New Worlds: The Social World of Weapons

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

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 (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.

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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, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Social World of Weapons — 14 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: The Social World of Weapons - Swan Tower

  2. If you entered the presence of somebody like a monarch, you might not even be allowed to carry in a knife.

    In Versailles, on the other hand, if male, you were required to carry a sword.

    Hence, there were people doing rip-roaring business in sword rentals.

    • Hee, yes! And then I’m thinking of something mentioned in the Legend of the Five Rings game — I’m not sure if it’s drawn from Japanese history or not — where of course no samurai could just hand over his weapon, so officially what you did was leave it with a “sword polisher” who would tend to it for you while you were in some place where you weren’t allowed to be armed.

  3. Here, too, I think gaming has warped things. “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” is simply not true for all soldiers and/or armies; the diversity of arms available, and arrangement of soldiers with those respective arms, are also restricted on the battlefield itself by tactical and even strategic conceptions. (Not to mention logistics, but that’s definitely waaaaaaaaay outside the box, and not something that writers tend to think about beyond “food for the troops is a problem when retreating from para-Moscow.”)

    One good (and relatively easy to consider) example is the force mixes at Agincourt — in both armies. Indeed, the French forces with the weapons that threatened “large areas around them” (primarily the lance-armed cavalry) were counterproductive precisely because their “threat” was turned on their own forces through panic… when attacked effectively from beyond their own “large area around them” range. An even-more-dangerous example is the balance in early gunpowder armies, when the “large area around them” arquebus was for good reason inferior to the pike in numbers — not just due to expense, but due to effectiveness when employed en masse. This example is more dangerous because it’s really easy to draw nonreproducible inferences from it (such as forgetting that with only a handful of exceptions, gunpowder warfare before the mid-eighteenth century — in both Europe and Asia — was about sieges, with battles on “battlefields” being incidential to the related siege or threat of siege of a significant population center).

    Of course, one can argue that this too is “social,” because what are considered acceptable tactics and strategies are determined by upper classes fighting the last war… or three or for wars ago…

    • I was thinking more along the lines of a knife, where you’ve basically got to be within touching range + a few inches to hit, or something like a cutlass, where the shorter length was advantageous on the crowded terrain of a ship’s deck. Most of the primary non-daily-life melee weapons I know of (i.e. not what you carry around town, nor the backup backup weapon an army grunt might have stuffed in his boot) have better reach than that — maybe not the reach of a video game two-handed great-axe, but those things defy physics anyway. 😛

      Interesting point about the French lances, though. There are definitely situations where things like that can backfire (literally, in the case of many early firearms . . .), or where one consideration or another means you won’t actually be fielding people with spears or pikes or longswords or whatever. But the general impression I’ve gotten from my military history reading is that, unless something interferes, most generals would prefer to send their troops out with weapons longer than twelve inches. 🙂

      re: early firearms, I may at some point make a post that can be summarized as “Guns, Germs, and Steel massively overestimated how useful the first part of that equation was” . . .

      • Yep, re that last point. I’d love a good post on what GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL got wrong.

        • Honestly, my real answer would be “go read Charles Mann’s 1491 because he will answer that question in spades.” But for the purpose of having the information in an eventual collection of these essays, I might try to dust off my archaeology fu and write something up.

      • A side point on lances, knives, and Agincourt:

        The French nobility, unable to accept that their social inferiors in the form of yeoman archers were a superior military force when properly led and in supply, dismounted a substantial portion of their mounted force both at Agincourt and earlier in the 1415 campaign, and walked them up to the English dismounted men at arms (who had fewer horses for a variety of reasons… including food). But in the course of doing so, these nobles left their lances behind because they were too difficult to carry across 400m of somewhat boggy (and churned a bit by the horses in the first three charges!) field, in favor of their longer-reach swords.

        However, when the French formations broke apart into every-man-for-himself panic-ridden equivalents of high-school bullies (with less maturity and even greater sense of entitlement), they were frequently taken down by knife-wielding yeoman archers who had expended all of their arrows and come out from behind their stakes to retrieve them. One archer would keep the attention to the front while another attacked from behind, inside the potential sweep of the sword.

        A fair number of English fortunes were made that cold April day off the ransoms… and, conversely, some ransoms were never paid, in part because the ransom for a duke simply cannot be granted to a commoner.

        My point here is that “greater reach/range” as an advantage depends upon a certain coherence and organization to the method of battle, combined with rough equality in numbers. Once any of that breaks down, ambush and street-fighting tactics usually prove superior, especially if casualties are not themselves a cause of panic in the opposition (e.g., Brits v. Zulus). The weaponry becomes almost irrelevant. (And that’s why military forces have so much trouble taking and holding cities against enraged civilian populaces wielding improvised weapons… and have since the Romans “conquered” Greece.)

