Of all the factors that combined to make Star Wars the cultural phenomenon it is today, the lightsaber is undoubtedly one of the coolest. It’s right up there with the Force as one of the most iconic details in George Lucas’ sprawling space opera.
They’re adaptable, too, allowing writers and designers to imagine new variations to keep the galaxy far, far away every bit as fresh and interesting as it was the first time Luke activated his father’s former weapon, igniting not just a shiny sword, but a chain of events that would ultimately save the galaxy.
From that famous Skywalker heirloom to Kylo Ren’s incoming “broadsaber,” here’s our wander through the history of lightsaber design…
N.B. We’ve used the structure of the movie series as a template for this article, and we’ve paid most heed to the designs that are relevant to the films. There are even more, but covering them would mean this article basically eats up the whole site…If you want other weird lightsaber designs, check out this list.
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THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY
Luke’s first lightsaber
“Your father’s lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster. An elegant weapon… for a more civilized age.”
The immortal words of Old Ben Kenobi (nee Obi-Wan), lifted from the scene that inspired an infinite number of playground duels.
The first lightsaber we ever clapped eyes on was Anakin Skywalker’s blue-bladed beauty, which was passed from evil father to disenfranchised son by a man who acted as a surrogate father figure to both. It’s a vital scene that hints at a wider world, one that would later be explored in countless tie-ins and spin-offs.
Luke would go on to use this lightsaber against Anakin himself, twice – in both a Dagobah cave vision and an actual encounter in Cloud City (both in The Empire Strikes Back). It was lost when father chopped off son’s hand towards the end of said iconic family face-off.
Canonically, Anakin built the lightsaber himself. In real life, the design was cobbled together by a team of prop experts from bits and pieces that matched the intended look.
The concept appeared in George Lucas’ earliest drafts for The Star Wars, and the late, great Academy-award winning special effects genius John Stears was tasked with making the hilt. He used a flash tube from an old 1940s camera, with hard plastic ‘T’ tracks from a display cabinet glued to the outside (the black bits are not, as is believed by some, wiper blades).
To this he added a collection of switches nabbed from an old calculator. In Empire Strikes Back, the calculator buttons were swapped out for some bits from a circuit board.
The visual effects used for lightsaber blades were overseen by Korean animator Nelson Shin, who had previously worked on the 1970s Pink Panther movies. He came in after Lucas was unhappy with the original effect (they had intended to use a spinning dowel on the blade during shooting, which would reflect light). Instead, Nelson Shin used rotoscoping, a time-consuming animation technique that involves tracing over footage frame by frame.
It was Nelson Shin who suggested that lightsabers should look ‘a little shaky,’ due to the fact that they’re composed from light. This wobbly effect was achieved by inserting one frame that was much lighter than the rest while printing the film, resulting in that iconic shaky look.
The lightsaber’s incredible sound design was developed by Ben Burtt, who has since gone on to work on Indiana Jones, E.T., and WALL-E (among many other great films). His other Star Wars brainchildren include R2-D2’s “voice” and the “peow!” sound of blaster guns.
For the lightsaber’s unforgettable humming sound, he mixed recordings of old movie projectors with the interference caused by sending the sound of an unshielded microphone through a television. The pitch changes that occur when an active lightsaber is moved were created by playing this basic TV/microphone/projector humming sound through a speaker, and then recording it again with a moving microphone.
All these ingenious ideas combined to create the original lightsaber, and the reused and recycled nature of the design has always felt incredibly appropriate for the depression-era galaxy of A New Hope.
A very impressive replica of this lightsaber was made for Hayden Christensen to use as Anakin in the latter scenes of Attack of the Clonesand the main action of Revenge of the Sith…
And this lightsaber is rumored to reappear in The Force Awakens. The weapon glimpsed in the trailers certainly looks a lot like it…
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, let’s get back to the Original Trilogy…
Darth Vader’s lightsaber
Darth Vader’s lightsaber – the one he uses in the original film – was crafted in a very similar way to the heirloom lightsaber we described in the previous section. There’s a key difference in the shaft, though, which is why they aren’t identical.
Luke’s was built from the flash attachment of a Graflex 3 cell unit, while Vader’s was made from a different flash attachment – one from a British 3-cell MPP Microflash. Of course, the minutiae of old cameras doesn’t mean much to us these days, but that explains why the two weapons aren’t identically shaped.
Funnily enough, Dave Prowse’s original Vader lightsaber prop was misplaced before Return of the Jedi, so they instead used one made from the same sort of flash attachment as Luke’s. Rumors say that Prowse actually carried a highly modified version of Hamill’s original lightsaber during Jedi, but that’s never been confirmed.
