The first bronze swords were made about 2,000 BC. Two types of bronze swords were made: a cutting sword with a broad leaf-shaped blade and a thrusting sword with a longer, narrow blade. The Assyrians are believed to have introduced the sword as a weapon of war.
Iron swords were used by the Greeks from the seventh century BC. Because of rusting, very few iron swords from before the 15th century have survived although older bronze swords are relatively common.
The modern Nepalese Ghurkha kukri is a shortened adaptation of the Greek kopis, a slashing sword used in the 5th century BC.
The main European source of iron ore was Styria, in present-day Austria, and the cities of Innsbruck and Passau produced the best blades for knives throughout the Middle Ages.
In the 8th century, the Vikings revolutionised sword making with their discovery of the process of carbonising iron by repeatedly folding and beating the heated metal. This allowed them to make tough, hard swords that held a superior edge and did not easily bend. The Japanese developed similar techniques some centuries later.
The Arabs also produced the fine “Damascus” blade by high-temperature forging. The Arab jambiya, a knife with a curved, double-edged blade, is still the most widely used knife weapon in the world.
10th century swords were slashing weapons with a rounded tip, a crossbar (“quillon”) to protect the hands and a round weight (“pommel”) at the end of the hilt to counterbalance the weight of the blade.
Plate armour was introduced in the 14th century. This led to the development of massive two-handed, cutting swords (“broadswords”) and pointed, tapered thrusting swords (“rapiers”). The Scottish Highlanders’ claymore is a type of broadsword.
Daggers (pointed stabbing knives) were also popular as weapons from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The best daggers were made in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. In Spain, the “main gauche” dagger was held in the left hand and a rapier in the right. In Italy, the triangular bladed stiletto was favoured.
In the 16th century, the knuckle brow, a metal strap from the pommel to quillon, was introduced to protect the hand. More complex hand guards were introduced during the century.
Also during the 16th century, the Turks invaded Eastern Europe. They used slashing swords with curved blades, called scimitars. The curved slashing sword was adopted in Europe as the cavalry sabre. The navy adopted a short version of the sabre with a heavy hand guard, called a cutlass, for close quarter fighting in boarding operations.
In the late 16th century, the rapier, with a long thin blade for thrusting, became popular among the upper classes. At first the hilt usually had a guard made up of curved bars and a long crossguard. Later in the century, the barred guard was replaced by a hemispherical metal cup, often decorated with an intricate pierced design/
In the 17th century, light, easily handled swords, called epees, were introduced for fencing and duelling. These swords had hollow ground blades. The process of hollow grinding was a German trade secret. In 1690, the Hollow Sword Blade Company was formed in England to produce hollow ground sword blades using imported German swordsmiths. Although the original company failed, one of the swordsmiths, Herman Mohll, set up a sword manufacturing business which continued to produce swords and bayonets until it was taken over by Wilkinson Sword in 1922. (In 1832, the name was changed from Mohll to Mole.)
As firearms came into use from the late 17th century, the long rapier was gradually replaced by a shorter version called the “short sword”. This was often worn as much for costume as use. The hilts of these swords were often elaborately fashioned from brass, iron, silver or even gold. The small sword was generally abandoned as costume from about the 1770s.
The British infantry also abandoned the sword from the middle of the 18th century, although officers continued to carry swords, largely as status symbols, until the end of the 19th century.
The bayonet was introduced by the British and French in 1660. The first bayonets were long knives that were plugged into the bore of a musket, turning it into a pike. Late in the 18th century, the modern type of bayonet, which fits around the muzzle of the gun, was introduced.
During World War 1, trench knives were developed. These had a double-edged blade, a hand guard in the form of brass knuckles and a short pike in the base of the handle.
During World War 11, the British introduced the commando knife and the Americans the K-bar knife. These are thrusting daggers with a single cutting edge and a round, bone-cracking peen on the butt end of the handle. A shorter version of the K-bar was developed as the aviators’ “survival knife”.