New Worlds: Sticks, Swords, and Very Sharp Rocks

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The pen is mightier than the sword, which I will claim is sufficient justification to segue from writing to fighting!

You know that opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Apart from the black monolith, it probably isn’t far wrong. Though we can’t prove this archaeologically, odds are good that human beings have been hitting each other with the nearest available object since before they were human beings. As evolution has shrunk our teeth, we’ve had to resort to external supplements.

Starting with sharp rocks. Stone tool technology is a huge enough field that it’s used to divide human prehistory: first the Paleolithic or “old rock” era, then the Mesolithic or “middle rock” era, and finally the Neolithic or “new rock” era. The earliest techniques just involved knocking a few flakes off a fist-sized pebble to get a sharp edge, but over a million years or so early hominids figured out how to make more sophisticated shapes, until they were manufacturing quite detailed projectile points.

It’s likely there were other weapons in use, made of perishable materials like wood or bamboo that don’t survive in the archaeological record. A club is simply a nice hefty stick of wood, and a staff is a longer, thinner stick of wood that trades weight for angular momentum and reach; both are very easy to make. And we do know that as techniques got more refined, people started producing sharp edges out of bone, ivory, and shell, as well as rocks. But where weapons were concerned, stones seem to have been the height of technology.

Which places certain constraints on those weapons. Stones can be extremely sharp, but they are both heavy and brittle, so unless you have magic or handwavy technology to justify otherwise, you can’t make something like a sword out of them. The sword-sized objects we find were decorative or ceremonial, not for active use — and if you’ve heard of Mesoamerican “obsidian swords,” those are actually clubs with obsidian edges set along their length. (Some Polynesian societies did a similar thing with shark teeth.) You can use stone for arrowheads, spear points, and small axes and daggers, and to shape better clubs and staves, but large blades are Right Out.

Metallurgy upended all of this. In the late Neolithic, humans figured out how to work copper, which led fairly rapidly to bronze, as they began alloying copper with tin to make a much harder and more durable material. With bronze, you can make swords — small ones, anyway. I own a replica of a Taiwanese Bronze Age sword with a blade 42 centimeters long: compare that with my 88-centimeter steel rapiers, much less something like a two-handed sword. Bronze is still pretty dang heavy; its advantage over stone is that it’s less likely to crack in half when you hit something hard. From there we went to iron, which lets you make thinner, lighter shapes that won’t bend into uselessness the first time you swing them, and which holds a better edge than bronze; and thence to steel, the alloy of iron and carbon that we use in all corners of our lives today.

We have new materials nowadays, but at this point very few people are experimenting with making better melee weapons. Our focus is on guns, and on large-scale weapons like bombs, which are beyond the scope of this essay (I’m sticking with interpersonal combat here). Could you make a superior sword out of titanium or some high-tech carbon fiber? Probably, if you had some reason to do so. But if you look at science fiction, the focus there tends to be on energy weapons: rayguns, blasters, lightsabers, and so forth. The closest things we have to that in reality are tasers, stun guns, and flamethrowers, which aren’t quite the same thing.

Another way to look at weapons (and yes, I’m shamelessly cribbing this from Writing Fight Scenes) is by how they operate. Bludgeoning weapons deliver blunt-force trauma; piercing weapons poke holes in the target; slashing weapons glide along the skin and open up large cuts or take bits off entirely. If you look at the material history, that first is the easiest to make (all you need is a rock or a stick, or better yet, a rock on a stick), the second is next (the aforementioned projectile points), and the third requires the most technological sophistication.

Because my focus in Writing Fight Scenes was on a particular type of conflict, I did leave a few things out. A garrote, for example, operates by strangulation, and some weapons are good for entangling, though usually more as a side benefit than as their primary purpose. And of course there’s a wide array of ranged weapons, from spears and arrows to thrown knives to firearms to net guns to tranquilizer darts.

So the level of technology in your fictional society determines not just what the weapons are made of, but what shape they take. Relatively few speculative fiction stories are written about cultures with only stone or bronze tools; fantasy mostly assumes widespread use of steel, and science fiction (in the futuristic rather than post-apocalyptic or time travel sense) sometimes eschews melee weapons entirely — but not always, since there’s a degree of narrative appeal in having your characters confront one another at close range.

