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Thread: Swordsmen in 3K period

  1. #1
    legate's Avatar Campidoctor
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    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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    JackDionne's Avatar Senator
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    Default Re: Swordsmen in 3K period

    Zoner; I can't give you anymore rep, but I will say thanks again for this wealth of information! The question in this tread's answer if really good!
    Can you say Three Kingdoms? I knew you could! So looking forward to it.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Swordsmen in 3K period

    Quote Originally Posted by zoner16 View Post
    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. .
    I'd like to add that the first swords were bronze. Warring States kingdoms such as the Qin reknown for making very good quality long bronze swords even though other Warring States had started using iron (and sometimes steel) for their swords. IIRC, some of the longer Qin bronze swords are as long as later "longer" Roman spathas.

    And leather armor really means rawhide, superficially tanned rawhide, or thickened rawhide, as rawhide is cheaper, tougher, and stronger than leather.

    Quote Originally Posted by legate View Post
    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.
    Yes, they had a lot of swordsmen. The main weapons were polearms (not necessarily the spear), crossbows, but there were still lots of sword infantry. The most common form of polearms in the earlier Western Han era were long sword staffs and pike-lengthed spears, while he most common ranged weapon was the crossbow.

    According to the Donghai armory slips of the late Western Han Dynasty in 13 BC, the armory had over 500,000 crossbows, 77,000 bows, 156,000 single sided swords, ~100,000 double sided straight swords, and roughly 600,000 polearms (most of them being sword staffs and long spears/pikes). So that is roughly 600k polearms, 250k swords, and 500k crossbows.
    By the Eastern Han/3K era, sword staffs were mostly replaced by long spears/pikes, spears, and halbeds.
    Also, I'd suggest you take Osprey pictures with a grain of salt. Their Han Dynasty stuff is notoriously bad and is very outdated (it was published a quarter century ago).

    Finally, there were long two-handed double edged jians up to or slightly over 5 feet long (as long as medieval European claymores and Zweihanders) and 4 feet long single edged daos that were often used in combat during the Han Dynasty, and were given to heavily armored infantry that didn't use shields. Picture of an armored infantry with a long two handed jian:






    Apparently, these swords were not called zhan ma dao/zhan ma jian according to this video: https://youtu.be/yRv5Mu0B70s?t=687

    Some of these long 2 handed swords are stored in the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King in Southern China.

    https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qim...9e184b0d6a68b4

    https://www.gznywmuseum.org/nbsp/83.jhtml
    Last edited by Intranetusa; May 07, 2019 at 05:15 PM.

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