PBS Nova Viking Swords - messerSecrets of the Viking Sword
Filming for PBS Nova
documentary, Oc
tober, 2011

by John Clements
ARMA Director

A two-day shoot here at my Iron Door Studio facility for Secrets of the Viking Sword from the prestigious PBS science documentary series, Nova, was exhausting fun. It was a lot of hard work but a really good experience. As with previous National Geographic projects, I can say we did some truly unprecedented things (including a number of interesting test-cutting experiments and comparisons of different swords plus some unique fight demos).

A six-person crew from Pangloss Films in NYC arrived with a heavy schedule of shots to prep for. We shot from 8am to 8pm on Saturday and 9am to 7pm on Sunday and they were really easy going and a blast to work with. I spent more than a week readying the facility and property here. We had a great deal of fine arms and armor graciously provided by Albion swords and CAS Hanwei on hand, with a few regional ARMA members supporting. This was my sixth professional media project and although it gets easier each time, it really is demanding work. It all went spectacularly well, to my surprise. From what we saw, and were told, and by what we managed to capture on camera ourselves, the final product is going to make really good television.

PBS Nova Swords Shoot 1pbs nova viking special IDS

PBS Nova Viking
                              Swords - die pumpkinAt award-winning director Peter Yost's request, I used a wide variety of swords to cut on a diverse range of materials and targets. Some of these were purposely chosen because they were cliches, have been over done, or else are misleading as to what real sword function is all about. We didn't want the usual demos using cheap soft steel blades with extra-sharp edges that seem impressive even though they would not stand up to the rigors of use in actual combat. Real swords were designed to penetrate meat and bone, deal with the hard and soft armors protecting them, as well as oppose the other weapons they would be resisting. Anything else has nothing to do with their function. It's that simple.

death to dangerous tomatoesThe fact is, many modern materials and objects won't really be “cut” when struck with a quality blade honed to a fine historical edge intended to hold up to the demands of real fighting. They will be profoundly damaged of course, but this is less visually impressively to the camera. So, instead, it's the "feats" performed with blades that have been given a fragile "stunt cutting edge" that typically impress. (As I've often said, I know what kind of edge I would want on a sword in real combat, and it wouldn't be one that's been “tested” on phone-books, soda jugs, tomatoes, pumpkins, straw mats, etc. ...you know, all the usual things likely to have been encountered on the battlefields of history.)

Joey and Cain prepping cutting
                                sword special

The assorted Viking-era swords from Albion that we used performed superbly. They were fast and robust and maneuverable to the point of astonishment. And after hitting full force against maile armor and helms their tips and edges were merely grazed with mild scratches. Several larger Albions proved as agile and versatile as expected in cutting assorted targets. The quality of the Hanwei helm, gambeson, and maile armor also exceed expectations and both held up to what I would estimate to be historical levels. The Hanwei Viking swords also proved surprisingly tough and flexible. There were no problems in their performance. Their resilience was most reassuring. The points of both makes managed to pierce a piece of historical reproduction Dark Age maile (crafted by armorer, Parker Brown) as well as  puncture the gambeson below and foam padding beneath (!).  

                              Nova Viking Sword - shield twoAgainst a heavy Viking-era shield reproduction, a Hanwei Viking blade cut right into the metal rim and bounced off the wood dealing good cuts but otherwise not overcoming the shield's inherent sturdiness. Shields worked for a reason, after all. Yet, following some 40 full-on blows the blades still showed only scratches. Against a lighter un-rimmed shield, a Hanwei sword chewed it to pieces. Fellow student Cain Maxwell, suitably protected, graciously endured holding the shields for struck upon.

On a conical Dark Age helm, one Albion Viking blade dented it to a depth of approximately five millimeters and, while never actually cutting into it, left significant edge marks on both the helm's side plates and its thicker bands. Impressively, despite a dozen blows on the helm, the sword edges suffered no significant effects except on one tell-tale spot where it connected on a thick rivet. After this test, I could not help but imagine it conceivable that a larger, stronger, fighter hitting against a moving target could indeed cleave into such a helm (all the more so if he were using a double-hand blade, I'm now sure). The helm had been placed at a realistic height on a semi-mobile target mannequin that provided some realistic "give." Afterward,  by trying on the helm, armorer, Parker Brown, noted that the dents did not actually extend to a depth that would have reached a combatant's head underneath.

