Evidence #195 | May 25, 2021

Swords (General)

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Scripture Central


Book of Mormon descriptions of battles involving swords are consistent with our growing knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican warfare, where various types of swords were known and used to deadly effect.

Swords in the Book of Mormon

Accounts of warfare among the Nephite and Jaredites indicate that swords were an important weapon throughout the Book of Mormon history. Current evidence from pre-Columbian history, anthropology, and art (especially from Mesoamerica) highlight many correspondences between those scriptural accounts and ancient American swords.1

Metal Swords

Although some readers have assumed that all swords in the Book of Mormon were metal,2 there are surprisingly few references to metal swords in the text. The scarcity of such passages may suggest that metal swords were an elite item and somewhat rare among Book of Mormon peoples.

The biblical account of David’s confrontation with Goliath says the Philistine champion had a helmet of nochesheth, or bronze (“brass” 1 Samuel 17:5 KJV). However, as one biblical scholar observes, “the fact that on occasion the Biblical writer deems it necessary to add the word ‘bronze’ to the use of the term ‘helmet’ would suggest that the headgear was not normally made of metal.”3 By analogy, we need not assume that all or even most weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon were metal, even though exceptional examples—such as the “steel” swords made by prince Shule (Ether 7:9) and the corroded sword blades found by King Limhi’s search party—are mentioned (Mosiah 8:11).

Nephi holding Laban's sword. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Nephi stated that he made swords to protect his people. “And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords” (2 Nephi 5:14). While this may mean that Nephi made other steel swords, the phrase “after the manner of” could simply mean that he made swords after the general pattern of Laban’s weapon—a straight double-edged slashing implement, in contrast to a scimitar or one-sided blade.

Steel is never mentioned among the people of Lehi after the time of Jarom (Jarom 1:8). This lack of textual evidence may indicate that over time metal swords became rare or completely absent in Book of Mormon warfare.4 Aside from its historical value as a Nephite relic,5 Benjamin’s use of the sword of Laban may have also been notable because most Nephite and Lamanite weaponry was made of other materials.

Obsidian-Bladed Swords

Spaniards who faced Mesoamerican armies described a deadly sword which the Aztecs called a macuahuitl (also sometimes called a macana).6 This was a long, flat piece of hardwood with grooves along both edges into which were set sharp blades of obsidian or flint. Several inches of the wooded base were left as a handgrip at the bottom. “Some swords had thongs through which the user could put his hand to secure the weapon in battle” as he grasped the hilt.8 Martial art shows a variety of blade forms. “Drawings indicate rectangular, ovoid, and pointed designs.”9 Some representations show blades set so closely together that they appear to form a sharp, continuous edge.10

The troops of Moctezuma II as depicted in the Duran Codex. Image via National Library, Spain.

During the conflict with the Zoramites, one of Captain Moroni’s soldiers placed the scalp of the Zoramite leader “upon the point of his sword” (Alma 44:13). Aztec swords are usually shown with blades on the edges but none at the top. Yet examples of pointed swords are known from other examples of Mesoamerican art. Pointed wooden swords are shown in the Mendoza Codex.11 And a Preclassic representation from Loltun Cave in the Maya lowlands shows a warrior posing with a macana that has a triangular tip at the end.12

Historical sources indicate that these swords could vary in length from 50 to 122cm.13 A longer and heavier version of the weapon is described as being nearly as tall as a man and had to be wielded with two hands.14

Deadly Effectiveness of Mesoamerican Swords

The Book of Mormon refers to the “sharp swords” (Alma 44:18) and the “heavy blows of the Nephites” which “brought death almost at every stroke” to their unarmored enemies (Alma 43:37). During the Jardedite conflict, the king Coriantumr “smote off the head of Shiz” (Ether 15:30).15 Historical sources indicate that Mesoamerican swords were equally deadly.

John Pohl observes, “The brutal nature of this weapon made combat bloody and dismemberment common.”16 The Cuicatec Codex Fernandez Leal portrays two pre-Columbian armies fighting nearly naked in a mountainous region wielding macuahuitl swords. Several warriors are shown being decapitated by these weapons in the midst of the battle.17

Depiction from the Codex Fernandez Leal. Image via Bancroft Library, University of California Berkley, online at calisphere.org. 