The early concept art by John Mollo (above left) reveals just how far the design ideas came between inception and execution. Also, if you zoom in, the picture reveals that the brilliant term “laser baton” was banded about as an alternate name at some stage. If only they had stuck with it…
Obi-Wan’s final lightsaber
Obi-Wan’s lightsaber from A New Hope has a notably different design to the two Skywalker ones, despite being built by the same creative team. For starters – it’s got a gold bit on it. As you might imagine, there’s a bit more at play behind the scenes with this one than cupboard bits, a camera flash, and a calculator.
While there is a flash (the same type as Luke) and a calculator switchboard involved, the hilt wielded by the mighty Sir Alec Guinness also entails parts from a First World War grenade, a faucet/tap handle, and the balance pipe from a Derwent jet engine (we think that’s the gold bit, the “emitter”).
The differences between these designs – as subtle as they may have been to the viewing public – are part of the vast detail that made the Star Wars galaxy immediately visually impressive. The individual touches also help the world feel lived-in and individualized.
Again, a replica of Alec Guinness’ lightsaber was created for Ewan McGregor to use in Revenge of the Sith.
Right, let’s get back to the original trilogy again…
Luke’s second lightsaber
The enduring appeal of the lightsaber was enhanced by the sense of mystery surrounding them in the Original Yrilogy. Fans had no idea how they were made, and – for the first two films – we only saw three of them (Luke’s first one, Obi-Wan’s, and Vader’s). Lightsabers were clearly a rare item in this world, kept like relics by the followers of an ancient religion that the vast majority of characters don’t seem to buy into.
This sense of mystery was heightened with Return of the Jedi, when Luke showed up clad in black robes wielding an all-new lightsaber with a then-unique blade color – green.
A deleted scene, released in 2010 revealed that Luke made it himself, and, with hindsight, it seems like a wise editing decision to remove the scene and leave the cinematic audience to their guesswork. It definitely adds to the mystique of Luke and his lightsaber at this stage of the story. Here’s the scene…
In the Expanded Universe (no longer canon, but still the best answer we have), it’s explained that Obi-Wan left behind a manual on how to build a lightsaber. That nicely fills a narrative hole and explains why Luke’s new lightsaber looks so much like the one Obi-Wan was carrying when he died.
By the looks of it, it must have been made of similar component parts in real life as well as in the film. I’m no expert, but that looks like the balance pipe from a Derwent jet engine parading around as a lightsaber emitter to me.
THE PREQUEL TRILOGY
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan
Unlike the Original Trilogy, the Prequels waste no time before whipping out their lightsabers. As soon as the opening scroll is done, the audience is brought into a shiny spaceship where young Obi-Wan and his master Qui-Gon Jinn are on a mission to negotiate with the pesky Trade Federation. Incredibly soon, said Federation begin gassing the Jedi under the command of Darth Sidious. Out come the lightsabers – shiny, new, and without that cobbled-together look of Lucas’ original Star Wars.
Qui-Gon’s lightsaber is predominantly black, with silver touches here and there. It’s clearly got rivets in it for better grip. It has the look of a lightsaber created industrially, as if it might’ve come from a factory.
Of course, within the Expanded Universe, it’s explained that Qui-Gon built it himself, but it does look a lot more precisely manufactured than any lightsabers seen on the big screen before this point. The Obi-Wan lightsaber carried by Ewan McGregor throughout The Phantom Menace follows a similar design template, but with a round bit on the bottom…
The design phase of The Phantom Menace was on a much larger scale than that of A New Hope. Even before Lucas had started the script, his producing partner Rick McCallum was deep in preproduction. He brought in ILM’s art director Doug Chiang, who became the design director for the film.
Thousands of designs were made, and it’s difficult to determine exactly where the design for Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan’s Episode I lightsabers came from (we do know that Liam Neeson picked his himself from an array of options, though).
Both of these lightsabers fit George Lucas’ overall mantra for The Phantom Menace’s design, though – that the prequels should feel “richer and more like a period piece.” This isn’t the dingy world of A New Hope, but the glitzier climate that preceded it. The swanky professionally-crafted-looking lightsabers fit that pitch to a tee.
In Attack of the Clones, Ewan McGregor carried a very similar lightsaber despite the fact that Obi-Wan’s original saber was lost to the pit. His Alec Guiness replica wouldn’t arrive until Revenge of the Sith.
Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber
Although Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s Phantom Menace lightsabers could be deemed a little standard-issue, the same definitely doesn’t go for Episode I’s other lightsaber – that of Sith apprentice Darth Maul. The saber carried by Ray Park was a thing of beauty, with a sleek longer hilt and two ruddy blades on it.
