Swords are king in mythology and fantasy. They certainly are good weapons, but what little I know about historical combat makes them less uber than they are typically depicted. Swords are expensive, difficult to make, and require more skill to wield than many other weapons. As far as types of swords - modern terminology is of course modern, but it generally seems that most swords could be used with one hand, including greatswords.
Most RPGs would have us believe that one must be a master super-specialized freak to use a greatsword with one hand, but IRL they're simply less agile than a shorter sword. Also the 'bastard sword' of history actually seems to be smaller/shorter than the 'longsword', the former being easier to use with one-or-two hands and essentially being a version of the latter for that end. The 'broad sword' and 'arming sword' are more one-handed weapons, which makes sense as their wielders tended to have a shield in the offhand. As armor became better and shields were discarded a longer sword used with two hands became more practical and more necessary. As I'm sure most people here know a man with armored hands can also use a long sword as a sort of staff, or a spear, as well as the traditional 'grab the handle and swing it' method. Most RPGs take no account of this, and treat the longer sword as essentially a big knife. This is especially irksome since the primary advantage of a longer sword is its versatility. If it were not for this versatility you would always be better off with a spear, a pike, an axe, a mace, or a slashing sword. The sword is a weapon of skill, both in its difficult construction and technique of use, and this is why it is associated with the professional warriors such as the knight. Even so, knights seem to have used spears, maces, and axes more than swords even when they were carrying one.
Short swords are ubiquitous in all ages, some having edges and others not. They are easy to use, easier to make than longer swords, and can be quite deadly against unarmored opponents. They are less effective against heavily armored opponents, because they're not as well suited for targeting chinks in armor (as opposed to the spear-like longsword or much handier dagger) or delivering heavy blows (due to a lack of mass and leverage).
Daggers, stilettos and so forth seem to have been regarded as perfectly viable weapons by professional killers in full plate armor, instead of being a joke weapon reserved for old bookish men as in certain RPGs.
Swords have less reach than a spear or pike. They can not have as much body mass put behind them, and even a two-handed sword does not allow the use of as much thrusting strength as a spear/pike does. Pikes with axe or hammer heads also have way, way more leverage than swords, allowing crushing 'can opener' blows to be delivered. The glaive type is basically a sword on a stick and while not as handy as a sword has all the other advantages of a spear.
The mace delivers a lot of inertia to target, and its sturdier construction means its better suited to direct blows against armor. The hammer is similar, though it lacks the flange of some maces they often had pick heads opposite to allow similar effect.
The axe is mechanically similar to the mace in how it lands blows, and has a large, curved cutting edge that combines the slicing action of a scimitar with the sheer inertia of a mace. Contrary to video games axes are not simply used in wood-splitting 'hacks' but are swung in arcs that allow one to keep inertia up without having to draw back after each blow. For this reason an axe is actually much faster in combat than Skyrim would have us believe, and also better suited for defensive use than video-game combat would have use believe.
Flails seem like a pain in the ass to use, but they are the king for delivering force on target. They can also help get around defenses due to their ability to bend (though most flails seem to have had MUCH shorter links than video games and fantasy art would lead us to believe - they were rarely a 'ball and chain' but more like a steel nunchaku).
As armor improved and shields declined two-handed weapons became more popular. There are also examples in history of warriors using a weapon in each hand. Contrary to video-game/D&D logic, this was not to give them an 'extra attack' - except perhaps in the case of knives. Actually delivering an effective blow requires you to use your body weight and leverage, simply swinging your arm is going to get you shit results and will likely be laughed off by someone in heavy armor. The point of having multiple weapons seems to have been:
- Versatility. If you have an axe and a mace you can choose which one to use in a particular circumstance.
- Lateral threat. Having a weapon on each side means you can threaten opponents further than if you had simply one weapon on one side, and they can be brought to bear faster than a long two-handed weapon.
- Backup, in the case of being disarmed.
Bows seem to have been rarely ever used as a primary weapon by anyone except massed archers. Slings are quite powerful, more powerful than bows in some ways, and were not (like the dagger) regarded as a joke weapon for weaklings. Also, a sling is extremely difficult to use. Certain role-playing games would have us believe they are a simple weapon for simple people. While it's true they are a shepherd's weapon the reason they are associated with them is because they are a specialist's weapon requiring intensive practice to use effectively. While a crossbow could be learned by anyone, a Hoplite or knight has very little chance of just 'picking up' a sling as another weapon to be used like a mace or spear. Whereas the skills from a mace transfer well to an axe, the skills of a bow, javelin or throwing axe are far more dissimilar to a sling.
Plate armor is the best form of armor in all respects. It is the easiest to maneuver in, the least bulky, the best protection, full stop, end of story. In any circumstance where the weight and bulk of plate armor would be a disadvantage you would be better off wearing less plate armor - no alternative form of armor (scale, leather, etc.) can compete in any respect while offering any degree of protection.
Anyone who has actually worn normal leather jackets knows that they:
- Offer almost no protection from direct blows
- Are in fact bulky and heavy.
Now I know there are always the neh neh neh I dun't wanna realism, muhCinematic types out there, but I should make clear that:
- I don't care about balance or niche protection
- I actively despise most tropes in pop fiction and film. I don't think it looks 'cool' to have giant spikes, 3" thick armor, or to do break-dancing and backflips in combat. I think it's fucking gaytarded.
- I find actual historical combat far more interesting than anything most people think 'looks cool'.