Are Swords Weapons?

Are Swords weapons in the 21st century?

Preface: This article is the personal opinion of the author and you may or may not agree with my conclusions. It cannot be argued that swords were originally designed to kill and maim other human beings and were the ultimate symbol of the warrior across many time periods and cultures.

This is part of their mystique.

But in the 21st century it is the authors firm conviction that sword collectors and enthusiasts are responsible individuals who never intend or want to use a functional replica sword the way our ancestors did, but would rather just admire them, handle them, and perhaps occasionally use them to cut up cardboard boxes and water filled bottles..

Any references to 'tactical swords' are just marketing and is all rather tongue in cheek. For in the 21st century, it would seem that calling a sword a dedicated weapon of war is misleading at best and delusional at worst..

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This article is no substitute for legal advice. Please check your local laws and/or consult with a lawyer for information relevant to YOUR legal jurisdiction.

Are Swords weapons?

At first it seems like a bit of a silly question - after all, there is no arguing that historically they most certainly were frequently used to cause harm to other human beings in war, self defense and in duels..

Originally, while they were used as symbols of authority and status, it cannot be argued that swords were in use in war and conflict as recently as world wars I & II (with mixed results. To say the least..)

Cavalry with Swords from World War I
General Auchinleck with a confiscated 'Gunto' infamously used by Japanese officers during World War II. One of the last times swords were used as weapons of war..

But what if we ask the same question in the 21st century? Are swords weapons in the age of the gun?

Or are they decorative items, sporting goods, 'big boys toys', self defense products, collectibles, trophies, militaria, or something else entirely?

The question are swords weapons or not becomes extremely important as collectors and sword enthusiasts around the world find it increasingly hard to enjoy their sport or hobby. And the question is exceptionally relevant when it comes to shipping swords around the world or being questioned by the police on your way to a friends house for a BBQ and some backyard cutting - are you 'brandishing a weapon in public view' or are you just having some harmless fun?

In this article we will dig deep into this question and determine are swords weapons or not from every perspective possible. So to get started, to determine if swords are weapons or not we need to define exactly what is meant by the word weapon itself..

While you may or may not agree with our conclusion, I assure you that by the end of this article you may see swords slightly differently than you do now..

DEFINITIONS oF 'WEAPON'

Modern Day S.W.O.R.D.S. (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) are most definitely a weapon..

Are swords weapons in the so called 'age of the gun' (the S.W.O.R.D.S. weapons platform aside - as that is clearly a 21st century weapon of war)

To be able to answer this question we need to have some kind of definition of what a weapon is and what it isn't.

The Oxford dictionaries primary definition of a weapon is:

"a thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or physical damage".

 Designed or used - this is important (and hence in bold).

It is arguable that the shape of a sword and it's history suggests it was indeed 'a thing designed for inflicting harm or physical damage' (we assume some extra text 'to a human being' otherwise an axe is automatically classified as a weapon and prohibited because as it is designed to inflict physical damage on trees, doors, piles of wood, etc).

However, even in the 'age of the sword' when they were frequently used in combat, not all swords were 'weapons'.

Historically there were massive 'bearing swords' that in theory could in theory deliver ONE massive blow, but were not designed or used for that and were not considered a weapon. They were instead simply lavishly decorated status symbols and symbols of authority.

Two handed bearing sword from 'A Treatise on antient armour and weapons' by F. Grose, London, 1786, pl.22. An oversized, unwieldy sword not designed for use as a weapon but as a status symbol

So there is a precedent for 'dress swords' or purely ornamental or symbolic sword shaped items..

And while they look like a sword, they do not fit the oxford definition of a weapon as they were neither designed nor used to inflict damage or harm..

So what about other dictionary definitions? Well let's take a look.

The Cambridge dictionary online almost includes swords in their definition under 'etc'.

