I just read The book of swords — not the Fred Saberhagen series (the first three of which were pretty good but not strong enough to make me really want to read the many sequels) — but a nonfiction book by the late Hank Reinhardt. (Link goes to memorial page; it turns out his personal collection of weapons is being sold off, in part, and there are some articles by him, including some cringe-worthy stuff on politics that I’ll pretend I didn’t see!) Mr. Reinhardt is best known for his tireless promotion of medieval weapons, as the founder of the HACA and sword designer/consultant/co-owner for Museum Replicas. This book was unfinished at the time of his death but so far it’s a pretty good read. The style is extremely conversational, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The illustrations are photos (selected by the editor, his widow) and line drawings made by his friend Peter Fuller. They don’t always have much to do with the text they accompany, at least in the first few chapters, and frustratingly there are several passages that really scream for an illustration but have none. His widow owns Baen Books and the book was published under that imprint, so perhaps the editor/publisher could not be objective in deciding whether the book was ready to go into print. I’d still place the quality of the proofreading above many self-published books, but what this book probably needed was someone who would be willing to make cuts and changes. I suspect that conversational tone was something his widow and friends were unwilling or unable to fix, since that would mean removing some of his personality from the book, and the preface admits that his death was sudden and left them all in a bit of shock. As it is there are some distracting goofs here and there, a bit of rambling which the author acknowledges, and some lack of organization as points are raised, forgotten, picked up again, and in some cases left completely unexplained.
Reinhardt mentions that Arab swords are among his favorites and they deserve their own chapter, but sadly he never wrote that chapter. I am reminded of Sir Richard Burton’s Book of the sword, which similarly promises a section on Japanese swords which he never got around to writing. I suppose you could use these two books together then, although Reinhardt is rather less enthusiastic about katanas than Burton is about scimitars…
Reinhardt concludes his survey of swords with a couple of chapters on playing and fighting with swords. He has some suggestions for making practice targets for cutting, and also gives his advice for those entering contests and sparring. He has a great deal of skepticism about the fechtbuchs that have recently been garnering attention (authentic manuals written by duelists). I skimmed these chapters. He also talks a bit about his field tests of various swords on an armored pork roast, which is interesting, but we’ve all seen that sort of thing on the History Channel and You Tube (search: “Cold Steel” or “Arms in Action” for some entertainment! The Deadliest Warrior series had a few good sequences too but they always used very inferior butted mail rather than the riveted mail actually used by knights. )
The editors made a good effort at adding some bibliographical references to supplement his writing, but it’s not clear that they necessarily represent the sources of his ideas or facts; it is more of a selected bibliography of his personal library. (The introduction promises to eventually release a list of his personal books but that effort seems to have been abandoned.) A few chapters have Reinhardt’s own suggestions for further reading and I’ve added a few to my to-read list. The point of this post was actually not to review Reinhardt’s book so much as to mention a few books on weapons that I think are worth checking out. I have a small collection of books on arms and armor that I draw on for reference now and again and Reinhardt’s book will certainly join them. I’ve weeded my own collection a few times, and I think the ones I still have are all useful although not all of them are reliable. But they are some of the more widely available books on weapons so I thought it might be worthwhile to give my own little bibliography of books on weapons. I’ve noticed that although there are many, many books on swords, there are few if any books devoted just to hafted weapons like axes and maces. At best you’ll find a chapter or two devoted to ‘other weapons’ in a swords book, with perhaps a dedicated chapter on polearms in some books too. Granted there would be less romance and folklore to collect, but surely there is room for a book on maces? Maybe it’s just me, but I find hafted weapons just as interesting as swords. Anyway, here goes a list, more or less in chronological order:
Burton, Richard F. The book of the sword. Originally published in 1884, there have been many affordable reprints including a Dover edition which I have and, since it is now in the public domain, you can find scans and other digital copies pretty easily. There is a terrible scan in Google books and very good one here at Archive.org (as Google is listed as the digitizing partner at archive.org, I’m not sure why the two scans are so different…). some of this is outdated, obviously, but Burton is one of the few modern writers on swords who actually used swords in combat and I understand he was a pretty good swordsman. (Most books by fencers, duelists, and martial artists are more focused on technique and mental preparation, so it’s cool to see Burton’s views of the sword as an artifact.)
Ashdown, Charles Henry. British & foreign arms and armour. This book (originally published in 1909) has appeared under several different titles and in various sizes. I have a large (folio) sized edition put out by Wordsworth Editions as An illustrated history of arms & armour, but it has also been published as: European arms and armour and Weapons and armour in the Middle Ages. I was fooled by all these title changes and had two different editions for a while. Again a digital scan is available at archive.org. I have a theory that some of the confusion about the different armors (“banded mail,” “splint mail,” “ring mail”) might be due to the taxonomy of mail in this book, which seems to take every different depictions in Medieval art (especially funerary brasses of armored knights) to be different kinds of armor, rather than different ways of representing mail. Probably someone else has already thought this, and I just forget where the idea was first put forward. Still, it has great pictures and anecdotes.
