Evaluating A Replica Sword to Purchase, or
"So You Want To Buy A Sword"
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John Clements, ARMA Director

Shopping for a sword is something like buying a new car. You want one that looks good, that serves your needs, that identifies with who you are, and you don’t want to end up paying too much for it or buying a lemon. But just as with a car you can buy from reputable manufacturers or those with inconstant or dubious reputations. You can hear opinions of people who will swear for or against one sword maker or sword model. You will encounter honest presentations, promotional hype, marketing fiction, sincere exaggeration, simple deception, and outright lies. You will encounter facts and myths, accuracy and nonsense.

Never forget that some people just don’t know all the information they should and other people may not even want you to have all the information to make a sound discussion that best serves your spending dollars. Some manufacturers make and sell the only product they can, regardless of its quality. They might even intentionally cut corners or choose lower grade materials and the cheapest processes. Others may take a route that produces the best product at a higher cost. As with any market, there are high end and low end products as well as several levels of quality in between.

For many enthusiasts today, buying a sword is a hit or miss experience. This is based on many subjective and objective sources of information, including: word of mouth (those we’ve talked to who’ve bought something), rumor and anecdote (what we read or that someone says they’ve heard), personal experience (what we already own or have handled), and the statements and claims of manufacturers and dealers (often questionable). Evaluating all this information can be overwhelming without a firm understanding of the qualities and attributes that go into a good sword. After all, a piece of metal that is shaped like a sword and has a handle does not necessary make a real "sword".

So, when deciding upon what sword there are a few essential elements for decision making:

  • What kind you want?: the type or historical form and its style or sub-class
  • What you want it for?: training, theatrical fighting, test-cutting, or costume/display
  • How much you will spend?: less than $150, $200-300, over $500, over $2000?

Although it would seem the easiest question and least important factor, what kind of sword you want to get, is often the most difficult. We can be limited by constraints of what few dealers or companies we’ve managed to find, what styles they make, what they currently have in stock, and what prices they charge. Additionally we may be influenced by a particular sword we’ve seen or handled elsewhere or by what someone we know already owns. Ideally, the more sword you are exposed to the easier it is to decide on what you want. Otherwise you have to go with your period of historical interest and your own personal style of movement. Unfortunately, while you may love two-handed great-swords you may find after getting one that it’s totally unsuited to your build or physique. You may want a rapier only to discover later that you don’t really care for its demanding style of thrusting fence. Thus, the more information you have about what a particular sword design was used for and when and where, the easier it is to know what you want. You will certainly want to do more research that simply "I saw a guy on TV use it" or "someone at the renaissance fair had one on".

Let’s be honest. Swords are cool. There is all at once something romantic, adventurous, historical, exciting, menacing, intimidating, heroic, and something gallant about them. Even without training with one or knowing its use, simply owning one, possessing it, holding it, looking at it, showing it off, caring for it, and pondering on it, is all part of its mystique and culture. But exactly what you want your sword for is a consideration that is should not be neglected. While feeling that you "just want to have one" is admirable motivation on its own, further thought really should be given to this. When going to buy a car we don’t do so because we "just want one". You don’t normally buy a sports-car for taking the kids to school and you wouldn’t necessarily want a big pick-up truck for a congested city commute. You get what fits your interests, your pocket book, and your needs.

So then, why do you want a sword? What are you planning to do with it? It goes without saying that no one buys a sword today with the intent of fulfilling its original purpose: slaying opponents. If you just want a long medieval looking blade, then most anything that strikes your fancy will be appropriate (whether or not its historical or fantasy, accurate or fictional). Hopefully, your interest will be in more than just a "pretty" fantasy sword or a "wall hanger" curiosity. Do you need a blade that you can swing in exercise and earnest practice drills? If so, you’ll want the most accurate, light, and sturdy blade possible. Do you require a blade that will stand up to the rigors of actual steel on steel contact, such as a blunt for stage performance or choreographed theatrical fighting? If so, there are specialty stage blunts that are sometimes more suited to this than are the more historically accurate replicas. Perhaps you may want a quality, sharpened blade for test-cutting with? Test cutting exercise is about full-force striking with a sharp blade at semi-resistant target materials and a keen blade that won’t warp or snap doing so s vital. Many of the finer historical replicas are ideal for this while others will not hold an edge well or at least not for very long.

Many of the qualities that make up a good sword or a replica one that suits your needs cannot be determined just by reading its catalog copy. You’ll need to examine it by hand. When checking out a sword in person what should you look for then? The factors that should be considered in any replica sword today (regardless of the type) are obviously: heft (weight/balance), bend/flex, steel, temper, hilt, and grip.

There are many major considerations to inquiry about. But sword makers and fans will spew assorted platitudes about museum quality and historical reproduction accuracy. They will also typically blurt out diverse names, terms, and numbers for steel and Rockwell hardness without qualifying what they really mean or putting them in context with its degree of heat-treating or tempering. They hope to either impress or suffocate their customers with technical jargon. You don’t have to be an automotive-engineer to by a good car and you don’t have to be a metallurgist or swordsmith to buy a good sword.