Cambridge Online: WEAPON

  • any object used in fighting or war, such as a gun, bomb, knife, etc.
  • a lethal weapon chemical/nuclear/biological weapons
  • The youths were dragged from their car and searched for weapons.

This is not the best definition - your fists can be used in fighting - but do you usually think of your hands and feet as 'weapons' as you go about your day to day business. So if 'the youths were dragged from their car and searched for weapons' they already have several on them at all times (fists, feet, head, elbows, knees, etc) and then there may be bottles, a pocket knife, a steering lock and - well, that's enough - lock 'em up I say and throw away the key..!!

Where it gets interesting is in the 'more examples' section of the Cambridge online definition that applies directly to our question are swords weapons, specifically the 3rd and forth examples in bold below...

More examples:

  • He was carrying a concealed weapon.
  • The mystery was solved when the police discovered the murder weapon.
  • My umbrella will serve for a weapon.
  • These are purely defensive weapons, not designed for attack.
  • The government has authorized the army to sell its surplus weapons.

You don't normally think of an umbrella as a weapon, right? But it can become one in an instant - become weaponized. And if a weapon is used to inflict harm, how can you have a 'defensive weapon, not designed for attack'?

It is the same with most household products - kitchen knives are not DESIGNED to harm people, but they CAN be used in this way and when they do, they become weaponized..

The key is intent - a bottle of wine can be used as intended or it can be weaponized in an instant. Smash a full bottle over someones head and use the broken glass to continue the attack and suddenly that nice bottle of wine is as deadly as a gun.. (for an interesting article on the top 5 improvised weapons from the American Survival Guide.com click here).

Intent is EVERYTHING when it comes to defining if a given item is a weapon or not

Modern day sword makers do NOT INTEND for their swords to be used as a weapon. Historically, yes - they WERE designed for this, but modern day sword collectors usually don't think of their collection as an arsenal and plan to raid the nearby town with it..

Indeed, I had pause to wonder about airport security recently as they allowed TWO deadly weapons on board the plane - a steel pen and my belt..

In the right hands, you can do a LOT of damage with a steel pen and a belt - and indeed in the article above they make the top 5 'improvised weapons'!

So back to our original question - by these definitions are swords weapons? Just by the definitions, they could be defined as weapons - but so can wine bottles, beer glasses, belts and pretty much everything..

At the end of the day, it seems the definition of a weapon comes down to INTENT and ACTION.

A wine bottle is not DESIGNED to kill or injure people. But it CAN be weaponized. And in the age of the gun, we can apply this same argument to swords..

Modern day sword makers do NOT INTEND for their swords to be used as a weapon. Historically, yes - they WERE designed for this, but modern day sword collectors usually don't think of their collection as an arsenal and plan to raid the nearby town with it (or if they do, it will be a pretty short lived and ineffective raid - better to bring some big rocks to throw at close range and duck behind cover or run away when someone breaks out a firearm in response).

Read the legal disclaimer of any sword selling website and you will plainly see, the INTENT is NOT to sell weapons. Yes, we sell, promote and support the collecting of REAL swords that CAN cut, but they were designed to be used on targets such as water filled bottles, tatami mats, etc.

In the age of the gun, no modern day sword company makes their swords with the intent that they will be used on another person. Are Swords Weapons? They certainly were, but in this day and age are little more than curiosities.

However, if you want a fairly dramatic example that answers the question are swords weapons then you need look no further than the USMC. A sword is a part of their kit and has been since the 19th century. But these swords are relegated to purely ceremonial use.

Not only that, official USMC swords  are not even made using steels suitable for actual use or combat - so they are not even DESIGNED to be a real weapon. Weyersburg, Kirschbaum and Company who makes them in Solingen, Germany (once a city famous for the quality of its swords when they most certainly a weapon and used in the civil and revolutionary wars) now makes them from - stainless steel. And if you have read our guide to sword steels, stainless steel is totally unsuitable for a sword..

How unsuitable?

