Ashokan Sword 2005 Conference Review

By Stewart Feil and Brian Hunt


September 16-18, 2005 marked the third conference held by the New England Bladesmith Society dedicated exclusively to swords. ARMA Senior Free Scholar Stewart Feil and ARMA General Free Scholar Brian Hunt were invited fill in as demonstrators of European Swordsmanship in lieu of John Clements absence, who had presented at the prior Ashokan Sword event. ARMA's presence was strong with the attendance and presentations from advisor's Dr. Lee Jones, Dan Maragni, and Paul Champagne.

The first night started an introduction and welcome by Dan Maragni. Dan introduced the presenters of the conference and spoke of the purpose of the weekend-to bring blade smiths and blade users together to promote mutual understanding and cooperation in the re-creation and knowledge of swords. Dan Maragni also spoke about the need to remove the fantasy and misconceptions about swords in general.

Dr. Lee Jones began the presentations with a discussion of pattern welding and layering in swords. He shared images and showed pieces from his extensive collection. Unfortunately he only brought one specimen of a European sword-a Viking era sword that displayed the skill in patter welding developed early on in Europe. Dr. Jones discussed the various ways that smiths from all regions and times have manipulated the grain structure of steel for both mechanical and aesthetic purposes in the making of swords. He discussed how texture comes from impurities in steel and discussed several different types of manipulation from various materials.

Following Dr. Jones, Scott Rodell offered a brief introduction to the swords of China. His discussion covered the forms and histories of the swords, as well as the misconceptions of Chinese martial arts. "Most of what you see regarding Chinese Martial Arts and arms is pure nonsense," said Scott. He also covered the frustrations he had experienced in re-creating a practical martial art based upon the traditions that were passed down to him from his instructors. Regarding this he said, "We have the form, which is kind of a Textbook, but people have forgotten the use of what is in the forms." He discussed the fact that real martial arts are not like they are shown in the movies, and that "to truly understand the effects of swords on people, one must study history." Then he went into the various types of pattern welding found in Chinese swords, and how for the longest time he has had trouble getting people to believe that Chinese swords were made using pattern welded steel in a similar manner to Japanese swords, but people don't want to believe what is in front of them, especially when it counters carefully cherished beliefs. He then moved onto the different forms or types of Chinese swords and mentioned that different swords play differently, so you must know the various weapons and how they were used.

The second day Started with a very involved presentation by Michael McCarthy on Bloomery Smelting-this is the ability to make steel with nothing more than building a smelter from local clay that you dig up out of the ground, using magnetite sand, wood charcoal, and an air source to smelt your own steel bloom. McCarthy's instruction on bloomery smelting continued later in the day with hands-on instruction for refining.

At this point we moved locations from the lodge to a covered pavilion area to hear from Scott Rodell on the techniques of the Chinese sword. He discussed the fact that the Chinese sword arts, much like those of Europe, are a lost art. While the sword forms still exist, their meanings have been lost in time until they have become ghosts of what they meant. Scott's work has been similar to that of ARMA: recreation of that which is lost. Without written texts to work from, the Chinese arts are being reformed through experimentation of what is in the oral sword forms. This is a difficult task, and he figures that they are at least 10 years behind ARMA in this quest. He then went on to demonstrate various stances, attacks and defenses that they have brought back from the various forms.

Next was a lecture from Ric Furrer on the creation of crucible steel. Crucible steel is a way to take raw elements, iron ore, carbon, flux, and additional elements such as nickel, or vanadium and place them in a clay crucible sealed with melted green glass, such as that found in Heineken bottles, and place it in a fire in order to melt everything into a homogenous ingot of steel. This is done for 4-6 hours at 3000 degrees in a charcoal or coal forge. The reasons to take up making crucible steel is so that you can control all of the elements of your steel and create your own type of steel that you cannot purchase commercially. It would be foolish and not cost effective to try and recreate available commercial steels.

After Lunch, we moved our equipment up to the covered pavilion to give a demonstration on European Longsword Techniques. Stewart took the lead as the primary speaker with interjections and comments from Brian. We started off discussion some of the things that we as swordsman look for in a sword, as opposed to someone who was just looking for something cool to put up in their living room. We discussed the various parts of the sword as they pertain to a swordsman, as opposed to the way that a smith would look at a sword. We discussed the fact that the western martial arts fell into disuse with the advent of the gun, and how we are recreating them from various manuals that were written from the 13th century on up. We then proceeded to discuss the various concepts of fencing, including the 4 main guards, the 8 cuts, ti-progressions, how to correctly displace your opponents sword, why we don't parry edge to edge, the master cuts, a few basic techniques, did a little freeplay so they could see what a fight between longswordsman would look like, then did a question and answer session. The Presentation was well received despite the torrential downpour that occurred in the middle of our presentation, and that night after dinner, we were bombarded with various questions of why, wherefore, what if, and how would you.

