline,” Yamashita told me. “And wisdom.”
It’s a hard path to walk.
[Bronze Age] weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight in the pommel counteracting the weight in the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death terror. A sword is only useful if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight. Some of the most beautiful decorated swords are found scarcely used, ceremonial objects to be carried in glory. But most of the rest show the marks of battle; the edges hacked and notched where another sword clashed onto them, worn where those edges were resharpened for the next time.
The sword enjoyed another important advantage over bow or spear: it could and did become an item of regular dress. Scabbard, hilt and belt provided eye-catching fields for decorative display, connoting taste, wealth and above all the personal autonomy, courage, or sanction of higher authority openly to wear a lethal weapon. It was a warning, challenge or threat, symbolizing status, rank, or profession as a fighting man. Here we move beyond mere functional considerations to the symbolic value and meaning of the sword. Highly prized material objects of great physical and symbolic power, swords were widely selected for religious offerings in ancient Europe (a key reason we now have so many in our museums). In particular, they were deposited in watery places, inspiring the legend of Excalibur. It is hardly surprising, then, that the sword was also widely used as a metaphor in antiquity, not least by the warlike Romans themselves.
Swords were also prized because, of all elements of the pre-gunpowder panoply, with the possible exception of the composite bow, they were the most technically demanding to make, with consequent expense in materials, expertise and time. In thrusting or slashing, a blade must withstand huge mechanical stresses, flexing to a degree yet not bending or snapping, while retaining sharpness of edge. By comparison the spear, itself a fearsome weapon, was simple and cheap to produce.
Among pre-gunpowder weapons of offence, arms such as the axe, spear, javelin, bow or sling had origins or alternative uses as tools or hunting equipment. The sword was different. From its Bronze Age invention it was a specialized instrument for killing people. Further, while weapons such as the powerful composite bow, shooting iron-tipped arrows, rival it in lethality, the sword demands that its wielder approach a foe closely; it is a murderous extension of the fist, yet also puts the wielder in reach of a similarly armed opponent. Par excellence it connotes both aggression and courage, and an especially personalized source of terror quite distinct from the danger of a distant, semi-anonymous bowman. For, instead of the relatively small puncture wounds of arrows (lethal though they may be), it threatens cloven skulls, dismemberment or disembowelling, injuries more devastating and hideous to behold than those inflicted by most other hand-wielded weapons. Of all common arms, it offers the highest likelihood of instantly killing, or at least incapacitating, foe or victim.
Corrosion from perspiration, skin oils, blood, and exposure to the elements are the problems we need to know well. In the case of carbon steel, these culprits can cause severe discoloration and rust very rapidly if neglected. I own swords that literally will rust before your eyes if left un-oiled. During a take giri (bamboo cutting) demonstration my students and I were performing, I had a drop of my perspiration land, unnoticed, on one of my Rapier (thrusting sword) blades. In just a few minutes, I was shocked to see a bright orange spot of rust on my hand-polished sword. This is a very serious problem the martial arts student must know how to combat. Even breathing on an un-oiled sword blade can begin the dreaded process of corrosion. The edge is the thinnest part of a cutting implement and the most vulnerable to neglect. If allowed to rust, a razor-sharp weapon will become dull in a short period of time. Genuine katana [are] famous for their polish and [mirror-like] finish. This is not for merely cosmetic appearance. Steel has microscopic surface irregularities that can collect moisture and corrosive elements. A finely polished blade has smaller irregularities and sheds blood much more easily than an unpolished one. Hence, the more corrosive agents that collect in the pores, the more tarnish and rust will accumulate.
Thank the gods for the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, else I could not have linked to the source blogpost.
Underlying all or any tactics of battle is one basic art which for nearly 3,000 years remained unchanged, in spite of chariot or warhorse, long-bow or cannon or musket—the art of hand-to-hand combat with sword and shield. The people of the late Bronze Age had large round shields and beautiful cut-and-thrust swords; how they fought with them the vase-painters of classical Greece show us—and in the same way the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands fought, right up to the [Jacobite Rising of 1745 C.E.], with broadsword and targe.