 PBS Nova Viking Sword - shield

At one point, I was pleased that we managed to include an effective demonstration of a fine Hanwei katana cutting straw matts followed up by me immediately repeating the test with an old trustworthy and completely blunt Raven bastard sword. The effect of cutting with the blunt warsword was to underscore that edge sharpness is not all that matters and any well-honed thin metal blade can deliver very dangerous blows. I wanted very much to also show for the program the same comparison upon bamboo and the cloth gambeson as well as the riveted maile, but time constraints prevented it. (Of course, I conducted the experiments sometime later, along with some additional ones and the outcome was very interesting...) 

John Clemenst PBS Viking sword
                              special on NovaFor a maile and gambeson test a MMA mannequin was used to keep the target at the right height and angle while giving it realistic mass and resistance but still allowing for some natural "give."  (This is something I have come to stress in cutting experiments and am now very critical of test-cutting demonstrations that blatantly overlook it.) First, an earlier style spatha blade was used on the maile to show how a thinner sword with a rounded tip was not well-suited to penetrating the armor. In contrast, a slightly heavier and thicker Albion Viking blade with its more acute point proved effective in thrusting. Finally, a later Medieval blade with a thicker and more tapered profile revealed its expected advantage. An Ulfbert replica specimen as well as bare blade pieces forged by both bloomery and crucible steel processes were also on hand to use. But all proved impractical for the experiments and visuals the director was looking for. (We were prevented from trying them by their complete lack of any hilts, not to mention the restrictive conditions placed upon any reasonable experiment.)

PBS Nova Viking Sword - helmetPBS Nova Viking Sword special

PBS Nova Viking Sword - meat chop                                1In one demonstration for the program a large fresh hunk of raw beef shank was hung from a chain while resting in place at head level on a low pell. A solid diagonal cut from a longsword cleaved a ferocious four-inch gash through the heaviest part of the bone before the target was knocked aside by the impact. Not as satisfying as I would have liked but an effective demonstration nonetheless. The next test was on the same shank turned over and placed sitting atop the pell at head level once more. A single vertical cut split it in two. Again, a good example of the devastatingly gruesome force of swords, but I thought more could have been shown. Unfortunately, the director was satisfied and we had to move on to complete other scheduled shots. Only one of the longswords we used suffered significant (and unexpected) edge-trauma on cutting through one thick raw beef bone.

                              Nova Viking Sword - silhouetteFor putting together some brief combat sequences (and yes, even a little staged stunt work), we relied on my original "SAFE method" (Spontaneous Arranged Fighting Examples TM) that emphasizes physically intense bio-mechanics with historically-sound martial techniques. Only briefly did we have concern for safety and historical accuracy during the shoot when Peter, the director, wanted a us to execute a few moves that I had to override. The compromise alternative we found allowed my young free-scholar, Joey Marmorato, and I to utilize an energetic exchange of set-plays that met Peter's needs while happily maintaining the integrity of both our crafts.

Toward the end of the second day's shoot, we did some pretty wild visuals using moving silhouettes. The cinematographer arranged an incredible effect that allowed us to show various swords forms in profile as well as how a few of them handled in fighting. I think the end result will be quite striking. I believe the sequence is unprecedented in a television program. Lastly, Joey and I conducted a nice little lesson on sword and shield techniques followed by some free-play.

People today simply don't go around using swords for their historical function as fighting tools: injuring other humans in brutal violence. A whole popular mythos has built up around their nature as a result. From our point of view, as swordsmen and students, I tried to emphasize the documentary not overlook an important element: In the study of historical swords there is a basic need to avoid a “materials-based approach” to understanding their forms  and their development. Functionality, not metal and metallurgy, is the key to why they were produced in the ways they were. Production is a always a result of the technology of the age, yes, but utility and application are the determinate elements in why a sword was made the way it was. Craftsmanship and mystique aside, ultimately, it is a tool for doing violence and this how it must be understood. 

PBS Nova Viking Sword - bastard sowrd                              on matWhat I hope comes across from consulting for PBS's Nova as a professional historical fencing instructor and researcher, is my message that, ultimately, swords cannot be evaluated just on the basis of their cutting ability or edge sharpness. Real fighting swords, even dedicated cutting blades, have to be able not only to strike, but to ward off blows. They have to be resilient and robust enough to take hits without bending or breaking and be able to agilely set aside, displace, knock away or send off strikes. This is a major part of the very reasons the designs they were formed into, and the materials they were made out of, each evolved over time. Without this concern for the defensive function of swords, just considering how well they cut on static targets misses half of the matter. After all, swords were meant to be used with force in violent combat and this cannot be forgotten.  

Secrets of the Viking Swords, airing on PBS stations in the USA, October 2012, will also feature commentary from metallurgists, sword researchers, a swordsmith, and Polish reenactors of Viking combat. 

PBS Nova Viking Sword - John                                Clements


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.