I’ve seen a few of these sorts of things bouncing around Tumblr – mostly for the benefit of writers, i imagine – but they seem to mostly be made by other writers, or other people with only a passing knowledge of such things.
Either way, they could be better, and i hope the following is more comprehensive, even if i keep it fairly brief.
This will be divided into two categories – weapons and armour – with four general subcategories in each. It’s difficult to cram centuries of warfare and thousands of weapon/armour variants into eight broad “boxes”, so bear with me.
Note: This list does not contain ranged/missile weapons, shields, etc. I can do a further post about those if this one proves popular.
- Double- or single-edged, long, bladed weapons.
- Can be many lengths, weights, and styles, each with a different fighting style and role.
- Were very expensive and hard to make throughout most of history; were wielded only by the wealthy. As such, they became status symbols.
- Generally bad at getting through armour. Better against cloth and flesh.
- An all-round weapon; usually used as a backup to a specialist weapon more than being a main weapon in its own right.
- Baby swords are called daggers. These are used differently to swords, and weren’t often battlefield weapons (though they were definitely used).
- Katanas are awful swords. Just putting that out there.
(Note: diagram is of a wood-cutting axe, which is slightly different to a war axe, but general components are the same).
- Haft of wood with a short hacking blade on one end.
- As with the sword, can be many lengths and styles, each with a different role.
- War axe heads/blades (unless wood-axes) are not wedge-shaped! They are very flat to reduce the weight, and are also much sharper.
- Hits harder and penetrates armour better than a sword, but is much more unwieldy. It is nearly impossible to block or parry with an axe.
- As such, axes are very aggressive, close-range weapons; the easiest way to not die is to kill the enemy before he kills you.
- Note: You will find it very hard to cut an axe haft with another weapon. Axes didn’t break very often on the battlefield (the most common breakage was the head coming off).
- Some axes were dedicated throwing weapons, but these were exceptionally rare.
Bludgeons (Hammers, Maces, etc.):
(Sorry about the lack of labels)
- Metal or wooden haft with a heavy, blunt metal head on one end.
- As ever, can be various lengths and styles, each with a different role.
- The head of the weapon can vary considerably; can be a metal orb, a spiked/studded orb, a flanged metal head, a hammer head, a hammer head with a spike, and so on.
- Despite their differences, each weapon performs much the same; they are used to deal blunt-force trauma to an enemy.
- Are excellent against heavily-armoured opponents, who get stunned or incapacitated by such blows. Long spikes can also puncture armour (like a nail through a tin can).
- Unarmoured opponents are less affected (a broken bone is less severe than a stab wound). Better to use a blade against them.
- Like axes, these are very unwieldy and short-ranged.
Polearms (Spears, Pikes, Halberds, Billhooks, etc):
- Most diverse category; there are many kinds of polearm.
- They were the most common weapons on medieval battlefields (used mostly by poor foot soldiers), because they were cheap and usually made by modifying agricultural tools (of which there were no shortage).
- Consists of a long pole with a blade on the end.
- Usually wielded defensively by large bodies of men; they were able to keep the enemy at arm’s length (poor foot soldiers weren’t known for their bravery).
- Excellent against cavalry, since most spears are longer than lances, and horses will avoid running into a wall of spears (they’re not stupid). Variants with “hooks” are also good, as they could pull men off their horses.
- Mostly used for stabbing, but some had the ability to hack and chop.
- Note: It is very, very hard to cut a polearm’s pole in half – even with a big axe. It’s easier to snap them, but it’s still extremely hard to do.
- If an enemy gets “inside” your weapon, you’re dead (unless you’re quick to pull out a backup weapon).
(This will stick to a brief overview of general armour types; an overview of armour components can be found here)
- Light, relatively flexible, comfortable, no sharp edges.
- Most common armour, with padded cloth armour often worn under heavier armour (for comfort/cushioning).
- NOT the same as a leather jacket – that kind of leather is far too soft. Leather armour was made of boiled leather or rawhide, both of which are very tough (like a cross between flattened cardboard and overcooked steak).
- Cheaper than steel, and easier to work with.
- Provided minimal protection, and extremely vulnerable to thrusting attacks.
Mail (or Chainmail):
- Ubiquitous, comfortable, flexible as cloth.
- Easy to make, but very time-consuming.
- However, it was exceptionally heavy, and soaked up sunlight (so it was very hot in hot weather).
- Consists of thousands of interlocking metal rings.
