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30 Jul 2021

Science behind the sword

Written by Debbie Reid, Visitor Services Manager at Culloden Battlefield
The intricate metal work encasing the covered handle of a basket-handled broadsword, the beginning of the blade just visible.
The basket-hilted broadsword on display in the museum
At Culloden we are fortunate enough to have several weapons from the battle on display in our museum including canons, muskets and the famous basket-hilted broadsword.

This sword was an essential piece of kit for any Jacobite soldier, but what made it so deadly?

With the growing use of firearms in battle, the basket-hilted broadsword was designed to be quick and light and wielded with one hand whilst the other held a targe (a round shield) and dirk (a long-bladed dagger). Don’t confuse it with the larger two-handed Claymore sword, which was used earlier in history such as at Bannockburn in 1314.

The broadsword itself consisted of two main parts: the blade and the basket.

The blade of the sword was a single piece of sharpened steel. It was designed to slice through the enemy in front of you with ease and be strong enough not to bend or snap. Often both sides of the blade were sharpened to inflict maximum damage.

In order to make the sword light enough to be wielded with one hand, a channel – or fuller – ran down the centre of the blade. Some believe that this was a ‘blood groove’ to allow fluid to flow out of the body so the blade did not get stuck, but this is not true. The fuller is actually there to keep the weight of the sword lower without compromising on strength. It works much the same as I-beams used in supporting structures.

The basket kept the users hand protected whilst serving as an excellent knuckle duster! On the base of the basket sat a pommel weight. This weight not only balanced the sword but also acted as a fierce tool for knocking someone over the head with. The term ‘to give someone a good pommelling’ comes from this very action.

Swords would have been used for fast movements in close hand-to-hand combat and so good grip was essential; no one wants to lose a sword in the heat of battle because it slips out of your hand. To combat this, special material was used to wrap the handle of the sword. Typical swords used leather banded with wire or even sharkskin to increase the friction between the handle and the hand. By increasing this friction, it reduced the chance for the sword to slip or move about, and allowed more power to transfer into each stroke.

Handle of a broadsword covered with sharkskin and banded with gold wire several times.
A close-up of the broadsword's sharkskin-covered handle

The basket and pommel were designed to balance the weight of the blade, but why is this important? Well, it all depends on what you want your sword to do. If the point of balance is nearer the basket, then the user will be able to move the sword with much more ease and control. However the power of the sword is reduced as all the focus is down at the hilt. Shifting the balance out towards the point of the sword results in more cutting power, but it will be much harder to control.

Either way, shifting the balance is a compromise and there is no clear-cut answer on where the perfect point of balance should be. Typically, swords were made with the balance within 2–5 inches of the hilt to create the best combination of power and control.

Here in the museum at Culloden you can see beautiful ornate swords such as the Brodie sword, which was designed as a display piece alongside battle weapons from the day of the battle. We also have replica weapons which you can see outside of the cases to get an even better idea of the science behind their power!

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