What is a Lightsaber?

I think if we’re going to start discussing the Lightsaber and how to use it, we might as well start with the basics and work our way up. If the goal of some of the groups out there is to understand and address the lightsaber as if it were a real weapon (whether for stage or for martial exercises) then we should all understand the lightsaber itself in terms that relate to us. So let’s begin with the basic question: What is a Lightsaber?

The lightsaber, arguably the most famous weapon to never really exist. It has captured the imagination of movie goers since its inception in 1977. But what is it exactly? When trying to understand how to use these beautiful and destructive tools, we must look at the history of them both in the Star Wars Universe and in the real world.

In universe, the lightsaber is a weightless plasma blade of variable and programmable length. The most unique feature of the lightsaber is that it is an all-cutting weapon. Traditional bladed weapons have a flat side, which is often used to deflect or be used to bludgeon and not kill. The lightsaber doesn’t have that. No matter the angle of the blade, the saber will cut its target.

And I do mean it will cut. The power of the energy blade is such that it can through virtually anything in its path. While there are stories of ‘Lightsaber Resistant Materials’ the only things that have been confirmed to block a lightsaber without being destroyed in the attempt are energy based weapons such as electro-staves or, more explicitly, another lightsaber. Because of the energy nature of the blade, lightsabers are able to block and deflect ranged energy attacks. There are in fact forms of lightsaber combat designed for that in mind.

The hilt of the saber is often cylindrical and made of metal or metal-like materials.  The design is, surprisingly, very basic, with most of the electronic equivalent being easy to acquire. There is one story of a Jedi creating a lightsaber using parts he found from a junked hover-bike. What makes lightsabers unique is that they are designed specifically by the user. It is often seen as a rite of passage for Force-users to design their own hilt. So, while the design is simple, no two sabers will be exactly the same.  lightsaber-schematic-diagram

It is often believed that a lightsaber blade was created purely through the Force. It is anything but. What gives its color, and what makes the whole process work, is the lightsaber crystal. These crystals are attuned to the Force, and when added to a lightsaber creates the colored beam. Due to access of green and blue crystals, lightsaber blades are often those colors but there are a few exceptions like white or purple. Synthetically grown crystals often take on a red hue. This is why the Sith have red blades, they create their own crystals as part of their rituals.

The blade of the lightsaber is its greatest advantage. Able to cut through anything as well as being programmable, the blade can serve as a useful utility tool in the same vein as a plasma torch. Because the blade can be deactivated, render it as only a hilt, the lightsaber is a concealable. More so when you consider that the parts to make one are fairly common and can be hidden about.

However, the lightsaber is with its disadvantages. While it was concealable when deactivated, it was anything but when turned on. The lightsaber was known for the snap-hiss sound of its activation and the low hum of the blade. The saber’s illuminating properties makes the user an open target. If one is carrying a lightsaber, it was expected they weren’t going to be subtle about it.

The history of the lightsaber is one that is not yet set in stone. It is referred to as the traditional weapon of the Jedi (and by extension their Sith counterparts) but we aren’t given much history beyond that as far as the Canon sources (the movies) are concerned. Legends (the current term for stories written for Star Wars but are not considered canon by the producers) gives us a fuller understanding.

The precursors to the lightsabers were known as Forcesabers, weapons that created blades through channeling the Force through a lab created crystal. These were the weapons of the Infinite Empire, the first in recorded history to conquer most of the known galaxy. They used technology fueled by the Dark Side to great success. Forcesabers were considered a rarity, and passed out of existence. Inspired by their oppressor’s weapons, the foundling Jedi Order began to design their own personal swords.

These next swords were crude by comparison. The hilt of the blade required a direct connection to an external power source, often on the user’s belt or backpack. This greatly limited mobility however. The lightsabers later evolved in to the designs we all know, later becoming more refined and unique through development. People began to embellish, creating curved hilts or double bladed variations. Technology has never been something that evolves consistently in Star Wars, and once people found a good design, they stuck with it. And the lightsaber became the millenia long tradition the Galaxy Far Far Away knew it to be.

When writing Star Wars, George Lucas wanted his epic fantasy have swords and wield them in the manner of the samurai in Akira Kurosawa films like the Seven Samurai and the Hidden Fortress, the latter of which had a very strong influence in the making of A New Hope. To keep the sense of space action befitting an homage to Flash Gordon, the swords were made in to beams of energy

In the initial drafts of the first movie, many people in the story were to utilize the lightsaber. There is a popular image by now famous concept artist Ralph McQuarrie of a stormtrooper, hapless and equally faceless foot soldiers of the evil Imperial Forces, holding a white bladed lightsaber. Rebel and Imperial troops alike would engage each other in melee combat with lightsabers. That changed when Lucas decided to make the weapon more unique by making it the special weapon of the Jedi.

The actual movie props were cobbled together from random objects. The famous Skywalker Saber, the blue blade used by Anakin, Luke, and now Rey in each of their respective trilogies, was made from a graflex flash camera attachment. Vader’s saber, which is visually similar to the Skywalker Saber, is made from a similar flash attachment. Obi-Wan’s saber from the Original trilogy is made from parts from vehicle and weapons from around World War II. During the fights, blades were made of rods of varying make. The Original Trilogy used carbon rods, and the prequels evolved to steel, aluminum and finally carbon fiber laminated in glass and plastic. The glow of the blades were rotoscoped and digitally added in. In Episode VII, the lightsaber props were not dissimilar from the kind used by the various saber groups, emitting their own glow on set.

Members of the Star Wars fandom take all of that information, all of the stories from both fiction and history, and try to make something real with it. Most saberists, people who use lightsabers for martial or performance purposes, use something similar to a maglite flashlight. An LED light bulb is situated in the ‘hilt’ of the saber, usually made of machined billet aluminum of various designs. Inserted where the lens would go is a tube of polycarbonate plastic, which is what is used for airplane windows and the like. The idea is that while these are no more than high end versions of what Hasbro sell, they are designed to take a hit and keep going. It’s a relatively simple design based around one thing: preventing breakage during impact.

Lightsaber NightLite
Also, pretty handy during blackouts or finding your front door at night. FYI

Lightsabers, no matter if you’re in this universe or the Star Wars one, hurt like hell. While we’re all in the business of safety and not getting hurt, accidents happen. I’ve suffered a few bumps on the head from a collision with a polycarb blade, and a cut up mouth after a brief and intimate encounter with an aluminum pommel. I’ve also nearly made my fight partner (and best friend) useless to his wife (also my best friend) with a thrust to the midsection that missed, badly.   

When working with these glorified toys, for whatever reason, I always take the side of treating these as potentially harmful weapons. As a performer, it’s a rule to treat any prop weapon you use on stage as if it were a real thing. When our job is to convince the audience, we must give the weapon the respect it deserves. That means understanding what we use. Because a dangerous weapon, whether it is real or not, deserves to be handled with respect.

Now that we have the physical aspects of the lightsaber defined in both the Fictional and Real World built around Star Wars, we can start talking about the real stuff. Hope you enjoy. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free. – Craig.


5 thoughts on “What is a Lightsaber?

  1. Really well written. The part about the crystals has recently been changed by Lucas films. All saber crystals are now Kyber crystal and they assume their color based on the personality of the person who builds the light saber. Even the Sith no longer use synthetic crystals… I don’t really care for the changes, but it is how it is going forward. Loved your article though.

    Liked by 1 person

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