For millennia, edged weapons such as swords, knives and daggers were the arms of choice for warriors around the globe. These razor-sharp blades inspired fear and fascination and helped change the course of military campaigns. In some cases, individual weapons were even given names and became just as legendary as the people who wielded them.
One of the most influential of the early swords that arose during the Bronze Age, the khopesh was an ancient Egyptian weapon that featured a hooked blade sharpened on its outside edge. Sickle-shaped swords were typically cast from bronze and were believed to have made their way to Egypt via the Middle East. During the New Kingdom period, they became a common military weapon and were prized for their gruesome slashing ability in close-quarters combat. The khopesh also came to have ceremonial value and was often depicted in art or included in the tombs of prominent Egyptians. The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, was entombed with two sickle swords of different sizes. The khopesh was eventually abandoned in favor of more traditional swords around the 12th century B.C., but not before it had become one of the most iconic weapons of ancient Egypt.
For centuries, this short, inwardly curved blade has been a traditional tool and weapon in Nepal. Europeans first became fascinated with the kukri in the early 1800s, when the forces of the British East India Company clashed with Nepalese Gurkha warriors in a bloody war. The locals’ prowess with the blades—including their ability to lop off limbs or disembowel a horse with a single blow—persuaded the British to enlist them as volunteer troops in their army. The Gurkhas went on to establish themselves as one of the world’s toughest military units, and their service knives became prized for their distinctive shape, balanced blades and superior chopping and slashing power. To this day, the kukri remains a standard issue Gurkha weapon and serves as the emblem of Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas, which consists entirely of Nepalese recruits.
The falcata was a curved, two-foot long sword that was used by Celtiberian warriors in ancient Spain. Crafted from high-quality iron or steel, its distinctive blade was single-edged near the hilt and double-edged near the point and was designed to combine the chopping power of an axe with the slashing ability of a sword. The falcata is most famously associated with the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who equipped his African troops with it during the Punic Wars against Rome. According to some historians, the sword’s effectiveness in close combat may have played a role in Hannibal’s crushing victory over the Romans at 216 B.C.’s Battle of Cannae.
Beginning in the 8th century A.D., the Vikings terrorized Europe with their ferocious raids on coastal settlements and cities. While only a select few of the Scandinavian marauders carried swords, evidence shows that those who did often possessed finely crafted blades that were centuries ahead of their time. These “Ulfberht swords”—named the signature present on each of their blades—were forged from high-carbon crucible steel and were renowned for their superior strength, flexibility and sharpness. Some 170 Ulfberhts dating from around 800 to 1000 A.D. have been recovered from archaeological sites, but since blades of a similar quality did not reappear in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, their origins have been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Some historians suggest the Ulfberhts were made from steel imported from the Islamic world, where metalworking was more advanced, while others contend they were forged from an ore deposit located in Germany.
The bolo knife was originally an all-purpose tool used for clearing brush or harvesting crops, but in the hands of revolutionaries, it became a formidable weapon of war. The machete-like blades originated in the Philippines, where native guerillas used them as improvised arms in the Philippine Revolution, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. Despite being severely out-gunned, these “bolomen” often used their knives to gruesome effect. “Their principal weapon is the long, broad-bladed, vicious-looking knife called the bolo, with which they do their deadly work,” an American serviceman named Ira L. Reeves once wrote of the Filipinos. “They make many boasts of their prowess and skill in taking human life, and one of their proudest feats is to sever the head from the body with a single blow.” The fearsome blades later saw action during World War II, and they remain a common weapon in Filipino martial arts.
Few images from Japan’s medieval history are more iconic than that of the lone swordsman holding a gleaming katana. For centuries, these curved, single-edged blades were the preferred weapons of the samurai, the noble warriors who served Japan’s feudal lords and followed a strict code known as Bushido. The best samurai were renowned for their ability to cut down enemies with a single, lighting-fast strike, and their swords were often revered as if they were precious works of art. Perhaps the most famous samurai sword was the Honjo Masamune, an early precursor of the katana that was forged in the 13th or 14th century by the legendary swordsmith Goro Nyudo Masamune. Hailed as one of the most exquisite Japanese blades ever crafted, the sword was owned by the 16th century warrior Honjo Shigenaga and later passed through several hands before disappearing at the end of World War II, possibly after being stolen by an American serviceman. Despite repeated searches, the treasured national artifact has never been found.
American history’s most iconic survival knife was named for Jim Bowie, the pugnacious frontiersman who became a leading figure in the Texas Revolution prior to his death at 1836’s Battle of the Alamo. Bowie’s reputation as a knife fighter had been forged nearly a decade earlier in 1827, when he killed a man during a brawl on a sandbar near Natchez, Mississippi. The weapon he used was most likely a thick butcher’s knife, but once word of the duel spread throughout the United States, many pioneers commissioned their own “Bowies” from blacksmiths. The knives soon developed a distinctive look that included a 9 to 15-inch blade and a clip point, and they became all the rage on the frontier, where they were used for everything from skinning animals and chopping wood to barroom brawls. There were even special schools dedicated to teaching the art of fighting with the Bowie. The blades later fell out of fashion as combat weapons after the introduction of more reliable pistols, but they continue to be used as hunting and utility knives to this day.
Perhaps more than any other weapon, the gladius helped make the Roman Empire. Along with the pilum (spear) and scutum (shield), this two-foot, double-edged short sword was one of the primary arms of the legions that conquered the Mediterranean basin. Its design evolved over the centuries, but it typically featured a sharpened point and a firm, reliable blade forged from high-grade steel. Primarily a stabbing weapon, the gladius was at its most effective when used within a disciplined formation where troops could protect themselves with shields while making vicious thrusting attacks against the enemy. “In the hands of the highly-trained Roman legionnaire this was the most deadly of all weapons produced by ancient armies,” the historians Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz have written, “and it killed more soldiers than any other weapon in history until the invention of the gun.”
Many legends swirled around the life of Attila the Hun, the barbarian ruler who became known as the “Scourge of God” for his devastating raids on Eastern Rome during the 5th century A.D., but one of the most famous concerns his personal war sword. According to the ancient historian Jordanes, a Hunnic shepherd presented the finely crafted blade to Attila after unearthing it from a field where his flock was grazing. Believing it a gift from the heavens, Attila proclaimed that the sword had belonged to the Roman god of war Mars and displayed it to the Huns as proof that he was destined to succeed in all his military campaigns. He went on to carry his “Sword of Mars” until his death in 453 A.D., but the fabled blade has since been lost to history.
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