European Sword Research Trip - April '97

John Clements

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I have recently returned from a trip to Switzerland and Northern Italy where I was able to do considerable research on actual antique Renaissance swords (as well as blades depicted in historical artwork). My most interesting experience was at a premier antiquities auction house in the medieval Swiss town of Lucerne, where I was able to handle over two dozen choice swords, including bastard swords, renaissance cut & thrust blades, schiavona, early and late rapiers, and several small-swords.

The strongest impression this rare opportunity left with me was without a doubt how incredibly light and perfectly balanced many of the weapons were, particularly the longer, ring-hilted bastard swords and the Italian cut & thrust schiavonas. I was astonished at how agile and light they all felt. I would say they were roughly 4/5ths the weight of even the best replicas I know. Yet, none of the swords I saw showed signs of heavy repolishing or any modern sanding. Several were still sharp with only a few having any edge trauma. To this swordsman they felt superb and handled nicely (considering what little space I had to wield them in). This also serves to further discredit the comments of many leading sport fencing experts who make such naive statements as to medieval swords being "cumbersome, heavy, and unwieldy".

Another factor that stood out with many of the swords I handled was length. Almost all of the blades I examined, from medieval great swords to renaissance bastard swords, two-handers, and rapiers, were all somewhat longer than I expected. Yet, because of their absolutely superb balance, you could clearly see and feel how effective they would be. One of the nicer rapiers was in excess of 50 inches yet still light and quite manageable (hell, I‘d sure fight with it!).

Some two-handed swords I held were shockingly light, perhaps under four pounds, and their handles were almost two feet in length. Again, replicas and stage-blunts in the U.S. just don’t do them justice. I also examined a rare Swiss katzbalger from circa 1475 that had a blade in excess of 2.5 feet, which seems to confirm that at least the earlier forms of these swords were much longer and not all were the commonly imagined "short swords".

Another excellent sword, was a spectacular Italian bastard sword with double side-rings from c. 1540. It was the absolute best sword I have ever wielded, it felt better than even the finest antique Japanese katana I have had the pleasure of handling. It was so incredible I felt as if I could take on any blade on the planet with it. It literally left me with goosebumps.

The rigidity of many of the blades was also remarkable and again, very noticeable. They were flexible and thin, yet much stiffer than most good replicas. The three schiavona blades from c. 1620 I hefted were truly amazing. I have no doubt whatsoever now that the grip they used required fingering the ricasso as was standard on most rapiers and renaissance cut & thrust swords. One rare piece still had its original leather ricasso wrapping! Most interesting was that the schiavona blades were far narrower and lighter than any modern replicas commonly available. They were almost rapier-like, but were clearly cutting swords. One of them felt as if it had been personally made just for me, I was so comfortable with it (even without getting to practice full swings and strikes…of course, without practice cutting and some light parrying, you can’t fully tell either, but still…).

Two interesting cup-hilt rapiers had blades that were less than 3/4 inch wide at the forte, tapering to a mere quarter inch for the last six inches, and ending with pencil-point thin tips! Their blades were of the flattened hexagonal style but with very deep, short fullers. They were both exceedingly light, fast, rigid, and with absolutely no cutting capacity. They clearly showed the later style of rapier leading to the small-sword.

The variety of small-swords I saw was considerable, and once more I can emphasize that these weapons are hardly mere fencing foils or epees. They were incredibly rigid, shorter, and much, much thicker at the forte. Many also had pencil-tip thin points.

Interestingly, I also got to check out several superb 19th century reproduction swords, and a few others that were not so good (the Victorians had an affinity for old arms & armor). The difference between them was almost always in weight and flexibility, which was due to tempering quality and trace mineral content.

The opportunity for a practitioner such as myself to finally examine and handle such a diversity of so many fine historical blades in the presence of expert collectors was mind-blowing. Of course, my perspective on the weapons was very different from the curators and collectors I met, and I must also admit to some self-pride at knowing several facts about several types of blades that they were unaware of. To use an analogy, I felt like a professional race car driver getting to look in the garage of a classic car collector. I didn’t get to take any out on the track, but at least I rode a few around the parking lot, and it was quite a thrill.

To a swordsman or martialist, the pieces that are often the most interesting (i.e., functional, balanced battle weapons as opposed to pretty hilts and ornamentation) are typically not on display in Museums and such. You have to hunt for them at obscure locations (local museums, small mansions, old churches, etc.). that may only have 3 or 4 blades, or track down militaria collectors as opposed to the historical and military museum collections.

Overall, my research experiences in Europe I’m afraid were more personal than scholarly. Rather than collect facts and measurements, I was much more interested in getting the "feel" of the swords and trying to understand what could or couldn't possibly be done with each antique weapon. Thus, a lot of what I feel learned out of it is difficult to verbalize or at least, to quantify.

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