is proud to bring to the historical fencing community the wisdom, wit,
and penetrating thoughts of one of the most sincere and humble private
swordsmiths now working. A researcher and true craftsman who loves
swords in all their forms, his straightforward manner of presenting his
accumulated knowledge makes him an invaluable resource that cuts
through the fog of myth and misinformation typically surrounding the
ancient art of swordmaking. Known for producing award-winning Japanese
blades, rather than being a commercial sword-maker, Paul is a
sword-making researcher investigating hands-on the historical
technology and skills of European blade production.
1. How long have you been making swords, for fun or professionally?
2. Where did you first acquire an interest in historical swordmaking and when did you make the realization you had a real aptitude for doing it?
“I can’t really say when exactly, I’ve had a deep interest in military history, weapons, armor, etc. as long as I can remember. One of my first influences wasn’t actually historical ---it was the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. The way honor and friendship were intertwined with weapons and oaths really struck a chord deep inside me. I always paid special attention when arms were mentioned and kept a list of how the different peoples were armed. Well, to make a very long tale short, I wanted to make swords, but swords that worked, swords a swordsman of old would trust his life to. Swords based in history, tested in reality, but with the essence of the best of what I found in fantasy. I’m not sure I have any ‘aptitude’ for it. It’s just a lot of work, a lot of testing and a lot of planning…oh, and not being slowed down by failures. The drive comes from a fire within, the drive gets you through. The results come from doing.”
3. Do you have an area or period or style you specialize in?
4. Do you have a particular favorite piece you most enjoy constructing or working on?
5. Can you identify any major breakthrough that transformed your own study of smithing?
6. What was one of the hardest skills to learn in bladesmithing?
7. What major tools do you use in your craft?
8. Is there a piece of work you are most proud of?
9. Is there a major accomplishment in sword making you hope to achieve?
10. How active are you now or have you been in training or practicing in with different swords?
“I have strived to learn about how a sword is used from people who dedicate their lives to the use of the sword. My focus is in manufacturing the sword and the steel. I know that if I assumed that I could make *and* use the blades to the level I want to work at I would be fooling myself. There are engineering teams that design jets, pilots who fly them and test pilots who fly them to the edge in controlled tests. That is how I approach the swordsmith-swordsman-testcutter relationship. I practice the basic cuts so I can apply them to test-cutting where consistency and accuracy are vital toward obtaining results I can go back to the shop with. As for personal taste in weapons training, I tend to focus on spear more than sword for morning workouts.”
11. How would you say today’s sword industry compares to that of say 10 or 15 years ago?
"Well, there wasn’t much of one 15 years ago. I’d say there has been a noticeable increase in the interest in swords in general and a marked increase in Western swords in particular. There has been a growing awareness of [real] Western swords and their history in the past 5 years ---this market has been addressed by all sorts of manufacturers. Some just making long metal objects some trying to offer more traditional pieces.”
12. Where do you imagine the sword industry will be in 10 years? What developments do you anticipate, or would you like to see?
the ‘industry’ goes will depend upon what the market wants... I mean
really wants. If people decide that ‘long metal objects’ fulfill their
needs and goals then the industry will stay on that level. If
there is a larger demand for historical pieces then most likely there
will be a move to reproductions. As you can tell from my framing of the
answer, I hope the later will occur. To be honest, either way will not
affect what I make, or my approach, but there is a part of me that
would like to see an appreciation for the sword as an historical tool
of war grow and flourish.
13. How many expert swordsmiths of top notch artistry and accuracy would you say there are in North America at present?
“I really try not to comment on other people’s skill level. We all have a long way to go to match the smiths of old.”
14. Can you offer any thoughts on the main differences between Japanese and European swords in terms of their how their design and construction could have historically affected their fighting methods?
“Wow...no short answer. I’ll save it for a detailed essay. The Japanese blade was not tested for side-to-side strength ---they had soft backs. Most Celtic/Viking blades had soft centers (steel only on the edges). We are so concerned now with making ‘sharpened springs,’ but it wasn’t like that through most of sword history. I’m not saying it doesn’t make for a strong modern sword if done correctly; I’m just saying that the emphasis wasn’t always historically there. Cutting swords are also supposed to be strong in the cutting direction. Everyone is so hung up on bending back and forth, etc. ---as far as I know, slow-bending a sword has no relation to the stresses it will encounter in either cutting or defending.”
15. Are there any observations you could offer on the effects real swords had on targets?
“I test on deer carcasses, cow, tatami omote
[rolled wet straw mats], etc. Also on hard targets, saplings, 4 x 4’s,
axe handles. On an unarmored flesh-and-bone target, a well-made sword
or axe is completely devastating. Taking off a leg, arm or head
requires little effort. But when you start to put armor on the
ribcage...the story starts to change very quickly! Soft targets test
the cutter, not the sword so much. I feel that everyone that test cuts
should cut on soft targets until they can really control their edge
angle. Until that is mastered, don’t even think about harder target
16. Besides some possible test pieces for the ARMA, what special projects do you have on the horizon?
“The list is huge! I will be making some reconstructions of some swords in a private collection. I also want to work on some historical longsword reconstructions. I’m having a great time with axes. (So much more than meets the eye there). I always have some Japanese piece in the works, I'm working on some Chinese jian and I'm in the process of cutting apart and examining a Ming dynasty dao, and of course my quest for smelting and making better steel will never end.”
