The Sword of Ammon

By Rick Brunson


Truth be told, I have always been fascinated by swords.  My sword collection began at the age of three when my parents bought me my first toy He-Man sword.  It went everywhere with me; always tucked in my belt just in case.  As I grew older, I began collecting real swords.  Although my current sword collection may be impressive to some, I am afraid it will not be complete until I have a real lightsaber in my possession.  Maybe one day.


With this background, is it any wonder that some of my favorite Book of Mormon stories revolve around swords and warfare?  From the opening pages of the Book of Mormon, to the final Nephite battle, swords are everywhere and play a major role in Nephite civilization.  This article will take a closer look one of the more famous Nephite swords, namely, the sword of Ammon.  

The Sword of Laban

The Sword of Laban


What struck me when I first learned about Ammon’s sword was how different it was from the sword of Laban.   “Laban’s sword fits nicely into the pattern of a high-quality Middle Eastern weapon – a sheath, gold hilt, fine workmanship, and a “blade…of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9).”[1] However, the sword of Ammon, as we shall see, was designed much differently.  Originally, after the family of Lehi arrived in the new world, the Nephites manufactured their swords after the sword of Laban.  In other words, they likely manufactured steel swords.  Nephi recorded:


And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords…. And I did teach my people…to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel (2 Nephi 5:14-15).


However, in the words of LDS scholars Hamblin and Merrill:


“In view of the evidence of archaeology, it seems possible that after the Nephites moved inland away from the land of first inheritance, they may have been unable to discover adequate sources of ore.  Without access to the ore necessary to train the new generation in extensive metal making skills, their metallurgical technology in some fields could have been lost after a single generation had passed.”[2]  


Or, in the words of BYU’s Matthew Roper:

"Chronologically speaking, steel is never mentioned after Jarom's day (Jarom 1:8).  And iron, although known to some of the Zeniffites in the land of Nephi, is never mentioned after Noah's day (Mosiah 11:3, 8).  This tends to support the idea that some metallurgical technologies possessed by Nephi and others may have been lost over time."[3]  


If this were true, if steel or iron was no longer available to their society in the quantities they needed for manufacturing weapons, how did the Nephites make their swords?  What material did they use?  As one would expect, they adapted to their surroundings by using the resources that were available to them, which consisted mainly of wood and rock.


Map of Mesoamerica
A Mesoamerican Setting


As we discussed in a previous article, “Book of Mormon Geography,”[4] most LDS scholars believe that the events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica.  The main reasons why we believe this area are as follows:
  • The wind currents in the Pacific Ocean would have pushed Nephi’s ship directly into the west coast of Mesoamerica.
  • Mesoamerica is the only area in all of North and South America which had the population sizes and civilizations required by the text of the Book of Mormon between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D.
  • Mesoamerica is the only area in all of North and South America which had civilizations that could read and write between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D., also a requirement of the Book of Mormon text.
  • Mesoamerica is the only region in all of North and South America that has a mountain range that runs from east to west and touches two oceans, also a Book of Mormon requirement (Alma 22:27).
  • Mesoamerica is the only region that perfectly fits every other geographical requirement of the Book of Mormon. Every river, mountain, sea, hill, lake, and city mentioned in the Book of Mormon are in the correct relationship to one another on the map.

There are many more reasons in addition to the above, but they will not be discussed here. (For the complete list of arguments/references for a Mesoamerican setting, see the end of my article “Book of MormonGeography.”)  How does this information relate to Book of Mormon sword making?  Simple.  Knowing where the events in the Book of Mormon took place can help us determine what types of swords they made.  


