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How much larger and heavier should swords be in order to combat massive monsters?

Fiction and RPGs are somewhat notorious for over-estimating or exaggerating the weight of swords. For instance, a game system might list a two-handed sword as being 10 or 20 pounds and wieldable only with the most brute of strength, whereas in reality they're more like 5 pounds and can be used with great finesse. However, this isn't necessarily a historical inaccuracy as it is a plausible factor of many fantasy worlds - fictional swordsmen aren't always dueling other humans, but rather often fighting huge, towering creatures such as trolls, manticores, and dragons. Against these foes, I would expect that swords designed for fighting other men would be ineffective and would need some extra heft behind them.

By how much, if any, would a sword need to be heavier in order to be effective at harming monstrously large foes? Would a scaled-up humanoid monster, such as a giant or troll, be vulnerable to a realistic sword, or would it need a little more oomph? How effectively could one swordfight a large, dangerous creature in reality, such as a rhinoceros or an elephant?

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    $\begingroup$ You'd also need to address how much stronger the humans would have to be in order to use those huge weapons effectively. Without this, they'd be dead in the mud. $\endgroup$ – Snow Mar 2 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Pᴇᴛᴇ I'm assuming that humans aren't any different. That is often a theme of many fantasy settings, that the humans are quite weak and normal compared to their supernatural foes, but have to find a way to combat them anyway through sheer determination and perseverance, or possibly ingenuity and inventiveness. If this is unreasonable, go ahead and consider that in an answer. $\endgroup$ – Southpaw Hare Mar 2 '17 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I guess that's the problem. Swords can't really be much bigger than have been used in centuries. It's not because the enemies are smaller, it's because they can't practically be used. Sure, you have the huge long-swords favoured by Scottish Kings, but they're little more than totems. $\endgroup$ – Snow Mar 2 '17 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ After a certain length, weapons become unwieldy regardless of weight. Pole weapons, such as spears and poleaxes, for instance, are mostly used for stabbing or crushing rather than precision slashing attacks. And if stabbing or crushing is all that you need to kill the beast, you may as well stick with a spear that's 90% wood, because metal is often expensive (both to mine and work) in these settings. $\endgroup$ – delinear Mar 2 '17 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ Kinetic energy is proportional to mass times velocity squared (and as bow hunter are aware, kinetic energy is what brings down game.) If you double the mass of your weapon, you can double the energy it delivers to an opponent. But if you can swing it or project it twice as fast, you can quadruple the energy it delivers. In other words, I think you could put your super swordsman's strength to better use. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Mar 2 '17 at 15:06

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Your swords should not exist, since you should be using a spear

A fair assumption is that a larger and heavier monster will have a tougher hide and more bulk protecting its vulnerable regions. If that is the case, a sword is a poor weapon for fighting it. If you want to do damage to a large beast, you will need to concentrate on two aspects: penetrating the hide, and going deep enough to do some damage. For these purposes a sword is inferior to a spear.

One of my favorite books is a 14th century hunting manual by Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix. He has many tips of the trade for the dedicated hunter. Relevant to this discussion is his talk of boar-swords, long thin swords with a strong cross guard, meant to deliver a killing blow to a boar from horseback. From their description they are pretty spear-like.

It is also relevant to note that there is no mention of using swords of any sort on a bear. The bear is too strong to get that close to. You can't swing a sword since that will not kill the bear, and his counter-strike will likely leave you dead. You need to stick your spear into the bear and back off, out of range.

If a bear is too big and tough to kill with a sword, then it a good bet you would need a spear to go after anything larger. Or, you know, a crossbow.

