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Tormod Engvig




PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 10:00 am    Post subject: Just how sharp do you think Medieval swords actually were?         Reply with quote

So, I have been thinking about this for awhile, and though I am sure it came down to the personal preference of the individual wielder, I can't help but feel that most European swords of the period (say 700s - 1500s) would not have been honed to a razor sharp edge, like the Katana.

I have no doubt the Katanas were usually much sharper, but silly as it is to try to compare the Katana with the medieval sword (different products of different "arms races"!) having razor sharp swords was not generally in the Europeans' best interests. I just get the feeling that wielding a sword that sharp amongst maille and iron rimmed shields and later when plate was introduced, would if anything be a detriment, as it would make the sword edge brittle and damage easily when it was whacked against such hard surfaces. Now, to counter plate specialty blade types emphasizing thrusting were developed, but I have to believe that in the fury of battle not an insignificant number of slashes and hacks were made, accidentally if anything, necessetating a sword that was sharp, but not THAT sharp.

I am of course talking about battlefield weapons here, not dueling blades (no armor involved) or execution weapons (which I would want razor sharp if I was getting my head lopped off)!

I am sure plenty of you have seen the YouTube clip of the ARMA fella whacking a Tatami with a blunt Longsword and slicing it in two. That I think would reinforce the argument, as well as indicate that cutting is just as much about technique as it is about sharpness of the weapon used.

I guess ultimately the European warrior would have been less interested in how many carcasses his sword could cleave through and more interested in the overall balance between sharpness and durability.

Am I making any sense???

Cheers,
Tormod

"Skal til kamp på bølgen top, Dannebrog i stavnen op, gid der bag dets røde fold, står en helt som Tordenskjold."
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Sam Barris




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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 10:45 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

700 to 1500 AD covers a huge number of different weapons. Are we talking about a Type X or a Type XVII? Those two have vastly different blade geometry and were designed to be used against entirely different kinds of armor within entirely different tactical systems. Quite frankly, I think these katana vs. broadsword questions are a waste of time simply because you're not talking about two weapons used in a roughly similar context, you're talking about literally hundreds used in a vast array of different contexts. Even within the scope of the katana alone, there is more variety than most people are even remotely aware of.

As for how sharp Western swords were, the simple answer is that they were as sharp as they needed to be to do the job they were designed for. That could mean anything, depending on the type of sword we're talking about. The katana was a scary sharp sword, but so was a messer. In that case, I think I'd give the edge (pun intended) to the messer. A Type XVIIIb might be a different story.

Context. Sine qua non. There are a few very good books on this subject, if you wish to do some in-depth research.

Big Grin

Pax,
Sam Barris

"Any nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools." —Thucydides
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Colt Reeves





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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 10:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well, there are plenty of histoical pieces in museums and private collection. So, there's really no debate about it, you just have to find the information pertaining to said pieces. I have no evidence myself, but I was under the impression some of those pieces were still very sharp and could effectively be used right out of the ground/grave/off the wall/wherever it was found.

Personally I think in that day and age where manpower was cheap, it would be more effective to put on a razor's edge (or close) for good cutting, and then have a servant spend the next day after the battle smoothing out all the dents and chips. After all, not every opponent was heavily armored and thusly there was a need for a good edge. Also, there is some evidence to suggest European swords were far more disposible items than the Japanese katanas. To win in battle is more important than repairing or buying a sword afterward, so get whatever advantage you can and worry about the consequences later.
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Joel Minturn





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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 11:08 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I know this has been discussed before and Hopefully someone else will be able to find a link to a relevant discussion.
But how sharp are long swords? as sharp as they need to be Big Grin

Trying to compare the two in regards to relative sharpness is difficult as both types of swords run the gamut. But I think the first thing to address is the notion that katanas are razor sharp. I don't think that they were are sharp as you think they are.

They do have well made and sharp blades but they are not razor sharp. Not sure how much you know about edge geometry so I'll start at the basics and you can skip over what you already know.
I was going to write up a bit on edge shape but this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grind wikipedia entry seems to descibe it better than i could
I believe katanas should have a convex edge on them. which is not the "sharpest" edge but is one the strongest edges.
Cutting through a person is not easy work a "razor" sharp blade will dull quickly trying to cut bone. Bone is very tough and will easily chip a blade.
In the bit of research I have done it seems that when i comes to sharpness both long swords and katanas are fairly similiar and deal with the same problem, keeping the blade sharp and useable, in a similar manner.

