Sword Terms or What are these guys talking about?

When we lecture or talk about swords with people we sometimes see a bit of uncertainty in their eyes about terms and concepts we discuss. So today we thought we would cover some definitions folks can refer back to. Having clear simple terms for a discussion about arms and armor is important. It allows better communication and study about the subject. This was one of the reasons Ewart Oakeshott developed his typology and something we firmly believe in.

The topic can get complicated quickly when we have sources from several different generations and multiple languages. The terms used in the life time of the pieces were not exact and often very regional in use. So today we try to use simplicity and clarity to define our subject and use the most recent research to understand our subject and share about it.

This list is not exhaustive but rather some of the most common terms and terminology we use in the shop. A few are shared as some comedic relief and they do creep in to our presentations from time to time :-).


Blade bevel - The angle of the two sloping surfaces of a blade from the thickest portion of the blade towards the edge. On a blade the tapers in thickness and profile, this angle is rarely consistent from guard to tip.

Measuring the blade bevel.    Blade bevel measurement
Blade bevel measurement

Secondary bevel - Used a lot today to discuss the area between the Blade bevel and the actual meeting of the two surfaces creating the edge.

secondary bevel on a medieval sword

Secondary Bevel

Distal taper - Term used by knife and sword makers to encompass the tapering thickness and profile of the blade in one term. It means to taper from the center or hilt to the edge or tip. Sometimes distal is used to mean the thickness from shoulders to tip and profile taper is used to describe the tapering shape of the profile.

Distal Taper illustration

Forte of blade - This is a term used for the third of the blade closest to the hilt. It is also referred to as the strong of the blade.

Foible of blade - The last third of the blade closest to the tip. Also referred to as the weak of the blade.

Shoulders of Blade - the portion of the blade that faces the hilt at the point were the blade widens from the tang, these can be wedge shaped, to sloping, to a right angle.

Tip - pointy bit, usually part that is closest to your adversary. 

Tang - portion of the sword blade inside the hilt.

Ricasso - A blunt section of varying lengths immediately in front of the guard. The section inside the hilt on many rapier blades and the portion of the blade were the hand is sometimes placed in front of the guard on two handers.

Image of ricassos

Ancient bronze sword and reproduction Rapier

Fuller - Grove or groves in a blade. A fuller allows placing the mass in different areas to adjust the weight and functions of the blade, such as reinforcing the edges. It also was a decorative technique especially as you get into the late medieval and renaissance period.

Fullers in antique blades


Hilt - The guard, grip and pommel as a whole, can have many forms. 

Guard - the application of a piece at the shoulders of the blade to enhance grip and protect the hand. Varies dramatically over time.

Hilt components of two different swords.

Custom Gladius and Hungarian Sword by Arms & Armor

Pommel - Pomello, Pomo, Pommeau, Knauf, Maçaneta, rоловка, Topuz, I could not sort out which welsh term would be appropriate, but these all are the object at the end of the sword opposite the tip. It can vary to almost any shape but ball, wheel and stopper shapes have a tendency to be most popular. They can be very plain to highly decorated. 

Grip - The handle of the sword. Usually made of wood with a covering. It sits between the pommel and the guard.

ARP - Active Rotational Point. This is a term we created to describe a concept about a sword when it is being used. It is the point that the piece wants to rotate around in the three dimensional context of a combat. This is not only affected by the attributes of the physical piece but the grip that is being used by the wielder and the forces being imparted on the object for speed and direction. This spot will move up and down the sword as grip and forces change. This is an important characteristic when making and using swords and multiple researchers have identified this concept including Roland Warzecha and Guy Windsor.

Pivot point - when gripping the sword just below the pommel with the thumb and forefinger and you waggle the blade back and forth you will see where it would like to rotate around itself. This will vary on the intended main purpose of the sword. When in action this point becomes variable see ARP. This can be quantified in a couple ways check here for good info.

Vibrational Node - The spot on the blade when held on the grip and the flat of the blade is struck. There will be a still spot on the blade if it is struck hard enough to vibrate. This is sometimes referred to as the sweet spot or center of percussion as well. Check here for detailed explanation.

COG or BP - Center of Gravity, Balance Point. Where the object's center of mass is. Good link to cover this and terms above as well.

Rebated edge - Rounded edge used for safety on display, reenactment and demonstration pieces for the public. Sometimes called a stage edge though one should always check a piece prior to using it in action where one could injury others or yourself. Remember steel hard, human soft.

Boat Anchor - weapon that is too heavy or poorly balanced.

SLO - Sword like Object. Poorly made or extra heavy reproduction swords.

Snicky-snack - An in shop term that implies an extreme edge for cutting. A fair ways beyond a traditional sword edge.

Wack Bonk - Good feeling impact weapon


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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