Well here are a couple of photos sent in by a SBG site visitor (used with their permission of course) who carried this sword with him during the Vietnam war..

It was issued during the Vietnam war and has all the right markings..

Then the sword met his grandson, and one light tap later...

If a tap from a young boy is enough to break it, it's clear this was never designed for actual use..
Closeup of the breakage

And the sad thing is, the officer in question had no idea his sword could NOT be weaponized on the battlefield and, to quote ad verbatim "I'm glad I didn't have to use this in Vietnam".

If the USMC no longer bother to make a functional sword that could theoretically be used in combat, then the military clearly they no longer see it as a weapon either. If militaries no longer classify a sword as a weapon, why should you or anyone else?

In terms of functionality, it's about as useful on a battlefield as a a cavalry charge on horseback against modern 21st century fight where drones, advanced tactics and high tech weaponry dominate any and all combat situations.

So ask the USMC are swords weapons - and you will probably be laughed out of the room..

A Legal Perspective

Ironic than when discussing the legality of swords, the very symbol of justice itself carries - a sword (and could in theory be charged with brandishing a weapon in public!)

If we rely on the dictionary definition alone to determine are swords weapons or merely objects that can be weaponized - it tends to suggest that they are in the latter category - and the world's militaries seem to agree, to them the sword is simply part of their tradition and is used ceremonially.

It's not even strong enough to be used as a weapon if they wanted to!

But what about swords that ARE strong enough to be used - real swords so to speak? Are swords weapons if they are made like the originals used in war many centuries ago?

If you ask a sword manufacturer, they will say no - their swords are not designed for war or combat, though they can be weaponized. But that is not WHY they are made or sold.

But intent, history and relevance as a weapon aside - let's ask the question are swords weapons and answer it from a purely legal perspective..

Every country has it's own laws regarding swords - which are often lumped in with knives for ease of classification. But I found a case online in Canada where the question was raised - are swords weapons or not?

You can the full article here - but to paraphrase, they first refer to the criminal code and note the following:

A “weapon,” as defined in section 2 of the Criminal Code, includes “anything used, designed to be used or intended for use (a) in causing death or injury to any person, or (b) for the purpose of threatening or intimidating any person, and, without restricting the generality of the foregoing, includes a firearm and, for the purposes of sections 88, 267 and 272, anything used, designed to be used or intended for use in binding or tying up a person against their will.

By this definition, a gun will ALWAYS be considered to be a weapon, but other items remain somewhat nebulous - the last section suggests that rope can become weaponized too (but is not considered to be a prohibited item).

But further in the article, we get to the crux of our question - and when asked are swords weapons or not when dealing with a concealed weapons charge - the judge had the following to say:

In determining whether or not a sword constituted a weapon for the purpose of proving a carrying a concealed weapon charge, Judge Cozens of the Yukon Territorial Court made the following observations:

28 … in this case, it appears to fall somewhere between the switch-blade, firearm, brass knuckles category and the carving knife, steak knife or bread knife category. The sword, which I describe to some extent as a ceremonial sword, is not designed or created for utilitarian purposes unrelated to the concept of it being used as a weapon to kill or maim. At best, it can be said to be created and sold as a decorative ornament of sorts to hang on a wall or place in a display case, basically, a decorative ornament of something that originally seems to have as a main purpose being designed to be in the same sort of category as to kill or maim persons. Similar is a ceremonial knife, which by design is not a hunting knife, carving knife or steak knife, but clearly is designed as being or representative of a weapon made to kill or maim persons, outside of its decorative role. I recognize that any number of other manner of things, from opening letters on, could also be done with such swords and knives.

29  On the other hand, the sword is not a prohibited weapon, nor is it a “weapon” such as a firearm, which it is illegal to obtain or possess without first being licensed to do so. You can walk into any one of a number of stores in Canada and purchase such a sword simply by paying for it. If I were to place this sword in the same category as a firearm, the result, according to a narrow application of Felawka, would be to prevent a sales clerk from placing the sword in a large shopping bag, or in the case of a ceremonial knife in a small shopping bag, unless clearly marking the outside of the bag in a manner which conveys to the general public that there is a sword or knife in the bag.