Differences in perceived sharpness has more to do with style, and cultural traits than the actual edge shape.
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Douglas S





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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 11:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I am noticing that those in the dull camp Wink come from two perspectives:
1. They assume that a sword should be able to cleave mail, and sharpening a sword would be a waste of time. The truth is that the target of a sword is flesh and bone, and a sword does a better job at that when it's sharp. This is a life-and-death consideration. Go to battle with a dull sword or a rusty gun and you die.
2. They look at sword-seizing as impossibly dangerous with a sharp sword. So you leave your edge dull so the other guy can grab it without hurting himself. How nice.

Happy
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 11:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Douglas S wrote:
I am noticing that those in the dull camp Wink come from two perspectives:
1. They assume that a sword should be able to cleave mail, and sharpening a sword would be a waste of time. The truth is that the target of a sword is flesh and bone, and a sword does a better job at that when it's sharp. This is a life-and-death consideration. Go to battle with a dull sword or a rusty gun and you die.
2. They look at sword-seizing as impossibly dangerous with a sharp sword. So you leave your edge dull so the other guy can grab it without hurting himself. How nice.

Happy


I don't think anyone has suggested that edged swords were left dull. There are degrees of sharpness. And the overall amount of achievable sharpness will vary somewhat by cross-section and other factors.

Razor-sharp implies sharp like a razor, which is very thin in cross-section. That kind of edge won't hold up in combat but it's fine for hair. Happy My kitchen knives, which aren't razor sharp, are still generally more finely edged than my swords which is perfect for vegetables and trimming meat. My cleaver has a different cross-section and is less sharp than the others. By design. Happy

As has been pointed out (and as I have experienced) unsharpened swords can still do plenty of damage. But we shouldn't take that to mean that our ancestors left them dull. But it doesn't take a razor-sharp edge to cut someone badly. And a lack of razor-sharpness can be a good thing in some contexts.

So, to echo Sam, context is key. What kind of sword? Exactly how sharp? What's the cross-section? Edge profile? What is it meant to face (skin, cloth, thick cloth, mail, plate, a combination)?

And to confuse matters, you have swords like some estocs which weren't sharpened at all. Happy

Happy

ChadA

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Last edited by Chad Arnow on Thu 28 May, 2009 1:34 pm; edited 1 time in total
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J. Scott Moore





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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 12:20 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

what you (and virtually everyone else) have failed to at least mention that Katanas were not kept as sharp as people think, but were balanced to be blade-heavy. having fought many a kendo student, I have noticed that very few cuts change direction, and if you intend to feint, you simply pull back, and turn it into a light, draw cut, and follow up with another cut. blade heavy blades have more inertia, so they "tank" through more targets, you all know this to be true. what made the katana so effective was this weight, combined with a shorter blade, (not just because Japanese people are shorter I've met some that are quite tall, actually.) and a curved egde. grab a knife, and try chopping straight into a peice of cardboard. then try angling the blade, and slicing. lo, and behold, the cardboard will cut instead of crumple. granted, cardboard is not flesh, bone, or armor, or a combination of these, but slicing goes easier no matter the medium. hence the curvature of the blade. even many western swords tapered in order to achieve this. the effect is the same.
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Michael B.
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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 12:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think they were sharp enough to cut through a gun barrel, the katana was able to cut through an army tank....no, really, I saw it on the internet somewhere.
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J. Scott Moore





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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 12:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Michael B. wrote:
I think they were sharp enough to cut through a gun barrel, the katana was able to cut through an army tank....no, really, I saw it on the internet somewhere.

all right, all right, I get it.

"Whoever desires peace, let him prepare for war."
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Brett White




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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 5:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sam Barris wrote:
700 to 1500 AD covers a huge number of different weapons. Are we talking about a Type X or a Type XVII? Those two have vastly different blade geometry and were designed to be used against entirely different kinds of armor within entirely different tactical systems. Quite frankly, I think these katana vs. broadsword questions are a waste of time simply because you're not talking about two weapons used in a roughly similar context, you're talking about literally hundreds used in a vast array of different contexts. Even within the scope of the katana alone, there is more variety than most people are even remotely aware of.