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    $\begingroup$ It should also be noted that in almost all cases, a spear is preferable to a sword. Unless you just want to carry it around and look cool. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 2 '17 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Disagree strongly. Tell that to the routed Greek spearmen after Pydna. Good summary here. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 2 '17 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know, even that case seems like it was more a combination of better tactics and shields, and possibly also the pila, of the Romans rather than their swords. But I'd be willing to go from "almost all cases" down to "most cases". $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 2 '17 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion I'd imagine it depends on the dragon- if a shield can reasonably protect you from its claws or (presumed) fire breath, a one-handed weapon lets you survive at least momentarily in melee combat or against strafing runs- so that would be preferable. However, if the dragon's fire breath is hot enough to kill you through the shield, you might as well go two-handed- it's a suicide mission anyways, might as well have a chance to do some real damage. $\endgroup$ – Delioth Mar 2 '17 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Chiming in on the Greek v Roman stuff. Greek v Roman is more a question of formations, tactics, and fighting style than equipment. Any weapon is going to be superior if you can get inside/outside your opponent's effective range - and the Romans had the tactics and flexibility to do that. Romans used spears when combating cavalry-heavy armies, and Caesar used spear-armed Roman infantry to great effect during the civil war. $\endgroup$ – Jeutnarg Mar 2 '17 at 20:19
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A bigger sword doesn't necessarily cause more damage, in fact it probably causes less because it takes more force to swing it.

From a pure physics perspective, a weapon's wounding potential is roughly proportional to its kinetic energy:

$$ E_{kinetic} = \frac{1}{2} \cdot m \cdot v^2 $$

Adding more mass (m) only increases the energy a little bit. Adding more velocity increases the energy a whole lot. More energy = more hurt.

But to get more velocity, we have to accelerate it by applying force;

$$F = ma$$

That means we need more force to accelerate a heavier weapon to the same velocity. But if we apply the same force to a smaller object, we get more acceleration and thus higher velocity. And as we saw above, we get more bang for our buck by adding velocity than by adding mass.

But when we're talking about living creatures, it's not a physics problem so much as it is a biology problem. Where you hit the monster is a lot more important than how hard you hit it. To kill the monster you've got to hit the vital organs - brain, heart, or major blood vessel. You only need enough power get through any armor/hide/bone and penetrate deeply and accurately enough to damage a vital organ. Really massive weapons are going to be harder to control and therefore less accurate.

From a tactical perspective you want to be able to inflict damage to the monster without the monster being able to inflict damage on you. That means a longer weapon (pike, halberd, lance, naginata, etc) or a ranged weapon (bow, catapult, ballista, etc).

The boring but practical approach to kill a big monster is a formation of guys armed with pikes supported by archers and/or siege weapons. If you want to realistically depict single combat between a hero and a monster, make it a battle of skill vs strength, with the hero using superior agility to let the monster wear itself out enough so that he can deliver a single, precise killing stroke to its weak point.

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    $\begingroup$ Your arm has still the same length and your muscles still have the same strength. So since energy is force times distance, you can put about the same energy into a light and heavy weapon. In practice though the force depends on speed—so there is some optimal weight which leads to speed at which muscles work best. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 3 '17 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ Great last paragraph. $\endgroup$ – user9981 Mar 4 '17 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec You are assuming a human can have the same finesse and control while swinging a 20 lb. Sword that is trying to pull him off his feet. As well as the fact that energy has many different equations and that one isn't entirely relevant in the discussion of kinetic energy. $\endgroup$ – William C. May 11 '17 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @WilliamC., finesse is another thing; I was disputing just the energy argument alone. And the equation is definitely relevant, because it is the work your muscles can do, which is only source of the energy of the weapon. Of course, finesse is important, but when the monster is large and has thick hide, the energy is the more restrictive factor. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec May 11 '17 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ "If you want to realistically depict single combat between a hero and a monster, make it a battle of skill vs strength, with the hero using superior agility to let the monster wear itself out enough so that he can deliver a single, precise killing stroke to its weak point." - I have doubts if this is realistic at all; I'm afraid this approach could likely end up in the hero's death quite soon. Dodging or parrying is hard and puts very harsh requirements on reflexes; Doing that for a long time with NO mistake (as a single mistake equals death) is unrealistic. (con't) $\endgroup$ – gaazkam May 11 '18 at 23:34
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First, as per kingledion's answer, you'd rather use a spear.