31  In this case, however, I find that the sword, not clearly falling into either category, was not presumptively a weapon as defined in the Code for the purposes of s. 90; therefore, I dismiss this charge.

The short version - when trying to determine are swords weapons or not, this judge ruled that they are NOT - defining them in a gray zone somewhere between a firearm and a bread knife. He acknowledged that they WERE weapons of war in the past, but now are mere curiosities - and the charge of 'carrying a concealed weapon' was thrown out as he determined a sword was NOT a weapon..

Now that doesn't mean that you are clear to wave your sword around in someone's face. If you use ANYTHING in a threatening manner, it's a whole different kettle of fish.

So in summary, from a legal perspective, the question are swords weapons is 'no, they are not intrinsically any more of a weapon than a steak knife' though note that not all countries share the same view...

In most cases, to answer the question are swords weapons or not depends on your local knife laws. In Texas, it is legal to open carry a sword almost anywhere (though there are restrictions, such as not carrying them at the airport, bars, hospitals, etc). In most other states in the USA, it is legal to own a sword but again, how it is used and where it is used define whether it is an offensive weapon or not.

In Australia (with the exception of the state of Victoria, where you need membership to the Victorian Historical and Edged Weapons Collectors Guild):

In general, swords such as a sabre, cutlass, samurai sword, katana, etc fall outside the scope of the Weapons Prohibition Act 1998 and you do not need a licence or permit to own one and there are no specific safe storage requirements.

However, if a sword is concealed or appears to be something other than a sword, for example if it's concealed in a walking stick, it is classified as a prohibited weapon and you will require a special permit to possess it.

Police - NSW

Here are some links that you may find helpful as for the most part, swords are subject to the same laws as knives (which are often rather poorly defined and subject to common sense use and threat value).

PDF: Knife Laws by State Part One

PDF: Knife Laws by State Part Two

Wikipedia: Knife and Sword Legality by Country

RELATED ARTICLE: Legality of Katana by Country, world map and info


SIDE NOTE: THE MACHETE & the SLO
(Sword Like Object)

While it is clear that the answer to the question are swords weapons or not, both by the definition of the word weapon, actual usage and legal rulings - it is clear that the answer is no, they are not weapons, though they can be weaponized.

And perhaps the closest we have to the sword being used as a weapon is the Machete and the cheap 'SLO' (Sword Like Object).

The Machete can and is often used throughout Africa, South America and even London as a weapon or to settle disputes. But for the most part, they are used as intended - as a tool.

Weapon or tool? In this case - I think you could reasonably assume the gentlemen is using the machete to bring down some coconuts - not jump down on someone and attack them..

It is the same with the cheap stainless steel swords 'Ninja mall swords' and the like - when blades ARE used in some kind of violent crime, statistically a sword is way down at the bottom of the list (the kitchen knife is #1) and when it is used, it is almost always a cheap stainless steel one.

Which is good, as to use a REAL sword that collectors favor would be far more deadly, but criminals just grab the most intimidating thing they can find - and if there are no cheap swords, they will grab a machete, if no machete, they will make one at home (all you need to make a 'sword' is a grinding wheel and a piece of steel) or use something else..

So even with items we may feel are dangerous or ARE used in violent crime and weaponized, only the gun has the distinction of being a weapon at all times as the manufacturers expect or will not be surprised to hear that their product was used in combat as that is what it was designed for and has NOT been superseded (as far as we know)..

Once something like THIS starts to dominate the battlefield, modern firearms will be the collectibles and curiosities that swords are today... Albeit, more dangerous, but still antiquated..

In short, in the 21st century, guns are the only object that we can define as both designed to be used and are used to cause harm to other human beings. Everything else is simply an object that may or may not be weaponized, and whether or not that object is legal depends on your jurisdiction..

