The history of mankind shows an inseparable relationship between war and
arms (which are essential elements of warfare). Arms can be classified
according to their various purposes, such as offensive weapons, defensive
weapons, and battle equipment. Weapons of attack are used to cripple an
enemy's fighting ability, weapons of defense to protect friendly forces,
and battle equipment as a supplement to combat operations.
The most important weapons among these are offensive weapons. These
weapons not only are key factors in guaranteeing a victory in battle, but
also have a significant impact on the organization of an army. However,
the importance of weapons of defense and of battle equipment to victory
cannot be ignored.
Traditional arms can also be classified as hand weapons and firearms,
based on their history and functions. Hand weapons can be classified as
long-range and short-range weapons. Long-range weapons, such as bows and
crossbows, can fire projectiles over a long distance. Short-range weapons,
such as spears, swords, axes, and sickles, are used in close contact.
Firearms can be classified as rockets, projectile weapons, and cannon.
Swords, classified as short-range weapons in the hand weapons category,
can be categorized according to their functions and purposes. They
symbolize social justice and the eradication of injustice, and are used as
a symbol of faith between reciprocal and political groups. In addition,
they can be used as weapons in warfare and revolts, to escort and guard
persons of high status, and also to avoid humiliation by permitting an
honorable death at one’s own hand.
Based on these facts, this article examines not only the origin and
history of Korean swords, but their historical function as well, also
comparing differences from the swords of neighboring countries, such as
Japan and China.
II. History of Korean swords
Swords used in ancient times symbolized the power of death, and were tools
for eradicating evil. Although materials used to make swords have changed,
they continued to be placed in tombs with the deceased’s other belongings.
The materials used in sword making have changed according to the age, and
reflect the characteristics of that age.
Polished stone daggers, which cannot be mass-produced, seem to have been
copied from bronze. It is hard to say whether all polished stone swords
were copied from a specific style of bronze sword, but it is true that
polished stone swords were influenced to some degree by bronze swords.
Though they did have practical uses, a stone sword buried in a tomb was
mainly a symbol of the owner’s power amongst the members of a group. This
shows that social complexity and class were significantly advanced during
that era. In a word, the polished stone dagger is a symbol of a complex
society in the Bronze Age.
Bronze daggers changed from Bipa-shaped bronze daggers (Bipa is a Korean
Mandolin), known as Liaoning style bronze daggers, to Narrow bronze
daggers. Bipa-shaped bronze daggers originated from mutual competition and
exchanges in the early Joseon Dynasty era, in the Yoha (Liao-ho) and
Daringha rivers, where the early Joseon, Northern people, overlapped with
the Chinese Han. In that age, daggers were not used as weapons, but were
considered status symbols before a formal nation was developed.
The Korean style of Narrow bronze daggers originated in early Joseon
culture, which competed with the Chinese Yuan Dynasty, suggesting the
possibility that daggers were used as weapons in that era. Based on the
large number of Narrow bronze daggers produced in the Korean peninsula, it
is concluded that these daggers symbolized secularized power, in contrast
to Bipa-shaped bronze daggers that were buried in limited numbers in the
tombs of leaders. The appearance of Narrow bronze daggers corresponded to
the establishment of a primitive nation on the Korean peninsula, and so
the importance of these weapons should not be overlooked.
Iron swords represent the change from daggers to long swords. The iron
dagger was basically copied from the previous Narrow bronze dagger, and
grew to have symbolic meaning. Long iron swords were a type of weapon used
in the Chinese Han Dynasty, and were first produced in Korea in the
Northwest, where Han districts were established. The reason that the long
iron sword arrived about two centuries later in Southern Korea was due to
Han Dynasty policy.
It is evident that the long iron sword used in Southern Korea was based on
previously developed iron production technology in the area, but was
produced by masters in that area by the introduction of new iron
Decorated swords, Hwandudaedo, in particular Sohwandudaedo, are first seen
in the South, in the second half of the first century B.C. The
Hwandudaedo, widely used in this era, was a type of Sohwandudaedo that had
a folded blade, and a ring pommel.
The Sohwandudaedo tradition continued to be seen in this era, along with
the appearance of the Samyeophwandudaedo style. Also, inlay techniques
developed in this era were used in the production and shape of the sword.