Diego Duran recounts the conquest of the city of Azcapotzalco by the Aztecs. Following this event, the neighboring ruler of Coyoacan tried to persuade the people of that city to rebel against their Aztec overlords. In response, the defeated ruler dismissed the idea as extreme folly. “Are we to see the streets of our city again bathed in blood, covered with entrails, with arms and heads and severed legs?”18

In a subsequent conflict with Tlatlelolco, one warrior “appeared, sword in hand, and with one blow cut off Cueyatzin’s head. This head was then carried to the boundaries of Tenochtitlan, where it was thrown.”19 The Codex Azcatitlan portrays the gruesome aftermath of the conflict that subsequently ensued.20


While obsidian sword blades were deadly and effective, they would tend to chip over the course of battle. Ross Hassig suggests,

Warriors probably made some effort to avoid direct blows to the blades; they may have used the flat of the weapon to parry and have struck with the bladed edges. But they were more likely to have deflected blows with the shield because parrying damaged their weapon and meant losing the initiative and the opportunity to strike back. Thus, macuahuitl duels are unlikely to have resembled European saber duels in which combatants struck and parried with the same weapon.21

It seems likely that during the course of an extended battle some warriors would have exchanged places when possible to allow the tired to rest or to replace broken weapons for new ones.22 Experiments on animal carcasses suggest that in addition to severe lacerations and dismemberment, the impact of obsidian blades cutting through flesh and bone would tend to leave small pieces in the bone and muscle even after the weapon was withdrawn, increasing the difficulty of recovery and possible infection.23

Wood-Bladed Swords

Sharp wood-bladed swords made of hardwood were also known in pre-Columbian times. According to Ronald Spores, the weapons of the Zapotec in southern Mexico included “long and short wooden swords,” in addition to “clubs” and “macanas.”24 Sharpened swords of wood are also mentioned in some Spanish accounts. As noted by Gasper Antonio Chi, the Natives of Yucatan “made some swords with two edges, of a black wood called chulul” which was “very tough like bone.”25

Some anthropologists believe that the steel-bladed machete used today in Mexico and Guatemala is the functional equivalent of an earlier agricultural tool from pre-Columbian times. Brian Hayden suggests that in highland Guatemala, “a sharp-bladed heavy piece of hardwood may have been employed [anciently] for cutting down or ringing scrub and secondary growth, which is today cleared with a machete. Such a tool might also serve for defense against predators, snakes, and strangers while in the field.”26

Before the Second World War, when metal was scarce and expensive, people of the region used wood machetes made of hardwoods like madron to clear scrub growth from the fields.27 Hayden believes that in pre-Columbian times “the agricultural tool and the weapon may have been one item.”28 Swords of sharp hardwood would not have been effective against an armored enemy, but such weapons would have served at times when the Lamanites fought with little clothing as they were often said to have done (Enos 1:20; Mosiah 10:8; Alma 43:20, 37).

The Aztec Codex Mendoza shows warriors with swords, some of which are clearly the macuahuitl. Other warriors are shown with what appear to be sharp wooden swords which are pointed.29 Hayden believes that the “obsidian-edged macanas were used predominantly by the elite knights, and the plain wood blades were used by peasant fighters.”30

Illustration from the Codex Mendoza. 

Wooden swords also were used by North American peoples of what is now the southern eastern United States. One such weapon, the atassa, resembled a European broadsword and was between one to three feet in length.31 Another form of wooden sword of a two-handed variety was used in the North American southwest by the Anasazi.32

Short Swords

Some Maya warriors were reported to have used long knives which they carried into battle, which were large enough to qualify as a sword. One historian said that some warriors in the Yucatan had “long daggers like short swords.”33 Archaeologist Samuel Lathrop believed that the Maya and the Toltecs possessed “fighting knives” in addition to a club and the macuahuitl.34


The accounts of warfare in the Nephite record correlate well with pre-Columbian weaponry. This is particularly true of Mesoamerican swords. Like those described by the Nephite writers, Mesoamerican swords were sharp, deadly, could seriously maim, and could even decapitate an enemy in battle, as attested in art and historical accounts that were unavailable and untranslated at the time the Book of Mormon was published.

Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Swords in Mesoamerican Antiquity,” Insights: An Ancient Window 28, no. 2 (2008): 2-3.

Matthew Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 39–40.

Matthew Roper, “On Cynics and Swords,” FARMS Review of Books 9, no. 1 (1997): 151–152.

Matthew Roper, “Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 150–158.

William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 329–351.

1 Samuel 17:52 Nephi 5:14Mosiah 8:11Mosiah 9:16Mosiah 10:8Mosiah 19:4Alma 1:9Alma 2:1Alma 2:12Alma 2:29Alma 2:31Alma 17:7Alma 17:37Alma 17:38Alma 17:39Alma 18:16Alma 19:22Alma 19:24Alma 24:12Alma 24:13Alma 24:15Alma 24:16Alma 24:17Alma 43:18Alma 43:20Alma 43:37Alma 43:38Alma 44:8Alma 44:9Alma 44:12Alma 44:13Alma 44:15Alma 44:18Alma 49:20Alma 52:39Alma 57:9Alma 57:33Alma 60:2Alma 61:14Alma 62:5Helaman 1:14Mormon 2:14Mormon 6:9Ether 7:9Ether 14:1–2Ether 15:5Ether 15:20Ether 15:22Ether 15:24Ether 15:29Ether 15:30

1 Samuel 17:5

2 Nephi 5:14

Mosiah 8:11

Mosiah 9:16

Mosiah 10:8

Mosiah 19:4

Alma 1:9

Alma 2:1

Alma 2:12

Alma 2:29

Alma 2:31

Alma 17:7

Alma 17:37

Alma 17:38

Alma 17:39

Alma 18:16

Alma 19:22

Alma 19:24

Alma 24:12

Alma 24:13

Alma 24:15

Alma 24:16

Alma 24:17

Alma 43:18

Alma 43:20

Alma 43:37

Alma 43:38

Alma 44:8

Alma 44:9

Alma 44:12

Alma 44:13

Alma 44:15

Alma 44:18

Alma 49:20

Alma 52:39

Alma 57:9

Alma 57:33

Alma 60:2

Alma 61:14

Alma 62:5

Helaman 1:14

Mormon 2:14

Mormon 6:9

Ether 7:9

Ether 14:1–2

Ether 15:5

Ether 15:20

Ether 15:22

Ether 15:24

Ether 15:29

Ether 15:30

  •  1 William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 329–351; Matthew Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 39–40; Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Swords in Mesoamerican Antiquity,” Insights: An Ancient Window 28, no. 2 (2008): 2–3.
  • 2 See James White, “Of Cities and Swords: The Impossible Task of Mormon Apologetics,” Christian Research Journal 19, no. 1 (Summer 1996): 28–35.
  • 3 T. R. Hobbs, A Time for War: A Study of Warfare in the Old Testament (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1989), 130.
  • 4 It may be significant that in the list of metals known to the Zeniff colony “steel” is notably missing (Mosiah 11:3, 8).
  • 5 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Sword of Laban (Symbolism),” November 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 6 Matthew Roper, “Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 150–158. Macana is a Taino word. Some historians have applied terms such as macana and macuahuitl more broadly to include other obsidian-bladed weapons in addition to those that were swords. This lack of precision can lead to confusion about the nature of the weapon. The Mayan word for this weapon was hadsab, meaning “that with which one strikes a blow.” Ralph L. Roys, The Indian Background of Colonial Yucatan (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 66. It is interesting to compare this to the Hebrew word hsb used in Isaiah 51:9, where the prophet speaks of the Lord cutting or hewing the enemy. Francis Brown, S. L. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 345.
  • 7 See Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 83–85; Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), 138.
  • 8 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 83.
  • 9 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 83.
  • 10 See Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press,1994), plates 39–42, 44. While the variations in representation in Mesoamerican art may reflect differences in form, “there is no doubt that the intention of the Indians was to make a continuous blade (or edge).” AD. F. Bandelier, “On the Art of War and Mode of Warfare of the Ancient Mexicans,” Reports of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 2 (1880): 108n. 52.
  • 11 See Kurt Ross, Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript (London: Miller Graphics, 1978), 20.
  • 12 See Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” 339–340.
