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What Are Short Swords Called? Names and History Explored

Written By: Jolene Sim
Published On: February 23, 2024

Aptly named, short swords are often called just that, “short swords”, but in a language from which the sword originated from. They are typically designed as secondary weapons that excel at close quarters combat. 

This article explores the different short swords around the world, their names, history, and also briefly delves into small swords to determine if they are the same or represent a distinct classification altogether. 

KEY TAKEAWAYS
Short swords are often named as “short swords”, but in their native language.
There are many short swords from various cultures and regions around the world.
Short swords and small swords have distinct characteristics and historical contexts.

What Defines a Short Sword?

Sasanian short sword and scabbard
Sasanian short sword and scabbard circa 6th – 7th century CE (Modern day Iran) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Generally, the category of a sword provides a helpful way of describing a group of blades that have some attributes in common. Therefore, “short sword” is a modern label instead of a functional classification. 

On average, short swords have a blade length that ranges from 11.8 to 23.6 inches (30 – 60 centimeters), with the exception of the arming sword. Earlier variants of the short sword were limited by the type of steel available, swordsmith skills, and metallurgical knowledge of the time. 

With time, the blades of short swords became longer as seen in the arming sword. They continued to be useful despite the invention of long swords as they became sidearms that were efficient in close combat or when fighting in tight formations.

Summary
A short sword, typically 30-60 cm in length, evolved over time into longer variants like the arming sword, and remained effective for close combat.

Short Swords vs Small Swords

French smallsword from 1778
French smallsword from 1778 made of steel, gold, silver, textile, and paste jewels – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The smallsword is a European sword also known as a court sword. It is a lightweight one-handed sword designed for thrusting. While short swords and small swords may seem similar, they have distinct characteristics and historical contexts. 

To understand how they differ, here are their similarities and differences:

Similarities

As one can guess based on their names, short swords and small swords are smaller in size compared to standard swords – making them easy to handle and maneuver. Easy to carry and conceal, it is unsurprising that they served as self-defense weapons and excel in close combat. 

Differences

While the short swords and small swords have some similarities, they have more differences that makes them unique:

Time Period

Short sword with four Kulans head on the handle
Short sword with four Kulans’ head on the handle from northeast China, circa 10th-8th century BCE. Central ridge on the blade is prominent, strengthening the blade – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
  • Short swords such as the Greek Xiphos and Roman Gladius were prominent in the ancient and medieval times. For this reason, they were often made of bronze and iron. 
  • Small swords reached the height of its popularity in the 18th century, especially as an accessory among European nobility.

Design & Function

Russian Tula smallsword circa 1775 1780
Russian, Tula smallsword circa 1775-1780, made of steel and gold – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
  • Short swords had broader blades for slashing and thrusting, used by warriors and soldiers on the battlefield. 
  • Small swords featured a slender and lightweight design with a very sharp tapering point, best for thrusting in duels and personal defense. It also served as a symbol of status. For these reasons, small swords are often elaborately decorated.

Almost every culture has its own variation of the short sword. While this list is not exhaustive, it explores some of the more popular short swords around the world:

Chinese Short Sword – Duan Jian 

Duan jian made of steel bronze and gold circa 4th 1st century BCE
Duan jian made of steel, bronze, and gold circa 4th-1st century BCE from Xinjiang, Eastern Central Asia – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
Western Han Dynasty duan jian
Western Han Dynasty duan jian made from iron and inlaid with gold – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Reiterating the above where short swords are often called so in their native language, the Chinese “duan jian (短剑)” translates to short sword. Ranging from 15 to 20 inches (40 to 50 cm), it has a straight double edged blade with a sharp pointed tip. It is believed to have evolved from the Chinese dagger. 

Originally used for ceremonial purposes, metallurgical advances resulted in bronze being replaced with iron and steel, producing the more popular Longquan sword, and eventually the Chinese Jian we know today.

Medieval Knightly Sword

Knightly sword dated circa 1250 1330 CE
Knightly sword dated circa 1250-1330, straight double edged blade, one handed cruciform hilt with pommel – Credits: Wiki Media
Knightly Sword early 15th century, probably French
A knightly sword from the early 15th century believed to be of French origin – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The name “Knightly sword” was coined as it was the weapon of choice for knights. Also known as the Arming sword, this term was first used in the 15th century to refer to it as a one-handed sword and to distinguish it from the longsword. Developed from the Viking sword in the 11th century, it is most recognized for its crossguard and used with a buckler or shield. 

Since the medieval era or middle ages was when steel was first discovered, the arming sword was produced with a longer steel blade compared to preceding variants such as the gladius. However, its blade was still shorter compared to the longsword due to limitations of swordsmith skills, knowledge, and technology of the time. Meanwhile, the bastard sword is a compromise between the two. 

