Swordsmen and Swordsmiths - Restoring an Ancient Relationship

By John Clements
ARMA Director

The great European sword historian Ewart Oakeshott once related to me in personal conversation his deeply held conviction that swords must be viewed in their historical context as fighting instruments and never as "dead art objects." That fascinating conversation has long resonated with me. My friend, the respected swordsmith, Paul Champaign, had also once explained to me how he insisted upon "testing to destruction" at least one piece of any of his models. Paul espoused his belief that subjecting them to this was the only we could possibly understand whether he had really achieved the physical dynamics for the kind of application it would have historically experienced as a functional tool. These two approaches have influenced my own perspective toward sword study.

So, I was baffled one time when I had a colleague tell me that a noteworthy sword-maker visiting nearby had declined to meet with me because he was shy about his pieces possibly being criticized. It was explained that while he respected and admired my knowledge, he was very reluctant to have his work be examined purely for their functionality. To me this is astonishing because I see functionality as the ultimate expression of a maker’s efforts. For a smith to readily seek out technical input from fellow smiths in order to get the science and engineering of his craft correct, but then avoid expert input about their utility so that his pieces remain unconsidered as fighting tools, makes no sense. I can only attribute such an attitude to the allowable proclivities of artists.

Bladesmith Paul Brach
from THC's Forged in Fire

I have a tremendous respect for swordsmiths and bladesmiths. Without their efforts I would still just be using crude inaccurate replicas, inferior training blunts, wooden substitutes, and be completely unable to have a decent sharp blade to use in target practice. Their work is what has allowed us to more deeply and authentically explore the recovery of lost fencing methods. Not only that, but their capacity by their own hands to turn primal ore into a magnificent weapon that is also a work of art is, to me, mind-boggling. It borders on the magical and I can readily understand how at one time historical swordsmen could have viewed it as such. Not being a craftsman or smith myself, it’s fascinating to me.

As I often like to say, I am the "fighter pilot, not the aerospace engineer;" the "racing driver, not the auto mechanic." I look at swords as fighting implements; objects for dealing and preventing violence using the trusted principles of close combat. They are unique instruments for developing personal skill and expressing individual prowess. I approach my understanding for their dimensions and the physical geometry of their component parts from the point of view of why they were conceived, how they were employed, and why they changed over time. But this doesn't keep me from appreciating their aesthetics, their artistry, and their workmanship —even if I don't fully understand the science and talent that goes into making them.

That being said, it also makes me the most severe and uncompromising of critics. And I have learned that can be very intimidating to makers and smiths. Most are just not used to an expert who can pick up their product and instantly determine some aspect of its proportions or weight or center of gravity is so off as to render it useless for its original purpose. They rarely (if ever) encounter in person someone adeptly expert at handling their creations in a manner that they have never witnessed or were aware could even be performed (…but that for me, is an almost everyday routine).

So, I understand a critical evaluation of functionality can be disconcerting, unsettling, discouraging, and even insulting. It's like a food critic dissatisfied with a chef's dish. After all, their perspective is one of trying to redevelop lost technologies and artistry while honing their own skill and technique. In that regard though, we are kindred spirits. For I do the same in my craft of wielding those very tools. But the ancient synergy of the relationship between makers and users has long been severed. Neither is actually doing something that will ever be put to earnest use in the originally intended historical manner and neither has survival in combat as the primary necessity for what they do. 

To reestablish that ancient relationship today then means that each of us in our respective fields must become as knowledgeable and skillful as feasible. And I believe that is not really possible for one to achieve without the other. Without expert swordsmen demanding excellent weapons and providing feedback on their performance, swordsmiths miss a core aspect of their craft. (This is why you see so many "art pieces" made that would be virtually useless as practical weapons.) To use an analogy, a craftsman might make a guitar that may look good and seem to sound right, but it takes a talented player to really determine if good music is capable of being made with it.

Peter Johnssson with John Clements John Clements and Peter Johnssson

Over my years of having handled hundreds of original specimens, trained vigorously in the authentic techniques and method using accurate reproductions, and exercised at target practice with all manner of sharps, I have gained perspective in how each of these activities informs the others. In consulting and interacting with makers, both professional and amateur, certain key areas of where our mutual love of swords intersect have emerged to reveal reoccurring gaps in knowledge. I've come to learn that harmonizing the difference in our perspectives really comes down to addressing just a handful of areas:

  • The mistaken idea that swords are somehow only tested for their capacity to cut or puncture must be abandoned. Half of a sword's very function as a weapon is defense —and this means withstanding forceful contact with other weapons is an imperative attribute. What good is a sword that cannot resiliently withstand the violent clash of another blade?
  • A sword of a mediocre edge that handles adroitly with greater versatility and speed will both deliver and bare-off more blows than will a sluggish and ungainly one of superior sharpness. To most any combatant, the former will be a more effective weapon than the latter. However, such performance issues are ones revealed only through vigorous application in both dealing and displacing blows, rather than by purely technical evaluation. What good is a sword as a weapon if it also cannot be reliably maneuvered to strike and ward with a certain fighting agility?
  • There is one fundamental consideration to keep in mind: never think of sword designs (or their associated fighting methods, for that matter) as existing on their own in a vacuum, but only in terms of the other weapons and armors they were intended to deal with. In that regard, when it comes to synergy of form and function, the forcible clash of steel in trained hands is as different from the bashing of steel in untrained hands as is the sound of a violin played by an untrained non-musician —even if the latter is the violin maker themselves.

Swordsmiths today will pretty do whatever they want on their own regardless of the needs or opinions of today's swordplay practitioners. Some makers appreciate input from informed swordsmen, but nonetheless they are understandably still focused on the concerns immediate to their craft --which is getting the shape, the metallurgy, the heat-treating, and tempering correct. So, the science and overall aesthetics of a piece is what they're able to evaluate with their peers. Whereas for users, we look and say, “Nice sword, but how's it handle?" Let me play with it. If it's sharp then let me cut with it. Is it a training blunt? Let me ward off blows and work the pell with it to discover how it holds up. All that comes down to matters of practical utility --the intended purpose of any sword. And yes, this does mean smiths must on occasion subject their pieces to some reasonable stress and trauma.

Performance issues of functionality, while paramount to swordsmen of any era, are of much less, if any, concern to the modern craftsman. This must change. Good sword design and good sword making is ultimately a matter of creating a tool that optimizes the techniques for offense and defense that a combatant employs to deliver as well as prevent wounds. From the point of view of historical function, it's that simple. Keeping focus on this in no way diminishes the artistry or technical ability of a sword maker. Rather, it showcases their skill in the highest possible manner. It was the very essence of the ancient relationship between swordsman and swordsmith.

Though they may approach the objects of their mutual subject from opposite directions, today's swordsmiths and today's swordsmen are no less equally genuine --despite one making weapons that will never see real use and the other practicing techniques that will not either.


*Appreciation to my friend, blades-smith Paul Brach, for sharing his images


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