An Interview with Swordsmith Paul Champagne

ARMA 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?
“Well, if you count the earliest attempts ---about the mid 1980s, with knives and daggers before that.  I started out with an interest in European blades from about migration-period Viking to the 1400s. I always had a love for arms and armor fed by reading history and Tolkien at a very young age. I moved to Japanese blades to gain some understanding of simple steels and test cutting (working with Toshishiro Obata and the Hawley estate) and now I’m back focusing on European and Chinese, though I will never stop making the Japanese style blades.  I love the techniques and blade forms.”

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?
“I’m concentrating on Viking, Norman, and Chinese pieces for the foreseeable future. My focus is making reconstructions of actual historical blades with metallurgical properties equivalent to the times they were made in. Then I can gain some insight into historical manufacturing and performance variables. My main focus is study by reconstruction. What we quest for, as our forefathers did, are swords that can take the stresses of a battlefield situation. Defining those criteria is an important step ---again I point in the direction of accurate reproductions and hard test-cutting by competent makers and sword testers.”

4. Do you have a particular favorite piece you most enjoy constructing or working on?
“Not really, I like being able to change what I’m working on. There are so many things I want to explore in this field; there will never be enough time.  Going from katanas, to spears to axes to Viking blades keeps it all fresh. Not to mention how much I enjoy the smelting of ore.”

5. Can you identify any major breakthrough that transformed your own study of smithing?
“There are always things you pick up, people you meet who give you ideas or spark debate, friends and family that support you. Historical pieces that make you re-think certain ideas.
            Technically, learning how different the traditional steels are from modern bar stock was a big one, but if I have to pick just one it was my partnership with Toshishiro Obata [expert Japanese swordsman]. By learning about cutting and putting swords and myself to the full spectrum of tests by someone qualified and not connected to me...well that’s putting it all on the line. I learned what swords are and what they are not. I came face to face with the outer envelope of testing and learned more than I can explain. Those days and all of the knowledge gained are irreplaceable. It worked out so well because our focus is the same. Performance and testing. No excuses, no compromises for art --only results count. Results based on historical testing.  When he chose to do the Kabutowari (helmet cutting contest) test and put his skill and reputation on the line he had his pick of blades from any swordsmith he knew. When he chose mine, it was an indescribable honor.”  [Note: he also won the test]

6. What was one of the hardest skills to learn in bladesmithing?
“Well…there are so many; hammer technique, fire maintenance, billet welding, filing, hilting etc., etc., and you really don’t have the option of being good at only 80% of them to turn out reliable pieces.  The short answer would have to be the heat treatment of the blade.  Knowing how to quench each piece, how to temper it back correctly and to what hardness is crucial. The best steel in the world with a crummy heat treat is a crummy blade.  Period.”

7. What major tools do you use in your craft?
“There aren’t a lot of tools I really use. Just the basics. Hammer, anvil, tongs, fullering tools, forge, files, that’s about it. I use a mechanical hammer for billet forging ---but if the times were different I would have apprentices to help with that. It does the work of three strikers.  But it doesn’t clean up the shop or chop charcoal, do the rough filing or make lunch. A bit of a give and take really. Except for the mechanical hammer my setup is very portable and low tech.”

8. Is there a piece of work you are most proud of?
“Actually, no. Before I’m done finishing a piece I have ideas of what I want to do or test next. It’s a constant progression; I try not to look back or to be satisfied.”

9. Is there a major accomplishment in sword making you hope to achieve?
“I’ve never really thought about it that way. I don’t have an endgame plan. I just want to learn as much as I can about making swords, spears axes etc., with the techniques and technology available to the smiths when these weapons were actually used in combat. There is so much to learn just about making the steel that I’ll never get close to any sort of ‘end.’”

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?

