Hand Weapons Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Hand Weapons

8 Conversations

As long as people have existed, there have been arguments between them. When such arguments arise, it is often the case that the people involved wish to cause direct bodily harm upon their adversaries. In the fullness of history, people have had plenty of chances to invent and to refine the tools that they use to hurt one another. Some of these tools, such as guns, can cause harm at a distance, but in this Entry we are only concerned with those that are wielded directly against the opponent.


Knives, as a whole, have been pretty useful devices for humans. However, as with nearly any advance in technology, people have found a way to turn it against each other. Knives are easily concealed, and various modern societies have written various laws restricting blades of a particular length or style.

Knives are pretty simple. There is usually a handle at one end and a blade at the other. Typically the blade is only sharp along one edge, designed for slicing, but where the whole end is sharpened you have a dagger. If such a blade is particularly slender, it is known as a stiletto.

  • The Indian Katar is one design of particular interest. The blade is perpendicular to the handle, and the weapon is gripped like a corkscrew to reveal the double-edged and generally triangular blade.

  • The Main-Gauche1 is often used by fencers, is a short, triangle-shaped dagger used in the off hand (that is, whichever hand isn't using the sword). It is rarely used to attack, but is used to parry the opponent's sword while keeping one's own blade ready to strike.

  • A Koga knife is held backwards. Instead of the blade protruding forward toward the victim, the knife is held in such a way that the blade goes down the outside of the user's forearm.


Swords are perhaps the only tool on this list that people have made for the sole purpose of hurting one another. Generalisations are hard to make, simply because the styles of swords are so varied. They can be weapons for chopping or slicing, the blade single-edged or double-edged, straight or curved, made out of bronze, iron, glass, or, more usually, steel. The entire handle end is known as the hilt, this assembly includes the guard or quillions2, the grip3 and the pommel4.

Chopping Swords

A chopping sword is one that is simply applied with a good, hard swing to the target. The edge is supposed to take care of the rest.

  • The European Broadsword5 is stereotypical. Three or four feet long with a straight, double-edged blade and a cross-hilt, it occasionally has a pointed end for stabbing.

  • The Shortsword is also fairly standard, about a foot and a half to two and a half feet long but otherwise very similar to the broadsword.

  • The Claymore is a Celtic style of sword. It resembles a broadsword with one major exception: it's big. Very, very big. Often as tall as the person wielding it, the Claymore is used two-handed and rarely, if ever, to parry an opponent's strike. A swordsman using a Claymore will seek to strike first and hardest.

  • The Sabre6 is a heavy, slightly curved sword, often carried as a sidearm by the military.

  • The Dau is a heavy curved Chinese sword. Its name, appropriately, means 'cutter'.

Fencing/Thrusting Swords

A thrusting sword features a point rather than a blade, the intention being to impale rather than to chop or cut the target. They are commonly used by fencers in the French or Italian style.

  • The Smallsword is short, light, and somewhat flexible. Often issued to the European military and a favourite of 'gentlemen', there is also a dress version that is shorter, lighter, and often more ornate; it was used as a fashion accessory more than a weapon. Those opting for disguise sometimes concealed one in a cane.

  • The Gladius Shortsword was issued to all Roman legionnaires. While it has an edge, it is designed for thrusting, not cutting.

  • The Estoc is a sword of German heritage, technically a longsword, but lacking any cutting edge. The blade is very thin, usually with a round or triangular cross-section, and tapers to a point intended for penetrating chainmail.

  • The Rapier is a long, stiff, narrow fencing sword. Rapiers generally became longer and narrower over time, for the purpose of penetrating very fine chainmail from a greater distance. Of course, the thin blade made them somewhat fragile and the great length made them difficult to use. A few came with edges, but the focus was primarily on thrusting.

Slicing Swords

Slicing swords are razor-sharp, and instead of simply hacking away at the target, the edge of the blade must be drawn across the flesh, often cutting very deeply. There is some rivalry concerning whether chopping or slicing swords are better, but it is unlikely that members of either school would wish to be attacked with either one.

