Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Webpages in Archive
Volume 6473

Richard Johnson
Note: all swords come from the author’s private collection.


One thing that Sword and Sorcery (Fahfred and the Grey Mouser), Sword and Sandal (Hercules), Sword and Planet (John Carter), Swashbuckler (Three Musketeers), Historical Drama (King Arthur) and the like is the focus on The Sword and an epic duel.  Conan without a sword is just another gym-rat.  Sanjuro without a katana is just another flower arranger.  King Arthur without a sword is just another king.  And John Carter without a sword is just some guy running around without his pants.

Some people are known for by their sword as in King Arthur and Excalibur or the type as in the Samurai and their Katana!  Others are not as Conan simply used whatever blade he could find to hack the other guy into dogmeat but the one commonality is the use of oversized cutlery.

Now the construction of any blade would cover an entire book but the technology of the times and the materials at hand would determine the actual sword.  The Japanese Katana was famed as being folded multiple times only because this was the attempt of the Smith to produce a decent blade form really crappy steel.

Watching the Arnold Conan movie over the weekend with a female friend who had confused the Father’s Sword with the Atlantian sword, I pointed out a vital flaw, the Cimmerians could not have poured molten steel into a mold because they did not have that technology.  Swords before the late renaissance were forged, not smelted!  And when Conan’s father stuck the sword into a snowbank, he only cooled the majority of the blade, leaving some 12” of blade before the guard  un-cooled.  Later when fighting with Thulsa Doom, the Father’s sword snapped at exactly that point!  That place where the snow did not touch the steel created a fracture point that snapped under stress.

When you watch The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s broken sword shows that it was forged from multiple pieces of steel that were welded together, poorly. Causing the blade to shatter along those weld points.  In the 1973 Three Musketeers starring Michael York had D’Artanion’s father’s sword suffer the same problem, snapping at a fracture point early in the film.  Older, pre-Renaissance swords were big and heavy because the technology simply did not exist to make a decent lighter blade.  Once Porcelin was invented, THEN sword technology advanced quickly. Bad steel or bronze produces short stiff blades but high tech can create longer swords to keep you away from danger as you kill your opponent.

 But the exact design of the sword depended upon two things, the armor against which it was used and the techniques of the fighter. If your fighting skill was hacking away at someone until you killed them, a sharpened bar of steel would work.  If your skills were to weave a net is steel around your enemy until you poked a neat hole into them, a pointed rod would be useful.  If you just stood there behind a big shield and poked at the other guy, a shorter straight blade works well.  Curved blades are designed for fighting on horseback, straight blades for standing man-to-man.


John carter had his longsword, though from descriptions and logical deduction this blade was more like a very light saber so what did Maureen Birnbaum and John Carter actually use?  Both took their blades from Barsoom which has a gravity of 0.38% of Earth.  Both took their blade from a culture that used no armor and habitually ran around mostly naked.  Both took their blade form a style that avoided the shield and it is from these statements that we can deduce how their swords appeared.

Author in Jingasa helmet holding 
a Last Lagends II Katana at typical ready stance.

Note that a sword has one purpose, to kill the other person by thrust or cut, depending upon the style of fighting and the defense of the other person.  The original Samurai wore armor made from lacquered leather strips held by silk cords and used the Chinese straight sword which was made for thrusting with the occasional cut.  Battles were often with two armies facing each other while the best champion of side-a would stroll forth, introduce himself, brag about his deeds and who he had killed and so on until the greatest hero of side-b entered the field, introduced himself and his deeds until the two faced off and fought to the death.  Repeat until the armies got tired of watching all these individual fights so each soldier would charge into the field, screaming his name to hack at whomever was charging at him and chaos ensued.

This was not just in Japan but common in any early wars as seen at Troy when Achilles stood outside Troy shouting his greatness until Hector exited the city to answer the challenge.  Repeat.  The Tuatha de Dannan did the same when facing the Fir Bolg in Ireland because that is how heroes fought.

Once the Samurai moved to become a mounted warrior, the blade became curved as fighting styles switched from two people hacking at each on foot to slashing as they passed, a style that moved to foot fighting and even seaboarding during the Great Age of Piracy the Samurai charging, slashing and cutting as they passed to injure their enemy as they ran forward.

Author with Cold Steel Cutlass and Belgium flintlock.
Note the width and shortness of the blade.

NOTE: When I studied Naval Boarding Tactics, I was taught to simply charge, slash at the guy before me, then pass him by to slash at the guy behind him and let the second wave kill the guy whose arm I had just hacked off.    Because ships were so narrow, the rapier gave way to the smaller Cutlass and as most strikes were downward, the only armor we needed was a helmet and shoulder protection.  Thus modern US Naval insignia boards on the shoulders of then officers represent that necessary armor.