What a sword buyer really wants to know are only a few simple facts:

  • Is it made of decent steel? Is it made of high-carbon-steel or inappropriate stainless steel? Was it machine-rolled and hand-finished or just stamped out of sheet metal and hand-ground? Very, very few swords now are truly hand-forged and their prices will run into thousands of dollars. Perhaps the blade was produced by stock-removal of spring-steel rather than preferably ground from high-carbon strips then polished and re-tempered?
  • Is it an accurate historical replica or only a "historically inspired" piece, or maybe an "original design" (i.e., a fantasy sword)? Is it a decorative pseudo-sword or is it capable of holding an edge? Can it stand up to making a real parry and full-swings? Is it designed for stage-combat purposes or is it a battle-ready/battle-worthy replica? There’s often considerable difference.
  • Does the blade have a full tang (as opposed to a half-tang, which will cause the handle to break when forcibly swung)? This is something only confirm by removing the handle and hilt.
  • Is the hilt sturdy (solid grip, guard, pommel, pommel nut)? Does the guard rattle or the pommel loosen or the handle twist slightly when swung? Does the hilt make minute "popping" or "tinking" sounds as the weapon is torqued around? Hilt integrity is a common problem on many replicas.

Finally, but not least import, is the blade fully tempered or just case-hardened? An improper or inferior heat-treatment can ruin the best steel, while a good tempering can improve even mediocre steel. A correct temper is vital for the sword to be able to hold a keen edge should you wish to use it for test-cutting. Otherwise, a soft steel will dull much too quickly and the blade can warp when striking or even from the torque of recovery.

In examining a sword what you can do besides holding the weapon to gain a feel for its weight and balance, is to look carefully at its blade surface. Blade quality is something that can be discerned by the look of the steel, the thickness of the blade, and the weight of the weapon. Are there still noticeable crude grind marks from machine tools? Is the edge rough and gritty or smoothly polished? Is the blade’s steel too shiny and silvery with a mirror finish or a proper bright-gray? Is the edge much too thick? Does the blade have a true distal tip (i.e., does it become less thick at the point)?

Other questions to answer may include: Is the hilt made of steel or soft brass? Is the pommel attached by a proper rivet bolt or simply just screwed on? Is the handle of proper length or is it exaggerated? Are any side rings properly attached or crudely welded on? There are many swords that because the maker cannot match the style or features of historical real weapons, will instead elect to produce their own "original" designs. These "near facsimile" swords will then be said to be as good as the historical ones, but be very skeptical any time a maker cannot or does not follow the example of the historical samples.

Most important in judging a sword’s quality is its flex. A poor quality sword will not flex well or even at all. A simple flex-test can be performed by holding the blade over your head and bending it slightly. Grip it by the handle and the point and slowly apply pressure to pull the ends together just a few inches. When you slowly return it the blade should still look perfect. It should have flexed smoothly and returned true without staying bent even minutely. The flex should be about the center of the blade. The blade also should not be too thick to flex at all or require great strength to bend. Another flex test can be accomplished by putting the point on the ground and pushing down some. Good blades should flex approximately three inches, thinner blades like rapiers about five. Being able to flex-test properly and judge the results takes some experience.

How much you spend for a sword is of course a prime determinate in what kind you can get. Certainly in their buying and collecting very few sword enthusiasts are ever able to say that "money is no object". Cost is therefore a prime factor in most any sword purchase. Good replica swords are not cheap. Although most swords now range from within a few hundred dollars, the market varies greatly often without regard to quality. Essentially, what we want is value for our money. It goes without saying that we are almost always limited by what we are willing or able to spend. In fact, this is the very reason we should know something about evaluating a product and take care in making an educated purchase.

There are about two-dozen companies world wide now making their own swords, whether replicas or blunt theatrical blades (not counting small private custom shops). There are perhaps three or four dozen others who act as wholesale or retail distributors for these. To attract business from each other they must generally compete in terms of designs offered, customer service rendered, and advertising (often just embellishments but sometimes sheer falsehood).

Remember that a seller wants you to buy something from them whether or not what they offer is genuine or well made (and whether or not they can even tell the difference!). When considering other people’s statements on a sword model or sword maker, keep in mind they may also have ulterior motives. They may not have the knowledge or experience to appraise the same concerns you value. They also may not be entirely satisfied with decisions they’ve previously made and want to come across as concealing their mistake or ignorance. Sometime it’s a lot easier to deal with our getting ripped off or making a bad deal if others also fail to avoid it. Unless you know someone well or trust them don't at face value claims they made about what they have or haven’t been able to do with a particular make or model of sword.

There should be no difficulty locating numerous sword merchants. Various sword sellers can be found throughout the Internet, at renaissance fairs, flea markets, gun-shows, and advertising in assorted knife and martial-arts magazines and historical publications. The point is to shop around as much as possible. The more you know of what the market offers, the better selection you’ll have to choose from.

No matter what you find or learn, remember there are plenty of swords out there that are not historically accurate or even decent fantasy pieces, but really just pure junk. There are those that are mere "wall-hangers" suitable for costume or prop use but nothing else. There are those that are decent facsimiles of real-life weapons, and then those that are even closer reproductions. Finally there are top of the line pieces as good as if not better than the originals. Just what one of these we end up getting is determined by what we like, what we know, what we can find, and what we can afford. But for whatever sword you look for, be an informed consumer first.

See also Replicas & Reproduction Definitions and "Interpreting" Examples: Thoughts on the Quality of Replica Swords

 
 

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