Beheading was carried out using a sword on the Continent, whereas the axe was more commonly used in England. Execution with a sword was generally regarded as cleaner and more certain to do the job in a single stroke. Also, the victim could be beheaded while kneeling upright rather than bent over a block – Click on the image right to see a woodcut from the 16th century book Der Weisskunig.
Purpose-made executioner’s swords were two-handed, with a rounded tip and a broad, thin blade sometimes decorated with images and inscriptions that reflected their use. They had both weight and a very sharp edge, to enable them to sever the neck most effectively.
Swords of Justice were also frequently carried in processions. They would be carried before judges to represent that person’s authority to exercise justice.
The most famous case of a sword being used for a beheading in England was that of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII. Henry decided to grant her a merciful execution rather than subjecting her to burning at the stake or a potentially messy beheading with an axe. He arranged for an expert swordsman and executioner to be brought in from Calais to do the job. Once Anne was in position, the execution was said to have been over in a matter of moments.
This expression originates with the misfire of a flintlock or similar gun. The powder in the pan was supposed to ignite the main charge in the barrel. Sometimes only the powder in the pan flashed without firing the main charge.