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The Sword Cane: Tracing Its History and Distinctive Traits

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Updated: February 8, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Disguised as an ordinary walking stick, a sword cane conceals a long slender blade. Sometimes called swordstick, it served as a self-defense weapon and a symbol of the wealth and status of the owner. Today, a sword cane generally refers to European blades that were once popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, though similar weapons also existed in Asian countries.

Let’s explore the history of sword canes, their unique characteristics, and how they acquired their place in fashionable society.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
Sword canes emerged in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries as weapons and status symbols, with similar items in Asia.
These weapons conceal a blade within a cane, showcasing high-quality materials and regional designs.
Today, sword canes face legal restrictions in many places due to their classification as offensive weapons.

General Characteristics of Sword Canes

Sword canes are discerned by their concealed blade inside a hollow shaft, but their quality and style varies depending on the country and period they came from.

Here are the common characteristics of swordsticks:

Type of Metal

In the 19th century, blades were items of international trade. Most European sword canes had high-quality blades, often manufactured from Toledo in Spain, Solingen in Germany, Klingenthal in France, and Wilkinson in England.

It is rare to find an American blade in swordsticks, and it was not common practice for American manufacturers to sign their blades. Today, contemporary bladesmiths create heavy-duty sword canes with damascus steel or high carbon steel blades.

Blade Appearance

Sword Cane, 19th century, Spanish
Sword Cane, 19th century, Spanish – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Most blades in walking canes resemble swords, but the shape varies depending on their origin. Some hidden blades were double-edged, but 18th-century examples were triangular-shaped or similar to rapier with a narrow, sharp tip.

Some 19th-century sword canes were flat and rectangular in cross-section while 20th-century examples were almost square. On the other hand, broader blades tend to have etching, engraving, or gilding, ranging from floral to military themes with highly ornate patterns.

Blade for a Sword (Katana) with Mounting (Shikomizue) blade, dated February 1677; mounting, 19th century
Blade for a Sword (Katana) with Mounting (Shikomizue) blade, dated February 1677; mounting, 19th century – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

In Japan, some swordsticks called shikomizue had single-edged saber-like blades similar to katana. These blades usually featured a hamon or temperline pattern commonly seen on samurai swords. However, most historical examples had straight and relatively thin blades that are usually of poor quality, probably because they functioned as backup weapons.

Size and Length

Sword canes had no standard size as they usually depended on the height of the owner, but they often had full-length blades of typical swords. Surviving examples have an overall length ranging from 95 to 130 centimeters.

Sword Mounting

Instead of the traditional scabbard, sword canes utilized hollow bamboo shafts—or wooden shafts carved to resemble bamboo. A variety of other woods can be used, but the finest ones have malacca shafts which are lightweight and durable with colors that vary from reddish amber to brown. During the early 19th century, artisans decorated the handles with ivory, silver, or gold ornamentations.

Sword Cane with Scabbard
Sword Cane with Scabbard – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Walking cane swords have a locking device that secures the blade, in which a simple twist releases it. Like a functional sword, battle-ready swordsticks generally have full tang blades. However, they lacked the traditional handguard and proper grip, so they were more suited for self-defense than actual dueling.

BIRD DOG SWORD CANE
Bird Dog Sword Cane – Credits: Swords of the East

Modern reproductions often feature stainless steel or aluminum shafts. They often feature decorative pommels, from macabre skull motifs to animals and mythical creatures. Others are more practical in design and have pistol grips.

Facts About the Sword Cane

Throughout history, sword canes served as a means of protection, status, and fashion accessory. Here are the things you need to know about sword canes:

Sword canes served as family heirlooms in Europe during the 16th century.

The nobles had the privilege of carrying a sword, so the first sword canes were made for aristocracy. In 1661, French law banned their use, but they remained popular because the streets were unsafe. By the 18th and 19th centuries, they became a significant part of a gentleman’s style.

Other self-defense canes featured hidden spikes and daggers.

Fakir's crutch
Fakir’s crutch – Credits: National Trust Collections

Self-defense canes conceal almost all kinds of weapons that are used in place of a traditional walking stick. The Indian fakir’s crutch has a concealed dagger screwed into the hollow wooden stick, often used by holy men or fakirs.

On the other hand, the traditional Basque walking stick called makhila usually has a hidden steel spike that can serve as a stabbing weapon and symbolizes nobility and authority. Other sword canes incorporated a war hammer in their hilt design, with a backspike and hammerhead.

Gun canes gave an advantage to users against assailants who carried sword canes.

In the 18th century, country roads were dangerous, so coachmen or drivers of horse-drawn carriages carried sword canes and pistols in case of robbery. Between 1810 and 1830, gun canes became practical due to the invention of the percussion lock.

Some walking sticks concealed vials instead of sword blades.

Vial Cane
Vial cane – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Sometimes called country canes, walking sticks for outdoor use usually consisted of glass vials for liquor, while others included knives and forks for picnics. Just like sword canes, they functioned as an elegant accessory for gentlemen. On the other hand, a hiking staff generally helped the wearer across rough terrain and held items needed for outdoor activities. 

The shikomizue was one of the deadly weapons of the ninja.

Shikomizue with a Katana blade
Shikomizue with a Katana Blade – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The ninja used several staff and canes called shinobi-zue. Their secret cane was the shikomizue which concealed a hidden sword in a hollowed-out staff. It had a varying blade quality and length, though a ninja usually opted for shorter blades. Other types functioned as a spear, a climbing aid, and an instrument for shooting darts.

In most countries and states, sword canes are regarded as offensive weapons.

In Canada, carrying a concealed weapon like a sword cane is illegal, though having it as a wall decoration at home would be allowed. In California, possessing a sword cane can lead to criminal charges. Comparatively, the Irish government prohibits the manufacturing, importation, and sale of sword canes, and other offensive weapons.

Sword canes are among the most popular weapons in films and anime.

Like medieval swords, swordsticks also made their way into popular culture. Sword canes also appear in anime and manga series like Bleach, Lupin III, and One Piece. In Zatoichi films, the character Zatoichi popularized the shikomizue as his primary weapon.

Sources Cited
  1. Arnow, C., & Blair, C. (n.d.). Spotlight: Combination Weapons. myArmoury.com. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from http://myarmoury.com/feature_spot_combo.html 
  2. Campbell, S. (1999). Exotic Weapons of the Ninja. Carol Publishing Group.
  3. McNab, C. (Ed.). (2010). Knives and Swords: A Visual History. DK Pub.
  4. Moss, A. (2021). A Visual History of Walking Sticks and Canes. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
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