17. Do you have any comments to share about how swordmaking has been depicted in film?
“Well...I haven’t seen anything that looks like my shop, or how I do it ;) Lets see, I’ve seen them poured into molds, pounded on sporadically, quenched only halfway down the blade, quenched in snow... etc., etc. All in all, not very instructional. Then again, why would the swordmaking be any more accurate than the fighting? I did see one film where they pan by a swordsmith forging and I go, ‘Whoa! Wait, rewind that.” I then pointed out that finally they have someone that is holding the hammer and swinging the way a swordsmith would. I found out later it was Shoji Yoshihara, a famous modern swordsmith from Japan.”
18. How would you explain the reality of how a sword works as an effective cutting tool?
has mass, you swing it, it impacts with a target and the force is
concentrated and transmitted at the ‘edge’ into the target.
Different edge geometries work better on certain materials than others.
Placing something between the target and the impacting edge may absorb
or deflect some of all of the force from the swing (i.e., armor). To
get more than one hit out of a sword it can’t be too brittle (or it
snaps) or too soft (or it takes a set bend). The faster you
strike and the heavier the sword is, the harder you’ll hit. However,
the heavier it is the harder it is to make dramatic changes in
direction once the sword is in motion. The lighter the sword is the
less strength is required to move it quickly ---but the less force it
will have upon impact at a given speed. More force concentrated at the
point of impact will cause a more forceful hit, but will also produce
an un-wieldy blade due to a balance point that is very close to the tip
(e.g., an axe). Flaws in the metal will cause an increased chance of
sword breakage. Even without flaws, constant hitting against
armor and other hard things in will cause an increased chance of
breakage. Poor heat treatment or poor over-all design will also trigger
increased chances of sword breakage.”
19. What can you tell us about different edges on different blades?
of a sword edge made for cutting as a shape moving through water, the
one with least resistance will be best. This has nothing to do with
ease of sharpening, chip resistance, blade handling, or manufacture,
etc. As the target gets harder you have to adjust the 'meat' of the
rolled edge or the angle of the cantle, etc. You could also leave the
edge the same and soften the edge so it won’t chip. There are multiple
solutions to the problem...it’s all in the execution. The best solution
is the one that holds up the best to the various things you have to
cut. From best to worse cutting ability against soft targets, I would
rate optimal edge shapes as: 1. flat with convex edge bevel 2. full
convex, 3. flat with flat secondary bevel, 4. ‘saber’ with convex edge
bevel, 5. saber with flat secondary bevel. (By ‘saber edge’ I
mean were the blade bevels don’t go all of the way to the back, they
stop 1/2 - 3/4 of the way to it and then its flat).
20. What about ‘layers’ in swords? What is that all about?
there are layers in ancient swords is simple. It was an integral part
of the steel/iron making process. Today we think of steel in nice bars
of various sizes that we can go buy with the particular chemistry we
desire. When you make steel in the old way it’s not quite that
simple. The iron and steel would be in small pieces as a result
of the smelting process. These small pieces would all vary in their
properties (trace mineral inclusions, chemistry, carbon content). Any
large pieces would have to be broken up into smaller pieces because
they might contain impurities such as slag, unburned charcoal, pebbles,
etc., etc. These small pieces would have to be combined to make the
larger pieces one needs to for a block of metal large enough to form a
weapon or tool.
21. The phrase ‘razor sharp” is used so often in describing so many swords. Is this description necessarily accurate? Aren’t razor sharp edges necessarily thin edges and somewhat fragile?
“In short yes ---it is easier to get a hair popping edge on an ultra thin blade and because of its cross-section it will be inherently weaker ---but I have put an edge on a splitting maul that will pop hair off your arm, so keep that in mind. It’s one of those terms that will conjure up different pictures in different peoples’ minds.”
22. Can you really ‘re-forge’ a broken or damaged sword blade and how practical would doing so be?
---you can, by lap welding the two pieces together---but the question
is do you want to?! Any time you weld something together like that
there are two things that will happen 1. You will be creating a
potential weak spot in the exact place the sword broke before; and 2.
You will have to remove material from the blade to re shape it, thus
changing its balance, geometry and feel ---not to mention it will be
shorter and now needs to be re-heat-treated and then re-polished again!
Whew…where is the upside to that?
23. What advice can you offer on equipment and training for the fledging novice interested in learning historical swordsmithing?
“My tools are very simple for the most part: a block of steel for an anvil, a hammer, some files and sandpaper and a forge (charcoal, gas, electric, etc.) I would start small. Make some knives first to develop some hammer control and finishing techniques. While that is going on, get as much info on REAL swords as you can. Always test. Never assume everything went well without testing it. You will have to test some of your pieces to their destruction to find out your limits. Never stop. Don’t be afraid to fail. That should take you where you want to go. The materials are not that expensive. You can scrap yard the steel and make a forge from firebrick and a blower, get a used hammer at a yard sale, etc., all for a couple hundred dollars. You may want to refine from this point of course, but always remember that the swords forged by the old smiths were not done in a hi-tech shop.”
24. Do you tutor in swordsmithing or offer lessons?
“Not at this time. I occasionally will do some talks at bladesmithing/sword gatherings but nothing structured or private. I have been asked to do some DVD segments...that’s actually looking like it might be fun.”
25. Do you accept custom orders?
“I do, but nothing new for the next couple of years. The orders I do have are mostly repeat customers and the rest is filled up with my own experiments and tests. I'm fortunate enough now that I can make what I am interested in and usually find a buyer. I'm very lucky in that respect.”
Paul Champagne was an ARMA Senior Advisor who tragically passed away in April 2009. He will always be missed. - ARMA Director John Clements