As for how sharp Western swords were, the simple answer is that they were as sharp as they needed to be to do the job they were designed for. That could mean anything, depending on the type of sword we're talking about. The katana was a scary sharp sword, but so was a messer. In that case, I think I'd give the edge (pun intended) to the messer. A Type XVIIIb might be a different story.

Context. Sine qua non. There are a few very good books on this subject, if you wish to do some in-depth research.


Sam
I think you are perfectly correct with regards to the western swords. I myself when I sharpen a blade it goes from being rather sharp towards the point and continually less so toward the hilt until it is practically a riccasso. With regards to the katana's, there were allot of exceptional ones made over the years and there were also allot that were utter rubbish. The great majority, like European swords, were somewhere in the middle. Nicolas Lloyde makes some excellent points on this at http://www.lloydianaspects.co.uk/weapons/katana.html

"My sword has deus vault engraved on the blade, his has sharp end toward enemy." -Ash a secret history.
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Daniel Michaelsson




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PostPosted: Thu 28 May, 2009 8:46 pm    Post subject: Re: Just how sharp do you think Medieval swords actually wer         Reply with quote

Tormod Engvig wrote:
So, I have been thinking about this for awhile, and though I am sure it came down to the personal preference of the individual wielder, I can't help but feel that most European swords of the period (say 700s - 1500s) would not have been honed to a razor sharp edge, like the Katana.


Uh-oh . . .

In seriousness that's a huge period of time. In the Migration Period and the Viking Age people were not especially well equipped, we've only found a single helmet from the Viking Age in Scandinavia (Gjermundbu) and only a few fragments of mail in a period spanning from 793 to 1066. When the vast majority of warriors would have fought in little more protection than an under kyrtle, over kyrtle, trousers, and a wooden shield a sharp blade would certainly be of value. I don't know much about the High and Late Middle Ages but I'm guessing sharp > blunt.
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Tormod Engvig




PostPosted: Fri 29 May, 2009 12:05 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It was never my intention to begin another ridiculous Katana vs. Longsword rant. As I made clear in my first post, the two were tools developed by different people for different styles of combat. They were the right tools for their respective jobs, period. Wink

If it'll make everyone happy, pretend I never mentioned the Katana in my first post...

That being said, I am more interested in what everyone has to say about just how sharp most European swords of the period would have been, given the more varied forms of warfare and armor encountered in the West.

I guess my feeling on the subject is that said swords, regardless of type, would have been quite sharp if intended for cutting in any degree, but only to such an extent that it would not compromise the weapons durability in the face of the tougher armor of the period.

As is no doubt clear, this covers an enormous gamut, given the variations found in the European swords from the Middle Ages. Thrusting vs. cutting swords merely being the tip of the iceberg, for example.

And thanks for all the opinions!

"Skal til kamp på bølgen top, Dannebrog i stavnen op, gid der bag dets røde fold, står en helt som Tordenskjold."
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Steven H




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PostPosted: Fri 29 May, 2009 7:10 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

We know they were sharp enough to slice; as opposed to chopping, hewing actions. The slice is one of the three wounders in the German Longsword tradition. These attacks involve pressing the blade against flesh and then pushing or pulling. Clearly the expectation is sharpness similar to a kitchen carving knife.

They also made hollow ground blades. These are technically demanding and kind of extravagant if you're not going to make the blade quite sharp. We also have other blade shapes in between hollow ground and the diamond that allow for varying degrees of sharpness.

Cheers,
Steven

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Dan Simpson





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PostPosted: Mon 06 Jul, 2009 9:58 pm    Post subject: SWORD EDGE FOR COMBAT         Reply with quote

Hello Tormod, quite an interesting debate you stirred up.

I tend to agree with you, that a good working edge vice razor edge would be more the norm, particularly during a campaign. Weapons maintenance is vital, but armies have lots to do in combat besides the actual combat. The supporting activities, such as ;security , recon, move, tend bury wounded, messengers, secure and guard prisoners, eat and rest, are time consuming and often determine the out come of the next battle.