Naval techniques required a short heavy cutlass with mostly downward attacks simply because there wasn’t room on that ship for fancy swordplay as in the movies.  Flintlocks were single-shot and misfired 40% of the time, more often in the humidity of the sea, so the weapon would be fired, hopefully, then reversed to be used as a club or hook.
It should be noted that in cinema, the fighters must stop and face each other lest they rush out-of-frame.  In reality, most fights were to charge past and injure then rush past and injure and man-to-man fighting occurred only when you faced a shield wall or were too tired to keep on running.  When this happened, you stood your ground with the biggest muckin’ shield you had and tried to not die while the guy behind you poked at the enemy with a long spear.

Author with home-made helmet and shield.
Broadsword by Excalibur but modified by the author.

People tend to resend being hacked into dog-meat with oversized cutlery so they made better armor for protection.  This was followed by bigger swords to cut through that armor and so on until the Classica knight was a walking tank, invulnerable until someone got the idea of switching from a heave sword to a pointy blade that would poke through the open areas at the eyes and armpits.  The heavy Broadsword then evolved into the lighter Longsword and finesse became important.  Skill took over and I learned to love the Longsword and how to half-hand it in battle.

Author holding Cold Steel Longsword in “The Ox” guard.

With the development of firearms, primitive as they were, steel armor faded away simply because it made you too slow to duck when someone pointed a matchlock at you and blew a neat hole through your ancestral breastplate so that ball could bounce around inside your armor turning your insides into chum.

Author with Rapier and Cold Steel Main Gouche, on guarde.

Armor faded and so people learned that they no longer needed a heavy blade and why not use a lighter weapon to poke at the unarmored bits?  It was the evolution of Arms & Armor in reverse.  The Longsword gave way to the Rapier, then to the Small-Sword.  The Saber became lighter and lighter until firearms became so well made that the fighter realized, “hey it takes that guy two minutes to reload that flintlock, I can cover the twenty feet between us in time and skewer him!”  Then “oops, he has six shots in that handgun,   [bleep] charging him with a big knife while he reloads, I’m running away!”

Author with Hungarian Saber and flintlock.
This would have been carried by Red Sonja of Rogantine in
the R. E. Howard story, Shadow of the Vulture.

The Rapier was a battlefield weapon and rarely carried in town because it was simply too long for street fighting and so was shortened to the Small-Sword which was so light, you could fight all day and fight indoors even without sticking your point in the ceiling and cutting blades off the ceiling fan.  Note that this comes from personal experience.  Shorter blades are made for indoors.

Classic Fencing Foil in Guarde.

Fencing Sabre in overhand guarde.

The Small-Sword evolved into the Fencing Foil and Epee while the heavy Saber evolved into the Fencing Saber.  The heavy Katana became the bamboo Shinai and blades were wielded by nerds like me or wanna-be swashbucklers who earned their living in Fencing Schools.

Shinai in two opening positions.

I’m the guy winning in this demo-fight.  Notice my stance!

It was when the Rapier and Broadsword gave way to the Foil and Epee that the swordswoman came into being.  Note that the next paragraph is biologically accurate though politically unpopular.

NOTE:  I was at the YWCA to pick up my kids and arrived early so glanced into the gym to find a woman’s self-defense class in action.  I admit that I was wrong when I snickered from outside the door and before I could leave, the female Black Belt instructor stopped the class and demanded what was my problem.  I tried to apologize but she would have none of it so I mentioned that what she was teaching would get the women raped.  She demanded I prove my point as she was a Black Belt and I was not.  So I removed my shoes, bowed, entered and waited for her to come on guard.  I recall she was in a classical stance so I stepped forward, ignored her punch which could not hurt my larger bulk, grabbed her by the neck, picked her off the ground, slammed her to the mat and began to strip her Gi from her body as I choked her.  She panicked, tried to scream and lost it!  I let her go and demanded of the women in class, “Why do you stand there and do nothing?  You could have ALL jumped onto me! You could have picked up that chair and pounded me!  One of you could have screamed for me to let her go! And someone should have called 911!”

NOTE:  My last fencing match, I had a foil while my female opponent had a much longer epee and thought that because she had won a number of tournament bouts that week I would be easy prey.  I had retired from the tournament circuit decades ago.   The Master stopped me and asked why I was facing an epee with a foil when I explained that I did not own an epee and had never held one in my life.  He handed me his epee and said, ‘Begin”.  I held her off until I got the weight down then simply struck her blade aside, stepped in, thrust from below and nearly bent that epee in half with a thrust to her belly.  She was not happy with losing three-out-of-three bouts with a tyro.

