When swords stop being useful as primary weapon?


Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
As usual I'd have to caveat my appalling memory but IIRC a famous WW1 cavalry charge by australian cavalry was carried out by lancers

Edit, a quick search suggests I was wrong and the Beersheba charge I was referring to was carried out by light horse. In fact wiki even suggests they were mounted infantry wielding bayonets! Wow
Yes, it was mounted infantry wielding bayonets, much to the surprise of the Turkish defenders who, according to some sources, were waiting for them to stop and dismount. As it was they failed to adjust the sights of their weapons and the Australians rode underneath the fire to take the positions.


Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
The sword was not really a primary weapon for very long.

For the Romans I suppose it was one of their weapons. But the spear was the primary weapon of most people.

Even in the medieval period, knights favored pole axes, maces and axes and the commoners carried spears/halberds .... though swords were carried as back up weapons by most types.

It’s only really in the cavalry were it becomes the prime weapon from around the 1600s to the 1890s.

In WW1 cavalry, at least in British service, primary weapon was a rifle, and had been since the end of the Boer war. A cavalry regiment was expected to be as proficient with its firearms as an infantry unit.

Most of them DID still have a sword, and lancers did still have the lance.. but how often these were carried varied... some were used in combat for sure.
I think swords have been glorified and exaggerated in myths, fictions and legends.
For example, steel-cutting swords have been described; they were not realistic at all.
We cannot make steel cutting swords even today!
In practice, swords were carried as sidearms or status symbols.
Likes: Edric Streona
Jul 2016
Even for the Romans, both early and late Roman armies used spears as primary.

I’m not sure when the Hastati and Principes switched to swords, but by the 3rd or 4th century I think the spear was once again standard. Same for Byzantine armies I believe.
The hastati and principes didn't switch to swords, they'd already carried them previously. They switched from hasta spear to 1-2 pila javelins.

The pila could be used from up to 25 meters away, possibly more with great technique and ability, down to point blank range, which actually gave the most energy (due to highest velocity). It was only AFTER the pilum was thrown that the sword was drawn and used. So really, Roman Hastati and Principes of the mid Republic, and all of them in the Late Republic through Principate, were dual purpose, deadly at range and close quarters.

Can a spearman do that? Yes. Greek thureoporoi, Gallic, and various other peoples commonly used a center grip oblong body shield similar but slightly different in design and construction to the scutum, a throwing spear or their own version of a pila type javelin, plus a fighting spear, plus a sword, plus a dagger. So also versatile.
Jul 2016
I think swords have been glorified and exaggerated in myths, fictions and legends.
For example, steel-cutting swords have been described; they were not realistic at all.
We cannot make steel cutting swords even today!
In practice, swords were carried as sidearms or status symbols.
What do you mean, steel cutting swords? Swords breaking from clashing, parrying, or blocking?


Ad Honorem
May 2016
I know that only a few armies in history used swords as a primary weapon: Romans being most famous of them. For the most part, however, spear, pike, or else a warhammer and other blunt weapons seem to be primary weapons. So in which conditions are swords primary weapons, and when they get relegated to status of a sidearm? E.g. plate armour definitely forces a move towards blunt force weapons such as warhammers, morningstars, etc. Mail armour I think forces thinner swords, but swords are still useful.
As already pointed probably swords were never the primary weapon, they always were used together with other weapons. Maybe its prime was until the Middle Ages.

We also have to consider the enemy. There was a British cavalry charge in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 which was perhaps the last time that an industrial power fought a pre-industrial enemy.
There were colonial campaigns well through the 20th century were industrial powers fought pre-industrial enemies.

A painting depicting the Spanish charge at Taxdirt, 1909, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau:

Aug 2013
Most noble and knighted adult males in medieval Europe would have worn swords because they were status symbols which only they could wear. They were also used for duels. In actual battle they were used as side-arms; as a backup weapon or perhaps drawn if you ended up in a one vs. one fight at the end of a long battle.

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
The Romans only used the sword as the primary weapon under limited circumstances: they had to be on the offensive and in open terrain, and even then they threw the pilum first. When on the defensive, they closed ranks and used the pilum as a thrusting spear. When in rough terrain, the auxillairies did most of the fighting.
Apr 2017
The Roman heavy infantry of the Republic and Principate didn't really have a primary weapons, they had dual weapons. The pilum was for long range, the gladius was for short range. There were other sword centric cultures of the ancient world, but all also used javelins, throwing spears, and fighting spears as well as swords.

The only time I can think that swords were primary weapons were for officers and certain types of cavalry from the 1600-1800s.
In that case the gladius was clearly the primary weapon while the pilum--a secondary weapon--was used within a narrow window, i.e, when the opponents entered a certain range. It was not meant to kill as well but to disable the enemy shield.

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