Saturday, 11 June 2016

Gladius Hispaniensis

Lee-Enfield,  number 4, mark 1- one beautiful rifle
I confess, weapons fascinate me and I'm not just talking about the modern variety. For many years I've rifled fires and pistols on a range. I own a selection of firearms, all legally obtained, all licensed and all suitably stored in a locked metal cabinet (what about the luger under your bed, Flaxen?). I'm well trained/engrained in firearm use and safety. In fact, I'm sure my house is the safest home in the neighbourhood. Edged weapons hold me in their thrall. I have held medieval swords and have endured their atavistic power and beauty which transcends description. No wonder our ancestors thought that certain swords had a 'life force' and Great Swords were passed from father to son in flamboyant ritual. All I got was a rusty bayonet from Flanders's field bequeathed by my grandfather- a most treasured relic which I keep under my pillow. Pssst, my wife doesn't know as she never ventures to my side of the bed. Ain't dat the sad truth.

The Gladius Hispaniensis: the sword that forged an Empire: There is some disagreement amongst scholars concerning when the sword was adopted by the Roman Legions. As its name suggests it has a Spanish origin and was probably incorporated during the First Punic War (264-241BC) when the Romans encountered Spanish mercenary troops. Up to that time the standard sword used by the Romans was the Greek hoplite sword. Interestingly, the Greeks considered the sword a secondary weapon as they were essentially spearmen. For a Greek to use a sword in combat was a sign of desperation and meant that the cohesive spear battle-line had been broken and defeat was almost a certainty.  

Hoplite sword
The ancient Romans originally fought in a spear phalanx but eventually modified their tactics to suit the fighting in the broken hill country against the Samnites (343-341 BC, 326-304 BC and 298-290 BC ). The Romans were always quick to assimilate tactics and weapons from an enemy if they thought they were superior to their own. The Samnite loose formation offered a degree of tactical flexibility not inherent in the rigid, classical Greek phalanx and the new formation fostered swords men not a rigid formation of spears.  

The Greek sword was essentially a slashing sword with a serviceable stabbing point. The Gladius Hispaniensis was more suited for stabbing but could also deal a devastating slashing blow. The long tapered point enabled the sword to punch through metal and leather armour to deliver lethal wounds to the abdomen or chest. Swords mainly designed for cutting are not as efficient at breaking through tough armour as the force of the sword is dissipated over a greater surface area than can be achieved with a small stabbing point. Tis a matter of physics, after all. An efficient stabbing weapon gave the Romans an advantage when fighting civilised opponents such as the Carthaginians and Greeks as these peoples wore cuirass and breastplates of iron. It is probably no coincidence that when the Romans encountered barbarous Gauls and Teutons the blade of the sword was modified. The point lost the long taper necessary for piercing armour and adopted a clipped triangular point. Although less efficient at puncturing iron it was very effective against un-armoured barbars. A possible disadvantage of the original Gladius Hispaniensis lay with the reason it was such an efficient stabbing weapon. The long taper was a source of weakness and the sword may have been prone to fracture.  

Gladius Hispaniensis: wasp waisted and very pointy. A thing of feral beauty
The perfect sword for stabbing and the perfect sword for slashing are two completely different weapons. The ideal 'stabber' should have a stiff, thick triangular cross-sectioned blade. This type of sword is useless for cutting. In contrast, the ideal cutting sword should have a flat section with a single cutting edge. The thickness will vary from the back of the blade to the front emulating a wedge. The classical Greek kopis and the tulwar are good examples of this type of weapon. But as you can see from the illustration below, the kopis although a powerfull slashing weapon, could still take out an eye on a random stab. Most combat swords are a compromise between the two extremes.
Sex has a shape and it is the kopis- yes I'm not a well man: go tell it to my shrink
The effectiveness of the gladius is reflected in the ruthless efficiency which the Roman war machine carved out an empire from the Firth of Forth in the north to Saharan desert in the south; and from Spain in the west to the Middle East, err, in the east.  

I remember working with a vegan chap many years ago. He was a decent fellow but was filled with notions about saving the world and banning nasty weapons. Great sentiments, I'm sure, but most of us have to live in this imperfect world. Anyway, his young son was denied the pleasure of 'masculine toys' and only allowed to play with the neutral gender variety. I distinctly recall the day my colleague arrived at work and related the horror of finding out that his eight year old son had fashioned a makeshift play sword from two pieces of wood and a bit of twine. Much later I learned that his son had taken the king's schilling and signed up as a British paratrooper. It seems my co-worker had supplied the genes but not the environment, go figure?




  1. I used to shoot Full Bore and .22 Standard Pistol at county level - before some cunt walked into a school in Dunblane and used a load of weapons he should never have been licensed to hold to kill a load of kids. Now handgun shooting is illegal. Arse!

    Ask yourself how useful a Walther PPK is for target shooting on a 10metre range. Even James Bond couldn't hit the side of a barn if he was standing inside it...

  2. I always liked the L1A1 SLR. If you hit it it stayed down. You could even hold it by the thin end and hit them with the thick end, and they would not get up quickly. That awful SA80 thing wasn't squaddy proof enough. The Browning HiPower wasn't too shabby at 25 meters.