Antique Swords are an area of militaria collectibles encompassing a type of edged weapon produced prior to the 20th century.
A sword is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a weapon adapted for cutting and thrusting, consisting of a handle or hilt with a cross guard, and a straight or curved blade with either one or two sharp edges and a sharp point’.
The generally accepted definition of antique is based on the US 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which states that antiques are items produced prior to 100 years previously.
Therefore an antique sword is an edged weapon produced over 100 years ago.
Swords are perceived as symbols of military honour, virtue, liberty and strength. Often swords in history were given names, such as Excalibur in Arthurian legend. The ideology surrounding them and the sheer extent of their use throughout history render them an extremely popular area of collectibles.
Collectors of antique swords often focus their collection on a particular time period or event, such as a war or battle in which swords were used.
Previous ownership has a huge bearing on the value and desirability of these weapons. Swords previously owned by a famous figure are very sought-after. By the 19th century, swords were used largely for ceremonial purposes. Presentation examples from this era can be among the most valuable of antique swords.
Some of the most popular items include Ottoman swords, Renaissance rapiers, Japanese Samurai Swords.
Collectors may obtain antique swords through antique auctions, antique fairs, antique shops, and inheritance. Swords as far back as the 5th century BC have come to auction.
The definition of a sword varies dependant on historical epoch, or country of origin. Non-European weapons called swords include single-edged weapons, for example the Middle Eastern Saif, the Chinese Dao and the Japanese Katana.
Reproduction or replica swords have been in fashion since the 19th century, so could be considered antiques in their own right. However, anyone looking for the real deal with an antique sword must be wary of replicas as there are many available, some exact recreations of artefacts, right down to antique methods of production.
The history of the sword goes as far back as the bronze age, when it evolved from the smaller dagger. The earliest known examples date to 1600 BC. These were generally made of arsenic copper or tin-bronze, materials whose strength decreased with use, and bent if the blades were too long. The introduction of stronger alloys like steel, and improvement of heat treatment processes, developed the long sword for practical combat purposes. They were also used for decoration.
The Iron Age saw the collapse of the bronze producing civilisations, and the surviving nations began to produced swords using iron, a widely available material. The Iron Age sword was short with no crossguard. By the time of Classical Antiquity, iron swords were common. The Late Roman Empire developed the spatha, which was the predecessor of the medieval European sword. The weapon was used for punishments, such as amputations or decapitation.
During the Middle Ages, swords improved to become advanced weapons, often used in battle. The spatha type remained popular. Quench-hardened and tempered steel became widely used, and the Normans began the develop the crossguard. The swords were still largely cutting weapons, although gradually points became common for thrusting, to counter the move from chain mail to plate armour.
During the 14th century, the Hand and a half sword was developed, (also known as the bastard sword), with a longer grip meaning that it could be swung with both the wielder’s hands, delivering a powerful blow. By now, the weapon was known as a long sword.
The earliest evidence of curved swords or scimitars is the 9th century in Persia.
Use of sword by civilians became common during the Renaissance, being used in duels to settle disputes. Swords were designed specifically for this purpose, and duelling became regarded as an honourable and gentlemanly practice.
The side sword was used in battle by infantry during the Renaissance of Europe. Hilts with a guard for the finger were introduced. In the Early Modern Period, these swords developed into the rapier and the small sword. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the small sword became a fashion accessory throughout Europe and the New World. Swords were used in the 18th century generally only as a duelling weapon.
By the 19th century, due to the development of the firearm, swords were generally used only for ceremonial purposes, or as sport equipment in modern fencing.
However, some swords were still used in combat, particularly during the Colonial Wars between Empires and native populations. The British Army formally adopted a new design of cavalry sword in 1908, and at the start of WWI, infantry officers still carried swords for combat purposes. The sword’s impracticality as a weapon, particularly in comparison to the firearm, meant that it was abandoned within weeks.
In some countries, swords are still employed as weapons. For example the Japanese Katana, Wakizashi and Tanto, carried by Japanese infantry officers, and the Kukri as the official melee weapon in India. In Western society, swords are commonly worn as a ceremonial item in military and navel capacities. They are still given as presentation weapons as a mark of honour within these capacities.
World’s most expensive antique sword
The gold-encrusted sword of Napoleon Bonaparte sold for $6.5 million at an Osenat auction in France, June 2007. It is thought that Napoleon used the sword in the battle of Marengo in June 1800.
Did you know?
As the wearing of swords fell out of fashion, their places in a gentleman’s wardrobe were taken first by canes, some of which incorporated a concealed blade, and then by umbrellas during the Victorian era. Therefore the umbrella can be seen as a descendant of the sword.