  • 13 See Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 83; Francis Robicsek, “The Weapons of the Ancient Maya,” in Circumpacifica Band I: Mittel-und Sudamerika. Festschrift fur Thomas S. Barthel, ed. Bruno Illius and Matthias Laubscher (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990), 372. Some Mixtec macanas measured 5½ feet in length. See Ronald Spores, The Mixtec Kings and Their People (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 15.
  • 14 See Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 83.
  • 15 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: The Beheading of Shiz,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 16 John M. D. Pohl, Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies (London: Osprey, 1991), 11. Although some writers refer to the macuahuitl as a war club, the term is not apt since the Aztec weapon was designed primarily to slash, rather than to crush, as a club would. In fact, eyewitness accounts not only describe it as a sword but often distinguish it from clubs.
  • 17 See Sebastian van Doesburg, ed., Codices Cuicatecos: Porfirio Diaz y Fernandez Leal (Mexico: 2001), lamina 16.
  • 18 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 85.
  • 19 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 258.
  • 20 See https://www.wdl.org/en/item/15280/view/1/25/
  • 21 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 102.
  • 22 “Stone blades shatter when they strike other weapons, but they usually do not when they strike cotton armor, flesh, or shields. Nevertheless, the breakage during combat must have been significant. While weapons with shattered blades can still be used effectively as clubs, their effectiveness is impaired. Thus the periodic withdrawal of troops during combat served not only to rest the men but also to allow them to trade weapons. Overnight or after battles, blades were probably replaced, and other arms were repaired.” Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 104.
  • 23 See Marco Antonio Cervera Obregon, “The Macuahuitl: An Innovative Weapon of the Late Post-Classic in Mesoamerica,” Arms & Armour 3, no. 2 (2006): 146.
  • 24 Ronald Spores, “The Zapotec and Mixtec at Spanish Contact,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols., ed. Gordon Wiley (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 3:976.
  • 25 M. Wells Jakeman, “The Historical Recollections of Gasper Antonio Chi,” BYU Publications in Archaeology and Early History 3 (Provo, UT: 1952): 40.
  • 26 Brian Hayden, “Past to Present Uses of Stone Tools in the Maya Highlands,” in Lithic Studies Among the Contemporary Highland Maya, ed. Brian Hayden (Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1987), 167.
  • 27 See Hayden, “Past to Present Uses of Stone Tools in the Maya Highlands,” 170.
  • 28 Hayden, “Past to Present Uses of Stone Tools in the Maya Highlands,” 169.
  • 29 See Ross, Codex Mendoza, 20.
  • 30 Hayden, “Past to Present Uses of Stone Tools in the Maya Highlands,” 170.
  • 31 See Wayne William Van Horne, “The Warclub: Weapon and Symbol in Southeastern Indian Societies” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Georgia, 1993), 60–106; Wayne W. Van Horne, “Warclubs and Falcon Warriors: Martial Arts, Status, and the Belief System in Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdoms,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society, Beloit, Wisconsin, March 20, 1993.
  • 32 See Stephen A. LeBlanc, Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1999), 104–106; See also George J. Gummerman, ed., Themes in Southwest Prehistory (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1994), 224; Ross Hassig, “Anasazi Violence: A View from Mesoamerica,” in Deciphering Anasazi Violence: With Regional Comparisons to Mesoamerican and Woodland Cultures (Santa Fe, NM: HRM Books, 1998), 61.
  • 33 Robert S. Chamberlain, The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan 1517–1550 (New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1966), 110.
  • 34 Samuel K. Lathrop, Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice: Chichen Itza, Yucatan (Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum, 1952), 44. Figure 1 shows a metal plate depicting a sacrificial scene. The officiator holds what appears to be a very large wooden blade in his left hand that might easily be described as either a fighting knife or a short sword.
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