Its reveal in the film is glorious, as is its usage in battle – it’s first seen as Maul flips over Qui-Gon in a brief duel in the Tatooine desert, and later used to finish him off on Naboo as Obi-Wan watches on powerless. John Williams’ majestic “Duel of the Fates” score helps add to Maul and his weapon’s cool-levels, too.
Although this is the first time we’d seen a double-bladed lightsaber on the big screen, the idea was around for a while before that in the Expanded Universe.
The first double-bladed lightsaber showed up in the Dark Horse Comics series, Tales of the Jedi: The Sith War. It debuted in Part 3, “The Trial of Ulic Qel-Droma” (written by Kevin J. Anderson and drawn by Dario Carrasco, Jr) in 1995. Here’s a screen-grab of the cover art by Hugh Fleming….
It’s a brilliant thing, to see the Expanded Universe inspiring the films themselves, with the dual blades, acrobatic usage and silver hilt all lifted directly from the comics and plonked into George Lucas’ Phantom Menace script and subsequently thrust through the design team onto the big screen.
Since then, double-bladed lightsabers have shown up in almost every medium going, including TV and gaming. Since Episode I, though, they’ve not appeared on the big screen again. Also – when Darth Maul was revived in the Clone Wars series, he was stuck with only one blade because Obi-Wan halved his weapon in the climactic fight of The Phantom Menace…
It’s such a simple idea, to double-up the lightsaber, but it reinvented the weapon in a way that opened up not only a lucrative new angle in the toy market, but also allowed for a wide range of new visually interesting fighting moves. It’ll be interesting to see if they ever pop up in the cinema again.
Count Dooku’s curved-hilt lightsaber
Following in the footsteps of Darth Maul in more ways than one, Count Dooku became the immediate threat for Obi-Wan and Anakin in Attack of the Clones. Like Maul, Dooku needed a unique weapon that would set him apart from other characters and help keep the franchise fresh. A few toy sales wouldn’t hurt, either.
The idea of having a curved-hilt lightsaber on the big screen had been floating around for a while, and had featured in the concept art for a female Sith who ultimately wouldn’t appear in the movies (this concept became Asajj Ventress, from The Clone Wars series).
When the late, great Christopher Lee became the new filmic villain instead, the curved lightsaber idea remained. His weapon was designed to resemble a rapier handle (including that pointy “guard” bit). This new lightsaber style melded marvelously with the overall Dracula-inspired look of Dooku.
Like the double-bladed lightsaber, the curved hilt had already appeared in Dark Horse Comics’ Tales of the Jedi series from the 1990s before turning up on the big screen.
Specifically, the curved-hilt lightsaber was introduced in Ulic Qel-Droma and the Beast Wars of Onderon.
Here’s Expanded Universe comic book character Tott Doneeta brandishing a curved-hilt lightsaber, in case you wanted evidence…
Yoda’s short lightsaber
It wasn’t just bad guys getting cool new lightsabers in Attack of the Clones. Diminutive Jedi master Yoda also debuted his patented “all the backflips” fighting style complete with a small-handled lightsaber to fit his tiny green mitts.
Again, this was an idea taken directly from the Expanded Universe. Short lightsabers (properly referred to as ‘lightsaber shoto’) for the vertically challenged were first introduced in the 1985 Marvel comic Star Wars #96: “Duel with a Dark Lady” (written by Mary Jo Duffy, drawn by Cynthia Martin)…
Here, Luke Skywalker created the lightsaber shoto to use in conjunction with his green lightsaber, allowing him to better block attacks from the titular dark lady’s lightwhip (a variation on the lightsaber that has yet to make it the big screen).
Luke’s shoto-and-a-regular-lightsaber combined technique has since been adopted in video games and The Clone Wars series, but Yoda’s big screen antics remain the most famous use of a shorter lightsaber.
Mace Windu’s violet blade
Mace Windu’s lightsaber hilt is a particularly impressive one by prequel standards – it’s detailed and different but sleek and elegant, too. But no one ever talks about that. Instead, they tend to mention the fact that his blade is pink. But it’s not. It’s actually violet. And violent. But mainly violet.
Hollywood legend has it that Samuel L. Jackson picked the color himself, offering to play the role quid pro quo if he could have a truly unique lightsaber to make his character stand out. Sadly, Windu’s arm was chopped off and his lightsaber was never seen again (in the films).
Darth Sidious must have known that shit was going to go down in Revenge of the Sith – he came prepared with two mini lightsabers. With handles almost as tiny as Yoda’s, both came in handy as the action escalated in the final film of the Prequel Trilogy.
