The Western Sword Primer for the Zombie Apocalypse


“Sabre (Saber) Bob”

Disclaimer: The following material is strictly for entertainment and educational purposes. Readers should be knowledgeable and compliant with all laws and regulations in their jurisdictions regarding the possession and use of deadly weapons, yada, yada, yada. The author and any publisher of this material are not responsible for any misuse, harm, or damage resulting from the following material—in other words; it’s your own damn responsibility.

I. The Armory

1. There’s almost too much good stuff to choose from. Unlike some sword-cultures who were somewhat xenophobic and highly conservative because they were fairly isolated (COUGH Japan COUGH China) Europe was open to almost everybody who wanted to visit, bringing with them their ideas (pillaging, conquering, plagues, dark ages) and their technological innovations (weapons, especially weapons). Europe was a diverse enough place that even the locals got into the expansionist empire idea and did so several times. The consequence was a muscle-powered arms race of “weapons vs. armor” which lead to several distinct types of swords until the another imported innovation, gunpowder, really, REALLY took hold and rendered personal armor moot for 300 years. Swords stuck around longer until killjoys like Samuel Colt and Hiram Maxim made swords “obsolete”.

A. Swords are still fun, which is why there are a growing number re-creationist sword enthusiasts and hobbyists[1] who have gone well beyond the sport forms of Olympic Fencing and Medieval Fantasy groups in researching “archaic” European weapons and extinct martial arts. The past 25 years of individual research has resulted in the restoration of a lot of historical memory. Reasonable accurate and functional replicas of many types of historical swords are commonly available and affordable.

B. There’s still an incredible amount of “trash swords” and misinformation—the later very widespread and tenacious in the age of the Internet. Most of this misinformation is innocent, but there are some groups with deep-rooted biases and even some outright hucksters. Caveat emptor.

C. The possibility of zombie outbreaks, let alone “Class IV” apocalypse scenarios, has provoked interest and debate on the merits of swords vs. zombies. Unless you are a complete and utter “katana snob”, you should consider the West’s effective sword offerings.

2. For eliminating zombies you can eliminate a lot of sword types from consideration:

A. Rapiers, small swords, estocs, sword sticks (canes, umbrellas), unbated Olympic Fencing weapons—essentially the “thrusting sword category”.

Unless you are another Solomon Kane (see picture)

Soloman Kane
[2] thrusting a rapier into the brain via the eye socket is a very iffy thing.

B. The true “Two Hand” swords of the Renaissance—including the Zweihander

Zweihander jpg
of the Landsnecht Dopplesoldier. These specialist weapons given to big, strong, and very skilled men to defend battle standards and command positions, cut off the heads off of long pikes so other infantry could close in, and to defend fortification portals and ramparts. The length and weight of these weapons, like earlier Great Swords, was meant to swat aside the lighter weapons of opponents and not to “cut plate armor” or “cut the legs off of knight’s horses”. 'Cold Steel Cutlery Inc.' is now promoting their 8 pound two hand sword for zombie killing. However, one big historic reason these weapons were effective was the sheer intimidation factor—very few people wanted to try to close in on a huge dude swinging around one of these weapons. The obvious issue for now is zombies are never intimidated. In a mass zombie attack you may very well cut down a zombie (or two or three) with one swing of a Two Hand Sword, but these swords are hard to stop or redirect once you get them going. If another zombie comes at you from an unexpected quarter and your sword is already committed in momentum to another vector, chances are said zombie is going to get to you.

C. For the same reason one should think really hard about the earlier period somewhat lighter (5 pounds) Great Swords, including the famous Scottish Claymore (the two-hand weapon not the later basket hilted sword—or the anti-personnel land mine). Also, weapons of this sort are a hassle to carry about. Unless you get an unhistorical back carry harness and scabbard[3] you can’t actually draw from (Mel Gibson faked it) you end up doing like they did in period; carrying the bare blade resting on your shoulder.