The Hwandudaedo was a symbol of the power of a ruler until the end of the
fourth century, when due to its symbolic meaning it became limited to
personal possession rather than use as a weapon. However, it use spread to
the lower classes by the beginning of the fifth century, and it has been
excavated throughout the country. The same type of Hwandudaedo excavated
in various areas and tombs of the ruling class suggests that the
Hwandudaedo was widely distributed as a symbol of political and military
The number of decorated swords among burial goods decreased in Korea in
the mid sixth century. However, Korean decorated swords significantly
influenced Japanese decorated swords. In the case of Japanese swords, the
Yongjakhwandudaedo was produced and distributed in the second half of the
sixth century throughout the country. These are classified according to
their decoration, for example the Wondudaedo, Gyududaedo, Bangdudaedo, and
This classification is based on the decoration of the pommel rings. If
there is no decoration present in the rings, it is classified as a
Sohwandudaedo. The Sohwandudaedo can have circular, pentagonal, or
tetragonal rings, or circular rings above and tetragonal rings below. A
Samyeophwandudaedo has three opened leaves decorating the ring, while a
Samruhwandudaedo has three rings that are joined to form a triangular
shape. In addition, dragons or Chinese phoenixes may appear on the pommel
ring. These are the Yonghwandudaedo (single and twin dragons),
Bonghwandudaedo (single and twin phoenixes), or Yongbonghwandudaedo
(dragon and phoenix). In general, a Samyeopmun decoration is similar to an
Indongdangchomun decoration, which is an arabesque pattern. Finally, the
Samruhwandudaedo has three C-shaped three rings that are joined to form a
Hwandudaedo came in various shapes and sizes, which ranged from 40cm to
116cm. In the Baekje and Gaya Dynasties, the Hwandudaedo appeared in the
following order: Sohwandudaedo, Bonghwangmun (which is a Chinese peacock
pattern), and Yongmun, (a dragon pattern). In the Silla Dynasty, the order
of appearance was Samyeophwandudaedo, Samruhwandudaedo, and
The Sohwandudaedo and Samyeophwandudaedo were mainly excavated in an area
associated with the Goguryeo Dynasty. The Sohwandudaedo,
Samyeophwandudaedo, and Yongbonghwandudaedo styles were largely excavated
at a site associated with the Baekje Dynasty. The Sohwandudaedo,
Samyeophwandudaedo, Yongbonghwandudaedo, and Samruhwandudaedo were mainly
excavated in an area associated with the Silla Dynasty. Finally, the
Sohwandudaedo and Samyeophwandudaedo were mainly excavated at a site of
the Gaya period. In particular, the Samruhwandudaedo and
Samyeophwandudaedo are representative of swords in the Silla and Gaya
Because the swords used in the Goryeo Dynasty are very rare, there is
little information on them available, making detailed study difficult. It
is evident, however, that there were as many swords in this period as in
the Three States period, not only due to external aggression but also due
to the military government in that period. It is also not difficult to
imagine that highly advanced techniques were used in the production of
these swords. Based on records of Goryeo history and the
Seonhwabongsa-Goryeodogyeong, it is possible to determine that swords
which have a long blade and sword guard were used. Also, it is likely that
there were some swords in the latter period of the Goryeo Dynasty that
were influenced by the Chinese Won Dynasty. The available evidence shows
that the swords of the Goryeo Dynasty were mainly used as weapons,
ornaments, and for self-defense.
In recent years, two examples of swords were excavated at a site related
to the Goryeo Dynasty. The excavated sword had no rings, but had an
elliptical-shaped sword guard to protect the hand. These swords were
called Simbudaedo and had a shape similar to the Hwando produced in the
later Joseon Dynasty. It showed that the Hwandudaedo, which had no sword
guards in the Three Kingdoms period, changed by the addition of sword
guards in the latter half of the sixth century where competition between
these countries significantly increased. It is necessary to further
investigate this point.
One sword of the Joseon Dynasty became during the reign of King Munjong a
standard style due to war with the Yuchen. It is known as the Hwando, a
sword which is hung at the waist using rings attached to the scabbard. The
Hwando is a typical Joseon Dynasty sword.
The Hwando was fabricated by master craftsmen under the Gungigam, an
organization which produced weapons. The swords produced in this
organization were used as ornaments for nobility and the royal family. In
addition, they developed into luxury articles equal to that of silver
wares. While true that the Hwando produced in the capital of the Joseon
Dynasty were used as an ornament for the nobility, similar swords produced
in local areas were used as military weapon.
Although daggers were largely used for ornamental purpose swords were used
for military purposes. There are several reasons why swords were mainly
used in battles. First, they were strong enough to resist the shock of
impact, due to the thick back of the sword, and could easily cut down the
enemy. This is different from that of daggers, which could be easily
broken by an impact due to their double-edged design. Second, production
time and cost was low because the sword had a single blade. Finally,
swords were used as major combat equipment due to convenient supply and
During the reign of King Munjong, an attempt was made to standardize the
Hwando. Jing-Ok Lee, who was a field commander of the Hamgildo, inquired
into the production and improvement of the sword for battle. The Hwando
that he wanted to produce had a straight and short shape called 'Jikdan'.