Unlike anyone else’s from the films, Palpatine’s lightsabers look expensive and decadent, made predominantly with gold and silver metals. They’re shiny, sleek, and having a spare one means that when you drop one out of a window you’ve always got a back-up.
The manifold characters who lost their limbs in Star Wars could have done with keeping a compact spare handy. Maybe it’ll catch on in The Force Awakens and beyond.
Asajj Ventress’ interconnecting lightsabers
We mentioned her earlier, but Asajj Ventress – one of the main antagonists of the still-considered-canon Clone Wars saga – definitely deserves her own section in any article about lightsabers.
The Clone Wars featured Asajj Ventress wielding a very cool weapon – a curved-hilt interlocking lightsaber that could be wielded in two ways: either as a curved double-bladed lightsaber or as two separate ones.
Arguably, this is one of the most innovative reimaginings of the lightsaber, and it served to make Ventress one of the most unpredictable dueling partners in the Star Wars universe. We’d love to see this weapon realized on the big screen some day.
The Inquisitor’s double-bladed spinning lightsaber
Here’s another example of animation and imagination blending marvelously to reinvent the lightsaber. The Inquisitor – a recurring baddie from Star Wars: Rebels – has a lightsaber that quite possibly tops them all.
It can be single-bladed or double-bladed, it can rotate around ominously, and it even has handguards. Although The Inquisitor doesn’t duel in every episode, his incredibly original lightsaber is a sight to behold when he does wade into the fight.
His multi-talented weapon helps make The Inquisitor a menacing public-facing representative of the Empire, even in a show where Darth Vader occasionally turns up.
As an aside, if you haven’t started watching Rebels yet, you really should. It’s terrific.
Ezra’s hybrid blaster-saber
There’s another fun reinvention within Star Wars Rebels, too. Youngster Ezra gradually learns the ways of the Force throughout the series and eventually builds his own lightsaber.
The resultant weapon is a hybrid that reflects its creator’s nature. Sometimes, he needs to be a smuggler, so he can use his weapon as a blaster. But when the time comes, he can press a different button and activate lightsaber mode.
This is the kind of design that feels totally at home in the Star Wars universe. The galaxy needs a hero who can blend the elegance of a civilized age with the random clumsy luck that it takes to beat impossible odds. Part blaster, part lightsaber, why did no one ever think of that before?
Kylo Ren’s broadsaber
And finally, here’s the weapon that’s all set to revitalise the Star Wars universe once more when The Force Awakens arrives this December. It’s been talked about in great detail already, and Kylo Ren’s broadsaber – which adds two crossguards to a traditional lightsaber design – is already starting to feel iconic.
The idea of a “crossguard lightsaber” is another that has now jumped from the Expanded Universe into the world of the films.
Once again, the concept first appeared in the pages of Dark Horse Comics. It was 2004’s Republic #61: “Dead Ends” comic that introduced this sort of design. It was used by the Jedi Roblio Darté…
Unlike Kylo Ren, Roblio Darté only had one additional crossguard blade, not two.
It’s also worth noting the ragged nature of the beam that’s emitting in all three directions from Ren’s broadsaber. This doesn’t appear to be a perfectly refined lightsaber. Rather, it looks like scavenged-together imitation that’s barely able to contain its power.
Recent comments from J.J. Abrams suggest that Kylo Ren is not Sith, but a member of a new faction of Force-users known as the Knights of Ren. Could these improvised lightsabers be their weapons of choice?
Maybe the tables have turned, and it’s now the bad guys struggling through a depression that necessitates make-do-and-mend weaponry. Whether or not our speculation is correct, that broadsaber should be a heck of a sight in battle.
Star Wars lore is so detailed that this article could stretch on infinitely. As it stands, this piece is already twice the length of our average feature (which don’t tend to be short at the best of times), and we haven’t managed to fit quite a few things in.
We’ve not found space to mention the Protosaber, the Forcesaber, and The First Blade, formerly-canon precursors to the traditional lightsaber.
There’s also the spear-like Pike lightsaber (above left) and the crooked-handled Tonfa lightsaber (above right) from The Force Unleashed.
We only briefly referenced the Lightwhip, and we didn’t even get near the Lightclub (a massive version of the lightsaber used by Gamorrean Dark Jedi). The dual-phase lightsaber – with a blade that could extend to double the length – also got left out. And no one should ever forget the Sabercane from Knights of the Old Republic.
To all these neglected weapons – we’re very sorry to have missed you in our “brief” history of lightsaber design. Perhaps we’ll write another article about you one day. It’ll be easier to do if you don’t cut off one of our arms first, though…