“Where 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.
            People will always buy inferior tools ---especially if they are not professional.  It’s like trying to get someone to buy a $60 handmade chisel or gouge for woodworking when their skill level and expectations are that of a weekend birdhouse maker. Now once you are talking to professional woodworkers/craftsmen they will be receptive ---people with the skills to be able to discriminate quality from a ‘home depot special.’  They can see for themselves and not just weigh what one person says versus what another one posts on the Net. Of course it would be great if everyone had a ‘real sword’ to start with...but that will still take a little time (even then, there will still be people who see a chisel as a way to open up a paint can!).”

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 cutting.
            Let me talk about targets for a moment: I recommend the tatami mats for soft test cutting. I know, I know...it’s not ‘European.’ I fail to see what that has to do with anything. They are a proven target; consistent and repeatable.  I think a standard target needs to be defined in Western martial arts.  I am not a fan of plastic tubes, water filled milk jugs, etc. I have cut a lot of both flesh-and-bone and manufactured targets. My vote is for the mats.”

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?

“It 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.”
            There are thousands of variations of ‘swords’ throughout history; meant to go against different opponents, with different armor and wielded by differing peoples. What makes one ‘work’ may make another fail. The best way to find what works is to study a thousand years of knowledge, trial and error; define the situation we want the sword to work in and make and break our best guesses and go forward from there.”

19. What can you tell us about different edges on different blades? 

“Think 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).
            I have seen all of the above on historical European blades. Different sword types of different historical periods used different bevel and edge geometries according to what they are intended to do, just as the blade shape changes between a cutting blade and a thrusting one. Also, [with any historical piece examined], one has to wonder what has happened to the original edge over the past 500-1000 years. Is what we are now seeing in the museum as it came from the sword shop or was it changed in later centuries?  Even the Japanese sword, which we see these days in gorgeous polish, was re-sharpened by soldiers in the field (old records state that a sharpening stone was required to be carried by each warrior).  The edge they achieved was surely different than what a professional polisher put on the virgin blade. A blade I forged that was used for tameshigiri helmet cutting had an edge that worked very well on multiple straw mats as well as dry bamboo, oak, and the helmet. It was a convex one, by the way.”

20. What about ‘layers’ in swords? What is that all about?

“Why 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.
            The more metal needed the more pieces stacked together. Think of it as taking small pieces of clay and sticking them all together to create a larger stack of clay. That being said, the presence of layers does not mean the weapon is good or bad. The skill of the swordsmith determines that ---skill in choosing the proportion of different carbon contents, his skill in forge welding (sticking the pieces together without air bubbles and gaps) is the first step where things can go right or terribly wrong.
            Once there are a bunch of these pieces stuck together this lump would be forged into a longer bar then folded upon itself over and over again to blend the various pieces together for a more homogeneous piece of metal. Kind of like mixing flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate chips to make a batter for cookies. Again, just because this bar was made more homogeneous doesn’t mean it’s good. It could be too high in carbon making it brittle, or too low making it to soft. Think of the batter, 1lb of chips, 1/2 cup of flour, 12 eggs and 5lbs of sugar does not make for good cookies! In fact, I'm not sure what that would make.  Once the swordsmith had the bars of steel, he still had to put them together to make the sword. Different cultures and eras within cultures combined them in different ways, one way not necessarily better than another. For example there were many strong and sharp Katanas out there in the 1500s and a whole lot of inferior ones too. Same occurred earlier among Viking blades.”

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?

“Well ---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? 
            A more practical way is to use the broken blade as primary source metal in a new welded together billet and then forge the sword as normal. You don’t give up anything doing it this way. I have a Japanese sword tang that describes just such a process. The family wanted to keep an old, damaged blade from a famous maker in the family so they had it re-forged in this manner by another maker hundreds of years later. I use my own old test blades in a lot of my forgings.”

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.”

March 2006

 

Paul Champagne was an ARMA Senior Advisor who tragically passed away in April 2009. He will always be missed.  - ARMA Director John Clements

 

 
 

Note: ARMA - The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and the ARMA logo are federally registered trademarks, copyright 2001. All rights reserved. No use of the ARMA name or emblem is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of the authors is strictly prohibited. HACA and The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright 1999 by John Clements. All rights reserved. Contents of this site 1999 by ARMA.

 

theARMA@comcast.net