Sword Show 2003 - Orlando
By J. Clements
I had the pleasure of an invitation to this year's sword show in Orlando, Florida, February 14th &15th. It was held at a Holiday Inn Resort on International Drive, an area I know, being from Florida myself and having lived in O'town for a while some years back. The purpose of the event is to allow distributors to see the competing products of the major off-the-shelf manufacturers all under one roof so they can make decisions as to what they want to purchase for retail. I attended with Belinda Hertz and my old friend, Fred Lehman. My interest was, as usual, only in the Medieval and Renaissance European swords.
While checking out this year's new pieces and studying changes to last years, I mixed and mingled with Barry Ross, president of CAS Iberia and Jeff Epperson, general manager of CAS Iberia, as well as Paul Chen of Hanwei in mainland China, maker of CAS Iberia's primary line. Bruce Brookheart chief designer from MRL was there to talk with as was MRL consultant Hank Reinhardt. Lynne Thompson of Cold Steele attended, as did Bob Miller of Pro Cut makers of the Valiant Armoury line and others produced in the PI, and James Williams of Bugei was also on hand, as well as Deepeeka, and Abs, Lic, Acero Toledano -a Spanish maker of decorative weapons from Toledo. Also attending were United Cutlery and Gift International. It would have been nice to see some of the other major sword industry manufacturers there, especially the respectable Albion, but I understand the reasons behind the combined attendance of these particular companies. I also talked with some foreign sword buyers and assistants.
This year's show was a bit larger than the last ones in Vegas and New Orleans, but my overall impression was that there were fewer new swords on hand than in the past. My viewpoint at these events is of course that of a practitioner and spathologist (student of sword history) concerned with the performance characteristics and accuracy of weapons for the community of historical fencing martial artists. Any consultation or advice I offer the industry comes from those perspectives. So, for my opinion to be valued and my feedback welcomed is heartening and it's always good to hear the "Ahhs" and "Ohhhs " when useful information is provided. Even better is to see results of previous suggestions or comments actually reach beneficial fruition in products. What's disheartening is to see decline in accuracy or quality and the results of decisions having nothing to do with accuracy and performance of items.
I did find some really lovely pieces at this year's show, and a few dogs as well. I won't make any comments here about "best of show" or "worst of show" because this is not a commercial evaluation of anyone's products, just observations on a few of the pieces I examined and ARMA does not endorse any makes or models of swords. Whether or not the characteristics I admired in any one sword will actually be maintained in final production models available to consumers or are just exclusive to the prototypes I handled, I can't say. From past experience I've learned to be very conservative in my comments. Further, getting to examine and heft some swords is hardly equivalent to working out with one, let alone sparring or test cutting with it. So, I compare this event to visiting an auto show. You get to look at the cars all shiny and new and read the literature and watch the pretty models, you even get to sit in the car, but you won't be allowed to test drive one.
Of the vendors, CAS Iberia, who has consistently improved in the last two years, had some nice things. Although they did not have as wide a new selection as some of the others, their wares continue to progress noticeably, and they did have some good pieces, especially a very, very nice new cup-hilt rapier that seems the best for the value I have run across so far.
Chief maker Paul Chen, a man who comes across as sincerely wanting to make the best he can, was very proud of it and the blade was particularly rigid and of good length. The hilt was not perfectly balanced and could be improved, but the feel of the piece is just what we've been looking for in a rapier. I can't wait to see how it is changed and I hope they follow through with a foyled version for practice. Paul told me he had taken the dimensions closely from an existing piece and, true to his sincere love of his craft, was concerned for how accurate it was in the final. I noticed right away that the point did not narrow enough and had an odd clipped shape for a rapier.
When I commented on it Paul immediately said, yes, that the original was much longer and thinner but that they had shortened this one because they could not manage any way to draw it from the sheath (!). Hearing this I showed Paul just how the rapier was worn and physically how it could be properly drawn, even if quite long, and he was excited at the news, telling me he would try now to make an even longer and more sharply pointed version of this fine rapier. I really think Paul will be doing even better work in the future. CAS Iberia has a lot of plans for many new items and products that our community could greatly benefit from, including padded sparring weapons and other gear. I hope the community gets the chance soon to see their efforts, as this year their new offerings were sparse.
Cold Steel had the most interesting set up, though not the most attractive, as it offered a TV monitor playing Lynne Thompson's video of test cutting, "Proof" and "More Proof". Huge slabs of beef and other materials were sheared through effortlessly by various bowie knives, sabres, katanas, and Medieval swords. I only paid attention to the Medieval swords. As a fighter, I was trying not to notice the technical and tactical mistakes of the cutting, but just the physical affects of the weapon on the target. They were impressive, but without examining the blades used, both before and after, for edge sharpness and blade distortion from striking bone, it didn't tell me much about their product and certainly nothing new about what swords can do. Their longswords and great swords seemed well made, but I was not able to evaluate them except to say I think they need to work on getting the weight right. From the quality of their knives and other products, they hold a lot of promise and I would like sometime to check their weapons out more intensely.