[Photo by Phillip Baldwin and P.A. Stephens]

After that Kevin Cashen took the stage to show us how he does basic pattern welding. He discussed safety, the basic concept of how to make a proper weld, various ways to manipulate the patterns. Then proceeded to weld up a layered billet. Kevin Cashen is very skilled at this type of forging. After the weld was set, he let the steel cool down some, but not completely, used a 4 inch angle grinder to clean one of the faces, then used the same grinder with a different wheel to cut most of the way through the other side of the billet from the one he had cleaned, place the billet back in the forge, brought it up to a red head and bent the cleaned face over top of itself, refluxed the billet, and placed it back into the forge to bring it back up to welding heat and set the new weld. This process will be repeated adnausium until the desired number of layers of steel is achieved. At any point in this process various techniques, mentioned by Dr. Lee Jones, may be brought into play to manipulate the patterns, twisting, cutting through the layers, EDM, etc. The layers of pattern welded steel increase incrementally. If you start off with 3 layers of steel, they will increase to 6, then 12, then 24, then 48, etc., each time you fold and weld the billet. After the billet is formed, it can be drawn out and forged into a knife or a sword.

After Kevin Cashen's presentation, the sky had cleared up enough for Tom Walter to set up on the grass by the pavilion for a demonstration of Japanese Tamashigiri cutting. He started by discussing some of the elements of Japanese swordsmanship and the reasons they cut, he also said that like the European sword, there were 8 basic cuts. For cutting purposes, they had the grass mats rolled around green bamboo so that they could easily stand them in the earth, or in a couple of home built cutting stands they had with them. As well as cutting grass mats, he also cut cardboard tubes (which the katana could not cut all the way through), green bamboo, cattail leaves and cattails. He also cut with Dan Maragni's Norman sword, which interestingly enough, out cut the Katanas that he had there. When Dan brought the Norman sword out, he just threw in on the ground, and when people gasped, he said "What, it's just a tool." We were each able to do some test cutting with the Norman sword on the remains of the grass mats and bamboo. The Norman sword was so solidly constructed that it rang like a bell upon impact with a target.

From here we moved back to the lodge for a lecture by Ann Feuerbach, Ph.D. The gist of the lecture was about the history of Crucible steel from an archeological point of view. She had many slides of excavations of known crucible steel production facilities in the ancient past in areas of the Middle East, and the economic impact these would have had on the regions.

After dinner we marched up to the onsite smithy to see a demonstration of high tech heat treatment. This involved the use of electro statically controlled High temp and Low Temp salt pots. Tim Zowada, the gentleman giving the demonstration, is a dealer for these high tech units. They involve the use of both high and low temperature salts that are heated to a specified temperature, depending upon what type of steel you are heat treating. The high temp salts are set at the critical temperature of your steel, and the low temp salts are set at the temperature you would temper your blade to. Mr. Zowada started off with a piece of tool steel bar stock and heat treated it by 1st placing it in the high temperature salts, and bringing it up to heat in the bath. After bringing the bar stock up to a nice bright cherry red, he pulled the rod out of the high temperature salt bath and plunged it down into the low temp salt bath in order to quench it. After a few moments in the low temp bath, he pulled out the bar stock and finished cooling it in a water bath while explaining that he normally let the steel air cool, but for demo purposes he quick cooled it. He then broke the steel at it's hardest point by striking it over the edge of an anvil in order to pass it around and show how uniform the grain structure was.

He then brought out a beautiful Tulwar style sword blade to show a sword heat treatment. After the sword came up to Temperature, he then quenched it in the low temp salt baths and agitated it to achieve a uniform quench. After the sword was at the same temperature as the low temp salts, he determined that it was pretty straight except for a slight bend towards the tip of the blade. In order to straighten it, he bent it by hand over the edge of the anvil. After the blade was straight, he let it cool down in the air to finish its heat treat.

Next Ric Furrer discussed how to forge a piece of crucible steel. He stated that in his shop he preferred to work the steel with the use of a hydraulic press, that it gave him greater control over the speed with which he worked the billet. The top of the billet is where the greatest impurities are, so that is the part you want to keep at one end and draw the rest of the steel away from this end of the billet, that way you can then cut off the worst of the impurities, and use that end for the tang where any imperfections won't show in a finished blade. During the course of his lecture he had been heating a piece of crucible steel he had prepared for this demo, and slowly started to work it with a hammer, taking his time and using many heats to start refining it.

While Ric had been working with his crucible steel, Phillip Baldwin had been burning a large amount of hard wood over a 2 inch steel pipe with a series of holes drilled in it with firebricks defining a long narrow trench for the fire. He was building a bed of coals for his low-tech heat treatment process. He filled a steel upright tube full of quench oil, setup up a vice, and placed a set of upright bending forks into the vice. When Ric's demo was finished he had a nice deep bed of coals ready to start the heat treatment of one of 2 short sword blades he had brought with him. He allowed the audience to choose which one they would like to see heat treated, and they chose the one that closely resembled a leaf bladed gladius.