The eat and rest part, usual comes last and is when you get to maintenance your weapon. I doubt a man would spend a lot time to restore a razor edge to his blade. This would be like the 1 hour detailed cleaning to remove all the copper from your bore and carbon from your bolt, vice punching the bore and quickly wiping and lubing your bolt and bolt carrier. If I have the time I will do the former, but I know the later will keep my gun running.

Do you think a razor sharp edge dulls quicker and becomes less sharp sooner, than a good working edge?

All that said I try to keep mine razor sharp to impress, my dates while preparing dinner. And I would like to ask those from the sharp camp, whats the best way to sharpen a sword?

Bets Regards ds
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P. Cha




PostPosted: Mon 06 Jul, 2009 10:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well one of the mis-conception is that a katana is actually THAT sharp. Many of the katana made today are specially designed to cut mats and paper and don't use historic geometry. Some are even more specialized to cut paper with even thinner blades. Some katana historic were very sharp...others were not.

The second idea is that euro swords were dull. Some historic western swords were very sharp...others were not. If you get two museum pieces, you may find that sometimes the katana is sharper...other times the western sword is sharper. In fact western swords may have an advantage here because japanese swords aren't very friendly to field care...well at least the later shinogi geometry (the shinogi's yokote would get utterly ruined if not sharpened properly...and even if it was, many of the well used swords had the yokote completely worn out from re-polishing/sharpening...but basically, it would not be something you could do on the field).
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Aleksei Sosnovski





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PostPosted: Tue 07 Jul, 2009 12:53 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

My 2 cents.

1) There are many pictures of men grabbing their opponents' blades in historical fencing manuals. So we may consider it being a relatively safe technique when done properly, that is applying most pressure on the flat of the blade, not on its edge, and not allowing the blade to slide in the hand. And, of course, it can be done safely against some weapons but cannot be done against others.

2) The sword will be dulled after just a few minutes of battle. If you do not believe me, take a sharp sword and hit the flat of the blade of another sword. Ah, don't forget that most historical swords were of poorer quality than modern reproductions.

3) But, on the other hand, being sharp during these minutes may save the sword's owner's life.

4) Swords used for battle should be durable, and therefore cannot afford very thin edge geometry. But if you are a noble and rich, you can afford to have your sword repaired or even replaced after every battle. And if you carry a sword for self-defense you can sharpen it as much as you like, as it is very unlikely that you will have to use it for a long time. Surviving one attack is good enough to be happy. And I doubt that usual civilian fight involves more than a couple hard blade-to-blade contacts.

5) Look at later sabers. How sharp are they? Sword does not need to be any sharper. But "does not" does not mean "cannot".

6) Look at modern survival/army knives. They are not sharp at all (well, at least for me), because their edges are made to withstand use and abuse. Compare these knives to let's say chef's knife or a woodworker's knife. The difference in sharpness is immense, but they all are knives and they all do cut.

7) Nowadays there are people who keep their knives sharp and there are people who sharpen their knives only when they stop cutting. There are people who are good at sharpening things and there are people who cannot make a decent edge even when given best tools. There are good (and expensive) sharpening stones and there are really bad ones. There are people who take care of their weapons and there are people who really hate cleaning their guns. I think it was the same in the old days as well.
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Robin Palmer




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PostPosted: Tue 07 Jul, 2009 1:31 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi all

I asked this some time ago and got some useful answers but I would raise one point. One of the masters recommended that the front eight inches be razor the rest just sharp. This allowed the quick wounding cut mentioned earlier to be delivered using point at range. The slieghtly blunter ???? main blade would have greater resistance to weapon strikes and less damage if it struck armour or shields.
While I agree the object is to hit flesh in a fight a good strike to helmet will stun opponant joints can jam them. I have practiced the sword for thirty plus years and done re-enactment for the same and in battle you take what you can get in the way of shots on your opponant.

Your Bob
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Tue 07 Jul, 2009 1:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As many specimens survive with gilding, inlay, and other features that exclude possibility of greatly exaggerated maintenance sharpening, I think we can safely say what kind of general sharpness (comparison with some other tool) was intended for many period styles of swords.