However, if by any motive beyond reason it has to be a sword, you would still not use a big plank of chopping steel like in the animes. You'd stick to thrusting-centric swords.

The only real sword I know it's used to kill (or finish off, rather) a big animal it's the matador's sword, which is essentially a rapier, designed to be thrusted from the "shoulder" to the heart of the bull (which takes almost full length of the blade). Done correctly, it's supposed to instakill.

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It wouldn't necessarily need to be heavier, more likely than not the swords should be lighter. Nobody said swords had to be heavy to deal damage, and in fact, you would likely have a much better experience with your swords if you simply made them light. Size, on the other hand, is probably a good thing to keep in mind. If your sword is light, then that means you can swing it quickly. If you know anything about chopping through things, how sharp something is makes more impact on the result of hacking at a monster.
Say your sword is nearly ten pounds, not that much anyways, and it's only as sharp as normal, but it's the same size as most other swords of lighter weight- The lighter weight sword is going to be more effective because you can get more force behind the sword.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, the lighter the sword the more nimble the swordsman is able to be, and therefore easier to dodge massive things. $\endgroup$ – SliderBlackrose Mar 2 '17 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Chopping through the leathery hide of an elephant (or troll or dragon) isn't going to go very well regardless of the weight of your sword unless it's honed to practically a monomolecular edge. Stabbing is better, you can put all your strength and weight behind the thrust, and the penetration is concentrated on a single point, instead of across an edge. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Mar 2 '17 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @SliderBlackrose I don't think this is true. When guns became more prominent and swords and armor became less popular, then we saw a progression towards lighter dueling swords, but from the roman empire to the middle ages, as material science advanced, we saw larger and larger swords to hack through heavier armor. $\endgroup$ – JFA Mar 3 '17 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ @JFA At that point, I doubt it's hacking through, more like crushing through. You'll also notice that blunt weapons became more popular and the use of the murder stroke $\endgroup$ – A. Lau Mar 3 '17 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JFA As Lau said, blunt weapons became more prominent on the battlefield because you didn't want to spend time to hew through the armor. Think of felling a tree. It doesn't happen at a stroke. Even today, you'd be hard pressed to hack through a half inch of plate steel with even a sharp axe. You're more likely to dent it in a mortal manner than chop. As a side note, why are we not using the crossbows instead of a sword? More distance, smaller surface area for the force to be applied over... $\endgroup$ – SliderBlackrose Mar 3 '17 at 14:59
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I agree that a spear or spear like weapon is the best for this unless the critter stands around and lets you whack at the same spot like you are cutting down a tree.

Here are a couple of considerations:

In most areas of the human body a weapon needs to penetrate about 4.5 inches to hit something vital. So, how much bigger is the critter and how much deeper in to you have to go to hit something important?

You also have to consider total mass of wielder and weapon. can the wielder actually penetrate the skin of the critter or will he be pushing off against a stone wall? Bracing might be needed here.

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Like most of the people in this thread already said spears are the way to go for most things with thick skin or armor. There is one scenario in which i can see large swords being a good idea. In the popular manga "Berserk" the protagonist "Guts" uses a incredibly large sword called the dragon slayer. The exact size is not confirmed but it's something like 6ft long 3in thick and 1 ft wide at the base. There are 3 reasons why this is not just a horrible idea.

  1. A lot of the creatures and demons in berserk tend to have no armor or if they do they are very strong. The a spear can't chop thru large amounts of flesh at one it can only hit a small area hard. A stander shortsword or longsword doesn't do much either.