Oakshott, Ewart. The archaeology of weapons. 1960. A true classic, and given it’s early date it’s surprising how much craziness made it into RPG books and popular culture regarding the weight and lengths of weapons and so forth. I remember my brother repeating the story his teacher told him around 1980 that Viking swords weighed 10 or 20 pounds. Sigh. Oakshott has a few other books on weapons I haven’t read, but which are more technical and narrower in focus.
Norman, A.V.B., & Pottinger, Don. English weapons and warfare, 449-1660. 1966. Also published under the title Warrior to soldier, 449 to 1660. This book reminds me a lot of Ashdown’s. The illustrations though are mostly original line drawings that look good.
Halbritter, Kurt. Waffenarsenal. 1977. Translated as Halbritter’s armoury and Halbritter’s arms and armor through the ages. (I have the second version.) This is a purely satirical book on weapons, armor, and fortifications that is very amusing and may provide some ideas for the sorts of innovations humanoids might come up with in your D&D games. Some illustrations are reproduced in low resolution here.
Balent, Matthew. Palladium Books presents– the compendium of weapons, armour & castles. 1989. This is a monster compilation of the old Palladium weapons & armor books from the 1980s, complete with the statistics for an unspecified system (which is not quite compatible with Palladium’s FRPG, either!). The art is pretty good, and the listing of weapons is about as close to exhaustive as you will get. I’m not sure all the terminology is as precise as the book suggests, but in terms of giving pretty much every weapon a name, it serves its purpose. I owned the original Palladium books on Exotic weapons and Weapons & assassins; I think my brother ‘inherited’ them when I inherited all his minis; he had the Weapons & castles and Weapons & armor books too anyway. (He’s the only person I know as interested in weapons as I am, apart from our nephew Quinn!) I’m not sure the assassins book material is reproduced but everything I recall from the other books seems to be there, some with new or enlarged illustrations.
Diagram Group. Weapons: an international encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD. This book was originally published in 1980, then again with updates in 1991, and in 2007 under the title The new weapons of the world encyclopedia : an international encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the 21st century. (Yes, the 1980 and 1991 editions both say “to 2000 AD”. I only have the 1991 edition, and it is very good and fairly comprehensive, with a number of unusual weapons alongside all the familiar ones, and simple diagrams to explain how they work. The book moves progressively from the simplest hand weapons to guided missiles and nuclear weapons, grouping them by types (all the knives in one section, all the spears in another, etc.) I also liked the appendix which groups weapons by time period rather than types.
Paul, E. Jaiwant. “By my sword and shield” : traditional weapons of the Indian warrior. 1995. A slim book that just focuses on India, which has an astonishing range of unusual and crazy-looking weapons. I like kukris and katars quite a bit, and while I think the Viking sword is probably my favorite kind of sword, Indian swords look really scary. This book gives a fair amount of detail on the construction and history of various weapons and is worth having.
Amberger, J. Christoph. The secret history of the sword : adventures in ancient martial arts. 1998. (An earlier edition has less than half as many pages, but I haven’t seen it). This is a fairly entertaining read, and is more of a history of dueling and fencing than of swords or swordplay generally, but there are lots of great anecdotes and ideas sprinkled throughout. The author is a little too in love with himself IMO but it doesn’t quite spoil the book.
Withers, Harvet J. S. The world encyclopedia of swords and sabres. 2008. Also published as The illustrated encyclopedia of swords and sabres. The illustrations here are all photographs of often gorgeous museum pieces and despite the title it also covers other bladed weapons like knives and bayonets, as well as a very few axes and hafted weapons. The historical notes are solid and this is fun book to flip through if you like swords. The same author is credited with several other similar titles that might be different versions of the same work. (It’s funny how specialist books get re-published over and over with new titles. I see this a lot at work as a catalog librarian and I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with marketing — they will always appear as “new” books, right? Cookbooks are also very guilty of this.
Honorable mention to several books I do not own:
Wagner, Eduard. Cut and thrust weapons. 1967. A very comprehensive book focusing more on later period swords but also including a lot of information on the design and construction of swords. Very pricey on the used book market.
Wilkinson, Frederick. Antique arms & armor. 1972. Also his Swords and daggers. 1968. Two good books with photographs of museum pieces.
Sharpe, Mike. Swords and hilt weapons. 2012. A nice coffee-table type book with photographs mostly of reproductions of the sort sold by Museum Replicas, Inc., Cold Steel, etc. The big format gives plenty of space of reproducing the photos, which is almost all the book consists of. There are several other books with the same title out there and they are more like the Withers book, showing photos of museum pieces.