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Thread: Swordsmen in 3K period

  1. #1
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    Jan 2007

    Default Swordsmen in 3K period

    I was reading about military units of the 3K period in an Osprey military history book. It stated that a typical army formation would see the crossbowmen on the frontline, with spearmen behind, and then behind the spearmen would be units of swordsmen ready to engage an enemy breakthrough. Did China of this period have large numbers of dedicated swordsmen? As with most ancient and medieval infantry, the main weapons were the spear and bow.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Swordsmen in 3K period

    The sword had been one of the most prevalent weapons in China since the late Warring States era, whereas before that it mostly remained just a sidearm. As the states militarized and centralized, they became more able to control military production and promote advances in metallurgy, allowing for the mass production of swords. This became especially prevalent as iron replaced bronze as the most common weapon material. The states of Qin and Han (different from the Han dynasty) in particular were known for their swordsmithing industries.

    From what I can tell, there were a couple of major reasons for this. One was geography. The prevalence of sword use seemed to penetrate inward from the south and west, where rough terrain from jungles, mountains, and rivers made the dense blocks of polearms and archers that were favored by the more central warring states less effective. States began adopting dedicated swordsmen to counter the use of them by their neighbors and the cycle continued. Another was the increased discipline and organization of the armies. Battles couldn't be won purely at a distance anymore because armies were bigger and the men were tougher to break. Once battles dragged on long enough for the lines to get close and broken up, the use of swords and swordsmen gave particular sides an edge. Finally, there's the way that they interacted with the standard protection used at the time. Swords of iron--and later steel--were noted to be particularly able to get around the small wooden shields and through the leather armor of the era thanks to both their versatility and the force of their attacks. The wounds inflicted by them were said to be particularly gruesome compared to other weapon types, which probably had an effect on morale.

    This continued well into the Han dynasty. The Han practiced combined arms formations, which benefited immensely from their robust officer corps, professional standard army, and semi-professional citizen reserves. Since the Han also maintained several major armories which were fed by state regulated industries, there was always a hefty supply of swords. At the turn of the calendar, swords in the Han armories still outnumbered halberds by a wide margin and were a full half the number of spears/dagger-staves. They also gained an additional use as the Han expanded, as it was noted that they were very useful for slashing the legs of cavalry, for the Han were coming into increasing conflict with the pastoral nomads to their north. During the late Han era, one of the better documented formations used during the Xianlian Qiang conflict was one rank of long spears, one rank of long halberds, and a rank of swordsmen, supported by crossbows and flanked on both sides by cavalry. This probably continued into the Three Kingdoms era, with the lack of central state control of the dispersed swordmaking industry likely made up for by the increased militarization of the various warlord states throughout the land.

    So in summary, the increased militarization and technological advancements of the Warring States era allowed for a boom in swordmaking capacity and military doctrine always seemed to have a use for swordsmen to cover the shortcomings of polearm weapons. This continued throughout the Qin and Han eras and into the Three Kingdoms, with new uses and better swords.
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