That's the simple way of looking at it.

But if you analyze it deeply, you will see that the issue is NOT the object itself - it is the person holding the object and what they decide to do with it. As the old saying goes "guns don't kill people; people do".

Give a sharp pencil to a murderer and there is a good chance he will weaponize it. Give it to an artist, and there is a good chance he will look for a piece of paper, a quiet place, and draw a picture with it..

The REAL problem is between our ears, not what is in our hands.. Because when there is something criminal in our mind, then anything and everything is and can be a weapon - from bricks to steel poles, barbed wire wrapped baseball bats and everything in between..

Are swords weapons? No more than a brick is - it all boils down to INTENT. Give a sword to a responsible person and they will handle it carefully and put it back down again. Hand it to a lunatic, and they will attack with it - but they would do the same thing if you handed them a sharp pencil..

The REAL problem - the mind and the hand. Not antiquated weaponry from hundreds of years ago..

Swords are Fun!

The legendary sword maker, Angus Trim was fond of saying 'swords are fun'.

Now whether or not he meant to suggest they aren't weapons isn't 100% clear, but I am confident that Gus would be horrified if he found out one of his swords was used as a weapon. For Gus and most other sword makers, collectors and enthusiasts, swords are fun because it's fun to cut stuff up in your backyard.

They aren't really DESIGNED for war or self defense (sometimes they are marketed as such, but it is all rather tongue in cheek - and usually references hypothetical fights against zombies or the undead) and every disclaimer on every sword selling website makes it clear - yes they are potentially dangerous if you are not careful, but they are not designed to be used on another human being..

They are designed as collectibles, curiosities, a window into the past and so much more.. Functional swords make the coolest decorative items because they have a sense of danger about them that collectors both enjoy and deeply respect..

And when collectors do take them off the wall, well - THIS is the kind of thing they do with them and why they are designed to be tough and cut stuff like the historical originals...

Dangerous, yes - and if you read our ebook guide on backyard cutting you will know safety is a top priority. But are swords weapons? No, not inherently.

But real cutting swords are so much more than just fun.. They are also a sport and part of an ancient tradition and revival of the lost martial arts of Europe as shown in the video from the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) Sword Fish Cutting Competition..

Swords are a direct link to the history of the past. They are decorative items, works of art, curiosities - but not weapons.. Not now..

And for those who do decide to call them a weapon, it is because they are keeping an ancient tradition alive - and the true opponent of a trained martial artists is not another human being - the opponent is oneself and the unattainable goal, perfection.

To a serious martial artist, the sword is a gateway to the soul, partially ceremonial in nature, partly as a focus to develop qualities such as patience, discipline, self control and self improvement.

And heck, sometimes what is done with a sword these days makes it into the Guinness book of world records...

CONCLUSION: Are Swords Weapons?

Are Swords weapons? Or more clearly, are they inherently a weapon in the 21st century?

By all definitions of a weapon - the short answer appears to be no, they are not. At least, not anymore..

Sure - they can be dangerous if used improperly or illegally. And it is cooler to refer to them as a weapon - but in the real world, genuine sword collectors never buy swords with an intent to USE them on another human being.

Yes, in theory they CAN be used this way. But as we already covered, in the age of the firearm - the sword is no more a weapon than a cleaver, machete, baseball bat or even a steel pen...

Go back 100 years or so and ask 'are swords weapons' and you will be met with a blank stare. In that time and era, most were. But ask are swords weapons in the 21st century and the answer is different. The age of the sword as a weapon is long gone.

Now, swords neither fit the dictionary definition of a weapon nor the legal one. And so the short answer is that while they may look dangerous and were indeed once used frequently to inflict harm on others, those days are long gone..

Now, swords are a curiosity. Swords are history, part of our heritage as human beings. Swords are fun. Swords are collectibles. Dangerous if handled impropely yes. But you could say the same about a kicthen knife or a blowtorch..

