Nephi uses Laban’s sword as a model for additional weapons but provides no details about his sword-making. It is not clear what “after the manner” means here. One way to read the phrase is that the swords were composed of the same materials. Another is that they looked the same (whether of the same or different materials). A final possibility is that they replicated the function of the sword (as a slashing or stabbing weapon).
A possible example of what Laban’s sword might have been was discovered during Israeli antiquities director and archaeologist Avraham Eitan’s excavations at Vered Jericho, a site three miles south of Jericho:
The sword found at Vered Jericho is three feet long, about three inches wide, is made of iron, and has a bronze haft with a wooden grip. Even the tip of the sword remains intact. The strata from which the sword was excavated dates to the late seventh century or about 620 B.C. Most swords from the Middle East, as portrayed in pictures and reliefs, were short and seem to have been used like daggers. Thus, this three-foot sword from Vered Jericho seems to be unique in its large size.
Archaeological evidence from Mesoamerica suggests that it is unlikely that Nephi created a sword that matched the material used in the sword of Laban. There are no Mesoamerican examples known of metal “swords.” However, it is possible that one of the ideas behind the modeling was the contrast between the short sword and the larger sword that Laban’s might have been. The “manner” might refer to size and to the use of the weapon in a slashing movement rather than as a stabbing weapon. William J. Hamblin, assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, and A. Brent Merrill, a major in the U.S. Air Force, note: “Thrusting or stabbing with swords is rarely mentioned in the Book of Mormon.” I can find only one verse that suggests thrusting or stabbing: “And it came to pass because of their rebellion we did cause that our swords should come upon them. And it came to pass that they did in a body run upon our swords, in the which, the greater number of them were slain; and the remainder of them broke through and fled from us” (Alma 57:33; emphasis mine). Even this verse is inconclusive, as the emphasis is on the action of the attackers and not the motion of the swords. The most direct description of a sword-motion is found in Alma 19:22: “Now, one of them, whose brother had been slain with the sword of Ammon, being exceedingly angry with Ammon, drew his sword and went forth that he might let it fall upon Ammon, to slay him; and as he lifted the sword to smite him, behold, he fell dead” (emphasis mine). Helaman 1:23 offers a description that indicates slashing rather than thrusting: “And now he did not tarry in the land of Zarahemla, but he did march forth with a large army, even towards the city of Bountiful; for it was his determination to go forth and cut his way through with the sword, that he might obtain the north parts of the land” (emphasis mine). By far, the textual evidence suggests that swords are raised up to strike the blow.
John Sorenson hypothesizes that the Nephite “sword” may have actually been a
weapon the Aztecs called the macuahuitl, a hardwood club edged on both sides with razor-sharp obsidian blades. The Spaniards called this feared weapon a “sword,” said it was sharper than their own weapons, and learned with dismay that one blow with it could cut off the head of a horse. Bernal Diaz, among the conquering Spaniards, also reported “broad swords” distinct from the macuahuitl, but these are not elsewhere described, as far as I know. Now, a sword in normal European terminology would have a pointed blade that would be used with a thrusting motion. The Book of Mormon never makes clear that such a weapon was in use by Nephites or Lamanites. Only in one case is there description of a “sword” with any kind of point: a Nephite soldier “smote” a Lamanite leader, accidentally scalping him; then he carefully picked up the scalp, “laid it” on the “point” of his sword (rather than spearing it, as we might expect), and raised it aloft (Alma 44:12–13). This odd description fails to make clear exactly how the weapon looked. While the Book of Mormon text leaves us unclear about the appearance and functions of the Nephites’ sword-like weapons, so do the sources on ancient Mexico and Guatemala remain unclear about some weapons. The agreement between scripture and outside sources seems adequate at the moment; no major problem is apparent in reconciling the materials.
Hamblin and Merrill suggest:
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. The Nephites would have had to adopt or develop lithic technology. From that point on, they would have made most, if not all, of their weapons from stone and wood rather than metal. As a hypothetical scenario, then, it can be posited that the swords Nephi made in the early sixth century B.C. were originally metal weapons based directly on the pattern of Laban’s sword, but that eventually the metallurgical technology was somehow lost, and macuahuitl-style swords [described above] replaced the original metal ones.
On the other hand, Nephi may also have written in a general sense: he made the Nephites’ weapons on the general pattern of Laban’s sword—a hand-held weapon with a double-edged long blade—rather than exactly copying its structure and material in every detail. And in a general sense, the macuahuitl has many parallels to a typical sword.
Hamlin and Merrill’s suggestion that Nephi might not have had access to iron ore after his relocation appears to be belied by our next verse in the text (1 Ne. 5:15). That verse suggests that iron ore was available and worked. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence currently does not support a complex iron industry at this time in any part of Mesoamerica, although Olmec evidence does suggest that iron was used in simple works.
Because superior weapons would provide a marked advantage in early warfare, any accurate copy of the sword of Laban in the same material and quality, particularly in quantity, would give the Nephites a military advantage. That advantage would increase the pressure on surrounding populations to obtain the same technology in the ancient world’s version of an arms race. For this second reason alone, Nephi’s description that his swords were “after the manner of” is suggestive of something other than an absolutely faithful copy. If he had to use an inferior metal, the sword might lose its edge easily or be too brittle for reliable use. While Nephi may have modeled his people’s original weapons on Laban’s sword, the historical and archaeological evidence is that they were replaced with other types of weapons, meaning that the other weapons would have been superior to those they replaced. The logical conclusion is that the copies were inferior to the original if they were actually metal, or they were copies of the function in the locally more effective materials.