The point here is that no matter how good a woman is, pound-for-pound a woman is only 75% as strong as a man.  My athlete daughter is as tall as am I, outweighs me and STILL is smart enough to know that she has no chance against me.  And when that woman is 8” shorter and 50# lighter, I do not care how many Black Belts she has or how many woman’s tournaments she has won, against a larger and stronger man, she is just meat!  Every time a woman beat me in any tournament, it was because I let her win to avoid injuring her.

Back to blades!  My Cold Steel longsword weighs in at 3 ½ pounds and has a 37” blade, ny Excalibur Broadsword is much heavier.  Give that to a woman and within a very few moments, less than a couple minutes, she cannot hold that thing up!  She simply isn’t strong enough to carry a real sword.  Yes, Joan of Arc was a ‘fighter’ who wore full plate but somehow I cannot find any account of her actually being in a fight, much less winning one.  Same for Tomae Gozan and any other female swordsman.  Joan was to inspire men, not fight herself.  It is when the blades lightened that women became able to hold their own.  It should be noted that the Israel Army has two separate qualification courses, one for men who are expected to win a war and a smaller, easier one for women to meet PC requirements.  The Tucson Fire Department has lowered their standards so women could pass so if you are in a burning building, instead of a big strong man kicking that door open and carrying you out over his shoulder, it will take two women to eventually get that door open, then drag you across broken glass and burning wood as they rest often.  Look at Game of Thrones!  There are two notable women fighters in the TV Series, Anya Stark who used modern Fencing techniques with a very light sword called ‘needle’ and Brienne of Tarth who IS as big as any man and wins because she is faster than her opponents.


So how could Maureen Birnbaum be such a great swordfighter?

Despite the illustrations, Maureen was no small petite girl.  She was a big girl, similar to my daughter who used her size to advantage.  Maureen is described as big-breasted, big-hipped, large thighs, overweight but still hard and strong.  When my daughter was at a field event, one kid from another school was harassing her as unlike her older sister (a petite blonde cheerleader-type), Cerridwen is 5’ 10” and near 170# of solid muscle.  Unkind people call her ‘fat’, but never twice for that day she listened to the insult while calmly tossing a shot-put as if it were a tennis ball.  When the kid noticed, she added, “I can give you a 20 yard head start and still peg you in the back of your skull”. This was the same girl who, when 16, was arrested in Berlin for putting five skinheads in the hospital.  But she is an anomaly.  Her smaller sister is the norm, Cerridwen is an athletic giant who learned to fight from her crazy father.

Maureen was like Cerridwen.  Big and overweight and with muscles and speed under that fat.  Maureen was no beauty queen but she WAS a champion.
Still, she carried Old Betsy as her favorite weapon, using other blades when required.  In The Art of War she carried old Betsy, a Broadsword and a Longsword and a dagger.  The longsword being more of a light-and-long weapon made to stab through openings in armor.

So what was Old Betsy?

From the descriptions, Old Betsy, was a light-weight and curved saber with a handguard that covered her hand and was, itself, covered in gemstones.  Why?  Because any person on Mars would not need much strength to fight the Martian Gravity.  John Carter himself describes how weak the Green Men and Red Men were when compared to him.  Any person bred to walk under 38%  Earth’s gravity that is Mars is not going to be strong enough to hold heavy broadsword.  Blades on Mars MUST be light and thin or they simply become too heavy to lift.  Without armor, they do not need to be strong so light and fast would be better, something small enough and light enough to be moved easily and quickly by a man who would be weaker than an Earthly woman.  Remember, the average woman is 75% as strong as a man.  A Martian man would be 38% as strong as an Earth man so a 75% woman would be 27% STRONGER than a Martian Man and Maureen’s size and athletic lifestyle would make her stronger still.  She will never be as strong as a man (remember that Milo toyed with her until he stabbed her in the shoulder) But she would be strong enough and fast enough with that light blade to become the Warrior Woman Hero we all know and love.

Maureen carried a heavy Broadsword and Longsword in the Art of War, but quickly abandoned them for her beloved, lighter and faster, Old Betsy.


All blades from the Author’s personal collection:
Broadsword 2 -  Excalibur Broadsword, modified by author.
Cutlass3 -  Cold Steel Pirate Cutlass
Foil2 -  Modern fencing foil
I’m the Guy Winning -  Some demo tournament in the park I attended.
Katana1 -  Last Legends II katana
Longsword2 -  Cold Steel longsword
Rapier2 -  generic rapier
Saber3 - Museum Replica Hungarian Saber
Sabre3 -  Modern  Fencing Saber
Shinai3 - Modern Kendo bamboo sword
Shinai4 -  same

Visit our thousands of other sites at:
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2018 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.