Based on the shape of this sword, the standard specifications of the
Hwando were determined, even though there was opposition to the
standardization of the Hwando.
However, it is not clear whether or not this additional standardization
was performed after or before the establishment of the Hwando as a style.
The Beyonggidoseol, a treatise on arms containing text and illustrations
that was a part of the Gukjooryeui-seorye, a manual for national
courtesies and ceremonies, was published 23 years after the
standardization of the Hwando, but did not include the standardized
specifications of the Hwando. This is not a simple omission, but the loss
of the significance of the standardization of the Hwando. In reality, it
is evident that the effect of the standardization of the Hwando diminished
because a person's physical strength varies according to their condition.
The features of a straight blade and short body seen in the Hwando,
obtained from their practicality in real combat, affected the
standardization of the Hwando during the King Munjong period. The straight
shape, Jikdan, was the first shape for Hwando swords, and had a similar
thrust advantage like that of a dagger. A Jikdan shape was an advantage in
an urgent situation. This is why the Hwando sword had a short blade rather
than a long one.
The Hwando production process of the Joseon Dynasty changed after the
Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. The length of the Hwando became
longer. This was in reaction to the superiority of the Japan sword.
However, the actual specifications of the sword followed the standard of
Chinese swords. The Hwando was lengthened in the latter period of the
Joseon Dynasty due to battlefield necessity. However, the traditional
short sword was still needed for its easy use in actual battle. It is said
in the introduction of the Yedo in the Muyedobo-tongji, a basic manual for
learning the techniques of the Danbyeonggi, that the government provided a
long Hwando to soldiers as a personal weapon, but soldiers generally
preferred a short Hwando. Soldiers avoided the long Hwando because they
disliked the heavy weight of the sword due to a lack of training in its
use. They preferred a short Hwando due to its light weight and short blade
which made for easy handling.
The Muyedobo-tongji, and the Gyojeonbo, which was an illustration that
introduced certain martial arts, recorded Japanese swordsmanship as having
24 techniques. The fact that the Gyojeonbo referred to these techniques
indicated that these techniques were effective in real battlefields. In
addition, the government actively moved to purchase thousands of Hwando
and firearms during an embassy to Japan.
However, the swords recognized as art in Japan are different from the
basic swords used in the early period of the Joseon, Dynasty and
correspond to the Woldo, a half moon shaped sword, and Ssangeom, a pair of
swords for dual use, that appeared in the Julganbyeongbeop of the
Gihyosinseo. The Woldo and other similar swords were only used in
demonstrations, and were not used on the battlefield.
The reign of King Jungjo was the period of the Korean Renaissance, and was
a time of transition to establish traditional values and new reforms
throughout society. The buildup of military forces was one of the factors
which contributed to a formal weapons system. A major element of this
weapons system was the “24 techniques” of swordsmanship, though with the
advent of firearms, the Muyedobo-tongji did not include bows and arrows as
traditional weapons. As noted in the introduction, the basic ‘cut and
thrust techniques' referred to close combat weapons. This was the best
example of military arts that include the handed technique and established
the generalization and standardization of the martial arts of that age.
The function and tactical use of swords decreased in the later period of
the Joseon Dynasty, due to the introduction of western guns and cannons.
However, soldiers armed with various traditional arms were still used in
royal processions, and soldiers equipped with traditional arms still were
mobilized from the beginning to the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Both
infantry and cavalry soldiers equipped with swords were in charge of the
escort of the King. These soldiers wore a Dondari with red sleeves on
their military uniform, and were exposed to danger more than other
The Danbyeonggi disappeared from the battle field with the appearance of
modern soldiers and arms. While the tactical value of swords disappeared
in modern warfare, certain aspects of this military tradition have
survived in the form of the bayonet, fencing, accessories of command, and
III. Characteristics of Korean swords
Daggers that have double blades are different from swords that have a
single blade. In addition, they are classified again by the
characteristics of the blades and tips. Daggers have been used as a useful
tool from ancient times to the present and were made from stone, bronze,
or iron, according to the age. The production, destruction, and burying of
daggers was varied, and the material that was used showed its historical
and cultural significance. Because daggers were often produced as burial
accessories, there were many daggers buried in tombs. In some cases the
dagger was confused with a spear if the shaft of the dagger was not
Among the bronze daggers excavated in the Korean peninsula the Yugyeong
style is well-represented. It has a tang on the blade of a bronze dagger,
wherein the blade and handle were produced separately, and is well
represented. In contrast, Chinese daggers of the same period were cast as
a single piece. Narrow bronze daggers had a thicker, straight blade, which
increased its practicality compared to that of Bipa-shaped daggers. In
addition, it is apparent that there was a large amount of private
production on the Korean peninsula.
