Sword wounds: ancient and otherwise

A really cool document has been making the rounds of sword loving communities in the past couple of months, Maxime Chouinard's translation of the surgeon Ravaton's 18th century compendium of sword wounds. Having some experience with sword wounds, we thought this an excellent opportunity to compare Ravaton's insights to the wounds we have suffered over the years as sword makers (and fighters), and to introduce the patented Arms and Armor Hierarchy of Wounds to Avoid.  

Ravaton argues that thrusts are generally more dangerous than cuts because, so long as you survive the initial blow, cuts tend to be more superficial and thus easier to stitch up.  

"Sword thrusts to the chest are superficial or penetrating. The superficial ones must be regarded as simple wounds, those that penetrate in the chest cavity can have an infinity of different directions, and affect many essential parts so we must regard them as very perilous. …" Hugues Ravaton,1768

In a time before any kind of reliable anesthetic, sanitation, germ theory, antibiotics, or technology allowing one to peer inside the body, thrusts posed major challenges for treatment. In his experience, thrusts to the extremities that avoided major arteries and nerve clusters were relatively easy to mend, those to the face were very bad, to the chest were often treatable, while thrusts to the abdomen were "very perilous" indeed. While we at Arms and Armor have, so far, avoided deep penetrating stab wounds to the chest and abdomen, most of the other varieties are old hat.  


Hierarchy of wounds

 Renaissance wound man image

While most of use do not look like this...

We have a couple traditions in the shop that if a weapon makes you bleed you get to name it, you also get to decide where to go to lunch. You still have to pay for yourself, but you get to decide. Fingerbiter is one of the most common names, and little prick is not too far down the list, there are a couple more but we are in polite society as it were. Here are some of the more memorable wounds we have collectively suffered, recounted in gory detail for your enjoyment (you sadistic bastards!). These are just what we came up with off the top of our heads and do not count any unrelated A&A injuries or incidentals like an ex-acto blade through the finger as they don’t really hurt till you make cocktails that evening and get some citrus in the wound.

This ranking may seem out of order if you just based it on survivability, but luckily, we have not had to factor that into our reckoning. This is based more on annoyance, pain and recovery time. So, while a stab is by far the most deadly of these, if it does not kill you it can heal pretty well while a weeping, nasty, infected burn can seem to take forever to heal.

Weapon injuries we have known;

-stab wounds, major-

One of the most dramatic wounds suffered by one of our crew occurred when an unfinished rapier blade was being worked on horizontally in a vise. The man who was working on it was distracted for a moment and turned around quickly, at which point the blade penetrated his forearm, passing between his radius and ulna, and just piercing the skin on the far side of his arm. He did not immediately notice and attempted to walk away, only to discover that something was pulling on his arm.  He was quite dismayed when he turned back around and discovered that he had been run through. Interestingly, the blade in question was not yet sharpened, yet it went through him so smoothly he didn't even notice for a moment. In related incidents we have also suffered a large spike to the thigh, a dagger blade almost entirely through the wrist (don’t practice with sharps), a dagger blade between the fingers, and a couple dagger blades to the thigh, as well as minor stabs to the scalp, cheek and one memorable stab to the forehead with the sharp corner of a shield.

The Culprits: 

Three Ring Rapier blades are possibly cursed. They seem to stab us frequently.

German Parrying Dagger, also an excellent perforator.

-cut wounds, major-

The most recent major slicing injury occurred when another of our smiths was on a break and, being a young man who is a very competent Fiorist, began doing a complex cutting pattern in the hallway with a sharp one-handed sword. When he attempted to pass the sword from his right hand to his left he slightly miscalculated and grazed his fingers against the blade. The blade made contact just above his fingernail and peeled back his skin and nearly severed his tendons almost to the knuckles. Again, it took several moments for him to realize that anything bad had happened and it wasn't until the wetness of blood interfered with his grip that he examined his hand and discovered the wound. Due to the tendon damage he had to wear a cast for a long time, have his skin sewn back on, and miss more than a month of work.  

When its sharp you may never know you were cut. A couple of times over the years when wiping a blade down after its finished you lift your hand away and feel a strange tug as the edge has slid into your finger quite deeply.

The Culprits: 

Knightly Sword, even a brush of a hand against a sharp edge can do a lot of damage.

Town Guard Sword, same.

Dane Axe, look at it wrong and it bites you

Thumb biter

Swiss saber 16th C

crush wounds, major-

Several years ago one of us was moving an 80 lb swage block when it slipped from his fingers and landed on the foot of another one of the guys. The one whose foot was hit promptly passed out in pain and shock, but he did get to choose were to go to lunch. Amazingly, his foot was not broken, though it was badly and deeply bruised, and when he swooned he didn't even fall on a sword.

We've also had incidents involving three broken fingers (proven by x-ray, requirement in shop to be counted), lower back hit by tiller gun knocked from mounting, numerous fingernails lost after hitting fingers with hammer, being run over by a horse, etc.

The Culprits: 

War Hammer, top spike stabbed into the thigh, don't catch falling weapons, let them fall. 

Assorted finger smashers

hammers and stakes 

burns major-

At one point last year when we were in a bit of a frenzy to get a bunch of items done for an event, we were tag-teaming some weapons. One person was fitting grips to tangs, which involves heating the tang up hot enough that it will burn a hole to fit it perfectly. Another person, our founder, Chris, was then finishing the hilts. In a fit of poor coordination a sword with a dull red tang was put into the rack and about ten seconds later Chris ran over and picked it up by grasping the end of the tang with his fingers. It made two sounds, a sizzle and a lot of swearing, and a medium-sized cloud of yellow Chris smoke wafted across the room. It smelled kind of like bacon, but grosser.

Of course, we get minor burns everyday as we grind blades and other parts, frequently forgetting that friction causes heat. Other danger times for burns occur when welding, hardening blades, or experiences touch hole back blast from a cannon and the blue tattoos of powderburns that go with them. We of course realize this post mostly illustrates particularly poor choices on our part :-) 

In the past many of these same experiences would have been common day for sword users, craftspeople and the folks who treated them. We like to think that our shop motto "Safety Third" was also valid in the time when swords were in common use. There is an old saying if your fencing master has both eyes, he is not much of a fencing master. 


Gaspare Traversi's The Operation


In the last we leave you with some excellent advice from one of our mothers ...

"don't squeeze that, it will never heal!"


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.

Older Post
Newer Post
Close (esc)

Help us improve your online experience

You've landed on the new (soon to be released) website for Arms & Armor. After looking around, we'd appreciate 2 minutes of your time to answer 3 short questions about your experience.

Thank You!

~ The Arms & Armor Team

Take the Survey (takes 2 minutes or less)

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now