Last week I discussed the technological factors that influence what weapons might be available to the characters in a story. But since there are some levels of technology that the different genres default to — steel in fantasy, energy weapons in science fiction — those are often less of a consideration than the social forces.
So let’s dig into those.
Starting with economics and class. I said in the previous essay that you need a fair degree of technological sophistication before you can make swords; the other side of that coin is skill, and skill costs money. It’s relatively easy to make a functional arrowhead, but a sword requires a high degree of expertise to forge something that is neither too flexible nor too stiff, hard enough to hold an edge for more than ten seconds but not so brittle it will crack at the first hit, light enough to swing for a while and well-balanced to the hand. Get an arrowhead wrong and you’re out a small bit of steel and time; get a sword wrong and you’ve just washed a lot of effort and resources down the drain.
As a result, swords are elite weapons. The materials and expertise required mean they’re expensive, so they’ll mostly be owned by the upper classes — and if you remember the discussion of sumptuary laws last year, it logically follows that some societies have passed laws saying the lower classes aren’t allowed to own or use swords, even if they have enough money to buy them (or come across them by other means). Swords become a badge of prestige, a visible mark of your status, not because they’re “better” weapons — more on that in a moment — but simply because they’re less available.
The common folk are going to wield weapons that are cheap . . . and/or weapons that serve double duty as tools. See, the other problem with swords is that they’re really only good for one thing, which is swordfights. Poor people can’t afford to own an expensive item of limited use. They’re going to gravitate toward things like spears and arrows, which are useful for hunting, or staves, which are walking sticks as well as self-defense gear. Theories for the origin of the tonfa suggest that it started out either as a crutch or as a millstone handle; the eku evolved from an oar. Knives can be used for household tasks as well as cutting people open. Hammers? Good for nails and skulls. Axes? Chop firewood or chop arms.
Many of these weapons have variants specific to interpersonal violence, of course, which aren’t quite the same as the general-purpose version. While you could theoretically use a war hammer to construct a fence, it’s not ideal. But the more you move into specialized versions of these things, the more you move away from the weapons of the common populace and back into elite gear.
Although I’m very fond of roleplaying games and video games, I think they’ve kind of warped how we think about weapons. Games encourage you to see things in terms of the “best” weapon: look for the one that does the most damage, and then use that all the time — even if that means running around everywhere with a greatsword or double-headed axe strapped to your back, ready to be whipped out at the first sign of conflict.
In real life (and good fiction), it isn’t that easy. Many societies had or have laws restricting what weapons you’re allowed to carry around with you, to minimize the risk that the populace can murder each other at the drop of a hat. If you entered the presence of somebody like a monarch, you might not even be allowed to carry in a knife. Or weapons might be permitted, but with some form of precaution like tying a blade into its sheath, so that you get to keep it with you but can’t easily draw it (or so the authorities will know you did so afterward).
And don’t discount the less official but no less real pressure of social expectation. In Renaissance Europe a gentleman might not be considered properly dressed if he didn’t have something like a rapier or smallsword on his hip . . . but if he showed up to court carrying a morning star? He’d get a very different reaction. Rapiers and smallswords were associated with and designed for the kinds of duels and street scuffles considered more or less acceptable for daily life; battlefield weapons were a different matter entirely. The personal guard of a high-ranking individual like a sovereign might be armed with poleaxes as part of their duty, but didn’t carry them around all day.
So in reality, people were generally armed with the weapons that fit the situation they were in. Want something you can conceal? Knives are your friend; pikes, not so much. Do you expect to be fighting inside a house or other cramped quarters? You’ll pick something that doesn’t require big swinging motions, because even if you don’t care how much furniture you smash up, you don’t want your blows slowed or stopped short by your environment. On a battlefield, by contrast, having a weapon that threatens large areas around you is much more useful than one that requires you to be within close range of your enemy. You’ll use one thing when you want your enemy dead, and a different one when you want to capture them alive (which is why Japanese police used the the torimono sandōgu). The “best” weapon is not just about calculating damage per second.
Furthermore, the “best” weapon is the one you know how to use. This is another thing games elide, because they tend to treat combat skill as applying very broadly, such that character can pick up a wide range of objects and use them effectively. There’s a certain amount of truth to that — universal principles that a skilled practitioner can adapt to different tools — but just because I know how to use a bō (quarterstaff) doesn’t mean I’d be any good with a mace. People will be experienced with the weapons that suit their circumstances, whether that’s a strong village lad who knows how to use any convenient branch as a cudgel, the Japanese samurai woman trained to take advantage of a naginata‘s reach and angular momentum, the English archer using his longbow to feed himself as well as fight, or the futuristic cop apprehending criminals with his energy-weapon net gun.
Mind you, talking about weapons is only one half of the equation. That’s why next week we’ll move on to the other half, which is defense — aka armor.