Iron daggers were produced by copying the Narrow bronze dagger. The
different symbolic meanings and applications of Iron daggers can be noted
by the appearance of long daggers, at lengths of from 50cm~100cm. The
Hwandodaedo had the largest quantity and variety of excavated materials
and shapes among decorated daggers. The Hwandudaedo was produced for
combat purposes and believed to have originated during the Goryeo Dynasty.
It had a thick back and sharpened blade. The Danggeom which was a type of
short sword, had a wider and longer blade compared to that of the
complicated conventional shape, and had a diamond-shaped cross section.
The Jikdan form of the Hwando shows a clear difference from the curved
blade introduced in the Beyonggidoseol, the result of a change in tactical
function from the chopping and thrusting attacks of an infantry weapon to
the slashing attack of a cavalry weapon.
The straight short Hwando used in the mid-period of the Joseon Dynasty is
a good example of tools for 'self-defense'. These Hwando could be used as
a major weapon on the battle field and for personal protection. Thus, the
sword belonging to the Gungigam was marked 'Gungi' in order to distinguish
it from private property. Also, the local militia name was marked on the
Hwando in order to prevent it’s being used for private purposes. There is
evidence that attests to personal use of the Hwando in the murder case
that occurred in the Sung of Changwongun during the reign of King Sungjong.
The Hwando was used for personal protection, even though it was produced
as a weapon for combat. The transition from combat to protection was due
to the fact that the Hwando could be easily carried and used in an
emergency due to its short length.
Swordsmanship developed along with changes in swords. In general, Chinese
swords had a heavy body and thick back like the Eunwoldo, which was a type
of the Woldo, used in chopping and thrusting attacks. Japanese swordsmen
used slashing techniques, and their swords had a light body and thin
blade. Swords of the Joseon Dynasty had characteristics both of Chinese
and of Japanese swords, as well as variations on these characteristics
that had no relation to the development of swordsmanship. The
characteristics of swords and swordsmanship can be compared using the
examples of the personal sword.
Although the Hwando of the Joseon Dynasty is similar to that of the
Chinese Yodo and Dando, and to Japanese swords, there are some differences
among these swords when they are compared, physically, in drawings, and in
written descriptions. Hwando had a mostly straight body, like the Jikdo,
compared to that of Chinese and Japanese swords. The Chinese and Japanese
swords had an advantage in slashing attacks, due to their curvature, while
the straight Jikdo had an advantage in thrusting attacks. Based on these
characteristics, the Hwando of the Joseon Dynasty performed poorly in
combat against to the Chinese and Japanese sword. In particular, Japanese
swords had the highest performance in shape, strength, and sharpness, and
thus, it showed superior performance on the battlefield.
Though the military application and function of swords decreased with the
development and increase in the tactical use of firearms, traditional
swords continued to be used by soldiers as a personal close-combat weapon.
For instance, in the case of the Chongtonggun, who used firearms, soldiers
still carried a personal bow and arrow or sword, instead of a gun, even
though other soldiers were using firearms.
The Wungeom and Byeolwungeom were used by honor guards, and were the
symbols of that position. The Ingeom and Bogeom were also swords used by
honor guards, and were symbols of power. The Ingeom can be classified as
the Samingeom and Saingeom. There was a rule that the Samingeom must be
produced in the year Innyon (the year of the Tiger), in the month of Inwol
(the month of the Tiger), on the day of Inil (the day of the Tiger), at
Insi (the hour of the Tiger - 3 to 5), and the Saingeom were produced at
Innyon, Inwol, and Inil. These Ingeom were mainly produced by royal
families because they represented the vital essence that could defeat
evil. In addition, these swords were granted to high-ranking officers.
Certain constellations, such as the Great Bear and 28 characters, were
engraved on the sword, and 27 sword characters were also marked on the
sword. In addition, Buddhist prayers, such as 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' were
written on the sword. These were presented as lucky omens and applied to
avoid misfortune and defeat devils.
The Bogeom is a sword gorgeously decorated with various jewels. The sheath
of the Bogeom was decorated with blue gem beads, as was the sword guard.