The shield is the most obvious, the simplest and therefore the most primitive item of defensive armour. It does not take much imagination to picture some Palaeolithic hunter grabbing up the first object that came to his hand to ward off the flint spear of an irritated fellow cave-dweller. From this to the fashioning of a wickerwork frame covered with hide is an easy and logical step. A shield is about the most effective piece of defensive equipment one can have, too—hence its early appearance, its universal usage and its survival in the Highlands until the eighteenth century [C.E.]; survival, too, until the present time in such parts of the world where men dwell sufficiently remote from the ballistic blessings of modern civilization. The round shields of the Western Bronze Age are generally flat, with a diameter of about 2 [feet]; they have a small central hollow boss across the inside of which is riveted a short bar for a hand grip. They are of fine workmanship, the most common type being embossed with concentric circular ridges, interspersed with small bosses. The metal is thin, and it would have been backed with layers of leather, put on wet, and pressed into the hollows of the embossed ridges. When dry and hard this would provide an excellent backing for the bronze. Such shields were probably only borne by chiefs and noblemen, but then we may assume that at this time all warriors who bore a sword and shield were noblemen.
— The Archaeology of Weapons, p. 24
The sword had been quite sufficient for its gory tasks, but over the course of the eighteenth century [C.E.] the dueling pistol began to replace it, a switch that romantics like [Sir Richard] Burton lamented as “an ugly exchange of dull lead for polished steel.” During the transition, people sometimes used both at once. In 1690, in Ireland, the high sheriff of Country Down had an argument with a neighbor over dinner, and they fought with sword and pistol: One was run through with a sword and the other was shot. Both died. Sometimes, if the pistols misfired, the combatants threw them away and whipped out their reliable swords.
Slashing and killing a man with a sword offered visceral pleasures not found in guns. It was a physical experience. You held the sword in your hand and felt the flesh of your enemy give way under its point…. Your arm quivered to the crunch of bone and cartilage, and knew the spongy resistance of lung or bowel. His blood, probably mixed with yours, splashed your shoes. His face was close; you could see his eyes.
Another advantage of sword over pistol was that the damage done was directly related to the gravity of the occasion. In a casual matter, you could swoop in with the upward-cutting manchette blow that disabled his sword arm, ending the encounter and leaving him with nothing but a bruised elbow. Swords did what they were told to do. You could defend yourself with a sword and parry a thrust; the only way to parry a gun is to shoot the man who’s shooting it. A sword was always a sword, but pistols often misbehaved or misfired. The skillful swordsman could inflict as much or as little damage as he wanted, but pistol duels were fraught with accident and surprise. You could kill an old friend who’d laughed at the wrong moment, instead of merely flicking a drop of blood from his arm and then taking him out for a drink. Or you could hit the wrong target, which never happened with swords: In one duel in France, both parties fired simultaneously and simultaneously killed each other’s seconds.
When you’d killed a man with your personal sword and not by some proxy impersonal bullet, your soul had killed his. When the victor claimed the sword of the fallen as his right and broke it over his knee, killing him in effigy, generations quivered. When [Robert E.] Lee handed his sword to [Ulysses S.] Grant at Appomattox, strong men wept. Some say Grant wept.
With guns, the satisfaction was remote. You stood well separated by the agreed-on paces. Shoot your man and he crumples and falls, his weapon drops from his hand, but as far as your own hand knows he might have been struck by lightning. You didn’t press the bullet into his chest; it flew there by itself, mechanically. You were distanced from the action, like the pilot of a high-altitude bomber.
— Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 72-75
The old original war sword was so massive it sometimes required both hands. It had been designed—and worked splendidly if you were strong enough—for knocking an armored knight off his horse, but it was useless at close quarters except as a bludgeon. The duel of honor refined it.
From the mid-sixteenth century [C.E.] through the seventeenth, the rapier was the blade of choice. It was sharp-edged but used primarily for thrusting, not cutting, and it was a formidable piece, often nearly four feet long, topped by an elaborate hand guard, and weighed two and a half pounds. Wearing it advertised how tall as well as how brave you were: Four feet of steel hanging from your waist, and you swaggering around with it, made a statement.
Elizabethan London passed an ordinance against strolling the streets with more than a three-foot blade; if you came into the city with something longer, the gatekeepers were under orders to break off the extra inches. Even so, that’s a lot of blade, and it was often used in combination with a dagger for close work.
In 1599 [C.E.], a gentleman named George Silver published an attack on this newfangled monster, developed, he says, as a purely civilian weapon with no distinguished military history. It was, in effect, a costume accessory, ineffective for serious fighting. Once your opponent is past your point, he complained, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again; the length of the blade drags in the hand, and it tends to favor the thrust, which can be turned aside easily, over the cut that takes manly strength to avoid.
Not everyone agreed. Long after the rapier had evolved into lighter, shorter versions, some still swore by it. Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in The Sentiment of the Sword, wrote of it with passion:
Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meanings, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets a man’s ideas. and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here, light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, ‘she.’
— Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 59-60