He took the blade and buried it in the wood coals directly over the pipe, then proceeded to slowly crank a hand held blower fan connected by a hose to one end of the pipe or tuyre. Through the careful use of air with both the blower and a garbage can lid used like a large fan, he slowly brought the steel up to a critical temperature. He then quenched and straightened the blade, then continued by tempering the blade in an olive oil bath over the same bed of coals.

That was the end of the demonstrations for the day, and the beginning of the open forge where anyone who wanted to could beat out some steel.

During this time period we were bombarded with all sorts of questions about the fighting arts of Europe. It was a late night for both of us.

The next morning Dan Maragni took the stage to discuss the process for reconstructing a medieval sword. He started off discussion that one must research the sword thoroughly. First you have to measure all three dimensions of the sword, the width, length, cross-section, weight, balance point, etc. Further, you must attempt to discern what the original shape of the blade may have been for the ravages of time had changed the original dimensions. He spoke of the importance of the cross section and how different cross sections will cut better or worse than others. He emphasized this by comparing the cross section of the katana to the cross section of the Norman sword he had recreated. The Norman sword has a thinner flatter cross section at the cop and therefore is a more aggressive cutter than a katana which has a thicker wedge type cross section. He discussed the importance of a good solid tang, and the correct geometry and hardness for one to stand up to the type of impacts demanded of a cutting sword. He discussed that the entire hilt assembly must be tight or else you will lose some of your power in the cut. He discussed the importance of destructive testing on a sword, a good range for the temper or hardness of a blade. Etc.

At this point we were on for our second demonstration on sword and buckler and rapier techniques and discussion of European sword typologies. We laid out some of the manuals and some of our training tools on the picnic table for later examination. In order to draw attention to our class, we opened up by free playing with blunt steel arming swords and bucklers.

[Photo by Phillip Baldwin and P.A. Stephens]

This really brought everyone's various conversations to a halt and opened up the class. We then reviewed a couple of things we had covered with the Longsword, and tied them into how the same principals applied to the sword and buckler. We went through some of the basics of sword and buckler fighting as done in the MS I.33, then we moved onto the rapier.

[Photo by Phillip Baldwin and P.A. Stephens]

Here we discussed the differences between a cutting sword and thrusting sword. We discussed the 4 Italian rapier guards, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. We discussed the fact that many rapier duels ended in a simultaneous death due to the nature of a foining style of fence. We discussed the use of other weapons in the left hand, such as buckler, dagger, a cloak, or even another rapier. We then gave a demo of free play with our fiberglass rapier simulators. We then fielded a Q&A session.

[Photo by Phillip Baldwin and P.A. Stephens]

After our demo, many of the conference participants wanted to handle our training equipment and look at the translations we had brought. This was a good time to really discus many of the aspects of ARMA and its methods of training.

While we had been giving our lecture, one of the other conference participants made arrangements with Scott Rodell to spar with Stew with wasters. I loaned Scott my helmet, and Stew used his. I was given the video camera and set about filming the encounter. They chose to spar in the shade on the grass, but this was a tricky surface for both of them due to the still wet grass. They fought several bouts, of which I believe that Stew came out ahead. They started off slow, feeling the differences between the two styles of swordplay. Stew wielded a long sword, and Scott used a Jian. Scott was frequently driven back by the reach of the Longsword, and Stewart's aggressive style. All in all it was a fun bout to watch and film.

Meanwhile there was a show and tell going on down in the lodge that we nearly missed because of the time it took to clean up from our demo, and Stew's match with Scott. We were fortunate to handle two beautiful pattern welded swords made by Kevin Cashen. We asked about the possibility of getting longer blades from him but he said he was limited by the length of his salt pots. Kevin Cashen's work is beautiful to behold. We would highly recommend him to anyone looking for a custom pattern welded sword.

Unfortunately, the folks who run Ashokan are very timely folks who kicked us out on time, so Stew and I had little chance to peruse the rest of the wares.

While eating lunch, a gentleman we were sitting with by the name of Sandy Klein started discussing antique armor and swords with us. I expressed my disappointment that we were going to be in NYC on Monday, but because the Met is closed on Monday's we wouldn't be able to see the collection there. He said that he had a friend at the Met and might be able to help us. To our astonishment, he managed to get us a private tour of the Met with his friend Richard Gratkowsky, a curator at the Met and a Master sport fencer.

Our many thanks to everyone who made this such a great weekend. Everyone at the event was truly interested in learning, but there was no where near enough time to spend picking each other's brains. We hope to have a chance to do this again in the future



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