Swords and Scabbards


British Museum
British Iron Age Swords and Scabbards I M Stead (British Museum Press 2006) ISBN 0714123234**
Iron Age Cemeteries in East Yorkshire - Dr Ian Stead, British Museum Press
The Celtic Sword - Radomir Pleiner
Greece and Rome at War - Peter Connolly
British Museum guide to early iron age antiquities 1925 - RA Smith
Classification of pre-Viking Irish Iron Swords - E. Rynne

Thanks to Paul Browne for some of the pictures.

** By far the best, and most complete book, on British swords and scabbards is the Ian Stead noted above. If you have an interest in British iron age weapons then this is the book you should get.

How common are swords ?
It's assumed, apart from extraordinary events (such as Boudicca's rebellion or in defence of their homes), that the majority of warfare was carried out by a relatively small warrior elite within any given tribe. This warrior elite would, both by necessity and due to the fact that they are as likely more wealthy, be well equipped for war. 
Basic equipment would be the shield and spear, with more prestige items of armour (helmets, mail), weaponry (swords) and such things as horses and chariots being added. However, as we possess a very small fraction, in actual finds, of weapons that existed and we don't know how many warriors there were then we have no real way of knowing how common swords would have been among the British warrior community.

However, looking at similar later period warrior societies, then swords are costly status items as well as tools of war.

There is no doubt that some weapons are very highly decorated, something that happens in later periods too (such as Saxon and Viking swords) , but many would appear to be pretty basic. Radomir Pleiner, in his book on the Celtic Sword, notes that the quality of the blade may vary considerably probably depending on the materials used (which vary by region) and the maker themselves.

How did they use swords ?
Swords are always single hand weapons, used in conjunction with your shield.

The quality of blades in this period varies enormously. The raw material itself is a problem, in addition to an efficient smelting process and the ability of the weapon-smith themselves. Blades could easily be soft and liable to bend, brittle enough to break and definitely chip when struck against hard objects. 
Striking your blade hard against someone else's is a sure-fire test for how good your weapon is and not something that you'd want to be doing. Parrying with your weapon is a later period style or a "re-enactorism" brought about consistent modern methods of manufacture with hardened and tempered spring steels. Even striking the rim of a metal edged shield is a risky business with a period blade (see Pleiner above). 

Because of the quality issue with the blades, then fighting with a sword in both hands is a bit of a silly thing to do as neither blade can be relied upon to parry. Also, you won't be carrying a shield which is your primary form of protection in a skirmish from other warriors and missile weapons. Both good reasons why it wasn't done, so it's best left to LRP'ers and musketeers.

The best way to fight with these period weapons is to strike for the man in all cases and not at his weapon of shield. Of course, it's best not to risk your costly sword in the first place and stick with your single hand spear !!!

Sword blades.
Sword blades, by our period, are all of iron construction.
There is quite alot of diversity within the finds, both length and blade section may vary.

Blade sections (cross section) are diamond, oval, lenticular, midribbed and some with a series of narrow grooves (multi- fullered). As far as I am aware, there are no wide fullered blades (which are distinctive of later Saxon and Viking swords). found. 

Length can vary from 14" to 30" and more.
Some blades may taper along their length, for part of it or remain parallel sided (straight) 

In addition, there seems to be a class of blades that are exclusively fitted to anthropomorphic handles. There are around 50 or so of these found across Europe, often with a longer sword. These blades are short, wide and a have common shape with a long point. 
Click here for more images of these sort of swords. 

Sword Handles
Handles, during the later iron age, are invariably assembled over the tang. These means that the guard plates, guards, grip and pommel have a hole which allows them to be slide over the tang and retained by the end being riveted over, usually on another small washer or knob.

There is alot of variation in the actual design of handles that it's hard to make generalisations. Most use use natural materials, such as bone, horn, antler and even wood although some use cast bronze. Some are also inlaid with coral, enamel and other materials.


The best way to illustrate the diversity is to show you a few pictures:

Sword from Worton in Lancashire. This is one of the few to use all bronze construction.

These swords are some of the ones from the Yorkshire cemeteries are very simple in their construction with no real guard or pommel. (see above for a construction)

A few types. The Hod Hill sword is shown largest (middle) here.

This sword is from Asby Scar,


Cotterdale Sword (British Museum).

Compare this to the Asby Scar sword above ..










Hod Hill Sword (British Museum)

The fittings would have been wrapped around wooden cores (now rotted)

See a possible construction by Al-Hamdd Trading Post










First of all, the Hollywood image of warriors sticking (sharp) swords through their belts or carrying them round in their hands all the time are not correct. Many swords are a costly status items and care would be shown in how they are maintained and transported. An expensive sword would be merit an expensive scabbard.

Many swords are found without any scabbard at all, even in graves, which would indicate either that the sword was deposited without one (which is less likely in a grave) or that the scabbard was made from an organic material that has rotted away (such as wood, leather or cloth).

Some swords are found with traces of wood around the blade indicating that wooden scabbards (without any metal fittings) were used. In addition, some have all metal scabbards, which survive very well.

The method of scabbard suspension on metal scabbards that survive is a loop or runner that is riveted directly to the scabbard itself. The sword belt or baldric would then pass through this loop. It is likely that simpler wooden scabbards would have utilised a similar method with organic components.

Additional information on belts and baldrics is covered in the Sword Belts article.




Cotterdale scabbard ( which goes with the cotterdale sword above)











Isleham Scabbard (top).

British scabbards are invariably constructed in two parts. One half of the scabbard is bent around the edges of the sword blade and the the other half is a simple plate the slides down (fairly tightly it must be said). The mouthpiece, chape (the piece on the bottom end of the scabbard) and ny extra bands then hold the two plate securely.

Some scabbards of Indian manufacture are WELDED, which is wrong.









Isleham Scabbard (bottom)













Stanwick Scabbard (top).

This one is unusual in that it uses strips that are held together with copper alloy bands.










Stanwick Scabbard (bottom)











Swords in the Vicus
As there is plenty of evidence for swords, then the Vicus expects members to make every effort to make or obtain weapons that are either fair copies of finds, which combine common features of types or are similar in construction and style. Every effort should be made to avoid weapons that have obviously later period features such as wide fullers or construction techniques.

All swords should come with an appropriate scabbard. Leather, cloth, wood and two piece metal scabbards are all acceptable.


Matt in the group has made several swords that are fantastic representations .



Swords to avoid

There are no good quality, accurate weapons available "off the shelf". 
Unfortunately, unless you are able to commission from a reputable sword maker (and pay accordingly) then you will be limited to making your own weapon, like many of us have had to. Members of the group can help, if you decide to go this route.

You can avoid, with almost 100% certainty, any weapon advertised as a "Celtic sword". Most of them look this one, below:









This weapon has too many faults to list and there are no parts on it that are recoverable.



Deepeeka make a "celtic sword" that from the picture looks ok (right)

When we first started out, as a group, we were supplied this as "accurate" and "usable". We now know better (and no longer deal with the chap that told us that).

  • The blade shape is correct but you have around an 80% chance of snapping the blade, should you decide to use it (and let's face it, what's the point of having one if you ain't going to use it)
  • The scabbard is not that bad but is welded up the sides (not crimped) and both sides are iron/steel.
  • Handle assembly is not too far out in terms of pattern BUT is all made from eastern hardwood which is deeply varnished.

Now, it is possible to do a hefty amount of work and make something from this sword but  it's probably as quick to make one that is right from scratch.




More information on making swords and suchlike:

Sword Belts
Modifying a british sword
Making a british sword from scratch