Swords are somewhat of a romantic weapon these days, despite the amount of severance and disembowelment caused back in their heyday. They have been around since the bronze age and have way too many styles to list on one page.
The main aim of any sword is not to act as a bar of blunt metal like some faux-historians would peddle to you, but specifically as a sharp cut and/or thrust weapon. They have advantages over other sharp weapons such as spears or axes, such as a cutting sword’s blade being sharp along the edge almost until the grip, allowing slicing and chopping along most of the weapon’s surface. Most swords have a thrusting point that allows charging fighters to be promptly skewered, in fact some sword designs are even specialised for the thrust.
Single handed swords are ideal side arms of defence, acting as deadly spare weapons if the user cannot utilise a polearm or bow for instance, especially considering it is impractical to carry such large weapons around everywhere for self protection. The compact size of such blades can allow much freer mobility and portability whilst going about daily activities since (unlike in computer games) most of the carrier’s life is spent not actually fighting.
Two handed swords are useful battlefield weapons because what they lack in reach compared with other weapons they make up for in agility in either hacking or stabbing ne’er do wells. They are ideal for causing horrible damage to lightly armoured or unarmoured opponents who are particularly susceptible to sharp instruments but become drastically less efficient against armour, unless techniques such as ‘half-swording’ and the ‘murder stroke’ are applied, thrusting into armour chinks or using the pommel and quillons as blunt weapons instead.
Several sword masters like Fiore Dei Liberi and Hans Talhoffer wrote treatises existing to this very day on how to use swords effectively, whether for dueling, self defence or battle. a lot of experimental archaeology has been done in an attempt to recreate these lost techniques and see how knights and men at arms truly fought back in the day.
The hilts of swords gradually developed over the centuries, starting with hilts that acted as ergonomic and secure handles only, allowing a secure and comfortable grip on the weapon but not helping the fighter in any other fashion. Medieval hilts developed straight or sometimes upward curving crossbars that acted as basic hand defence but also were crucial to trapping and binding weapons ready for cunning counters. Complex hilts on Renaissance swords such as the rapier allowed better hand protection and sometimes more types of gripping to weapon or even locking opponents’ weapons. Late sabre hilts covered the hand from attacks and thus almost eliminated the requirement to restrict hand movement by armour, yet don’t bind and trap weapons as effectively as the earlier designs.
Generally speaking, when using a sword with a simple hilt or ‘cross-guard’, it should start close to the body or behind the user, as otherwise the hand would be exposed to severance without even swinging! Complex and basket hilts allow the arm to remain extended at all times, keeping the point as a threat towards the opponent. If the hand is retracted behind the swordsman (such as when using an arming sword), generally the entire arm and the rest of the body power the weapon’s swing or stab, whereas outstretched swords (like sabres) gain more power from the wrist and the body movements are used more for positioning yourself ready to outsmart a defence.
It is notable that swords have been documented in manuscript teachings and historical events as being used with several accompanying objects like pistols, daggers, cloaks and even lanterns to name a few. Obviously there were also instances of ‘dual wielding’ i.e. two swords being used as a pair, although two unmatched weapons were generally much more popular. Shields tended to be the dominant accompanying item up until the renaissance, with small fist-held shields known today as ‘bucklers’ offering a very portable option slung next to a sword sheath for people who can’t carry battlefield shields around, which tended to fashionably clatter and scrape as the user walked around (hence “swashbuckler”).