The Macuahuitl



According to historians and archeologists, the people who occupied this region of Mesoamerica between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D., used swords called macuahuitls.  These were wooden swords, but they were not used as clubs.  Instead, they were a slashing weapon, similar to traditional swords. The macuahuitl   “consisted of a long, flat piece of hardwood with grooves along the side into which were set and glued sharp fragments of flint or obsidian (volcanic glass).”[5]  


A Replica of the Maya Macuahuitl


At first glance, one might think that these wooden swords were less effective than steel swords. However, the volcanic glass in these wooden swords had the potential to be much sharper and cut much deeper than even steel swords.  In fact, one of Cortez’s companions in his conquest of central Mexico said that the macuahuitl, “cut worse than a knife.”[6]  So sharp in fact, that “in one famous incident, a Maya warrior cut off the head of a Spaniard’s horse with one blow of a macuahuitl.”[7]


The Sword of Ammon


As it turns out, this wooden sword fits very nicely into the text of the Book of Mormon.  After all, if a Maya warrior could cut off the head of a horse with one swing, then Ammon would certainly be able to cut off a Lamanite arm with one blow.  Here is what Habmlin and Merrill had to say about this famous Book of Mormon story:


“Actually severing an enemy’s forearm or hand with a sword is a difficult task.  What will generally occur is that the sword will cut into the flesh until it reaches the bone, partially severing or cracking it.  However, since the victim’s arm is free to rotate at the shoulder, the sword will simply push the limb in the direction of the blow rather than cut deeper into the limb.  Thus, in most situations one would expect a sword to make a deep gash but not actually to sever the arm.  In order to sever an arm with a sword, the sword must be extremely sharp, must be swung swiftly, and must strike against a limb that is either somehow fixed, or that is moving toward the sword blade.
Ammon's Sword (Macuahuitl)


“Thus Ammon’s sword technique makes perfect military sense.  He waits for the enemy to attack him with his club.  As the club is raised and brought down swiftly toward Ammon, Ammon swings his sword in a fast powerful blow aimed at the forearm.  The combination of the attacker’s swing toward Ammon and the force of Ammon’s own swing is sufficient to sever the forearm.  Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Ammon waited for precisely the right moment to initiate his arm-severing sword technique with maximum efficacy against his enemy.”[8]


The Anti-Nephi-Lehies


Additionally, if the Nephites really did use macuahuitls rather than steel swords, the story of the anti-Nephi-Lehies begins to make a little more sense to the reader.  After this group of Lamanites was converted to the gospel, they made a covenant with God that they would shed the blood of their brethren no more.  As a sign of their covenant, “they did bury [their swords] deep in the earth” (Alma 24:17).  The interesting part of this story however, were the words spoken by this group of Lamanites right before they buried their swords:


 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains… let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren (Alma 24:12; emphasis added).


Can a steel sword be stained?  Hardly!  But a wooden sword can be!  Perhaps this scripture in Alma is was meant to be read much more literally than what we originally thought.  According to Roper:


“The king’s metaphor for redemption that involved stained weapons and their cleansing might actually be more powerful if it referred to blood-soaked wood than to a metal or even an obsidian blade.”[9]


How so?  Hamblin and Merril noted:


Maya (Nephite) warriors with their swords (macuahuitl's).
“Removing a bloodstain from wood is virtually impossible since the blood soaks into the fibers of the wood.  Thus the metaphor of the great mercy of God in removing bloodstains from the swords becomes much more powerful and understandable if it refers to wood stained with blood, which only a miracle would remove, rather than if it refers to metal stained with blood, which a piece of cloth could clean.”[10]




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Notes:

[1] Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” Warefare in the Book of Mormon, p. 334-335.
[2] Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” Warefare in the Book of Mormon, p. 345.
[3] Roper, FARMS Review of Books, 9/1 (1997): 150.
[5] Roper, “Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999), p. 36.
[6] Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, p. 142-43, as quoted by Roper, “Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999), p. 36.
[7] Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” Warefare in the Book of Mormon, p. 341.
[8] Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” Warefare in the Book of Mormon, p. 335-337.
[9] Roper, “Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999), p. 39.
[10] Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” Warefare in the Book of Mormon, p. 342-43.