Museum Replicas Limited had a nice set up, and the largest, with a few new pieces on hand that were impressive. They seem to finally have gotten it right for these models at least. Chief designer Bruce Brookheart, a particularly knowledgeable person on swords, was very proud of some of his results.
I was certainly convinced by the heft and balance on several, such as the blackened "High Renaissance Sword" with its raised riser. Why they don't make a rapier with this kind of cross section perplexes me to no end?
Their Towton sword was also good, but the Arbedo sword felt splendid. It's exactly a classic "bastard sword". Good weight, good hilt, and very stiff. Some of their fantasy pieces, and Lord of the Rings line were also very nice, but it's odd when they can make their imaginary swords feel better and seem to handle better than most all of their supposed historical models.
Bruce confided in me some of the difficulties of getting his designs from drawing board to prototype to finished production. He assured me MRL is committed to making changes to improve still further. I do wish this to be true. But I told him in honesty that it was something I have heard for several years now from many individuals, but the results are still too hit and miss, as the contrasting mixture of very nice pieces with less impressive ones showed. I told him in all honesty there are MRL pieces I recommend if asked, and there are ones that in good faith I could not. Why this was the case, was something I left Bruce to ponder. As more or less the leader of off-the-shelf swords, their market strategies are a mystery.
I also talked some with the cheerful Bob Miller of Pro Cut and was happy to see several of their pieces had improved noticeably from the year earlier. Pro Cut offers less expensive pieces that are more historically "inspired" than historically accurate, but for a simple first time sword at lower cost, they reach a niche market worth filling.
Bob showed me a cut & thrust style 16th century sword that was not bad at all, with a good weight, and just a little rough around the edges, but at a very low cost to consumers that would make it a reasonable "banger" for learning steel on steel play. There certainly are a dearth of this model available.
He also had a longsword and short sword that was similar in quality and price. His spadone, or tapered bastard sword, was particularly interestsing, in that it was a very simple no frills weapon with a decently rigid blade and good weight but very low cost. Not bad at all for beginners or theatrical fighters. One piece of advice they need to follow however, is that may of their handles on other pieces were round rather than the proper flattened oval or rectangular and tapered shape. Round handles on cutting swords, especially those that are "fat" in the middle, cause the edge to turn in the hands when cutting. Bob seems to be genuinely committed to improving his lines and meeting the needs of various sword aficionados, and for that I wish him the best. Pro Cut genuinely seems to want to improve.
After talking to several people, I learned another interesting piece of information when it comes to why makers so often fail to produce decent combat ready weapons with good blades and hilts: the sword makers make what they know how to make. They simply don't know that they don't know. And their customers don't know the difference either. The large sword makers won't change their methods of manufacturing either even if they do learn how to make better products unless it's in their economic interest to do so -meaning, another competitor starts doing it first and the change results in increased sales. So, for these companies at least, to make better weapons they have to decide it's profitable for them to do it on their own. Where does that leave us, the consumers and sword fans? It puts us back at the same place: for the most part we have to buy what's available and have to pool our collective power to communicate what to makers it is we want and need. Again, it all comes back to an educated consumer who knows good product from bad.
There are always interesting things I learn at these events and it seems the real value in who you talk to more often than in how the swords themselves look and feel. In a bit of industry gossip for instance, one anonymous person revealed to me that a noted maker was producing inferior rapiers not because they didn't know any better, and not because their customers wanted the weapons that way, but because the person themselves "liked the rapiers" that way, that they "felt" the rapiers should be a certain way because it favored how they like to play with them (!). It certainly explained a lot of things to me about these make of rapiers, and answered a lot of questions as to why we in the historical fencing community have to keep banging our heads against the wall to influence makers in to producing better swords. I think this is true for more than just that one maker.
Over all, I'd say the weapons most in need of improvement were without question the rapiers. Of all the rapiers I handled, only one of them was anywhere near historically accurate. I was very surprised at the wobbly whippiness of the blades and the flimsy hilts or disproportional sizes. The weapons most absent were simple early 16th century cut & thrust or side-swords. Those with an interest in Roman or Greek periods should be happy at the range of items coming out.
One observation worth mentioning, is that it seems a good half of the items on display and in catalogs were simply copies of another company's offerings, so that for instance, they almost all make their own "version" of a gothic arming sword or a particular swept-hilt rapier but in each case it's a copy of a copy of a copy and one starts to wonder who, if any, is following the actual dimensions of the original piece in their reproduction!?
The Toledano group, makers of decorative wall-hangers, expressed interest in entering the replica market in the future. It will be interesting to see what they offer. The impression I got overall at the show was that there is still considerable business growth and plans for wider products lines, but that the fantasy market was growing more than the historical one. Funny, that.