Beyond their obvious uses, antique swords and weaponry have served as symbols of power for centuries, used and displayed by rulers who wish to demonstrate their strength and nobility. The expansive range of weapons across history, from Roman chariots to swords from the Middle Ages, can also convey important information about ancient lifestyles and the warriors who used them. Whether you’re looking to acquire your first antique weapon or searching for the perfect piece to complete your collection, read on for a guide into the fascinating history of weaponry.
Introduction to Antique Swords and WeaponryAn antique sword makes a great addition to any collection, with a wide variety of options available, from swords used in historic battles to those from specific cultures. When displayed on your mantle, an antique sword can be a great conversation starter and the centerpiece of your home. However, there is so much more to antique weaponry than just swords, which includes everything from the bow and arrow to antique guns.
One of the first tools to be invented by humans, weapons have continued to develop in complexity since their inception. While the first weapons were simple carved stone points, these evolved into arrow tips and larger daggers, so that more damage could be dealt to one’s opponent. With the limitless creativity of humans, weaponry expanded to include spears, swords, shields and far more.
Siege Weapons and Chariots in WarfareAn important consideration for ancient warfare was mobility, especially for rulers who needed to control vast empires. The not-so-simple act of mobilizing an army to fight at a distant location could serve as an entire battle unto itself before the enemy was even in reach. This problem was solved by the ancient invention of the wheel, and subsequently the chariot.
Siege weapons used to break down enemy fortifications could be used alongside chariots as part of an offensive strategy. Early examples included items as simple as scaling ladders to reach the tops of castle gates and walls. Later strategic siege weapons included the classic battering ram. In the Middle Ages, the use of catapults and trebuchets flourished, eventually developing into cannons that required gunpowder.
This miniature device recreates the type of cannons used during an important battle during the Second Boer War at the turn of the century, the siege of Mafeking. Lasting 217 days, the eventual lifting of the siege marked a crucial victory for the British. This commemorative piece would have served as a reminder of the success of the British military.
Edged Weapons Through the AgesAlthough edged weapons have played an important role in warfare for centuries, the creation of the first swords around 3300 BC represented a huge technological improvement. With longer blades than early daggers, warriors with access to swords had the potential to inflict substantial damage on opponents. While the first swords were crafted from bronze and relatively short, the expanding use of iron around the 13th century BC allowed for more durable and dangerous swords.
Iron swords were replaced by steel swords around the 10th century CE, allowing for more standardized and consistent quality. By the 14th century and 15th century, improvements in metal choice resulted in other changes to sword designs, like a longer grip and blade, as well as new variations like the longsword. Concurrent developments in armor and other weaponry like crossbows limited the sword to close combat on the battlefield and for self-defense.
Dueling swords became a popular accessory in Europe during the 17th century, particularly the rapier and small sword. Civilians and military men alike would wear swords primarily as a show of status, but also to use in duels if necessary.
Similarly to dueling swords, hunting swords became less functional and more sophisticated over time, used to make a statement of wealth and power. Hunting swords were used during the 19th century as accessories to the musket used primarily by hunters. The hunting sword was intended for both self-protection and to deal the final blow to wounded game.
Carrying a sword as an everyday outfit component became less socially acceptable towards the end of the 18th century. Gentlemen still wanted to distinguish themselves as wealthy and sophisticated, leading to the replacement of swords with fashionable walking canes.
Weapon canes with concealed blades rose in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries, allowing their owners to protect themselves more discreetly. The cane above looks like a typical antique walking stick at first glance, but pulling on the handle reveals an impressive steel long sword, embellished with blue and gold.
Depictions in Art: Paintings Showing WeaponryWithin the realm of fine art, weapons are often depicted both in battle scenes and in formal portraits. For military leaders and well-esteemed patrons of the arts, being pictured with a decorative sword or gun was a way of demonstrating strength.
Historic paintings like this show the enduring importance of weaponry for symbolic purposes, and emphasize the lasting relevance of the sword, even after the invention of guns.
Weaponry in Historical Events: War and Technological Advancements
One of the most important technological advancements in weaponry came around 1000 AD, when the first guns were constructed in China. These early models share the critical trait of using gunpowder with the weapons we’re familiar with today, although many other features differed. Important advancements in the way gunpowder was ignited, particularly the matchlock and later wheellock, bridged the gap from ancient weaponry into modern firearms.
The highly decorative rifle above shows the innovative wheellock mechanism, which uses a steel wheel to generate sparks, igniting the gunpowder and firing the weapon. Different types of antique guns soon emerged for every possible purpose, from hunting and self-defense to purely ceremonial.
As warfare advanced, the need for secrecy heightened. Inventions like the Enigma Machine and the NEMA Cipher machine above allowed encrypted messages to be sent across battlefields. Because the British Army was able to intercept one of these machines, the Allied war effort was able to make crucial strategic advancements. Although these machines may not look as menacing as a sword, their importance in World War II cannot be understated.
The Enduring Legacy of Historical Weapons in Modern TimesEdged weapons have evolved over centuries into the perfected form of the sword, which played an important role in all warfare up until the early 19th century when handguns began to gain prominence. Even then, swords were carried by many militaries into the 20th century, and are still used today for ceremonies.
The history of weaponry piques the curiosity of anyone with historical interests, whether you favor antique swords from the Roman Empire or the Civil War's Samuel Colt revolvers. If you’re fascinated by antique weapons and also looking to add fine art to your home, browse our selection of unique arms from the past and check out M.S. Rau’s collection of war art.