I know I said I wouldn't be examining the PHB in this series but guess what: I lied. I wanted to look at the dimensions of a short sword to figure out what exactly the hell it is. Because there's really no such thing as a "short sword" proper. There are swords that are shorter in length than others...but as swords have a variation of...oh, say, 24" (blade length) up to the monstrous two-hander...well, suffice is to say there's no such thing as "normal," either.
While I'm not a historian, I am something of a sword fanatic. I've studied swords, I own lots of books on swords, I like looking at swords in museums (and have done so all over the world), I fenced and read about/studied fencing for a number of years, I own real (non-replica) swords. Swords are my bag, baby. And for a geeky number-crunching, categorizing, pigeon-holin' dude like myself, swords are maddening, because for the most part they don't fall into hard and fast categories.
The easiest way to look at swords is to see them for what they properly are: the weaponized evolution of knife (and cutting/slicing) technology. Nothing beats a spear for poking, and its hard to argue against an axe for chopping. But the sword is a versatile weapon that can be used to harm folks in a variety of ways, including chopping, poking, slashing, and bashing. They're quick and maneuverable, and yet they're long enough to keep shorter, faster weapons at a good distance. Even though various "types" of swords are specialized for different types of combat (rapiers versus gladius versus broadsword versus saber) in general a sword is still a sword and two swords of different types are still more similar to each other (in how they are wielded) than they are to other weapons. A scimitar and an estoc are quite different, but they are much closer to each other than either is to a pike or mace.
[you can quibble but...well, you can quibble; leave it at that]
Hence, we find in Chainmail only a single entry called "sword" that falls into that intermediate scale between maces/picks and the flail weapons. The two-hander, used and wielded much like a big, edgy pole arm is a few more rungs up the ladder (between halberd and lance), but there's no "short sword, long sword, broad sword, bastard sword, blah-blah-blah." Everything not a dagger or a zwiehander is a sword. Period.
So what the hell is a "short sword?" Because we need to answer that before we get to the even more strange "normal sword."
The PHB has all their weights in GP and their way off real world weights (due to representing "bulk" not just poundage, I suppose), so we can't really rely on that. Length may be a better clue: the short sword is listed as "circa two feet," and with no other info to go on, one assumes this is overall weapon length (like the 6' two-hander), making the short sword only slightly longer than the dagger. Considering 4-5" for a one-handed hilt, that leaves us room for a 19" blade, smaller than even the ancient Greek xiphos or (most) examples of the Roman gladius. It's barely bigger than a seax, which is really considered a knife, not a sword.
Here's something I was told by a guy who is a historian, as well as a real-life blacksmith, who does quite a bit of sword-work for Ren-fairs: in the olden days, if you were using a sword to fight, it would probably break...and sooner the more you used it. Battle is as hard on equipment (if not harder) than it is on people, and people heal. What's more, swords were fairly expensive weapons, so when your sword broke, you didn't just throw it away. Instead you took it to a smith who'd file it down for you into a shorter blade. This process would repeat when the blade would (inevitably) break again, and then you'd have the thing filed down into a largish knife called a dagger (or dirk, though that's a Scottish term). Could the "short sword" entry on the extensive AD&D weapon list be a stab (pardon the pun) at trying to be comprehensive in including these broken/mended weapons? Perhaps. Though it's maybe just as likely that Gygax wanted a weapon that would be the standard "broadsword equivalent" for shorties like gnomes and halflings.
In fact, if the latter is the case then Moldvay's normal swords becomes a bit easier to swallow: "short swords" are for halflings (and perhaps dwarves) while "normal swords" are for normal-sized folks (like humans and elves). Now, that actually makes some sense (and would also explain why a dwarf would choose to use a battle axe, as such a weapon would become their best melee damage option with regard to variable weapon damage).
But I still dislike the term "normal sword." Not only because there's no such thing as a "normal" sword but because, if you really want to categorize blades, there IS an easy way one could (somewhat) distinguish between them. And that way is to divide them into longswords and one-handed (short) swords, in addition to the two-hander group.
The longsword is "long" (the largest a bit more than 4' in total length, though that's not all blade), but what distinguishes the longsword is a hilt (with a grip of around 7-9") designed to allow two-handed use...despite the weapon being light enough to wield one-handed. This two-handed use was a crucial development (as was a forte...the base of the blade...that allowed easy gripping), in order to make the weapon more effective against the stronger armor being fielded on the battlefield. Along with more typical "anti-armor" weapons (the pick, the mace, etc.) the longsword became the knightly weapon of the late middle ages. It's ability to be used one or two handed (the former when riding or with a shield) just added to the versatility of the already versatile sword, and it would be a mainstay until armor started falling into disuse altogether (with the rise of gunpowder) and one-handed, dueling-style weapons became more the norm.
But D&D is a game of dudes (and dudettes) in armor, right? We don't need basket-hilted blades when we're wearing plate armor.
|Longsword and arming sword...not that "short."|