There are some daggers that were mainly used for self-protection rather
than combat. These daggers were made short in order to be easily hidden in
the bosom or disguised as a walking stick. In general, the length of these
daggers was about 30~50cm. A walking stick dagger would appear to be a
Western walking stick, but contain a dagger to be used in emergencies.
These daggers can be classified as the Jukjangdo, Changpogeom, and the
self-defense dagger. The Changpogeom is named for its similarity to the
shape of an iris leaf, shared by the Jukjangdo.
IV. Differences in Korean, Chinese, and
As previously mentioned, swords that were produced in the Joseon Dynasty
showed differences from swords used in China and Japan. There are many
differences in the external shape of the body, length and width of blade,
curvature of the blade, and cross-section of blade. These can be
summarized as follows.
First, a large part of the swords used in the Joseon era were designed for
single hand use (Pyonsudo), unlike Japanese swords, which were designed
for two-handed use. Although the Muyedobo-tongji explained methods to
fight against the power of Japanese swords, the swords fabricated in this
period kept their original shape to maintain 'practicality'. In addition,
the length of the Hwando in the Joseon era was affected by Japanese
swords, as well as by the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. However, the
original shape of the Hwando persisted from before the Japanese Invasion
of Korea in 1592 back 200 years to the period when the Muyedobo-tongji was
published in the mid and latter period of the Joseon Dynasty. These
characteristics can also be recognized in surviving examples, and in
several documents and photographs that depict soldiers with swords, and
one picture in particular that is titled 'Joseon soldier with a sword'
painted by a French artist. It is evident that the length of the Hwando
was shorter than that of a Japanese sword and it is therefore proper to
categorize it as a 'Pyonsudo'.
Second, Joseon era swords were worn differently. The Joseon sword was hung
at the waist, in contract to the Japanese “katana,” which was thrust into
a sash. Comparisons have been made to the Japanese ‘tachi,’ used in the
Muromachi period, which is also hung at the waist, but the theory that
this style was borrowed in Korea is mistaken, as this way of wearing the
sword was known much earlier in China. Comparisons between representative
Chinese and Japanese swords, and representative Korean swords such as the
Dangdaedo, Dangyangdaedo, Goryeodo, and Goryeoyangdaedo (excavated from
the Jungchangwon) show more detailed and brilliant accessories for the
Korean and Chinese swords than are seen in the Japanese tachi. In
addition, the accessories used in the Song and Won Dynasty periods in
China were similar to the Japanese tachi, but were more advanced in shape,
indicating that the origin of this mode of wearing the sword was in China,
not Japan. These wearing methods were employed and developed into a
distinctive and beautiful form during the Joseon Dynasty.
Third, unlike Japanese swords, which were considered to embody the soul of
warrior, the Korean Hwando was used in the Joseon era as an article of
consumption like any other tool, albeit an expensive and valuable tool.
The blade and fittings of a Joseon sword, therefore, could not easily be
separated as individual objects, and if disassembly was attempted the
sword would be damaged and require repair or reconstruction.
Fourth, the blade and hilt of a Joseon sword were assembled differently.
The handle of a Japanese sword is attached to the tang by a pin
(‘Mekugi’), usually of bamboo. In the Joseon sword a “fixer,” usually a
tube, was used to attach the blade to the handle of the sword. It was
placed through at the center of the hilt, leaving a hole through which was
tied a tassel. In another method the tang was passed completely through
the handle and hammered over to complete the assembly. Another method used
a cooper pin like the Mekugi just above the sword guard, and a tube
inserted into a hole in the handle, to which a tassel was attached.
Fifth, the curvature of the blade was different. Not all curved swords
used in East Asia are Japanese, nor can it be said that all styles of
curved swords found in East Asia are the result of Japanese influence. The
curved sword originated in the Won Dynasty rather than in Japan. Also,
curved Mongolian swords were used even earlier, before being adopted by
Japan. Going further back, a curved bronze sword was excavated at the
Byongmayonggang, the tomb of the Emperor of Chin. Thus, it is evident that
the curved sword in Korea can be dated back to the Goryeo Dynasty.
Sixth, the cross-section of the blade is different. Various blade
cross-sections, such as triangular, pentagonal, and hexagonal, were used
in different ways in Joseon-era Korea, China, and Japan, as can be seen
from surviving examples. In addition, these shapes are found in swords
excavated in South Asia. A peculiar shape of sword used in the Joseon era
is a type of Hwando called a Ilmyonpyongjosagakdo, which had a linear
cross-section for one side and a tetragonal or pentagonal cross-section
for the other. These swords were frequently found in both official and
private use, but their type of cross-section is not usually found in
Chinese sword remains.