  2. Now a spear against armored foes sounds like a good idea but there armor is unnatural and incredibly strong. not only that but the creatures tend to have better regeneration then humans. because of this a spear probably wouldn't be able to pierce the armor without breaking and even if it did hit it wouldn't just win the fight. The massive sword is used because it can do high amounts of force crushing the enemy within there armor.

  3. Now it is also thought that the sword is 400 pounds so most people wouldn't be able to use it well. However the protagonist is not only very strong and a expert swordsman. He has magical demon armor that gives him much higher strength letting him swing it like it was a regular sword. If he had a regular sword it would be pointless to have all that power behind a small object.

Thanks for reading this :)

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Well, here's the thing.

There are MANY kinds of swords. Some are lite and small like the Roman swords, some are huge things like the "long sword" (medieval Europe), or the great sword (some did come in around 10lbs or more). But in most cases militarizes used swords to "hack" at other people. You didn't really stab as much as you would slash. The exception being the Roman swords.

With the Roman sword you would knock down your opponent with your shield, then while he was on the ground go about stabbing him with the sword.

The other swords, in normal military sense, would be used to hack. You would essentially beat your opponent with it like it was a baseball bat, and hope the sharp part cut through their armor, skin, or whole body parts.

On the fencing side of things, stuff gets more interesting. Your goal in fencing was to land your hits without getting hit. A longer sword was one way to do this, but longer swords take longer to swing. Shorter swords are faster but have much less reach.

Different styles of fencing have come and gone, and what he have to day is essentially a less lethal way to have "personal" sword fights evolved into a sport.

So now lets look at the right type of sword to use for different creatures. Keep in mind that kingledion is right and that you would almost certainly want a spear, but lets play anyway.

So really short swords are good at stabbing already immobilized foes (Roman swords). There also good at knocking away spears and the like to get inside for a hit. They are mostly useless for knocking aside a heavy weapon like a club or hammer though.

Medium swords like a long sword would be good at hacking at enemies. Not so much for stabbing. There too slow to knock aside poles, but could be used to deflect other swords. They may also have a better shot at deflecting heavy weapons like an axe. A club is still going to be an issue though.

The great sword, is another "hacking" sword. It's longer so you can stay further away from your target. But it's also very slow. It can actual cut armor, so it should do ok on troll hides, but once you start swinging it you better connect.

On something the size of a Hippo or Elephant, where your hacking isn't going to work, then your back to stabbing. All swords can stab, to one extent or another (there are exceptions) but your going to want the creature basically immobile.

Maybe if a few people with spears pin a creature, so you could walk in and stab it in the head or something.

A heavy sword would almost be a bad thing. You would want a long, but lite sword. The best example I can think of is a boar sword.

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    $\begingroup$ "The exception being the Roman swords"... And most Arming swords. And the thinner longswords (eg. Oakeshott XVa, XVII, and XVIIIb). And sideswords. And backswords. And rapiers. And smallswords. And the pattern 1908 cavalry sword. And... So yeah. Loads of thrusting thoughout the ages. $\endgroup$ – karhell Mar 3 '17 at 14:47
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Very interesting question. It would depend on what it is you are fighting.

A lot of the reposes are advocating for a spear. I'm going to play the role of the tenth man and say that this is generally going to be wrong.

It comes down to the right tool for the right job. There is a vast variety of the types of melee weapons that were made over the centuries. Each was trying to solve a differing problem.

If you are fighting armored creatures (dragons?), spears, arrows and stabbing swords are the way to go. They project all their force into a small area which will make it easier to pierce plate mail or tough hides. Spears and arrows keep the large angry dragon at a distance, which is probably wise.

Swords and cutting weapons are probably more dangerous than spears though, as they can open up a large surface area of tissue, and cause severe bleeding. Go ask any ER surgeon which is a more dangerous wound, a gun shot wound or a knife wound.

If your opponent is lightly armored or unarmored but just big, you might pick a sword. A good two handed sword can slash or stab so you have some good options. If i were fighting an unarmored giant hand-to-hand, this is what I would pick.

