"Interpreting" Historical Examples: Thoughts on the Quality of Replica Swords
By J. Mark Bertrand
To practice historical swordsmanship, reasonably you'll need at least two quality replica swords -- a "sharp" for cutting practice and a "blunt" for drills and sparring. Buying a quality replica sword is a challenging process. The following introduction will help you get your bearings and make an informed purchase.
In a sense, a good replica sword is an "interpretation" of a historical example. Some replicas are a conscious attempt to reproduce a specific sword. Others content themselves with capturing the 'feel' of an original. Craig Johnson of Arms & Armor says, " . . . the devil is in the details, so it is the commitment to producing an authentic product and the craftsmanship that this entails that allows us to create items that look like the originals."
At the risk of oversimplifying, let's divide modern swordmakers into two broad categories. The first category -- and the smaller of the two -- consists of those makers whose goal is to create true, functioning replicas of specific swords or types of swords. For these makers, swords should look right, feel right, and -- most importantly -- work right. This is not to say that sword makers of the first category produce "perfect" replicas -- even with the best makers, some interpretations are better than others. A maker in the first category, however, cares about the performance of his swords in battle and their accuracy as interpretations of historical examples.
The second category of swordmaker is either less concerned with historical examples or less concerned with functional capability. For the purposes of developing skill at swordsmanship, this category is of less interest to us. A sword which departs too much from historical precedence is of no value when applying historical techniques. A sword which is too weak structurally to survive use is clearly useless as well.
Having made this distinction between swordmakers, it's important to point out that a second-tier manufacturer occasionally produces a first class sword, and first-tier manufacturers sometimes make duds. There's no way to generalize about the suitability of a specific sword for use without inspecting it first hand. On the other hand, once you've paid your money and gotten your sword, it may be too late to discover that it's no good. It pays to know a little bit about your maker before you place that order.
How Good Should A Sword Be?
The modern sword manufacturer faces a dilemma. He wants to create a "battle-ready" replica to satisfy his customers. At the same time, there's no such thing as an indestructible sword. So the question is, how much punishment should a sword be able to take?
Remember, this is a question that directly impacts your wallet. If you buy an inferior sword and it breaks under use, you have every right to expect a replacement or a refund. On the other hand, the manufacturer has no way of knowing what the conditions were when the sword gave way. Was the sword at fault or did you use it irresponsibly? In my experience, the assumption is that the swordsman was at fault, not the sword.
Ideally, a sword (whether you use it blunt or sharp) should be made in such a way that it can deliver powerful cuts or thrusts (depending on the sword) without stress on the tang or damage to the blade. The hilt should not loosen or break -- the guard should maintain a tight fit (no rattle) and the pommel nut, if there is one, should not loosen or come unscrewed.
This is sadly the ideal, not the standard. Modern replicas -- even the better ones -- still have hurdles to overcome before matching their historical prototypes. First-tier swordmakers have generally overcome the issue of faulty blade construction and now produce excellent steel blades capable of performing under battle conditions. Now, the struggle for the first-tier makers is perfecting a "solid" hilt.
A sword's hilt consists of the pommel, the handle and the guard. The tang passes through the guard and handle and is secured to the pommel by means of rivet or screw-on nut. Whether or not the swordsman can firmly grasp his weapon in combat depends entirely upon the quality of the hilt.
The most common problem with replica hilts is loosening after use. Vibration from the blade or direct impact on the guard can create a "wobble" that becomes more pronounced as the sword is used. When you start cutting against resistant targets with a modern replica, you will probably experience a degree of loosening.
To minimize your exposure to hilt problems, try to find swords made with square or rectangular tangs -- some shape that won't spin in the handle like a round one will. Modern fencing weapons use circular tangs, and some sword manufacturers follow suit. This is unfortunate. Ideally, the guard, the handle, and the pommel should all fit to the tang in such a way that they do not "twist." If the pommel is secured to the tang with a nut, make sure the tang is not threaded deeper than it has to be, since threading reduces the width of the tang and can create a structural weakness.