D. Bastard Swords which are truly versatile weapons when used against other melee weapon using humans may not be so great against zombies. In order to make their narrow blades nimble for thrusting, some cutting efficiency had to be sacrificed. If you already have a good replica Bastard Sword, do some test-cutting. If you can cleanly cut through large diameter heavy-duty cardboard shipping tubes in a single swipe, you may have a keeper.

E. The Thrusting Swords of the 14th Century for the same reasons as the Bastard Sword, but more so.

F. The somewhat heavier (3 ¼ + pounds) one-handed cross-hilt swords of the 1050-1300 AD period which were meant to oppose heavier mail armor may be a bit too heavy and thereby slower (and more tiring) for anti-zombie action.

3. What we are left with is not-too-heavy cut or chop oriented swords are there are a lot of them. For anything meant to be used with one hand, three pounds is your upper limit. For swords meant to be used with two hands, just over four pounds. All of the following swords (reproductions) are reasonably available through various Internet mail-order retailers and also through private sellers via EBay™. All of them if well-sharpened and well swung are capable of taking out a zombie. (Note: this is NOT meant to be an exhaustive list of acceptable Western Swords, so if your favorite is not on here, please don’t take it personally)

A. Kopis: 'Greek weapon of Celtic-origin, inverse curved chopper blade, capable of splitting apart wooden shields as well as bodies. Popular into the Roman era (falcata) with merchants, it became the ancestor of the Gurka kukri bush knife.

B. Roman Gladius (aka Gladius Hispanicus): These were not just thrusting weapons, as the Macedonians discovered to their shock; they were pretty efficient chopping blades as well (“a cleaver with a point”). Even the Indian-made reproductions are probably better steel than what the Romans actually carried. While they might not be able to reliably decapitate a zombie in a single shot, Gladius are certainly capable of taking out the spine at the neck.

C. Barbarian Longsword: A slightly-tapering blade profile was typical, accompanied by a variety of hilts, including “ring pommel” and “antenna hilt”. The fairly thin blade created a fast weapon well suited for facing opponents with little or no armor.

D. Viking Longsword: A fast, well-balanced shearing sword—a definite contender.

E. Early Norman: Variations of this lighter cut & thrust cross-hilt sword were used through Europe for over 600 years.

F. Oakeshott Type” X”: A well balanced cut & chop emphasis weapon, this was a popular pattern for over two centuries. At three pounds, it’s a bit on the heavy side. It’s commonly sold as a “Medieval Sword”.

G. Falchion: Primarily single edged and possibly derived from agricultural tools, this short weapon proved popular with both commoner infantry and chivalric cavalry as a back-up weapon which could oppose mail armor. It is often miss-identified as a Middle-eastern sword (“Shriner’s Scimitar”).

H. Hand & Half: Apparently the first European sword designed to be used with two hands in foot combat, the added blade length and weight was meant to defeat thicker and stronger mail. A version that is 3 lbs or just over will do just fine in a zombie outbreak

I. Espada Ropera (AKAs: “Side Sword”, “Cut & Thrust Sword”): This pattern became the main European battle-sword for well over a hundred years; a deadly cut & thrust weapon which became famous in the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors.

J. Grosse Messer: A machete on steroids with a two-hand grip and large cross hilt.

K. Scots “Broadsword”: The national sword of Scotland, its steel or brass “basket hilt” protected the weapon hand and served as a close-in impact weapon. Like the earlier Great Sword this one-hand weapon is also known as a Claymore (“Big Sword”) to distinguish it from smaller contemporary swords.

L. Backsword: A strait-blade with a single edge (often with a short sharpened “swedge” or back-edge) and a thick, dull “back”. With period variations, the Backsword was the sidearm of heavy cavalry well into the 19th century.

