On Weaponry and Weapon Variety in Fantasy

I was washing my hair in the shower this morning when I started thinking about the regrettable lack of weapon variety in Tolkienesque or “high” fantasy.

What? You mean you don’t think about broadswords and morning stars in the shower?

Fantasy heroes and heroines almost invariably wield a sword of some description, while their companions wield axes, bows and arrows, or magical staffs. And, almost invariably, a dwarf gets the axe, an elf gets the bow, and a grumpy old wizard gets the staff.

God, could this get any more boring?

Here are some high fantasy book covers to illustrate my point:

tolkienesque-coversThere’s actually one guy who appears to be wielding a hammer. Creative.

Now, please don’t think I have a problem with swords. On the contrary, swords remain my fantasy weapon of choice. (When I was recently married, I had the photographer snap a shot of me in my wedding gown with my replica of Andúril.)

What bothers me about high fantasy is not the pervasive obsession with swords, but rather the failure of most authors to provide any variation beyond the occasional “broadsword” or “longsword.” Even disregarding the endless possibilities that exist when you’re creating weapons for a fantasy world, there are hundreds of real-world sword types to choose from, and hundreds more variations on each type.

Here’s a short list of sword types I’ve compiled just from a quick look at Wikipedia:

Gladius – Short, one-handed Roman sword
Estoc – Edgeless variant of the longsword, used for thrusting
Rapier – Slender, sharply pointed sword ideally used for thrusting attacks
Cinquedea – Italian short sword with tapered blade used during the Renaissance
Sabre – Backsword with a curved, single-edged blade used for slashing (see also Middle Eastern scimitars)
Falchion – Slightly shorter version of a sabre
Jian – Chinese double-edged straight sword
Hook sword – Exotic Chinese weapon with a crescent-shaped hand guard and pointed daggers on the ends of the hilt
Katana – A curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or square guard, associated with Japanese samurai
Balisword – A longer variant of the balisong knife or butterfly knife, with two hilts that cover the blade when folded
Kalis – Double-edged Filipino sword with a wavy blade
Machete – Cleaver-knife used in the Americas for cutting through thick brush
Cutlass – Type of saber often used in naval combat
Dirk – A long thrusting dagger used by naval officers in hand-to-hand combat
Pata – Indian sword with integrated protective gauntlet
Katara – Indian ceremonial dagger with H-shaped hand grip

While we’re at it, why stop with swords? There are so many more interesting weapon types to choose from outside the mundane array of swords, bows, and axes:

Slingshot
War hammer
Whip/Chain whip
Morning star
– Spiked club-like weapon first appearing in medieval Germany
Glaive
– Type of polearm with a curved blade, and my personal favorite exotic weapon (see also Chinese guan dao and Japanese naginata)
Shuriken – Traditional Japanese throwing stars, often seen in manga
Poleaxe – Type of polearm with a steel axe head mounted on a wooden haft
Tomahawk – North American throwing axe resembling a hatchet
Quarterstaff – wooden shaft used especially in martial arts (see also Chinese gun and Japanese )
Chakram – Circular blade used as a throwing weapon in India
Knobkierrie – Long, wooden club used in Africa for throwing or bashing
Stinkpot – Invented in China, filled with gunpowder and sulfur, used as incendiary and suffocating naval weapon
Qiang – Chinese spear with a leaf-shaped blade and horse hair tassel
Bolas – Throwing weapon consisting of weights tied together with a cord, common to South America
Blowgun – A small tube for firing light projectiles or poisoned darts, used in Southeast Asia and South America
Nunchaku – Japanese weapon consisting of two sticks connected by a chain
Hunga munga – curved throwing dagger native to the tribes of South Africa

Be honest—do you really want to outfit your fantasy hero with a classic longsword after learning that there’s a weapon called a hunga munga?

Swords are a staple of high fantasy, and I don’t think they’re likely to be replaced by the knobkierrie or the slingshot anytime soon, but the next time you sit down to a blank page on a new project, think twice before falling back on the standard weapons that you’re familiar with. Give your hero or heroine a glaive or a chakram to throw around, and I guarantee you’ll create a character that your readers aren’t likely to forget.

What are some weapons you’d like to see more of in fantasy novels? Share in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “On Weaponry and Weapon Variety in Fantasy

  1. Guilty as charged of this offense, although this post did give me some ideas for spicing up the battlefield next time.

    And come to think of it, when I think back to my favorite fantasy novels that only character I can recall who wielded a different sort of weapon was Mina from Dragons of a Fallen Sun. Hers was the morning star, I believe. But that was Mina … so does it really count? :p

  2. I think writing hand to hand combat in a way that keeps it interesting is very difficult. I don’t know enough about any formal fighting styles to get much out of a technical description. I know that character A has a pointy thing and character B has a pointy thing, and they are trying to poke each other, and that’s about it.

    So, for me, it doesn’t really matter if a character carries a “gladius” or a “cinquedea”, all I want to know is if she cuts the bad guy first or does the bad guy cut her first.

    • Thank you for bringing this up, as it’s something I forgot to mention in the post, and I agree with you one hundred percent. I think well-placed weapon variety can add flavor to a fantasy world, but not at the expense of the action! I’ve read too many books where two characters are in the middle of a duel, and the author stops the action to describe the light reflecting off the blade of his sword, or some such nonsense. That kind of description detracts from the suspense of the scene.

      That being said, I think if the author establishes prior to the battle scene that Character A fights with a pair of falchions while Character B fights with a quarterstaff, it can actually make writing the scene more fun and interesting. I will admit, though, it does take a deal more research to write about exotic weapon styles!

      Thanks for commenting and following! 🙂

      • I think that when an author really knows her or his subject it makes a huge difference. If know not just that character A fights with a pair of falchions but also why she does and how she uses that particular technique against a long weapon like a quarterstaff, then it is going to matter to me if, for example, she loses one of the blades and has to adapt her style to compensate.

        There are writers who are themselves experts in different fighting styles, with or without weapons, and are able to describe combat realistically. One of my favorites is Steven Barnes.

  3. I’m a budding fantasy author, so I don’t have much experience in the writing aspect, but I am also a 2nd degree black belt with weapons experience. My observation – if you are writing a true fighting sequence, the detail to make it real could also make it excruciating to the reader.

  4. The character I’m writing about uses drop-point shortswords, while his friend twirls spears. I’m planning on coming up with a character who fights with a giant metal spork.

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