  • The Middle Eastern Scimitar was the bane of the Crusaders in the Crusade Wars. It has a wide, curved, single-edged blade. These are used both from horseback and on foot.

  • The Katana is the familiar Japanese Samurai sword, featuring a long, curved blade. The symbol of the Samurai class were the Katana and wakisashi - the wakisashi being, more or less, a shorter Katana. These versatile swords can be used either one- or two-handed alone, or as a set with one in each hand.

  • The Nodachi is to Katanas what the Claymore is to the Broadsword.

  • The Bokken is not a slicing sword; it's a wooden katana and mostly used for training. It was also a favourite of the legendary ronin7 Miyamoto Musashi. A bokken is thick and heavy and nearly as dangerous as the katana itself. Many schools abandoned the Bokken in favour of the Shinai, which is similar in length, weight, and balance to the katana, but is fashioned of bamboo strips wrapped in cloth, so it is much less dangerous to aspiring swordsmen.

  • The Tachi is essentially a katana intended to be used from horseback.

  • The To or Ninja-to were often utilized by the Ninja in Japan, as the second name implies. It is much like a katana, but is straight and has a shorter blade. Always resourceful, the Ninja often crafted the scabbard for use as a blowpipe and then concealed the whole thing inside a staff.

  • The Gum is a Korean sword, revered in a similar way to the Japanese katana. It can be either straight and double-edged or curved and single-edged. Traditionally, the quality of Japanese and Korean swords was very high, and swordsmith was a well-respected position.

  • The Aztec Macauitl is creative in design and has a name that is near unpronounceable. It is made nearly entirely out of pieces of wood glued together; the edge being provided by pieces of obsidian between the planks. Rarely, if ever, was there a point for thrusting. These swords, being made of wood and glass, were very fragile and required frequent repairs, even if used to cut nothing but cloth and flesh.


Originally invented to hunt game, eventually someone got the idea of using the spear against people. Throwing spears are not hand weapons and are not dealt with here, only those that are used in melee combat. Most such weapons are used two-handed, but a few one-handed styles exist.

A spear consists of two parts, the head, or impaling point, and the shaft, which is, more often than not, a wooden pole. Again, steel and wood make up the great majority of most spears, but in the past, bronze, iron, and stone have been more than common in spearheads.

  • The Chinese Chiang is among the simplest of spears which include the Japanese Yari and Rochin, and the Roman Hasta. These are simply shafts and impaling points, used to impale the target.

  • The Celtic Belly Spear is a rather nasty variation around the general theme of 'spear'. The head is covered in backward-pointing barbs and spikes. In use, the spear is aimed at the vital organs not protected by a skull or rib cage, pushed in as far as it will go, and pulled out again. The barbs often tear a few vital organs on the way out, too.

  • A Pike is a very long spear, often 12 feet or more. Near useless in one-on-one combat, legions of pikemen were quite effective against charging calvary in warfare, as charging horses and pointy objects don't mix.

  • A Lance, on the other hand, is essentially a very long spear used from horseback against other cavalry or infantry. It is, again, 12 feet long or more. This is the weapon that was used in jousting tournaments.

  • The Trident is a spear with three points. They are usually very heavy, given that several times as much steel is required to fashion the spearhead. Variations include the Roman Fuxima and the Chinese Tiger Fork.

  • Polearms are often larger than spears, and more often have edges for cutting as well as points for impaling. The European Glaive, Poleaxe and Bill, the Japanese Naginata, the Chinese Monk's Spade, and the Indonesian Latajang are all variations on this theme. The Chinese Dah-Dau is used against calvary (the name means 'Horse-cutter').

  • A Halberd is a sort of all-in-one polearm. It is primarily a long wooden shaft, weighted at the end opposite the head for balance. The head is a sampler plate of weapons: it contains a spearhead for thrusting, a curved pick to swing and impale, and an axehead for chopping. Given the leverage granted by the length of the shaft, these are quite dangerous.