        • One archer would keep the attention to the front while another attacked from behind, inside the potential sweep of the sword.

          Heh, nice. I mean, dangerous for the guy in front, but it helps to have a buddy tag-teaming the target with you.

  4. A few comments, in no particular order, and possibly somewhat confused, as I’m quite tired:

    If we’re talking about cultural/social use of weapons, I think it’s always important to note the religious restrictions on weapons. In Islamic countries, one of the laws was that only Muslims are allowed to carry around swords. Christians have the legend of priests wielding maces, as they weren’t allowed to use edged weapons to spill blood, though evidence for this is sparse. But you also have religious restriction there, such as when the Pope forbade to use crossbows on other Christians. The Japanese are also an excellent example of this – I believe it was against the law for anyone who was not a samurai to own a katana, and certainly the reason they got rid of gunpowder weapons was to preserve the status of samurai.

    There’s also the cultural change caused by weapons – cannons allowed central authorities to destroy fortresses, thus strengthening central rule in Europe at the beginning of the renaissance. Firearms, when they reached sufficient quality, made cavalry less useful, leading ‘gentlemen’ and nobles to begin serving/buying commissions in the infantry. Before, the ability to take on the cost of a horse, armor and weapons was perhaps what made nobles become knights, or the opposite way around.

    While the phalanx used long weapons (and the Macedonian phalanx apparently used even longer spears than the Greek one), it took a millennia and a half for pikes to return as the best weapon to the battlefield, with the Swiss pikemen. Reach isn’t always what you need, and it’s generally believed that knights also abandoned their lances after the first charge and went for their swords. Weapons are only as good as their bearers – a group of untrained peasants carrying pikes would most likely injure themselves if they trained to form an infantry square. Drill was one of the factors made the pike and shot Dutch armies of the 16-17 centuries so effective, and the same applied for the later musketry armies of the 18th century, especially the British.

    • the religious restrictions on weapons

      Yes, class isn’t the only reason weapons might have legal restrictions.

      There’s also the cultural change caused by weapons

      Oh yeah — and especially when it gets into the army scale of things, that’s a whole set of topics I’m working on breaking down into sufficiently digestible posts.

  5. My impression is that while really fine swords might be an elite thing, basic steel swords weren’t uncommon. The Romans issued a gladius or spatha to all their legionaires, after all, and I think I read of yeoman-level medieval commoners having swords, taken home from campaign, perhaps. Large knives blur into small swords, after all.

    I think Diamond himself gave the impression that his title could have been “guns GERMS and steel”, and certainly Mann does, but claims to have a bunch of primary sources about the superiority of even early muskets to bows (and not that they were easier to train — which may not have been true when incorrect gunpowder use can kill yourself and the troops around you), including some from the North American colonial period. also mentions some 1500s perspectives.

    For D&D-ish RPGs I’ve assumed that basically everyone in the iron age has a knife, even slaves, because it’s a basic eating and working tool, plus something of a defense tool.

    • The Romans issued a gladius or spatha to all their legionaires, after all

      I’d say the Romans had a higher-than-average level of military organization. And legionaries are professional soldiers, which I’d say counts as elite in this context — i.e. they’re not conscripts, militia, etc.

      I think I read of yeoman-level medieval commoners having swords, taken home from campaign, perhaps

      Sure, if there aren’t laws preventing them from having those, they may acquire some. I’m not saying “elite weapon” in the sense that only the most powerful people ever possessed them — just that, compared to other weapons, they are expensive and specialized, and therefore not as likely to be found in the hands of people who aren’t either rich or professional soldiers.

      I think Diamond himself gave the impression that his title could have been “guns GERMS and steel”, and certainly Mann does

      Mann definitely emphasizes the GERMS part, with good reason. It’s honestly been a decade or more since I read Diamond, but my recollection of him is that half the book was basically environmental determinism, which isn’t really any of those three things.

      the superiority of even early muskets to bows

      I’ll look into that. I suspect part of the question boils down to “what is the writer focusing on when they declare X superior over Y” — accuracy? Ease of training? Rate of fire? Fatality statistics? Psychological value? The military histories I’ve read tend to agree that with early firearms, that last was a huge point, because the shock of it could throw a force unfamiliar with such things into huge disarray. On the other hand, if they held together past the first volley, the guns reloaded too slowly to have much effect after that.