Fed Up With Inferior Hilts
by John Clements
Just recently I obtained a fine early Renaissance Italian cut & thrust sword from a major, reputable manufacturer. I had handled one before and it's a beautiful thing. It has a nice feel -- balanced a little too hilt heavy with its wire wrap, but still a fine piece. Twenty minutes after I started practicing alone with my new sword the damn thing's broken! Not the blade mind you; the blade is untouched. It wasn't sharpened and I wasn't test-cutting with it. I didn't slam it against a thing. I don't bang my swords against trees and I don't go around with them whacking at other swords edge-on-edge. Instead, merely by forcefully striking at empty air the hilt loosened all by itself and the handle and pommel began to rattle around.
Despite my great annoyance at this, I continued on until minutes later, I bumped the guard against my wooden focus post (bumped, mind you, not knocked or beat or struck). As a result of this, the side-rings on the hilt bent and cracked at two different welds. The one thing you never want to do with your sword is strike forcefully against any solid, rigid, immobile target. This is something I don't do. What I did do however was merely bump my loose hilt up against the post while performing a close-in push cut and the handle and pommel started to slide off! I now am left with a broken hilt.
What is really sad part is that this experience is nothing new for me. Five of my last swords, all quality pieces sold as "historically accurate" and advertised as "battle ready" had similar problems -- and two swords of other people I know did as well. Two of mine even broke at the tang-weld while being swung!
Now, I don't purchase cheap weapons. We're not talking "Marto", "Iberia", "Kris", etc, here. We're talking about European-made hand-forged weapons of high-carbon steel (not that the hilts on cheaper swords are any good either -- they not only have bad hilts their blade stink, too).
Why all this bad luck? Primarily because I put swords though their paces. I swing them with force and speed and torque them around quickly. I've handled and used swords, both sharp and blunt, for more than a decade and trained in swordsmanship for roughly 18 years. I think I know a little about how they're properly used. The fact is I'm a pretty skilled swordsman. So, when a weapon is made inferior and incapable of simple, general practice, I am infuriated.
I am really sick and tired of getting screwed over with inferior hilts and cheap guards, handles, grips, pommels, and tang nuts that start to fall apart after a few hours' simple practice. There are some fine blade makers out there but their hilts suck! You wouldn't know this unless you use the darn thing for an extended period of heavy practice. Of course, my associates and I have also purchased swords that arrived in the box with their hilts already loose and rattling (thereby saving us the trouble, I suppose).
I really don't know what sword-makers themselves do with their own products to test them for quality control. But considering what passes for skill among stage combat troupes, choreographers, and most fighting societies, I have a good idea. When a sword maker tries to tell me that while they've been learning to make blades for 20 or 30 years they've also been spending all this time learning how to use the weapons, I have to laugh. Each craft is so demanding of time and effort that you really can't do both to any high degree without one or the other suffering considerably. As a skilled fencer and martial artist I know better. I am fed up with manufacturers who think that because they've spent years over a forge and grinding wheel they have become experts on the handling of a sword! This is a little bit like an auto engineer assuming he's a race car driver because he builds cars.
But since most enthusiasts who purchase weapons from sword makers merely hang their swords on the wall or wear them with a costume, and rarely even swing them around much, the inferior hilt problem seldom makes it back to the manufacturer. Even then, the maker can assume faulty abuse on the part of the user. The typical problem associated with the better replica swords is the tang snapping or the blade breaking. You don't hear much about all these awful hilts attached to the better blades. After all, a lot of people do just take their swords out and stand around with them until one day they take a whack at something they shouldn't and the thing goes "snap."
But even the best replicas pale in comparison the real historic swords. That's not to say today's replicas can't be great, just that the real ones are awesome. If you ever have the splendor of examining actual, real, antique blades you can see the hilts are typically of one solid piece, perhaps hot forged together. Usually today's imitation pieces are instead spot welded while cold. Thus they are weaker and unable to take the abuse the real ones could.
One of the most irritating things is to take your finely made, expensive sword out for a few minutes of practice cuts only to each time have the leather wrap unfold and the pommel begin to twist around in your palm. Virtually every leather-wrapped handle I've known unravels after a few hours in a strong hand.
What's even worse is to have the hilt of brand new sword fall apart on you, leaving the thing virtually useless.
Let get something clear, swords are not indestructible to be sure. But they bloody well should be able to take some abuse! That's part of what they were designed for. The better sword smiths have been able to produce some excellent blades, but the cutlerers who make hilts have a long way to go. The hilt of my brand new Italian sword, already loose from the mere act of slicing through thin air, wasn't struck by another blade and wasn't struck at someone's helmet -- it bumped up against a small wooden post. No matter how well forged and tempered the blade itself is, as a weapon, it's only as good as its hilt.