M. Hanger or Cutlass: A short saber or backsword, used as a sidearm by infantry (hanger) or sailors (cutlass).

N. Hussar Saber (or Sabre): Inspired by the reputation of the Eastern European light cavalries, all the Western powers established Hussar units of their own. Stirrup-hilt guards were the most common. Sabers were often known by the term “Hungarian Broadsword”.

i. British 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre: Perhaps the best mass-issued cutting sword ever produced, it was adapted and improved for the British Army from the Austrian Hussar’s sidearm. Actual antique weapons are available and could be restored by a judicious use of honing stones. Fairly decent Indian-made reproductions are even more available and affordable, including an already sharpened one from Cold Steel' (choose the one with the wood & leather scabbard). Zombie-stopping cuts are quite feasible with this sword and recovery from one cut to another is excellent. Unlike the Japanese katana’s training demands, effective draw-cutting is near-automatic with this weapon. It’s also lighter and longer reach than the Japanese sword. If you have to choose a sword to face the living dead, this one could be the one to choose above all others.[4]

4. Heavy Cavalry Saber: Probably the last period Western sword which can reliably take out zombies. The US 1840 Saber (“Old Wristbreaker”) is a typical example

You have to learn to distinguish hype from reality. “Battle Ready” means next to nothing and has been used by trash sword purveyors to pass off their garbage. Choose a brand, retailer, or a manufacturer with a good reputation.

A. Some brands, like Del Tin, have an excellent reputation but their authentic looking swords are slightly thicker and slightly heavier than their historic pattern—which means they will be a bit slower on the swing and a bit harder to sharpen correctly.

B. Some brands, like Cold Steel, can sell some excellent swords, like the 1796 Sabre, and others like their “Bastard Sword” (really, it’s a Hand & a Half) has had some quality control issues with pommel-to-tang attachment. Investigate before you buy.

C. You get what you pay for. Better than 90% of what is sold over the counter and through the mail is junk, barely suitable as a wall hanger, and downright dangerous to the user who attempts any vigorous movements, let alone attempts test cutting on forgiving media like cardboard shipping tubes. The basic rule of thumb for a modern sword is if it costs less than $200 retail, it is not a weapon (with a FEW exceptions). Expect to pay at least what you would pay for a new, reliable defensive handgun.

i. Avoid almost any sword which is a copy of some prop in a movie or television. Almost all of them are “wall hangers” with “rat-tail” threaded tangs.

ii. Likewise, avoid anything that says it was “made in Toledo”. Toledo, Spain used to be the industrial center for the finest swords in Europe. Now, there are scads of “wall hanger” factories in Toledo (Marto and CAS Iberia being the best known) and maybe two (2) weapon-quality manufacturers. Those remaining two actual sword makers are NOT cheap.

D. If a sword is made of stainless steel, there’s a better than 99% chance it’s worthless as a weapon. If a sword is made in Pakistan, its trash. If it’s made in Pakistan of stainless steel, the abysmal quality has to be experienced to be believed.

E. Made in India swords have gotten much better in the last 20 years than they used to be, Windlass Steelcrafts being the best known contractor (their main US outlets being Atlanta Cutlery and Museum Replicas Ltd.). Often Windlass’s works are quite acceptable as introductions to replica swords (the Cold Steel 1796 seems to be a Windlass). However, be wary of any replica older than 20 years (pre 1992)—bad tempering jobs in the tang area were quite common and tangs would snap suddenly when swung, turning the sword blade into a flung missile. Museum Replica’s offerings have been noted for too “whippy” blades and shoddy hilts (see below).

F. As John Clement has noted, many manufacturers can reliably produce decent, well-tempered sword blades, but reliable and rugged hilts (grips and guards) seems to defeat them. A hilt should stay firmly together after hundreds of (non-abusive) practice sessions and test cuttings.

G. If you are willing to pay for quality, Albion Swordworks and Angus Trim Swords are your first choices for semi-custom weapon-quality swords that are usually available for quick shipment. If you don’t mind waiting months (or even a couple of years) and are willing to pay for excellence, there are several custom sword makers who can make a weapon to your specifications and needs. Still you must investigate their record—there are some sword makers who are very good craftsmen and lousy businessmen.

I. Using Western Swords in the Zombie Apocalypse

1. You MUST train. Western swords are actually easier to learn to use than the Japanese Katana, but to adapt the words of the late, great Col. Jeff Cooper, “you are no more a swordsman because you have purchased a sword than you are a musician because you have purchased a guitar”.