One thing to bear in mind, though, is that the earlier forms of technology don’t necessarily go away. I don’t know if this is still true, but I remember reading an article when I was in college about doctors using obsidian scalpels for particular surgeries. As long as you’re only cutting soft tissue and not hitting bone or something else hard, the fragility isn’t an issue, and (at the time, anyway), obsidian could form an edge an order of magnitude sharper than our best steel.

Speculative fiction gives you room to play with that. In a fantasy novel, maybe there’s some kind of magical resonance that makes it worth your while to use a bronze knife or a flint arrowhead, even though steel is widely available; then you can make plot out of the pragmatic shortcomings as well as the benefits. In science fiction, maybe artificial diamond production has advanced to the point where you can make a sword out of it — and no, there’s no melee benefit to wielding a diamond sword instead of metal, but it has cultural cachet, so people do it anyway. Or maybe defense technology is really good against high-velocity attacks like guns, but less so against hand-to-hand combat (as Frank Herbert described in Dune).

But there are considerations beyond the tech level that constrain what people use to hit each other. Those will be the focus of next week’s essay, when we start digging into the social world of weapons!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Sticks, Swords, and Very Sharp Rocks — 11 Comments

  1. Iron was also cheaper than bronze. Aristotle noted that the city-states of his time, where a large percentage of the men could slap on armor and grab weapons, were the result of that. Earlier, the cities had kings and nobles because you couldn’t afford to arm many of them.

  2. A tradition says witches or fairies or other uncannies cannot touch iron or steel. So they would be using obsidian or copper or diamond knives in their kitchens, never mind melee.

    Ow. A diamond cooking pot! (Nah, it would be Arcoroc and Tupperware in the real world.)

  3. Bronze was more difficult to create than Iron, because Bronze requires both tin and copper, and the deposits of tin and copper often lay in different realms in ancient times (at least in the appropriately named bronze age) necessitating trade in order to produce them. Not to mention that tin and bronze are much rarer than iron in the earth’s crust. Some theorize that was part of the Bronze Age Collapse – without trade between the kingdoms of the time, bronze production collapsed. If people are using stone tools, they might in fact be after learning of bronze production, but in a ‘post-apocalyptic’ state, where they don’t have access to both bronze and tin.
    John Keegan in his History of Warfare offers some fascinating insight into this, and what moving from stone to bronze to iron did to warfare – one of the most salutary realizations is that without the abundance of iron, most bronze was reserved for weapons and tools, with almost none for armor. As such, melee combat in large numbers was much rarer and less bloody, because man instinctively avoids such situations where he might be harmed. When iron became widespread, and with it armor, we see battles becoming much more common, much bloodier, and much more melee focused. I highly recommend reading it for anyone who wants to build non-modern worlds where warfare will feature heavily.

    • I knew the resources to make bronze were rarer, but I never focused much on that period in archaeology, so I didn’t think about the broader implications for how warfare was conducted. (Though I was under the impression the effect on armor was also partly due to weight.) Good points!

  4. You mention garrottes. Were there really weapons designed more for rendering enemies unconcious? I’d heard such things about Mesoamerican cultures, usually in the sense of “Aztecs never killed people in battle, because they needed people to be sacrificed.” a just-so story?

    …then again, by analogy, just because European knights spared other knights to be ransomed away, doesn’t mean the knights were that nice to lower ranks.

    back in my Farscape days, I wrote a character wearing a braid into battle – my betareader wrote back with “thats just begging to be grabbed by their enemy. then again, thats what a tie is.” 🙂

  5. a diamond weapon would basically defeat everything else, right, since diamond is harder than anything else. it might be the most expensive thing on the battlefield, but it’d be the most useful*…til it gets stolen or lost.

    * = in the sense of being able to weather any attack. in any other sense, it’d be what Alton Brown calls a one-use thing. 🙂

    • Actually, I should change that bit — because while diamond may be hard (i.e. you can’t scratch it easily), it’s definitely subject to fracture. So one wrong hit and you now have two diamond blades, both shorter, and only one with a hilt. 😛