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The term melee weapon is a neologism, usually absent from scientific and historical scholarship. It denotes weapons for use in hand-to-hand combat (such as a sword or club), in contrast to ranged weapons (such as a bow or rifle).
The term derives from the French term mêlée, from Vulgar Latin misculāta "mixed", from Latin miscēre "to mix", that's meaning “mixed”, and referring to groups of warriors interlocked in close combat, when devolving into a chaotic scenario without military formation. The term can refer to a free-for-all competition in knightly combat sports.
The basic principle of edged weapons is to increase the user's pressure by concentrating force applied onto a smaller surface area, such as an edge or point, thus more easily penetrating the opponent's body to cause wounds. Because most of the effectiveness of edged weapons depends upon breaking the skin of an opponent, they lose much of their usefulness when pitted against armour.
Blunt weapons on the other hand rely mostly on mass and raw impact energy to disable opponents through broken bones, internal trauma or concussions. Generally they are used in some sort of swinging motion to charge kinetic energy into the weapon's mass.
Historically, maces and flails were developed and used to combat armoured infantry, such as knights, because of their ability to cause injuries even "through" plate armour, and were also very effective against flexible armour, such as mail. However, blunt weapons are usually heavier than edged weapons, as the extra weight is needed to cause greater damage, especially through armour. This often makes blunt weapons both strenuous to wield and difficult to maneuver.
Most melee weapons live within the spectrum from very lightweight blades or spikes to extremely heavy, blunt poles. Heavy cavalry swords are perhaps about midway along the range in both kinetic energy and concentration of pressure, and showcase how any point in the spectrum can sometimes yield an effective weapon.
People have always had weapons for a variety of reasons, whether it be for hunting, attack or defense. What is considered probably the earliest way to craft weapons was for a hard stone such as flint to be chipped away until it met the desired shape, often a point or cutting edge. At first these weapons were held directly in the hand, until the invention of the haft or handle, which allowed more force to be applied to the weapon, making it more effective.1 Hand axes were often polished so that the user needn’t hurt his hand when hitting something; however, the blade of the axe was often left unpolished, since rougher edges were more effective. The stone weapons used during the last parts of the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age tend to exhibit somewhat more artistic craftsmanship: they were often finely polished and chipped into more attractive shapes.
Another ancient way of crafting weapons was first discovered in southern Africa. Natives found that a certain stone called silcrete could be heated and chipped at in order to create more sophisticated knives, axes, and other weapons. Scientists speculate that these weapons were not improved by the fire, but were actually more likely to shatter. In fact, John Shea from Stony Brook University says, "Instead, the flashy artifacts might have been ways that 'some humans showed off that they had time on their hands,'" very much like the swords worn by kings in Europe.2
The discovery of the metals copper, tin, and zinc completely changed the way weapons were made. These weapons were stronger and more ornate than their predecessors in the Stone Age. During the beginning of the Bronze Age, the metal head of the weapons were still bound to the shafts of the weapons. Later, the weapons were fastened more securely with sockets and pins,1 starting from roughly 3500 BC. It showed the beginning of the use of the technology that allowed tin, copper, and zinc alloys to be mixed to produce bronze, a very durable, strong metal strengthened by heat.3
The most common stone used for making weapons was silex (otherwise known as flint). This stone was hard enough to withstand the pressure that was exerted on it, while it was still workable into the shape that the worker wished it to be. The working of stone was a fine art that man did a great job of mastering. When creating a weapon a craftsman would choose a stone that was close to the shape desired by the craftsman. Then a second stone was used to repeatedly strike the stone in a single area causing splinters to chip away from the stone. The difficult part about this skill was that when the splinters flew from the stone they came from the side of the stone opposite to where the blows were struck, not from the place of initial impact. This then complicated the matters a little bit because the workman could not see exactly where he was working and had to rely on feeling. This skill of feeling the shape of the stone and knowing precisely where to strike it was an extraordinary skill.3
Heating metal and then hammering it into the desired shape, along with rapidly cooling it, was how the metal bronze was forged. These bronze weapons were much better than the stone ones of the same type, although these were more difficult to make and procure. The same basic techniques were used with iron during that age to great reward. Iron proved to be stronger and even more reliable than bronze, making it the metal of choice in later years.
- Michele Byam (2010-11-30). Arms and Armor, Discover the story of weapons and armor-from Stone Age axes to the battledress of samurai warriors. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
- "Ancient Weapons Point to First Use of Fire for Tools?". National Geographic Society.
- Charles Boutell (1907). Arms and Armour, in antiquity and the Middle Ages. London: Revees and Turner.