A. Self-training with swords IS possible if you are NOT training in swordsmanship but to destroy zombies. Zombies are notoriously deficient in basic defensive actions, like raising their arms to ward off a blow. They are even less likely to come after you with another sword, so in your self-training you can dispense with blocks, parries, thrusts, feints, even extended guard positions. A zombie just wants to grab you and bite you. A zombie won’t notice you “telegraphing” your intended cut by your chambered arm and sword position. All a zombie notices is you are FOOD.

B. What the Japanese “bokken” is to the katana, the “waster” is to Western swords. Traditionally made from durable hardwood, wasters are wooden practice swords similar in shape and balance to real swords but far safer to practice with, especially with a partner. Like the bokken, they are still dangerous if misused, causing either injury or death (In a pinch, they can used against zombies too). Much longer lasting synthetic wasters are now available from several sources, such as Hollow Earth Armory.

i. It may be difficult to find a readymade saber or cutlass waster. One of the polypropylene bokkens from Cold Steel could be adapted to function as a saber or cutlass waster with the judicious application of lead-washers to alter the balance to match that of an actual saber or cutlass.

C. While there is value in the traditional practice of swinging one’s waster in the air, practicing ones strikes, recoveries, and follow up strikes (if one misses the target one had better know how to recover and keep one’s balance) the most valuable practice time is going to be spent in hitting something. You MUST learn how to impact your sword on a resistant target so you not only hit it full force but do so at the proper angle and to the least shock back into your hands and wrists. Such a target, or “pell” can be dirt-cheap; just scrounge three discarded automobile tires, fasten them together (nuts and bolts, or rope, or even a lot of strapping tape) in a row and then hang from a tree limb or sturdy rafter. Start hitting your pell with your waster and hit it a LOT. Study the free PROOF videos from Cold Steel, especially how the demonstrators do a series of successive cuts against targets, one right after the other.[1] Also, practice your target accuracy as well as force. And critically, practice hitting while evasively moving: side steps, diagonal steps, forward and back.

D. Per Roger Ma (The Zombie Combat Manual) learn the most effective “zombie take-out” cuts. The decapitation cut (or cuts) is primary, but a diagonal cross body cut, especially if the spine is severed, reduces the threat quite a bit. If at all possible, don’t forget to destroy the brain of a decapitated zombie head.

E. When combined with a quick evasive side step, hacking a zombie’s lower leg off can set it up for the neck shot or skull split.

F. Only with consistent practice should you attempt a skull splitting shot with a Western sword. While thicker than a machete, and thereby less likely to get stuck in a human skull, it can still happen. If there is some binding adhesion after a skull or body cut, quickly stomp-kick the zombie off of your sword. There’s also an even higher chance of the blade just glancing off a skull and a “failure to stop” at fairly close range, so be ready to continue chopping and cleaving until the threat is eliminated.

G. The issue of “strait blade sword” vs. “curved blade sword” was never truly resolved before the “Spandau Ballet”[2] of WWI rendered the issue moot. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages:

i) Straight and curved swords, for about the same weight, deliver comparable edge attack damage against unarmored targets.

ii) Strait cutting blades are actually more “chopping” attacks which is somewhat easier to learn than the curved slashing and draw cutting attacks of sabers. However, because chopping blades are “blade heavy” by necessity, they are harder to recover (than sabers) from one line of attack and into another—this is especially true for one-handed swords.

iii) The issue of thrusting attacks and which blade-type is better at them is almost literally “pointless” when disposing of zombies. Your attacks should all be full arm swings and circular “moulinets”—no superficial “set up blows” that are great when facing a living opponent but suicidal when dealing with something possessing less intelligence and self-preservation than an earthworm.

iv) A strongly curved sword like the 1796 Sabre makes devastating draw-cuts almost as good or even as good as a katana. Just keep it sharp and swing it hard. Practice makes perfect but as the Sikhs proclaimed, no special technique is needed.