Keep in mind that mass and density aren't proportionate. A giant isn't going to have skin that is two inches thick, its skin would probably be about the same as a normal human's skin. Giant beetles won't have armor like a Sherman tank, unless your fantasy world follows rules that deviate from real physics.

Other people have already mentioned the size/weight issues. There is a reason why real two handed swords topped out at between 5 and 10 pounds. If bigger really went through armor better, why didn't weapon smiths ever make 30 pound, 8 foot long two handers?

If you want to hit something with armor REALLY hard, why not just get something that exists in the real world already? The mighty lance. It was long, heavy and designed to deliver a lot of damage to an armored opponent. I bet it would make a mess out of a dragon if you could get close enough.

The real problem in fighting monstrous opponents isn't injuring them, it is not getting injured by them. Someone already pointed out that nobody goes bear hunting with a sword, because bears can dish out damage better than you can. They don't have any real defense other than just being big, but the claws keep all the sword packing bear hunters away.

When something has a lot more mass and reach than you do, your real problem is defense and mobility and not offense.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think your problem is mobility, not defense. No amount of armor or shield is going to protect you from a dragon, unless said items are magical. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 4 '17 at 1:42
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  1. Swords are for parrying, not brute force. Swords are balanced so that their centre of mass is close to the hilt, which allows you to turn them quickly and easily in order to deflect incoming blows. That is very useful when fighting another human with a weapon, but not much when fighting animals. And the easily part means there is not that much energy in the swing, so it is not enough to significantly hurt anything of a size of an elephant.

  2. To get more energy, you need either:

    1. Thrusting weapon. You can thrust a sword, but a spear is longer for weight and sword is not giving you any advantage at this point.

    2. Head-heavy weapon like an axe that you spin around, accumulating significant momentum, or raise high, accumulating potential energy. Disadvantage is that while preparing for the blow, you are not covered. With spear, the point is at least in front of you all the time, blocking access to you.

    3. More manpower. That leads to a long pike carried by more than one fighter. But the coordination would be pretty difficult.

    4. A simple machine. Since the power of your muscles is still the limiting factor, you need to pre-strain the thing. The result is a heavy cross-bow drawn using a winch. This can finally be scaled to have whatever penetrating power you need, at the cost of slow reload time.

  3. For how hard it is to kill a large beast, consider whaling. Before the harpoon gun, this involved throwing several harpoons at the whale with buoys attached to them. There was no way to hold onto the ropes—the whale would easily pull the men under. Instead, they waited—for hours—before the drag of pulling the buoys together with the wounds tired the whale so it was barely able to move and only then they finished it off with more spears.

    Now this works on whales because they don't see the attack that is lead from above surface and can't retaliate effectively. But with a dragon that would be retaliating it would be much harder. You could attach on the ropes something that would get tangled to trees or stones and prevent the dragon from following when you retreat, but it could have enough power to pull the harpoon out and it would probably still have enough strength to fight back, so it would be very dangerous.

  4. Or you can increase lethality by other means, like poison. Some potent poisons can be found in nature like on the poison dart frogs, or made with little resources, like curare. Something would surely be found that would work on the monster in question.

  5. Either way, fighting monsters at range is much safer. If you have fire-breathing dragons, fighting them at close range would unlikely be survivable and if you have flying ones, you need ranged weapon to reach them at all anyway.

So my guess is that if an effective poison is available, poisoned arrows would be the main weapon of choice and if not, heavy crossbows, the later possibly firing harpoons with some kind of anchor at the end of the rope to slow the beast down.

And in either case, the fighters would probably be riding to allow them quick retreat if they missed—or if they've hit, but need to wait some time for the beast to die.

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If you want to go nasty, instead of swords, give them razor-barbed whips! Each slash will inflict painful and bleeding damage, and once a creature is taken by two enemies, it will harm seriously itself just to set itself free

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