What is a short sword?

Sword terminology is a complex mix of ancient terms, often misleading Victorian description, and modern pop-cultural references.  This results in a lot of confusion when folks interested in swords try to talk to one another.  Some names for types of swords, like longsword or great sword derive from terms used historically to refer to particular varieties of weapons used largely in two hands.  Other categories, like today's topic, short swords, are mostly a modern way of dividing up and categorizing ancient styles.  
Custom Gladius by Arms & Armor Inc.
Custom Gladius by Arms & Armor Inc.
During the medieval period this term does not seem to have been widely used.  There were certainly swords of various lengths, but medieval and Renaissance people seem not to have cared as much as modern people do about categorizing and naming varieties of swords.  It is reasonable to ask why this is.  For people living in places and times where swords were a common weapon they were probably less aware of the historical and geographical variety of weapons that existed than modern people are.  
Without access to museum and auction catalogues, the internet, and the thousands of books, movies, and games that prominently feature swords in the modern world, medieval and Renaissance Europeans probably had much less awareness of the variety of swords that existed.  Instead, they were likely to see whatever type of sword predominated in their time and region and to simply call those weapons "swords". People often did differentiate between characteristics such as a sword with one edge or a sword with two edges if they lived in a time or place where both styles coexisted, or between straight swords and curved ones - though this was frequently a marker of cultural difference rather than functional difference.  
Xyphos ancient Greek sword custom made by Arms & Armor Inc.
Custom Xyphos ancient Greek Sword by Arms and Armor
One of the reasons people today seem so keen to name and divide up varieties of swords is the function that they play in our society as a central element of many types of popular games like Dungeons and Dragons and role playing video games.  In these games the particular attributes of various weapons are central to determining how combat functions.  For example, many games work by attributing stats like what kind of damage each produces, or how quickly the weapon moves, or how it interacts with armor.  For example, here is a link to a page that gives the following game statistics for a "short sword":
Type: Martial Melee Weapon Cost: 10 gp Weight: 2 lbs

Proficiency with a shortsword allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll for any attack you make with it.

Name Cost Damage Weight Properties
Shortsword 10 gp 1d6 piercing 2 lbs Finesse, Light
The categories that are used in these gaming systems often have very little to do with how historical weapons were thought about in period, how they were used, or even how they function at a basic level - which is totally fine because they are made up creative content designed to make games or stories fun.  This does, however, add to the general confusion around how swords work and what varieties were seen as notable enough to have a specific name or category in period.  It is also likely that modern minds infer from the historical term "Longsword" that its opposite must also have been a type - but this is not the case.
custom seax
A custom Seax from Arms and Armor, many such knives were as long as swords
In actual history there were several periods when swords were relatively short.  Some of these were ancient weapons from the Iron Age and Classical periods.  Swords from these times, such as those pictured above, seem to have been used primarily on foot, often in combination with a shield.  The length of these swords may have been limited by some of the functional characteristics of iron as a material, though there are also steel examples.  Other short swords not often referred to as such include Viking period Seaxs, and some Renaissance swords such as the Cinquedea pictured below. These more recent swords were clearly not limited in terms of length by their material composition, as in the Viking period and Renaissance there were plenty of longer swords in evidence.  Instead, these short swords seem to have been cultural fashions valued for how they looked.  
Cinqueda once owned by Ewart Oakeshott
Cinquedea once owned by Ewart Oakeshott
Given these facts, the category "short sword" is not a particularly useful one for talking about actual historical weapons that have very little in common beyond their relative lack of longness.  We generally argue that a sword type, name, or category is valid if it provides a useful way of describing a group of weapons that have some functional, historical, or cultural attributes in common.  In the case of "short sword", the term tends to falsely imply such connections between unrelated weapons rather than clarifying real differences.  

divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.

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