Monday, August 20, 2007

The Chopping Block

I've got a question that has been gnawing at me for several years. In Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of Torturer, the main character has a sword that is used for beheading. That sword has a hollow channel that contains mercury so that when it is brought down the weight shifts to the point. Has such a sword ever existed? Does this even make since?

I have gone through every book about or mentioning weapons and the history of them, as well as several from the library. I also asked the resident blacksmith, since I figured if anyone would have heard about something like that in real life, he would have.

He'd never heard of one actually being made, and his exact words on the making of such a blade were:

The thought of trying to forge a blade with a channel like that down the core, or trying to drill it in those days, AND have it capable of taking the stress of the stroke, makes my head ache.

The only hits on the web I found referring to such a weapon were either in direct reference to the original book, or roleplaying guides.

In Rack, Rope, and Red Hot Pincers, by Geoffrey Abbott, the final chapter has to do with execution. After reading it, I've decided that should I need to be put to death in pre-French Revolution Europe, I hope it's by at least moderately skilled swordsman. And I hope it isn't in England, where they had to import a French executioner to give a queen a decent crack dying in a minimum number of chops.

More than one book mentioned the necessity of the balance on an executioner's sword. The condemned had to stand or kneel to await their fate, rather than being bent over or strapped to a chopping block, because the fatal blow was not delivered straight up and down, but slant-wise. Aim was crucial, and made more difficult by the possibility of the condemned weaving or flinching. I would tend to think that a sword with a shifting balance would actually make the job more difficult, rather than less.

Also, mercury is damned heavy. I had never quite realized how heavy until I was working in a zoology stockroom and had occasion to pick up bottles of the stuff. That's also where I learned that you can write on puddles of mercury with a ballpoint pen, provided the ink is flowing decently. Though executioner's swords are slightly heavier than regular swords, I doubt you would want to use one that would be that much heavier.

The final verdict: this is a case of taking something real, and giving it a unique twist for your own world.

This is an excellent executioner's sword, located in the Royal Armouries Museum, and it displays a lot of the classical qualities in an executioner's sword. Courtesy of Weapon, I have some of the vital statistics of the blade: It's German, from 1674, and it weighs in at 4 3/4 lbs at 32 1/2 inches in length.

Usually, these swords were used for one and only one purpose. Anyone familiar with swords and their uses would know what this one was meant for, even without the helpful etchings of torture scenes. This one's got a slightly shorter hilt than earlier doppelhander swords, and a heavy pommel to balance it. The tip is blunted because this weapon was never meant for thrusting: it's sole function was chopping.

What I particularly love about this one is that, when not in use, it hung in a civic building as a general warning.

In other cultures, executioner's swords might not have looked much like that one, but they still had several things in common, particularly the increased weight and thickness to the blade.

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