MORE OPINIONS

SBG members of the forum had a chance to weigh in on this article - here are some of their quotes, counter-arguments and comments.

Legacy of the Sword: "Going with a really, really broad and basic point of view, I'd have to agree: swords are not weapons, not in this day and age. They're obsolete, old fashioned; fun trinkets and toys and wall ornaments, but not weapons.

I think a lot of definitions depend upon the intent behind the thing being defined. As has already been stated, anything can be a weapon. Modern swords are not made with the intention that they be used on humans. Modern swords are made for hobbyists and collectors and people who like fantasy movies. They're luxury items."

Christian: "legacyofthesword: -Quote- "They're luxury items."

They were then, and they are now. The distinction comes in who is holding the sword. A true collector will hold it as a point of study and reflection. A weapon? Depends on who, what, when, and where."

Pgandy: "That would be depended on the intended use. A sword can be a weapon, it can be a wall decoration, it can be a ceremonial item or a theatre prop. It is what the user wishes to make of it. I daily carry weapons that no one thinks twice about such as a belt, a pen,  etc. In the past when I had more hair and smoked I carried a comb and cigarettes w/matches and no one gave it a second thought. A Bic Lighter did cause concern in some cases. Unfortunately a sword carries a certain stigma. I can order an unshapened repro without hassle, most of the time. If I declared it a sword although it might be 100-200 or more years old, never sharpened or if so after all this time most likely the sharp cutting edge will be gone, I would have other issues to deal with. It all boils down to what one wants to make of it. A man is more dangerous."

Howler: "Agree with all though swords are obsolete purpose built weapons compared to modern weapons (explosives, chemicals, gunpowder kinetic).  I do think that treating swords as if they are guns while shipping is both silly and harmful to sword manufacturers and blade community."

MOK: "It seems to me that semantically, actual swords (as opposed to bearing swords, wasters, wallhangers etc.) are quite clearly weapons. Whether they're popular or practical as weapons in modern warfare or self defense doesn't really enter into it, much like horse-drawn carriages are still vehicles despite having fallen out of common use - or, perhaps more to the point, like slings and bows are also still weapons despite being similarly obsolete.

Legally, however, a sword is a weapon only if the locally relevant legislature defines it as one, either categorically or individually (e.g. when one has actually been used as a weapon). And in this context whether it makes any sense doesn't really enter into it, except in the context of revising the legislature; you have to work with what the law currently is, not with what you think it should be."

Bebut: "It would be nice if there were specific targeted legislation that says swords could be shipped as "martial arts" gear, or that antiques could be shipped as "antiques", etc., but I don't see that legislation on the horizon. Airlines specifically say swords can be carried in hold baggage, for example. If they did not, baggage would be kicked back as weapons or even weapons of mass destruction. Maybe some of the knife rights organizations would be interested in this. It is really just one baby step from not shipping swords to not shipping knives over 4 inches, etc.

Even if such legislation existed, it would still need teeth against private-and public--sector shippers who run their political or risk management games. Swords are such a niche market that it is hard to see such legislation, but it is possible."

LINKS AND FURTHER RESOURCES

Are swords weapons or prohibited/restricted items in your local juristiction?

While this is NOT legal advice, as a rule of thumb concealable swords (sword canes or umbrella swords) are classified as prohibited/illegal weapons in California, Wisconsin and most international destinations.

Sword canes are one of the few swords that are almost universally classified as prohibited weapons simply because they are concealable and seem to be designed primarily AS a weapon..

Otherwise, short of consulting with a lawyer (recommended) the following links may be helpful.

American Knife & Tool Institute: State Knife Laws Interactive Map

Legal Beagle: The Law on Samurai Swords

Knife Rights.org: News and Updates for Collectors of all edged 'weapons'


I hope this article about are swords weapons has been helpful. To return to Sword Information & Articles from Are Swords Weapons, click here


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