v) Strait or curved, a true cutting sword is going to feel “blade heavy” compared to thrusting swords. The “trick” in technique is to let the forward balance of the weapon work for you in making a cut and recovering right into another cut. The two-handed draw cutting technique of the slightly-curved katana results, most of the time, in an automatic “brake” which stops the sword at the termination of the cutting stroke. This is difficult and actually not desirable for a Western two-handed sword let alone a single hand sword[3]. Instead, after the stroke cleaves through the target the blade motion should be continued into another circular motion and attack, at either the same or a different attack angle.[4] Horizontal “figure-eight” (or “infinity” ) cutting patterns to the neck & spine will be especially effective against zombies.[5]

H. Learn how to maintain your sword, just like you would your firearm. With carbon-steel swords, even oils from skin contact will attract moisture and start the blade rusting. Clean the blade of blood and gore as soon as you possibly can and never, EVER re-sheath it when still coated with blood. Most western swords (unlike katanas) have their guards sealed against blood flowing down the blade and into the tang beneath the grip—but a little bit of silver solder (or even silicon sealant) will close off any gaps.

i). Assuming the main blade bevels were properly ground, the magic number for sharpening Western sword edge bevels is 28 degrees. On some swords (like those direct from India) you buy them utterly dull and first have to start with a file (mill bastard) to get an initial rough edge. Clamp the sword firmly in a vise (or use c-clamps on a bench, counter, or table) and use a plastic protractor frequently to make sure your draw filing is accurate. Do 4” segments at a time, working both sides carefully, before proceeding down the blade length. Wear leather gloves and long shirt sleeves for protection—and stick the sword-point in a block of Styrofoam to prevent self-impalement! When you have your rough edge, switch to a coarse grade diamond hone stone and do the process over again. Then you go to a finer grit hone stone. (From Harbor Freight Tools you can get a 4-grade diamond-hone block that is perfect for this job) The smoother the edge, the less the drag and the deeper you can cut with less effort. Don’t press too hard with any diamond hone or you’ll rub the abrasive surface off! With enough sharpening practice you will soon learn how to dispense with the vise and protractor and do touch up sharpening by hand.

H. Choose a proven (historical) carry method. “Back carry” is RIGHT OUT[6]. Be it a sword baldric, a sword belt, or a “hanger frog”, choose what works for you and doesn’t compromise your tactical needs (since you’ve chosen a sword, taking it off and putting it back on WILL be a hassle when getting in and out of vehicles). Try to choose a carry where the sword blade either hangs down vertical or only at a slight diagonal angle from vertical. Sticking out near-horizontal WILL cause the scabbard to bump into things (and teammates) and will cause noise which, among other things, will attract zombies.

I. Once you graduate to a real sharp sword, treat it with as much respect as you would a loaded firearm (“Treat every firearm as if it was loaded”). Inspect your weapon carefully before, during, and after you practice with it—make sure all fittings are tight and nothing “rattles” when you shake it. Make sure your practice area is CLEAR before you take the sword or waster in hand. Don’t strike inappropriate targets with an actual sword (like the steel belted radials of your pell, let alone a wood post or even a concrete pillar).

J. Don’t expect your techniques to be as fast as you see in the movies or television. Those are, for safety’s sake, done with aluminum blades, or even chrome plated fiberglass. The lighter weight of these props means they can be swung significantly faster than steel swords.

Suggested Bibliography:

Brooks, Max; (The) Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead; 2003

Ma, Roger; (The) Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide for Fighting the Living Dead: 2010

MaBerry, Jonathan; Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead; 2008

Thompson, Lynn; Fighting with the Saber & Cutlass (2 DVD Set); Cold Steel Cutlery

Burton, Richard Francis; Sword Exercise for Infantry

Clement, John; Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Methods and Techniques; 1998; Paladin Press

Mark Rector, editor; Highland Broadsword; Five Manuals of Scottish Regimental Swordsmanship; 2004

Wagner, Paul; Stephen Hand; Medieval Art of Sword & Shield: (The) Combat System of Royal Armories MS I.33; 2004

Reinhardt, Hank; There is No “Best Sword”;

_____________; Hype… as Ancient an Art as Sword Making;

Clement, John; Longsword and Katana Considered;

___________; Fed Up with Inferior Hilts;

McLemore, Dwight; (The) Fighting Sword: Illustrated Techniques and Concepts; Paladin Press; 2008

Sword Sources:

Atlanta Cutlery: A subsidiary of Windlass Steelcrafts (India), the emphasis is on 18th through 20th Century bladed weapon reproductions and original weapons.