Several "historically based" reproductions of diamond cross sections, migration era cutters, etc., that I have seen have blade edge included angles fairly close to 15 degrees. This tells anyone who competently sharpens tool blades what they need to know to determine the original maker's intent. (Bear in mind that hand tools were important in medieval era, and not much has really changed in terms rules of thumb for recommended edge angles as far back as you can go and find a surviving example of a tool.) 15 degree is the edge angle used for a moderately sharp tool such as a chisel or wood plane intended for moderately heavy cutting wood work. (Possibly getting hammered with a mallet.) You can accidentally slice open your flesh fairly easily if the edge is well sharpened, but it would have reasonable durability at appropriate cutting alignment angles against wood, bone, and other similarly medium hardness materials. (I am not generalizing about the overall structural capability of the entire sword blade, just saying what the blade maker's choice of edge was generally used for in other generic tool applications.)

In comparison, included edge angles near 9 degrees would be more appropriate to sharp utility/ skinning knifes, while 26 degrees is more appropriate to an axe. 45 degree edges might be found on one of the estocs mentioned above.

One should be able to examine and measure their own sword angle (assuming it to be based upon historical examples if it is an Albion for example), and derive what sort of original sharpness was intended.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Dustin R. Reagan





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PostPosted: Tue 07 Jul, 2009 2:47 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jared Smith wrote:
As many specimens survive with gilding, inlay, and other features that exclude possibility of greatly exaggerated maintenance sharpening, I think we can safely say what kind of general sharpness (comparison with some other tool) was intended for many period styles of swords.

Several "historically based" reproductions of diamond cross sections, migration era cutters, etc., that I have seen have blade edge included angles fairly close to 15 degrees. This tells anyone who competently sharpens tool blades what they need to know to determine the original maker's intent. (Bear in mind that hand tools were important in medieval era, and not much has really changed in terms rules of thumb for recommended edge angles as far back as you can go and find a surviving example of a tool.) 15 degree is the edge angle used for a moderately sharp tool such as a chisel or wood plane intended for moderately heavy cutting wood work. (Possibly getting hammered with a mallet.) You can accidentally slice open your flesh fairly easily if the edge is well sharpened, but it would have reasonable durability at appropriate cutting alignment angles against wood, bone, and other similarly medium hardness materials. (I am not generalizing about the overall structural capability of the entire sword blade, just saying what the blade maker's choice of edge was generally used for in other generic tool applications.)

In comparison, included edge angles near 9 degrees would be more appropriate to sharp utility/ skinning knifes, while 26 degrees is more appropriate to an axe. 45 degree edges might be found on one of the estocs mentioned above.

One should be able to examine and measure their own sword angle (assuming it to be based upon historical examples if it is an Albion for example), and derive what sort of original sharpness was intended.


I really like this point of view. I think it's a very nice extrapolation.
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J.D. Crawford




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PostPosted: Tue 07 Jul, 2009 5:27 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

J. Scott Moore wrote:
grab a knife, and try chopping straight into a peice of cardboard. then try angling the blade, and slicing. lo, and behold, the cardboard will cut instead of crumple. granted, cardboard is not flesh, bone, or armor, or a combination of these, but slicing goes easier no matter the medium.


I am not convinced that slicing, with or without a curved edge, is superior against all media.

Slicing, combined with a sharp edge, clearly works better for certain media like meat and cardboard, but other harder media (like wood, hard-shell pumpkins) respond better to a chop even if the edge is dull. An extreme example is a wood ax - its relatively dull and used to chop down tress, not by accident. Slicing wood doesn't get you very far unless you're using something with a saw edge, which still goes slower in my experience.

I'm not speaking from experience now, but I think that a heavy chop with a semi-sharp edge would be more effective against mail than trying to slice it with a super sharp sword - I think all that would get you is a duller sword. Likewise, I don't think slicing does much good against bones. To take a limb or head off I think you need a good chop. Ever heard of an executioner slicing a head off? It's always described as a big sweeping chop.

It also matters what is behind the media / how its supported. Its easy to chop foodstuff against a cutting board, but if its held in the hand a slice works better.

If there's a rule to this, I think its that media that deform easily are cut best by slicing with a very sharp edge whereas media that do not deform (or are not allowed to deform because of their backing and support) cut best with chopping, and here sharpness is less an issue.

Probably a chop followed through by a draw cut is the best of both worlds in many situations where one is trying to first get through some light armor (or a bone) and then inflict the maximum damage on the softer stuff beneath. Perhaps that's a case where a semi-sharp area at the optimal point of percussion with more sharpening toward the tip would help.

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