Axes were originally used to chop wood, but were often modified to chop people. A wooden shaft is tipped with a stone or metal axehead, a broad blade attached crosswise to the shaft. Many axes were made for throwing, these were often smaller than the typical hand axe. On the other end of the spectrum, double-headed broadaxes were common in warfare, as were battleaxes with extremely long shafts to increase leverage, and therefore cutting power.

The only noteworthy model that comes to mind is the Tomahawk, of Native American design. Often made of stone, these were not terribly sharp, but still held a fair edge. The utmost importance was of symbolism to its wielder, who often fashioned ceremonial and decorative versions of it.


A Flail is a weight attached to a chain or rope. Not easy to learn to use, they are equally difficult to defend against and often do terrible damage to their unlucky targets.

  • The Morningstar is a typical flail native to Europe. A decent-sized wooden handle bears a chain tipped with an iron head, occasionally decorated with spikes to cause impaling instead of bludgeoning damage.

  • Horseman's Flails often have more than one chain and head for the same handle.

  • The Japanese Nunchaku is almost as well-known as the katana. The nunchaku could be considered to be two handles connected by a rope or chain; the striking head is whichever half the user isn't holding. There is also a three-part variation, with three staves connected by two ropes.

  • The Kusari is another flail of Japanese origin which was simply a very long chain with a weight on the end. The weight was not for striking, but for balance. The Kusari is used to ensnare an opponent's weapon and pull it from their hands.


Like a flail without a head, a whip comprises a handle and a flexible striking surface. Whips in general do not do as much damage as a sword or spear or axe, and are nearly useless against armoured opponents, so their main use is in punishment or torture.

  • The Bullwhip is the typical whip being simply strips of leather braided together for strength.

  • The Cat of Nine Tails is infamous as a torture device, being nine short whips on one handle, tipped with bone, metal, glass, or any other sharp object the creator could get his hands on. These sharp objects would tear flesh from the victim when they struck. Since the Roman punishment of forty lashes with the Cat of Nine Tails was often fatal after less than half the blows had been administered, the standard withholding of the fortieth lash 'out of mercy' can be seen for the truly generous gesture that it was.


  • A Kama is a Japanese sickle. There is a wooden handle and perpendicular curved blade, with the cutting edge on the inside. These are sometimes attached to one end of the Kusari flail, thus making it (not surprisingly) a Kusarigama.

  • Neko-De is Japanese for 'Cat's Claws', a sort of glove with claws on it, used for slashing and punching.

  • The Sai, also of Japanese workmanship, is something like a blunt dagger with an extremely large cross-hilt, curving round out on either side to follow and gently approach the blade, before turning sharply back and ending about two-thirds of the way up. The Sai is not used for striking, but for parrying the opponent's weapon and twisting it out of their hands between the blade and one of the protrusions. These come in sets of two, and are used one in each hand. A duel between sai users may be interesting to watch as each go for the other's weapons and strain to disarm their opponent.

  • The Sodegarami is a Japanese barbed staff, used for entangling the targets hair or clothes and grappling them.

  • A Tonfa is a bizarre Japanese club with a handle protruding perpendicular to the main striking staff. There are at least a half-dozen different ways to use this weapon, probably more, including simply striking with it, holding the handle and letting one end protrude past a punching fist while the rest of the staff protects the forearm, grappling and choking an opponent in the crotch of the staff and the handle, and so on.

  • A Tessen is a Japanese fan with blades on the outer edge. Some people will make a weapon out of anything.

  • A Garrotte is simply a piece of wire. Sneak up on someone, wrap the wire around their throat, and choke them to death. Not terribly useful in hand-to-hand combat, this is favoured more by assassins.

  • A Quarterstaff is a bludgeoning weapon, a piece of wood about as tall as the person using it. Approximately equal are the Japanese Bo and the Korean Bong.

1The name is French for 'left hand'.2The bit that protects your hand.3The bit you actually hold.4The very end of the sword, from which we get the word 'pummel', as it was often used in combat when the opponent was too close to allow use of the blade.5The word Broadsword is often used interchangeably with Longsword.6Saber in the US.7A ronin is a Samurai that has become an outcast.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by


h2g2 Entries

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more