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The History Behind Seafaring Swords

Aug 17, 2007
Even though battles have been fought at sea since ancient times (the first sea action so defined was during the war between Carthage and Phoenicia in 571 BC), the weaponry used at sea remained pretty much the same until the 1600s. This corresponds with the rise of national navies, especially with colonial powers, resulting in naval professions. Distinct weaponry began to be developed as a way to distinguish naval weapons from land weapons, and so that they were of more use at sea.

Hanger

This is the first recognizable sea faring blades. It was fairly cheaply made, crafted most often in Germany and sometimes in Spain. By 1684 it was being described for use by pirates and by the law enforcement on the high seas. These weapons were not very sturdy, and they got their name from the fact that it hung from the wearer's belt. Hilts were fairly long (about six inches) to allow for good grip during fighting.

Hunting Sword

Hangers, which were about 24 inches long, began giving way to shorter swords of about 20 inches long about the year 1700. This was a variation of the hanger, and was named because of the motifs that decorated the sword's blade, hilt, and sheath/scabbard. Hunting swords were very popular among Americans during the War of Independence.

Fighting Sword

Due to the conditions at sea, fighting with a long sword was impractical. Swords were shortened to provide solutions to this problem. Shorter, more compact blades allowed the user to inflict more damage on the enemy. These weapons first appeared toward the close of the 18th Century, about the time of the American Revolutionary War. The fighting sword also acquired a slight curve (although not one so pronounced as the cutlass).

Naval Dirk

A dirk is basically something that falls somewhere between a short sword and a knife. A dirk is an elongated knife, basically. Originally, these weapons were fashioned out of broken swords. Rather discard the sword, a new point was fashioned, and the sword continued to be serviceable as a naval dirk. Among navies which spoke English, a tradition of wearing the dirk as a complement to a longer fighting sword or hanger developed. This type of blade, too, became popular during the Revolutionary War.

Cutlass

The cutlass is often associated with pirates and daring deeds. The movies use these short, slightly curved swords in adventure movies. However, pirates were pretty much past their hey-day by the time the cutlass appeared in the mid-18th Century. These swords were so popular that they became too unwieldy, as naval officers and marines had them made to be more glamorous than serviceable. The cutlass was abandoned during the latter half of the 19th Century.

Other naval weapons include less-used naval sabers and the spadroon. Additionally, presentation swords were often made as symbols of status and promotion, or as an award, although they were not actually used in battle. For the most part, sea-faring swords are relatively rare, as far as specimens for collectors are concerned.
About the Author
For more information on swords of all kinds, how they were used, and how you can purchase a sword, visit The Sword Study
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