Museum Replicas Ltd.: A sister company of Atlanta Cutlery, here the emphasis is on weapon reproductions from antiquity through the European Renaissance.

Therion Arms: Look under “sharps” for many manufacturers offerings and reasonable prices

Del Tin: Solid, traditional Italian craftsmanship even if a little over-built, but their blades do have a distal taper (slightly thinner towards the tip) which means their balance is good to excellent.

Albion Swordworks: Probably the standard for accurate and reliable historically based swords.

Angus Trim Swords: A sword company with another reliable reputation

Cold Steel: Whether you love or hate their advertising hype, Cold Steel stands by their products. Most of their sword offerings are a bit heavier (thicker) than their historical patterns and do lack “distal taper” which affects their speed and recovery.

Discriminating General: these guys have a late 18th and early 19th Century emphasis, especially the Napoleonic period. If you like ugly and brutal, look at the 1796 British Heavy Cavalry Sword (the “big brother” to the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre), which was the featured sidearm of a fictional British Rifles Officer created by author Bernard Cornwell and played by actor Sean Bean (“O’er the hills and o’er the main….”)

Copyright 2012 by Robert “Saber Bob” Lehnert. Permission to quote, copy, and republish all or parts of this publication granted as long as proper credit is given.

<u>[1</u>] The actual and highly technical name for these people is “Sword Geeks”

<u>[2</u>] Robert E. Howard’s other adventuring swordsman, an English Puritan roaming the world in the early 17th Century

<u>[3</u>] There’s an even <u>more unhistorical back-carry scabbard & harness, which uses a “half scabbard” so one can unsheathe one’s great sword from the thing (re-sheathing still seems problematic).</u>

<u>[4</u>] During the Sikh wars of the 1840s, British cavalry trooper in the Punjab were being literally being cut to pieces by “native sabers” An official military commission investigated these “superior weapons” and they were embarrassed to learn the native weapons in question were none-other than surplus 1796 Light Cavalry Sabres sold to the Sikhs by the East India Company (the Sikhs would usually re-hilt the swords native style and replace the blade-dulling issue steel scabbards with leather-covered wood ones). When asked by a British officer if there was any distinct technique for the revived 1796s, his Sikh informant replied “Strike HARD Sir, Strike hard! A sharp sword like this will cut well in anyone’s hands.”

[5] You can see them at as well as at YouTube

[6] WWI British slang for what happens to a line of troops subject to the cross fire of multiple German machineguns (most of them made in the Spandau factory). The 1980s one-hit wonder pop ensemble (“True”) of the same name actually began as a British Punk band.

[7] There is a superficial resemblance between Japanese sword arts and Western two-hand sword methods, but because the weapons are different in balance, design, and edge geometry, they do call for significantly different methods of use. A Japanese sword expert should not just assume his skills are transferable to weapons which were developed under different conditions and emphasis.

[8] If you are familiar with Filipino martial arts, these could be called either a “''Florette or a “Redondo”

[9] Those who are trained in the sporting forms of certain Medieval Fantasy groups (“COUGH s.c.a. COUGH”) which use round rattan sticks (counterweighted by a steel-rod baskethilt) to “snap hit” their opponents in competition are going to be betrayed by their practice if they attempt to use a real sword against a zombie. The hitting physics of a rattan sparring weapon are quite different from a steel sword. Also, the “snap hit” or “wrap shots” these fantasy-oriented groups emphasize mean a user has to get quite close to one’s target, abandoning the actual reach advantage of historical Western swords.

[10] See section III, 7, of “Katana Primer for the Zombie Apocalypse

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