Another factor to keep in mind is that most replicas use modern gas or arc welds rather than forge welding. This can sometimes result in weak points on a hilt which wouldn't ordinarily exist. If possible, inspect welds to insure that they're in good shape when you buy a sword, and be very careful not to damage them in practice.
Most manufacturers reserve the right to determine whether or not a sword was mishandled -- in my experience the better makers are willing to work with you even when they suspect it was. Nevertheless, when purchasing a sword, find out what the maker's policy will be if you encounter problems with your hilt. If the maker considers a loose, wobbling hilt to be your "fault" for using the sword, find a different maker. If you have a change to inspect the sword before purchasing, work the guard back and forth in your hand to find out if it's loose. If it "gives," keep walking.
Quality sword blades are made of high-carbon steel. They can hold an edge. They can flex several inches out of line and return to true. They don't bend easily and they don't suffer "dings" during light contact with the flats of other blades. If your blade doesn't fit this description, there's something wrong with it.
Never buy a sword made with a stainless steel blade. Stainless steel lacks the resiliency of high-carbon steel -- it's fine for knife blades, but for swords it's out of the question. A stainless-steel blade is nice and shiny and makes a great decoration for your wall. Don't use it for real cutting, drills, or sparring.
Weight and Balance
Ewart Oakeshott estimated that the average weight of historical swords was two pounds. Good modern replicas, depending on type and size, range anywhere from two to four pounds. Make a point of buying the lightest sword you can find. Your wrist will thank you for it.
When you hold a well-balanced replica twelfth century sword above your head, it feels like the sword wants to swoop down and cut something. A well-balanced replica sixteenth century rapier wants to extend and thrust into something. Both of these phenomena are characteristics of proper balance.
A sword is a kind of tool, and the tool's balance suggests its function. Swords were made for cutting and thrusting. When they're well-balanced, they'll feel good in your hand. They'll prompt you to make a cut, or to thrust. If you pick up a sword and you don't feel that -- put it down!
How Much Should You Pay?
Let's set aside the question of having a custom sword made, because the cost of a custom sword will vary considerably depending on both the maker and the level of finish you require. Assuming you're going to buy a production model replica from a first-tier manufacturer, how much should it cost?
We'll answer that by looking at just one major first-tier manufacturer I am familiar with, their pricing, and their levels of quality. First, we'll consider Arms & Armor, a high-quality swordmaker based in Minneapolis. Arms & Armor produces extremely detailed replicas of historical weapons. Flipping through Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword, you'll notice a number of swords which are faithfully reproduced in the Arms & Armor catalog. Hilt assembly is a strong point, too -- Arms & Armor hilts have few visible welds and a very high level of finish. Naturally, this level of quality comes at a cost -- Arms & Armor charges anywhere from $350 to $650 for their pieces. This is definitely the top end of the non-custom replica market -- which is not to say it's too much. I own three Arms & Armor swords ranging in cost from $430 to $580, and I don't regret a penny. With this kind of faithful replica, you definitely get your money's worth.
Arms & Armor is among the best of the first-tier manufacturers. They provide a price range you can use for reference. You probably shouldn't pay more that $650 for a Renaissance-era replica sword -- and you should expect quite a bit of detail in return. For a medieval-era replica, the limit should be around $350-$400, because of the less complex hilt. If you end up paying less than $220, you're either getting a deal or making a mistake -- take a second look before you act.
Just because a sword is expensive doesn't mean it's a quality replica. And even if its a well-made piece, it may not be an actual historical copy of a real antique blade. As the sword market expands, the relationship between price and quality can become fuzzy --especially when you're dealing with a supplier who treats swords more as collectibles than as weapons. Don't assume that a high sticker price insures high quality. Always do your homework before you purchase a replica sword, always take with a grain of salt any makers advertising claims, --and don't hesitate to return it if you detect any problems on receipt.