To anyone saying that the crossguard lightsaber from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer is impractical, this is my response.
The Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer has been received with mixed emotions: awe, outrage, derision, excitement, and probably every emotion a Jedi is forbidden from experiencing. Memes have ensued, and the most common butt of the joke is the crossguard lightsaber, which has come under great criticism.
Some don’t like the crossguard design from a visual perspective – fine, you can’t argue with personal taste. Some don’t like the design because, in terms of hand protection, there are better alternatives – fine, but you have to admit that it’s better than no protection at all. But some don’t like the crossguard design from a practicality standpoint, and that’s where I feel the need to add my two cents, as someone who has vociferously attacked the possibility and feasibility of popular fictional concepts – for science, of course.
Here’s the thing: those who are complaining about the practicality of this lightsaber are griping about a dragon with four wings.
Dragons? Sure, we can accept that dragons exist in a given fictional setting. But a dragon with four wings? Preposterous!
What I’m trying to say here is that a lightsaber, even without a crossguard, is an incredibly impractical weapon. I already have to suspend my disbelief in order to accept that Jedi can use their attunement with the Force to not instantly kill themselves while wielding their signature instruments of death. So it’s not much of a stretch for me to accept what is arguably a slightly less practical version of an already impractical weapon.
I grin at comments made by people claiming that the crossguard lightsaber is more likely to kill its wielder than an opponent, thanks to those added side blades. That very argument has been used against the lightsaber itself for decades!
The biggest issue with the lightsaber is that it is not a balanced weapon. When we discuss traditional swords, the “feel” of the weapon is very important, and the weapon’s balance is key to determining how you wield it. Most swords have their center of balance just slightly above the hilt, toward the bottom of the blade – in other words, you can balance the flat of the blade on your finger at that point. This is a deliberate design choice, and the blade and hilt are weighted to strike this balance.
Let’s talk swords intended for swinging, rather than thrusting – since lightsabers are more often used as swinging weapons. If a sword is too blade-heavy, then it becomes a clumsy weapon, like a baseball bat; it requires a lot of effort to get it moving in one direction, and it’s difficult to change that momentum. If a sword is too hilt-heavy, then it becomes a weak weapon, because your energy is not being transferred as effectively into the swing.
Put simply, swords are levers. They are rods that pivot around a fulcrum (the center of balance). Humans discovered the power of the lever thousands of years ago and have since used this simple machine to amplify an input force in order to provide a greater output force. In other words, you can impart a small amount of force on one end of the lever in order to exert a much greater force at the other end – you’re getting the lever to do the work for you. In fact, the very word “leverage” – as in, to gain an advantage over something or someone – is derived from the use of a lever.
A blade-heavy sword makes more use of the lever effect and transfers much more force, delivering a stronger blow at the cost of finesse. A hilt-heavy sword will barely amplify the force, meaning that you need to exert much more effort to deliver an equally powerful blow. A lightsaber is, ostensibly, a hilt-heavy sword, with the “blade” having little to negligible weight. But of course, in the case of a lightsaber, the force of the blow isn’t that important, since the plasma blade will burn its target regardless of the force of impact. However, what is important is momentum.
Observe this animated .gif I recorded. In one hand, I’m wielding a shinai, a bamboo practice sword used in the Japanese martial art of kendo, meant to simulate a somewhat blade-heavy sword. In my other hand, I’m wielding a hefty flashlight, meant to simulate a hilt-heavy lightsaber. Starting at the same moment, I am attempting to raise and lower each “weapon” as quickly as possible, using only wrist motion.
Notice how the flashlight gets moving much quicker (despite being in my weaker hand) and completes the maneuver just shortly after the shinai reaches the apex of the swing. This isn’t because the shinai is heavier – it’s made of bamboo, after all, and weighs roughly one pound. It’s because of the weight distribution. When dealing with rotational forces – such as when you’re swinging around a sword – conservation of angular momentum dictates that mass concentrated towards the rotational axis will move faster. That’s why figure skaters spin faster when they bring their arms in close to their body and spin slower when they extend them.
All this to say that a quick flick of my wrist was able to move my “lightsaber” both very rapidly and across a wide arc. But in combat, you won’t be restricting your movements in this manner – you’ll be moving your entire arm (and body), imparting much more net speed to the “blade.” If I’m trying to parry another sword – or blaster bolt – with a balanced sword, I can “feel” the weight of the blade, know where it is in space through the feedback of its weight distribution, and can react quickly enough to cease my parry motion before I bring the blade too high and slice myself in the face.
With a lightsaber, though, my body receives no physical feedback from the blade to judge its position and adjust its motion accordingly, and the blade moves faster than I can possibly react to stop it from killing me. No matter how fast my reflexes are, they cannot be fast enough – because the blade is already moving as fast as my reflexes allow in order to parry.
You can argue that with enough training, someone can learn to not kill themselves with a lightsaber. Perhaps so – but we don’t see Luke using a practice lightsaber before going blindfolded and becoming a danger to himself and everyone around him. No, the only way we can logically reconcile that the Jedi Academy isn’t filled with amputees is because their attunement with the Force grants them some form of sixth sense that allows them to safely wield their signature weapon. And given that, it doesn’t matter how many more blades you stick on the damn thing, or in what configuration – we’ve already conceded that the answer is always: the Force.