European Falchion

falchion rotated
Italian falchion circa 1490 made of steel, gold, and textile – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The falchion is named after the Old French term “fauchon” or Latin “falx”, meaning “sickle”. Believed to have been produced in the 13th century due to the different forms found around Europe, the blade designs varied widely. It remained popular until the 16th century.

Different variations include the cleaver falchion, cusped falchion, and more. However, they almost always have a single edged blade slightly curved towards the tip with a quilloned crossguard. 

Rapier

Northern European rapier circa 1620 1630
Northern European rapier circa 1620-1630 made of steel, gold, copper wire, and wood – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
German Rapier circa 1620–1630
German Rapier circa 1620–1630 made by Andreas or Peter Munsten – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The rapier is a short sword used in Renaissance Spain. It is known as “espada ropera” which translates to dress sword as it was used as an accessory for clothing. 

Its English name “rapier” comes from the French “rapière”, meaning light and long pointed two edged sword. Perhaps due to its elegance, it was associated with the court, dueling, and fashion.

Japanese Wakizashi

Daisho Sword Set
Japanese daisho – A pair of samurai swords consisting of the longer sword (katana) and shorter wakizashi – Credits: Metropolitan Museum
Blade and mounting for a wakizashi
Wakizashi with fittings made of layers of shakudo (copper gold alloy) and hiirodo (dark red copper), by Owari-Seki. 17th century blade, 19th century mountings – Credits: Metrpolitan Museum

The wakizashi (脇差) literally means “side inserted sword”, referring to how it is worn or carried by inserting it through one’s obi, a sash used in traditional Japanese clothing. This short sword has been in use since the 15th to 16th century, serving as a backup weapon, for close combat, or to commit seppuku. 

During the Edo period in feudal Japan, samurai were required to wear daisho, a term that translates to “big-small”. This represents the pair of Japanese swords consisting of a longsword (katana) and shortsword (wakizashi).

Due to the differential hardening process, both have highly effective single edged curved blades with a hardened cutting edge designed primarily for slashing. The pair often have matching fittings such as the tsuba (handguard). Some daisho sets also include a tanto (dagger).

Greek Xiphos

Xiphos short sword edit2
Iron sword with leaf shaped blade, believed to be a Xiphos – Credits: British Museum
Two fragments of a Greek iron sword
A fragment of a Greek iron sword, possibly xiphos, circa 500-250 BCE – Credits: British Museum

The name “xiphos” is believed to be a generic term for “sword” in Ancient Greek. This double edged leaf shaped blade was used as a secondary weapon by Greek armies for cutting and thrusting. Surviving specimens are rare, but some xiphe have been found with gold decorated hilts alongside iron weapons in burial sites, indicating their use as a ceremonial item. 

Celtic La Tene iron sword
Celtic La Tène iron sword circa 200-100 BCE, found in the British Isles – Credits: British Museum
Celtic Sword Scabbard
Celtic iron sword and scabbard circa 60 BCE – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Leaf shaped swords were not limited to Greece, but can also be found throughout Europe under various names. Some examples include the Celtic La Tène and Spartan Encheiridion.

Roman Gladius

An iron and gilded bronze Mainz Gladius
An iron and gilded bronze Mainz Gladius circa 15 BCE – Credits: Wiki Media
A famous Mainz gladius Sword of Tiberius
A famous Mainz gladius found in the River Rhine – also known as the Sword of Tiberius – Credits: Roman Coins

The term “gladius” comes from classical Latin (ɡɫadiʊs), meaning “sword”. While earlier Roman swords were similar to the Greek xiphe, they adopted the gladius during the 3rd century BCE. It is based on the Celtiberians’ sword, the gladius hispaniensis, meaning “Hispanic type sword”,

By 20 BCE, the Hispaniensis was replaced by the Mainz gladius, and later the Pompeii gladius. In the 3rd century CE, the gladius was replaced by the spatha. 

Seax 

Late Anglo Saxon 10th century iron Seax of Beagnoth
Late Anglo Saxon, 10th century iron Seax of Beagnoth found in the River Thames in 1857 – Credits: British Museum
Late Anglo Saxon seax early 10th century
Late Anglo Saxon seax, early 10th century, found near Daily Chronicle Paper Mills – Credits: British Museum

The name “seax” is the Old English word for knife. This term is identical with “sax” from Old Frisian and “sahs” from Old Saxon and Old High German. All of these words come from the Common Germanic word “sah or sag”, meaning “to cut”.

This short sword was wielded by the migrating Germanic tribes during the early medieval period, especially the Saxons. As they migrated throughout Britain and Northern Europe, different types of seaxes emerged, including the narrow, broken-back, and longer variants.

Sources Cited
  1. F. Girard, P. J., Crawley, P. T., & Côté, K. (2014, October 1). The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F Girard’s Treatise of Arms.
  2. Oakeshott, E. (1991, January 1). Records of the Medieval Sword.
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