- Can resist slashing or glancing attacks easily, but strong thrusting attacks would often penetrate.
Scale/Segment Armour (e.g. Lamellar, Brigandine):
- Transitional armour; somewhere between mail and plate.
- Consists of small metal plates held together in close sequence.
- Less flexible than chainmail, and less comfortable. Just as hot and nearly as heavy.
- Less vulnerable to thrusting attacks; the individual plates are stronger than mail rings.
- Most protective form of armour; all but impervious to slashing attacks, and highly resistant to thrusts.
- Also cushioned blows by redistributing impact force over an entire plate.
- Least comfortable; inflexible, hot, somewhat restricts and slows movement.
- Slightly lighter than chainmail.
- Was not (re)invented until the later medieval era, as steelworking techniques weren’t good enough.
- To make a single piece of metal this big was difficult and expensive. For most of the medieval era (when it was available at all), only the rich could afford it.
Gonna have to disagree with the katana part though, while they are overhyped a lot katanas are still perfectly fine swords and perform just as well as an equivalent long sword, the only problem I have with them is the lack of hand protection but like most swords they were a sidearm so it’s not that big of a deal.
And the thing about polearms is they were used by everyone no matter what their wealth is because polearms are extremely effective battlefield weapons because of the reach.
I’ve said elsewhere that this post is a couple of years old, and i confess it’s not entirely accurate. I’ve learned a few more things about weapons and armour since creating this post.
My point about katanas remains mostly valid, however. 😉 But it’s worth noting that i was being deliberately flippant/dismissive for the sake of comic effect. I don’t actually think katanas are terrible; they’re just poorly-optimised for what they’re supposed to do.
Functionally-speaking, katanas are more or less on-par with European longswords or bastard swords. They are both long-bladed weapons, used as sidearms by the elite, and are generally quite versatile (making them ideal as a back-up weapon).
However, the similarities are mostly skin deep. Katanas have a few flaws which European swords generally do not:
- As you say, katanas have no real guard, meaning that the wielder’s hands are more exposed to an enemy’s weapon. Plenty of European swords had small guards (Viking swords, Roman Gladii Hispaniensis, etc.), but these were usually used in conjunction with a shield, meaning that the sword was never intended to be used defensively. Small guards are generally designed to stop one’s hand sliding up onto the blade when thrusting (ouch), and aren’t intended to protect the wielder from enemy weapons. Why the katana – a two-handed weapon – has such a small guard is beyond me.
- Katanas do not have pommels. This means that katanas are much less well-balanced than (many) European swords. Pommels are also primarily in place to prevent the wielder’s hands sliding off the end of the grip during heavy swings, and to give them something to use as leverage when pulling the weapon towards themselves, such as when recovering the weapon after stabbing an enemy. This means that the katana is harder to keep a hold of in certain situations.
- Katanas have really thick blades. This is partly to compensate for poor-quality Japanese steel (which isn’t the fault of Japanese swordsmiths, but is worth mentioning), but it nonetheless makes them noticeably poor at penetrating armour (even by the standards of swords, which aren’t known for their armour-piercing quality), and the rounded, single-edged tip doesn’t help with this. The thickness of the blade also doesn’t help with the balance issue.
- Moreover, katanas were not really optimised in the same way that European swords were. Development on the first katanas begin in the 11th century, and the “final” design was reached around the 13th. All changes since the 13th century have been more cosmetic than practical.
Compare this to European weapons, which – between the 11th and 18th centuries (the period during which katanas were in use as a battlefield weapon) – radically underwent changes in size, shape, style, and role.
I think this is due, in part, to European countries always being neighbours with their enemies, such that constant feuding led to exaggerated weapons development. Additionally, being connected so closely to the Middle East, Africa, and – more distantly – Asia meant that Europe always had inspiration for new weapons. By comparison, Japan has always been relatively isolated from mainland Asia, and even moreso from the rest of the world, meaning that it never had such a need to develop technologically.
I’m sure you get my point. There are several design factors of the katana which make it poorly-suited to its intended battlefield role. It seems to be a melting pot of weapon design ideas; plenty of the design features are, by themselves, effective (such as the short guard, or the thick blade)… but the katana is not the kind of weapon which should have them.
Regarding polearms… you do make a good point. The overall category is too broad, as polearms represent probably a third of all melee combat weapons, and have many different sources, styles, and uses. As i say, though, it’s a little late to edit this post now, given how widely it’s been circulated. Oh well.
That’s for the reply, though! I always love talking about this sort of thing. =)