A Fuller Understanding

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“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!

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The Blood Groove

Update – 9 June 2020 – a commenter has pointed out that the ‘Marine Corps Dictionary’ that I originally referenced may not have been a ‘thing’ and that the USMC has never taught this. I have found references to individual U.S. Marines who have espoused this, but I have edited the below with a more definitive military claim from the British Army… Edited post follows;

A straightforward piece of mythology this time. If you’ve ever looked at commercially available swords or knives on the internet (and who wouldn’t) you’ll see such marketing buzzwords as “battle ready” and “blood groove”. Sometimes they are recent inventions designed from the ground up to make the product seem more attractive – in this case, more warlike and gruesome. But “blood groove”, though totally bogus, has a much older usage within, and with relation to, Western armies.

The misconception is widespread all over the web and in real life, as applied to any edged weapon with an obvious channel or gutter running the length of the blade. Or part of it. Even the British Army training pamphlet for the SA80 rifle (quoted here), and the Ministry of Defence website at one time, makes this claim;

“These recesses along the blade reduce any suction effect and enable a clean withdrawal from the body.”

Other versions state that it’s to allow the blood to flow out, which I suppose is the same argument. You might even hear that the idea is to reduce the noise of the blade as it’s withdrawn! As sites like Sword Forum International have pointed out over the years, the argument is not only inaccurate in technical and historical terms (see below) but also with respect to physics and biology. The surface area of the blade is too little, and the friction between blood-slick wound and smooth blade too low for any real sticking to occur. When a blade does resist a simple withdrawal movement, a fuller, as the “blood groove” ought to be known, will do precious little to help. A smart twist of the rifle accomplishes far more, and has been taught for as long as armies have used sword or knife bayonets rather than the older thin socket type (which often also bore narrow fullers along two of their sides), or the spike bayonet of some more modern weapons (which have their own fluting in place of grooves).

In reality, the blood groove is nothing of the sort, and the correct answer has been out there online for at least ten years now. Given that the famous Roman gladius (primarily used for thrusting) never featured such a channel, and the early medieval sword (designed for slashing) always did, it’s clear that it served a different function. The answer involves straightforward physics – by removing metal from the middle of a blade you reduce its weight without compromising its strength too greatly. The same approach is used in engineering in the shape of the I-beam. With the later bayonets, there is a secondary function in that the square-cut groove also makes for a very secure fit in the sheath so that the weapon can’t be lost or rattle around, and moisture has a harder time penetrating.

A range of (sword) blade cross-sections, some with fullers.
Public Domain image from wikipedia – see myarmoury.com for more information

Whilst it’s easy to understand civilians getting the wrong end of the stick – they don’t tend to have to stab living things with edged weapons – surely the armed forces must know what they’re talking about? Well, not always. The use of swords in war was last seen amongst the first cavalry units to arrive at the Western Front in the First World War, before it was realised just how anachronistic cavalry had become. They typically would use long thrusting swords + the momentum of their mounts to kill enemy soldiers – any suction on the withdrawal wouldn’t even have been a factor due to this assistance in momentum. In fact any trooper studying the design of his weapon might well realise that the “blood groove” was actually helping to allow a stiff light blade that wouldn’t flex on impact.

Recruit. “EXCUSE ME, SIR, BUT HAVE THE GERMANS THE
SAME METHODS IN BAYONET-FIGHTING AS WE HAVE?”
Instructor. “LET’S HOPE SO. IT’S YOUR ONLY CHANCE.”
Punch, Vol 153, 1917

The origin of this myth lies instead with the infantry – specifically in bayonet fighting, or since this rarely occurred even in the 19th century, bayonet drill. By the end of the 19th century (arguably earlier), this savage piece of training was primarily intended to instil a warrior spirit, and to override the natural hesitation of a volunteer soldier to kill face-to-face. Its main practical purpose was the execution of wounded enemy soldiers following a battle. It remains a piece of military tradition that helps to maintain continuity and a sense of tradition. It’s a source of pride for many armies today, whether in rare instances of actual combat, or on the parade ground. The order to fix bayonets alone is a way to focus the mind and prepare for conventional engagement, close quarter battle with automatic weapons and grenades, or maybe even showing the enemy a bit of cold steel. Soldiers – army or marine – are closer to the enemy than any member of the armed forces, but even they have become somewhat removed from the act of killing by the range, accuracy, and sheer suppressive weight of fire that modern small-arms can achieve. Fixing bayonets makes it personal again, even if it never comes down to true hand-to-hand fighting.

From many anecdotal accounts in print, oral history and online, it’s clear that drill sergeants throughout the 20th century made reference to the “blood groove” as a graphic way of interpreting the violence of combat and the need for well-learned drills to survive such an encounter and do brutal harm to the enemy. There would be no notion of stabbing one’s enemy and leaving it at that – you had to thrust, twist, and withdraw. The twist, explained as being another way to overcome the mythical suction, would be of real use, dislodging a bayonet stuck on or in bone or other tough bodily substances. It also makes more sense as a sequence of movements if there is a bridge between thrust and withdraw – like a combination of punches in boxing or a forehand/backhand in tennis. Talking about the blood groove fixes that step, and indeed the whole drill, in the mind – the perfect Derren Brown-style memory aid to assist muscle memory. It also psychs up a recruit in the absence of a real enemy or fellow soldier (sandbags being the preferred practice target for actual contact practice).

This meme was probably reinforced by real life experience (read Confirmation Bias) when a blade happened to stick briefly in bone, cartilege, or even the ground below the body. I suspect that it then passed from the military sphere to the civilian one during and after major conflicts – certainly the Second World War, probably the First, and quite possibly earlier than that, being reinforced each time soldiers came home on leave or at the end of a campaign. It’s happening again; I’ve heard it from serving and retired soldiers first-hand, and the exposure they’re getting in the media is another factor – a sergeant with the Royal Anglians in Ross Kemp’s recent fly-on-the-sangar-wall documentary trotted out the myth to Kemp, and presumably, to his recruits. In online discussion after the programme, some refused to believe that it wasn’t true, showing how well entrenched the idea is.

I think this is the origin of this myth – a tool to convey the visceral and aggressive nature of hand-to-hand combat to two main audiences. Firstly, to recruits already familiar with the concept of killing another man for a just cause: the idea further steels him for battle and instils a measure of blood-lust. Arguably its about conditioning a man to kill another – paper rifle targets don’t have the same effect. To civilians, it’s maintained so that we can explore this same dark side of human experience – one we’ll never know. Like watching a horror film – to be both excited and repulsed. I think both are valid things to do, but as with all myths, I’d rather people were told the legend, closely followed by the truth of the matter.

One caveat to finish with – it’s possible given the long history of the myth that at some stage, weapon designers or procurement officers really did belief that was the purpose of the groove, and continued to incorporate it for this reason. I’d like to see some evidence of this however. Regardless, the actual function served by the feature remained that outlined here.